– By Rogelio Contreras –
My family came to the U.S. from Mexico. I am one of nine children and my first language is Spanish. Before my father obtained immigration status in the 80s under Reagan’s amnesty, he would travel to the U.S. to work in agriculture.
My family settled in south Texas where approximately 85% of the population is Mexican-American, mostly 2nd generation and beyond. However, the majority do not speak Spanish and many do not identify as Mexican. It was ingrained into us as early as kindergarten that our language and culture were inferior. We were not allowed to speak Spanish and would get in trouble if we got caught doing it. By the time we were in middle school most kids spoke only English and would make fun of other kids if they spoke Spanish and would call recent immigrants ‘mojados’ (wetbacks).
My family also spent half of every year in Wisconsin, as migrant farm workers in a mostly European-American community. I often got in trouble for speaking Spanish there as well. One time a principal put a bar of soap in my mouth to wash it out for speaking Spanish. I was constantly getting in fights because other kids did not like Mexicans.
I was getting the same message in both places. I stopped speaking Spanish in public and devalued my Mexican cultural roots.
It was in the Navy and throughout college that I changed my thinking. I read a lot of books about the history of Mexico, developed relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, and started to value and reconnect with my cultural roots. Now I am part of a nation-wide demographic of Hispanics using “American Indian” – a blanket term for indigenous people of the Americas – to identify our race.
As a parent it is important for me to teach my children to be bilingual and bicultural. I want them to be proud of their background, but I know I will have to teach them how to handle racism, misconceptions, and stereotypes. I will try to teach them to respond with love and grace, while being proud of who they are.
At All Souls I have found a community where I can bring my whole self: my religious views, culture, and language. However, even here in our open and progressive community, I have experienced microaggressions. I have been told I speak English well, made to feel I don’t fit the idea people have of an All Souls member, and told to refill the coffee pot or fix the tables by people assuming I am on staff. For this article I was asked to write about my experience coming to this country and assimilating, even though I was born in Texas. Although it isn’t my every day experience at All Souls, I share this to further our work as a church community breaking down barriers and bringing people together.
Rogelio Contreras has been a member of All Souls for five years. He is the husband of Diane and the father of Isabela and Cuauhtémoc. He is a Spanish teacher at the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the Generosity Committee and Unidos.