Growing up, I didn't think I had identity issues. I only realized it as an adult. I grew up in Downsview in a mainly Italian neighbourhood. I recall wanting blue eyes and blond hair like most of the fair-skinned Italian kids. Why couldn't I have a panini sandwich? Sliced bread sandwiches seemed so boring compared to the veal-on-a-bun type sandwiches my friends had. It seems a bit strange considering I was born in Toronto to Ecuadorian parents. Adding another interesting layer to my ethnicity, my mom's father was half Chinese and my dad's grandparents had Spanish roots. As a child, I was fascinated with Chinese culture and it's little surprise that that was my first country I chose to backpack in during my 20s.
I spoke Spanish at home with my parents and English with my brother, sister, and at school. I was completely bilingual; or so I thought (more on this later)! The school was made up of mainly Italians and a small portion of black, white and a few Spanish-speaking kids. Besides my sister and I, there were virtually no Spanish-speaking girls.
My mom took us to Ecuador every few years and I hated speaking Spanish with my extended family. On one occasion, I was speaking with a cousin and I said the word "estor." My cousin looked at me blankly. When we got the translation out of the way, it turns out my folks had been saying "store," but with a Spanish accent. What I thought was the word for "store" was not actually "estor," but tienda! I was so embarrassed!
When I was in Ecuador, my Spanish didn't have enough slang, it appeared too proper, or I would drop the occasional, "OK." They knew I wasn't originally from there. In Canada, there were occasions where I felt like I didn't belong because people would look at me and assume that I wasn't born here. I was working up in Penetanguishene once and I actually received a racist comment. The funny thing was is that the guy made the comment thinking I was First Nations! I don't think this fellow had ever seen a Hispanic before.
In high school, I connected with other Spanish-speaking kids. All of a sudden, these kids made it cool to speak Spanish to each other. Again, I felt like an outsider since I didn't think I spoke as native-sounding as these kids. Most of them had arrived here at about 11-14 years of age. I had friends from Ecuador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, and Colombia and I started to embrace my Latin American roots.
During that time, I became aware that there were Spanish-speaking kids uptown in the North West area of Toronto as well as downtown around the Bloor and Dufferin area. It was especially nice to go to the Christie Pits festival and people-watch and eat all the delicious varieties of food. I noticed differences in the way kids were dressing downtown. There seemed to be this pride to dress like Chicanos from American Me. They had the toughness to go with it too. I never felt comfortable wearing Timberlands, baggy clothes, and putting the dark lipstick on, but I did for a short time anyway.
Growing up, my parents expected us to do well in school, but post-secondary education wasn't really mentioned. Birthdays and religious rites of passage seemed more important. I think I mainly aimed to go to university because of the books I read and the American 80s movies I watched. I wanted to be a freshman and wear a varsity jacket given to me by some gorgeous guy that I would be dating -- that, and I was competitive. Seems funny now, that I had no idea what engineering was back then. Judging by the amount of people trying to get into that program, though, it was pretty popular. My parents were busy trying to provide me with a better opportunity here. Maybe they just thought we'd figure it out. My convocation graduation was a bit of an afterthought. My parents came, but it wasn't a huge celebration or anything.
Looking back, we didn't and still don't have many Spanish-speaking visible leaders in the community for the younger generations to look up to. Most of the time, the only exposure comes from American Hispanics that we see in the media.
As a parent now, I joined an advisory group for Spanish-speaking parents and community groups at the Toronto Catholic District School Board about six years ago. There was data indicating that Spanish-speaking students had one of the lowest graduation rates. We all got down to work to increase parent engagement, which research shows increases student academic success and well-being. Perhaps it was the outdated provincial graduation rates, or research methods not tracking drop-outs through to employment, but in my personal experience, I know many Spanish-speaking people who are successful. They just aren't that visible in the community.
The identity issues continue though. At one meeting we discussed what we should be called at length. The Spanish-speaking community is unique in that we are not just ONE country, but several countries. We all have our own mixtures of Spanish and Indigenous make-up. We can all look different. So to try and unite us all under one umbrella is problematic. Should we call ourselves Spanish-speaking, Hispanic, Latino/a, Latin@, Latin American, Canadian-Ecuadorian, Ecuadorian-Canadian, or Latinx (this one is gender neutral)? We aren't just one uniform group. If you are born here or came when you are 14 to Canada, there is yet another layer of complexity.
Spanish-speaking individuals are no strangers to identity issues; they had those identity issues in those Latin American countries due to the indigenous and Spanish roots just as we do here in Canada as second generation kids. Perhaps the only form of comfort we can have is knowing that everyone around us is also experiencing some form of identity issues.
Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada.
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