“Let’s hit the gringos (Americans)!” Said my 3 year old, giggling with his cousins as a group of tourists walked by the house in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala where we live. My mother in law asked him if he’s a “gringo”. “No, I’m David,” he said. The aggressive joke he made with his cousins comes from a place of innocence. He’s too young to come up with that sort of joke on his own. He was probably repeating what another cousin said, and he seems completely clueless that his mother is a “gringa.”
This has been his first expression of himself and his background. I can just imagine the adventures and questions that are to come.
I’m one of the only Americans who live in this fairly small Guatemalan town. And definitely the only American that goes to the local church. I stick out like a sore thumb with light hair in a sea of dark-haired heads. Since my husband and I were dating, I’ve become accustomed to the questions that naturally arise from his family, friends and even shop owners about where I’m from, if I speak English and sometimes if I’ll teach them.
Since having children, David,3, and Sarah, 5 months, there are more questions and comments: What color are his eyes? Does he speak English? Oh, her skin is so light! Her hair is dark, like her fathers! Oh I thought she’d be blonde! Does he understand you? Are you going to move to the USA? Can your children travel to the USA?
The questions and comments bubble and gush out of people – they just can’t resist wondering aloud. They are made out of genuine curiosity and are well-intentioned. However, considering my children and their growing up with these questions and comments, I can imagine that it will initiate questions about their identity.
We’re learning how to walk down the road of being a multi-cultural family in the midst of a town where Americans or “gringos” have often been seen as strange at the best, scary at worst and almost always as a source of money. I want their sense of their American side of the family to be familiar. I want them to feel connected, supported and loved from that side of the family. I don’t want them to feel like all Americans fall into the strange and scary category that the tourists are usually grouped into. We have frequent visits to and from Grandma and Grandpa and other family members, so I know that their sense of the American side of the family will be well nurtured and appreciated. Our visits to the States also help. Although my 3 year old has already tapped into this differentiation and negative image of Americans, I have faith that this will change. His growing contact with Americans in his family and life will help him overcome this image created for him.
As I imagine my children’s and family’s future, I envision some of them moving to the USA to study for a few years or all of us moving there for a number of years. My family in the USA is quite diverse. Although my parents’ immediate background is Mennonite and everyone before my parents’ generation was white, things have started to change. My sister is dating a Filipino. My aunt married a Tanzanian. Three cousins on my paternal side are married to non-white men. One of the families of my cousins is also bilingual. In that family environment, I know my kids would fit in and feel right at home. The fact that their mom is American and their Dad is Guatemalan would seem normal rather than strange.
However, here in Guatemala, it’s different. In this culture, those who have lighter skin than most or brown hair are called “canche”. My children’s caramel skin and brown to blonde hair draws attention. In many ways it’s considered beautiful – but I worry about attracting all that attention. Will it cause them undue pressure? Will it cause them to become heart-breakers in their teen years?
It leads me to reflect on my own childhood. I was the only white girl in my class during my elementary school years and one of few white students in middle school as well. I quickly learned that I was different. However, it didn’t stop me from having friends or participating. In some ways I think it did mean I was shier than I could have been and felt awkward at times. But at the same time I believe it was character building for me. It meant my parents worked hard to instill a sense of self and pride in me. Knowing the way they managed this sets a challenge before me. I must parent my children in a way that they know who they are and have self-confidence in it. That they are ok with being different. That they appreciate the richness of their family’s history. And the counter-balance…that others have rich and beautiful family histories and backgrounds too. That others are valuable and special too.
Knowing that I’ll have to work hard to instill a sense of confidence and belonging for my children has made me think more about our family’s traditions and celebrations. Our sense of belonging doesn’t need to be lost across cultures, races, languages and skin tones. Our family has begun traditions that cross these barriers and mix things together. We celebrate Thanksgiving in Guatemala and Grandma and Grandpa eat tamales too. We make a manger scene each year for Christmas and hang ornaments on a rosemary plant in the yard. We celebrate birthdays and do skype dates with Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Anna. When we’re in the States, we call Guatemalan Grandparents and take gifts home. We take gifts from Guatemala to Grandma and Grandpa. I will make sure examples of mixed families are available for my children and discuss their questions openly with them as they grow. I assume that most people have good intentions and try to ignore those who clearly don’t. I stand up for myself when necessary. This modeling will give my children the strength to do the same – wherever they are.
Considering the challenge my children face, I believe they are up for it. Most of all, I hope that they will find a place for themselves in this world and be happy.
When I was pregnant with my son, colleagues joked with me that I was going to have a “chapingo”. Guatemalans call themselves “chapines” and since Americans are called “gringos”, the term for my child who is half-Guatemalan, half- American became “chapingo.” Today, my son occasionally refers to himself as a “chapingo.” He’s heard his uncles and aunts refer to him this way. Although in life if he chooses to identify himself as a “chapingo” most people won’t know what he’s talking about, it will give him a funny story to tell and a way to explain his background.
Our family is “Chapingo.” We are a beautiful mix of two cultures, countries, races, peoples and languages. We are a bit of everything. We love both sides of our family and appreciate the richness that it adds to our lives. We can overcome the challenges together.