Angelica Garces

I Am What My Mother Could Not Be

By Angelica Garces

Writing 111: Writing Seminar

Language is perhaps the most defining feature that separates humans from other species of animals. It can also be used to separate humans from each other; I would know because I have seen this happen to my mother. When I reflect upon my mother’s immigrant experience, I see the critical role that language plays in the movement of the economy and political affairs. In the United States, English has unofficially become the official language for any job that requires communication with others. Immigrants who come to the United States must learn some variety of English if they wish to have real opportunity at achieving the coveted American Dream. Learning English provides opportunities for immigrants by granting them access to an education, which often leads to better jobs and consequently a better quality of life. Many people who immigrate from Latin America migrate under the impression that by finding jobs in the United States they will be able to easily support their families back at home (Crowley 2). More often than not, these immigrants are faced with challenges that cause them to live well below the poverty line and many of them wind up returning back to their country of origin because of these struggles. As a new migrant, my mother also fought through the same challenges that define this population.

English, or lack thereof, has defined who my mother is as a person by providing her with many roadblocks along the way; these roadblocks have caused her to question the choices that she has made. The power that language has over migrants is a great one; it has the ability to drastically make their lives much better than the previous ones that they led, or it can completely shatter any hope for moving ahead.

My mother is a simple woman. Growing up in a rural farm in Cuba with  six other siblings, she never experienced any grand luxuries or a proper education. Before she met my father, she had only reached a middle school level education before her parents divorced and she was sent to live with her aunt as a “helper.” Even though it was the ‘70s and women were becoming more educated, the idea that women were meant to do the household necessities and care for the children was still prevalent in farm communities; in other words, education was not a priority. Knowing how to take care of chickens and pigs was better knowledge than arithmetic and science. One day when she expressed her desires to attend high school, she was ridiculed and tormented by her aunt; she told my mother, “farm women do not need an education; what they need to do is learn how to please their man and their family.” By this simple statement, my mother’s future dreams crumbled into dust. Had she been allowed to continue with her education, my mother could have become the doctor that she always dreamed of becoming and she would have had the opportunity to learn English and Russian. Instead, she swept the house, cared for her younger cousins, and cooked. She only attended a community degree program after she married my father, a city man, and became an accountant; in her world, the time for learning new languages was forgotten. Although it is common for people in Cuba to consider language classes for English and Russian, to be a joke, the opportunity still exists for those who want to take it seriously. In fact, education is another factor that deeply correlates with an immigrant’s abilities to learn English. “Education received in the home country has a significant positive effect on ability to speak English. . .because English is not introduced until higher grades in school” (Espenshade & Fu 246). Since she did not have a proper high school education, my mother never heard the English language until she stepped foot on the airplane that brought us to Miami.

My mother also never planned to leave Cuba; neither she nor my father had any family outside of the country who could support them if they decided to leave. But once she won the visa lottery that granted her three plane tickets to the United States, she was deeply astounded— she never expected to win. Leaving her home country elicited new challenges, the biggest one of all being English. Suddenly, she realized that learning a new language was not a joke and quickly hired an English tutor, and both she and my father began to secretly study every night. This was done in secret because, at that time, any adult who arbitrarily decided to learn English would be thought of as a future refugee; they would have been at risk of getting caught by law enforcement if any of the neighbors decided to betray them. My mother recalls that the short six months that she learned English with the tutor caused her great anxiety. By the end of the six months, my mother and father did not manage to learn the language well enough to even understand conversations.

When we arrived in the United States, my mother quickly found a job as a cashier at a pharmacy during the nights and enrolled in community college to learn English for two hours during the day. She explained how this was the hardest point in her life; she “felt alone and could not even see [her] own daughter and husband during most of the week” (Martinez). Yet, living in Miami did not prove to be the initial challenge that my mother expected. In Miami, the two most common languages are Spanish and Spanglish; therefore, communicating with others was not frustrating. She was lucky in Miami, for in cities where there are large immigrant populations, “there are many programs. . .[such as] community colleges, that provide immigrants with opportunities to learn English as well as other skills.” However, “by not being fluent in English, [they] may have to start accumulating labor market experience” (Enchautegui 183) and forego a proper English education. This was exactly what happened when my mother was offered a slightly better job position that paid her more and switched her schedule during the day. She continued her English classes at night, but I was getting older and needed a mother figure in the house. So, she discontinued her English course and focused on working overtime and taking care of my father and me. She only restarted her English courses when I left for college, seven years later. However, this is the same reason that my mother has not learned English. In fact, the amount of exposure to a second language that a person receives correlates with the ability to acquire that second language (Espenshade & Fu 240); in other words, Miami’s lack of spoken English has not allowed my mother to practice and develop her own speaking abilities because English is hardly ever heard.

The job that my mother has now has stagnated her progress toward a better life. Stocking store shelves is heavy and unkind to her body; she gets paid a measly salary for every hour of distress. Her coworkers who speak English hold managerial positions and work fewer hours for a better pay. Every day when she would get home from work, she would say, “these managers, immigrants like me, they come from the same land that I was raised in, will treat me like dirt. They will see me struggling with a heavy box and they will not help me. They think that they are better than me, only because they can speak English and I cannot.” This sentiment is not uncommon for many immigrants who have higher positions than their coworkers. My mother says that the most condescending customers are the immigrants who speak English; they will purposefully speak to her in English when they know that she cannot understand them. Whereas, the rare American customers will slowly speak to her kindly so that she can pick up what they are trying to tell her; “they try to help me, I understand little snippets of what they are trying to tell me, but it takes me some time to connect the dots” (Martinez). Her language abilities have been slowly developing over time, but the range is limited. For instance, she has difficulties understanding the African-American dialect, and she cannot notice a difference between British and American English.                     

Not only is interpreting English a daunting challenge, speaking English is daunting to my mother. When speaking to Americans, she is afraid that they will not understand what she is attempting to communicate or that she will be mocked for saying something incorrectly. Whenever she gets a call from the bank or when we are at a store and she needs something, she will have me speak to the representative out of dread. I encourage her to speak so that she can gain some practice, but all she does is look at me wide-eyed and usher me towards the person. The times that I have refused to do that have only been met with anger and frustration from her. She does not blame me. She will blame herself while outwardly blaming me for not doing as I was told. She will often tell me that she is afraid that I, too, will judge her mistakes. I fervently deny her accusations and encourage her to go back to school, but all she does is smile at me kindly and say: “I feel like it’s already too late, you know. I’m 45; what if by the time I retire I’m still working at the store? What if I can’t learn English? I don’t want to stay working here until I have no more left in me. I have an accountancy degree, I could do something with that in this country, but I don’t know how to speak the language.” She will then laugh and look at me and add, “as if I’d ever need English [in Miami], but it is what it is” (Martinez).

These words will often leave me with a feeling of emptiness. I cannot do anything to help her escape her turmoil with the language; instead, her words are passed to me and I must speak them for her. Actually, children of migrants will “often look down on and reject their ancestral language and are embarrassed by their parents’ inability to communicate in English” (Huntington). From a personal standpoint, I rejected Spanish up until I realized its role in my life. I desperately wanted my mother and father to both learn English. I wanted them to get better jobs and integrate themselves into American society. I was embarrassed whenever there would be Spanglish pronunciations and incorrect choice of words.

This summer when we traveled up to Canada, the language barrier became more evident for her. As we stopped throughout the states, I was the one who would make the reservations at the hotels and check in once we got there. I would be the one to make all of the orders at the restaurants, translate what the tour guides said, help them exchange money. I would be the one to receive scrutinizing glares from people in the South and curious glances from people in the North. At restaurants, the waiters would be impatient when my parents would attempt to speak to them in English. These are the same fears that stop my mother from practicing back in Miami. This has been a part of the reason she has focused her efforts on working and much less on her language development. By working, she knows that there will be a direct payment after she works; but by spending time trying to learn English, she fears that it may never be enough. She is stuck in a cycle of wanting to learn but not being able to freely do so. At home, we speak Spanish, at work she speaks Spanish, at the stores she speaks Spanish; there is no direct way for the language to be practiced.

Despite Miami being created by the “elite and entrepreneurial class” of Cubans who fled the Revolution during the fifties (Huntington), there is a major divide in income from the first round of Cubans who settled in Miami and the ones who are settling now. When these Cubans first settled in Miami, English was the only language spoken, and it was not the multicultural place that it is today. Immigrants were forced to melt into the pot and meld with the American society. To have the worst paying jobs, English was still required. Even taxing physical jobs, such as those in the construction field, required some knowledge of English. The migrants of today can live a life that is slightly above the poverty line and not know any English at all. In my experience, I have seen that many of the newer Cuban migrants whom I have met struggle to communicate with their employers, but they can still afford iPhones and new Toyotas. The Miami society of today has become more accepting of the immigrants’ inability to speak English. That is why there is a class divide between old and new migrants. The old immigrants who braced themselves to learn English for an environment that required it created the Miami of today. Many of these migrants are owners of luxury apartments by the beach and other commodities. These older migrants often complain that the Cuban migrant of today is only focused on flashy materialistic possessions, like iPhones and Lexus cars, instead of learning English and finding professional careers. Despite their flashy appearance, they will often live in cramped apartments due to their hourly wages which are slightly above the minimum wage line.

I do not blame my mother for spending so much time in this country without learning English. Instead, I admire her for all that she has sacrificed for my family and me. English is not an easy language for anyone to acquire, especially when other preoccupations cloud the mind. My mother hopes that I will use the opportunities that this country has offered me; she hopes that I will take advantage of the education that I am receiving. It is a common immigrant sentiment: immigrant parents often hope that their children will be the ones to aid them towards a better life. Both she and my father have sacrificed themselves to get me to where I am today. That is why I am everything that my mother was never allowed to be and simply could not be. I am the dream that she was never able to pursue.

Works Cited

Crowley, Martha, et al. “Beyond Gateway Cities: Economic Restructuring and Poverty Among Mexican Immigrant Families and Children.” Family Relations. vol. 55, no. 3, July 2006, pp. 345-60. Jstor.

Enchautegui, María E. “The Value of U.S. Labor Market Experience in the Home Country: The Case of Puerto Rican Return Migrants.” Economic Development and Cultural Change, vol. 42, no. 1, Oct. 1993, pp. 169–191. Jstor. doi:10.1086/452069.

Espenshade, Thomas J., and Haishan Fu. “An Analysis of English-Language Proficiency among U.S. Immigrants.” American Sociological Review 62.2 (1997): 288-305. ProQuest. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy. no. 141, Apr. 2004, pp. 30-45. ProQuest, doi: 10.2307/4147547.

Martinez, Martha. Interview. By Angelica Garces. 13 Apr. 2016.

Park, J. H. “The Earnings of Immigrants in the United States: The Effect of English- Speaking Ability.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. vol. 58. no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 43-56. ProQuest.

A Word from Angelica

Picture of Angelica GarcesAt the end of my senior year of high school, I detested the idea of having to write a paper. My previous experiences in my writing classes had left me tired and worn out from all the boring topics and lengthy papers that I had to write. For the most part, high school did not teach me the fundamentals of writing that most students should have learned. I felt that most class lessons were rushed and the rowdiness of my peers did not allow my teachers to teach their material. That is why I ultimately ended up struggling with my writing, especially on details like sentence structure, essay organization, tenses, etc. I believed that my writing would never be up to par with my other peers; I lacked confidence in it. In college, when I took my first writing class, I was nervous; I did not know what would greet me on that first day. Would I spend my days writing from sunrise to sunset?
On the day that I met my writing profes- sor, I was taken aback by his friendly demeanor. He was excited and enthusiastic about teaching writing, something I never deemed possible. As the classes went by, he made me realize that there was more to my writing than I thought. I started to actually enjoy learning about grammar, language, and different writing styles. It became easier for me to convey my ideas into text with- out the accompanying migraine. Most of the papers that I wrote were written based on ideas that I picked and felt passionate about, including this one.
For this paper, I wanted to explore how language could affect the life of a person, a top- ic that directly impacted me all my life. The portrayal of the immigrant voice was one of the factors that I enjoyed about my essay. By serving as a testament to the hardships that many like me also face, I felt that I was able to connect with an audience that had endured the same difficul- ties that come from immigrating. That is why it wasn’t difficult for me to find material to write about – it had always been a part of who I was. All I had to do was sit down and the words would just flow through me.
I still may not be overly “in love” with the prospect of writing, but I am now able to tackle writing assignments with a newfound confidence and peace that was not a part of me before.

From Professor Jonathan Smart

Professor Commentary

Angelica Garces’ profile of her mother’s journey from rural Cuba to Miami came from an assignment to explore the role language has played in a family member’s life. While Angelica’s essay is compelling on its own, one of my favorite experiences as a teacher has been watching this project evolve from early brainstorming into its current, finely-honed state. In the first draft, her essay was a no-nonsense, textbook-precise fulfillment of the class project. Through Angelica’s revisions, this “language history” has expanded into a piece of writing that captures her unique voice, which is simultaneously academic and relatable. The scholarly considerations of how language impacts identity now occur alongside newer, more tangible insights into her mother’s story (along with Angelica’s own feelings towards her family and community). Her voice as a writer carefully weaves the scholarly discussion with these very personal revelations and insights to create a chronological narrative of her mother that challenges and inspires the reader.


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