Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bilingual Schools

Normally I try to keep all my posts within relation to my grandmother, and in a way, this post sort of does come back to her. For ten years, my grandmother's job was as a teacher's aid at one of NJ's only bilingual elementary schools. This is a unique job to hold. Not only because of the school's rarity, but it was an integral job with such a minor title. Many of the Latin Americans on the east coast--in the NJ/NY/PA--are Puerto Rican, and to have someone in the classroom that comes from humble beginnings and with good intentions, was such an important thing to many of the parents. Lots of the systems in the US are hard to understand, let alone navigate, and though my grandmother was only labeled a 'teacher's aid,' the service she did connected parents and their children through the classroom, and that's an important job. 

The real issue is bilingual education, which is a hot topic in light of all the immigration talks going on these days. The typical argument from opposition claims that there shouldn't be money expended on teaching bilingually when in the good ol' US of A, we speak English. Then again, there are more moderate approaches to the topic, and then of course there are some hyper liberal agendas out there, too. But perhaps the basic thing to consider is this: regardless of your stance on immigration or how strongly you feel about English being the 'official' language of the US, it doesn't change the fact that one of the most widely spoken languages in the world is Spanish, not to mention that it's spoken almost as much as English is in this country.

One argument says that if bilingual education is enforced, less time will be spent on English as a main focus. Here is one supporter's response:

"Knowing another language, and being encouraged to incorporate it, does not mean that the main language needs to suffer. If done in a way that allows for both languages to coexist then the advantages of bilingual education can be acknowledged without the threat that it will take away from learning the dominant language."

Whatever argument is made against integrating bilingual education is made, it's clear that the advantages outweigh any perceived disadvantages. High schools and colleges already have language requirements, and the whole world is mixing--studies show that those with bilingual capacities have a stronger chance in the workforce, as well. Overall, you'd have to be uninformed or somewhat immigrant-phobic to think that bilingual education is a detriment, instead of what it is: an important addition. 

Religions and Latin Americans

Catholicism has long been a presence in Latin American culture, and to this day, it plays an active role in the lives of million of Latinos. While many practicers of Catholics are somewhat luke-warm in their religious fervor--following tenants that suit their lifestyle--Latinos are often much more involved in their church communities or consider themselves much more devout. One marked example of Latinos tendency to act within the guidelines of Catholicism is the significantly lower divorce rate amongst Latin American families. According to a study, Latin Americans have a lower divorce rate than Caucasians, African Americans, Indian Americans, and Asian Americans. This is not to say, however, that the marriages of Latin Americans are more stable--in fact, their is quite a high rate of separation within the Latino community. 

On a personal note, the religious life of my own Latino family members is certainly interesting, and a testament to both the evolving relationship between humans and religions, as well as the characteristic religious devotion of Latin Americans. My grandfather grew up poor and barefoot in the mountains of Puerto Rico, while my grandmother wasn't much better off in the city slums of the island. Both their parents were devout Catholics, but once my grandfather came to the mainland, he was evangelized to by Jehovah's Witnesses, and--eager to assimilate and find a support system in a semi-foreign land--joined their ranks and remained practicing for over fifteen years. And this wasn't casual devotion. This meant no birthdays, no Christmas celebrations, no exuberant parties of any kind. For a culture so supportive of celebrations of all kinds (hello, Quincenera!) this was certainly difficult for my grandmother to adhere to. And like a good Latina wife, she tried to support her husband's unusual decision (though she did sneak my mother and her siblings birthday presents when she could). 

Eventually my grandfather stopped practicing, though the reasons remain unclear to this day. Now, both my grandmother and grandfather attend a traditional Presbyterian church--another uncharacteristic choice for old-country-esque Puerto Ricans. But like their parents devoted themselves wholly to Catholicism (not using birth control, giving up tithes though their economic situation was somewhat dire, etc.) my grandfather followed the Jehovah's Witness religion with equal fervor, and now--though they both have no reason to be so active--they attend church twice a week, volunteer, and tithe. 

It's an unusual thing, but the role of religion in Latin American life is unusual. It's not native to the place--it was brought over by the Spanish settlers--it has somehow become synonymous with its people. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Elderly, Food, Puerto Rican Culture

Their is an interesting relationship between elderly women and wanting to feed their children and grandchildren. And when I say feed, I don't just mean one hearty meal. I mean, they want to STUFF their grandchildren FULL. And the pleasure they take in doing so is undeniable. And I want to talk about why.

My grandmother has an interesting dynamic on this issue. Although she likes to fatten us all up, she's also very critical about weight. You'd think that it seems contradictory, but in her mind it makes perfect sense. The common explanation for why elderly women love to fatten up their grandchildren stems from the historical context in which they grew up and their own relationship to food. Often in immigrant families, food was often scarce or at least highly valued for the cost is amounted. So, the way grandmother's show love is to shower their grandchildren with the bounty they couldn't enjoy during their own childhood. They value food for the gift it can mean. It's not only nourishment, it is a real gift. It is hand crafted, and then bestowed upon us with watchful, adoring eyes--waiting to see our reaction. It's a way for them to feel useful and nurturing, too. 

Food has always been an important cultural staple. What's funny is that it means different things for different cultures. When I go to my dad's side of the family for Christmas Eve dinner, the meal is the same: chicken, peas, mashed potatoes. Very bland, very WASP-y food. When my grandmother, mother, and aunt cook for Christmas Day dinner, there's pork, fish, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), potato salad, avocados by the pound, artichoke salad, bread, and more. It's comfort food, as oppose to typical food. In Hispanic culture, food brings the family together, it's a familiar backdrop. In my father's WASP-y culture, it's like a ceremony, far-removed and unemotional. People are more focused on the scotch than the family vibe. I have always found the different views of food and family dining rather fascinating.

Event the style in which we eat is different. On my mother's side it's grab what you can and everyone squishes into one room, some even eating and standing so that we call gather around the hot plates of food. On my dad's side, the WASP side, there are appetizers circulated and a long table where everyone has a name-place at which to sit. It's forced, while the Puerto Rican side is free flowing. 

My grandmother loves to cook and it's how she shows her love to her grandchildren. The cultural ramifications are quite interesting to explore in terms of how they relate to other cultures and their view of food, and how especially views of food and family dining are more similar among minorities and immigrant groups.

Elderly Relationships

The most interesting dynamic to observe between my Puerto Rican grandmother and grandfather is how they bicker. They seem so opposite to one another that I can't imagine a time in their lives where they would have wanted to marry each other. In fact, their overt dislike of each other was even clear to me as a child--so much so that I would ask my mother if my grandmother and grandfather's marriage had been arranged and then that would explain why they never got along. She assured me, however, that this was not the case, and that they simply rarely saw eye to eye.

As they've both grown older, and I have as well, I've taken greater notice of their relationship's dynamic. My grandmother is a social butterfly. She takes line-dancing class, volunteers, loves to shop and go out to lunch with her friends and family, hosts several family dinners, babysits all the grandchildren, etc. My grandfather is the COMPLETE opposite. He literally spends the entirety of his day in the guest bedroom of their tiny house. He sits in the near-dark, shades drawn, and watched either the news or golf on TV. On a rare day, he'll take a walk down the block to break up the hours he spends in front of the the television, but after 5 minutes he returns home and continues watching. 

This infuriates my grandmother of course, and she doesn't even bother to try and get him to join her, entertain her, interact with her. She simply tells everyone that he's in his room--code for the guest bedroom--and she doesn't bother him. 

I've long tried to figure out my grandfather. But the solution my mother provides is that he's depressed. Ever since he retired he feels like he's lost his sense of purpose. Which is understandable. My grandfather grew up in the mountains of Puerto Rico. He was self-taught and began working, earning money for his family, when he was 8 years old. And he never stopped, not until he was 68 years old and retired from his job with the state. 

In class we've talked a bit about elderly depression and the factors that go into that--illness, loneliness, purposelessness, nursing home, anxiety, impending death. All of those are reason to feel depressed, but I wish there was more ways for the elderly to treat their depression. It seems like therapy and anti-depression studies are focused more on young adult and adults, not the elderly. It seems like people are trying to cure or treat depression in those age groups except for the elderly. So I did some research about ways to treat elderly depression. Here are the links, and they offer some really strong points, I just wish more people had access to them...

Medscape - information on how anti-depressants affect common medications that the elderly take, statistics on elderly depression, advice on medical treatment

HealthyPlace - positive effects of exercise on combating elderly depression

WebMD - how treating depression in elderly doesn't just make the mind healthier, but apparently makes elderly bodies healthier

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Home vs. the Homeland

My grandmother recently returned from a 3 week trip to San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico to visit her remaining family on the island. For my grandmother, this trip has been yearly, and--to her--can't come soon enough. While she acts as my family's babysitter when it comes to the multiple cousins I have under the age of 12, and she enjoys it since it gives her a sense of purpose, she has been encouraging my grandfather to move back to Puerto Rico for several years.

She has lived in NJ for over 50 years now, but since she arrived--she says--she has wanted to return. And who could blame her? The inclement NJ weather--too hot and humid in the summer and too cold in the winter--leaves much to be desired. Not to mention, that in Puerto Rico, she's the reigning matriarch of the family. There, she says, she can spend her nights playing dominos on the porch and be with her remaining family members. Though all her children live in NJ, she says that she finds that she has more purpose in Puerto Rico--where they appreciate her value more, she says--than in NJ. 

It is not uncommon for the elderly to want to return to their homeland--to relive the good old days, to retire among familiar settings, friends, and family. In fact, a study attempted to investigate elderly Germans who were living in places other than Germany.  A substantial chunk--31%--wanted to return to Germany to live the last years of the life. One site even names the desire in elderly to return home: acculturation.

Many of the elderly wish to be buried in their homeland especially. The genocide has killed and displaced millions of Sudanese people. A recent article investigated the survived and elderly that wish to be buried in Darfur once the turmoil has subsided. 

Home is never far from the heart, and apparently there can be a discrepancy between home and the homeland.

Elderly Latinos & Speaking English

These is a lot of this going around... 

But it begs the question: since America is known as the great melting-pot, and almost every city has its cultural hotspots (Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.), why is it that people get really upset when there are language barriers? It's not as if the person is speaking another language to intentionally upset you or because they are consciously deciding to speak another language and completely disregard the native tongue. The issue is one of comfort, culture, and convenience. 

My grandmother--a main focal point and point of reference of this blog--came to the mainland from Puerto Rico when she was in her early twenties, and learned English at the insistence of my grandfather, who tutored himself religiously. Ultimately, my grandmother learned the language by becoming both a factory-worker (she had animated conversations with other women in her line who spoke English) and by becoming a hair-washer at a salon and interacting with her clients. Not to mention, when she had my mom, aunt, and uncle and they become natural English speakers at public school, she felt the need to become more proactive in learning the language. Through a unique set of circumstances she was able to learn the language during a time when the anti-Latino immigration movement wasn't so spiteful or heated. But many people don't have the same unique opportunities. 

Now, my great aunt Lulu, is moving to the mainland from Puerto Rico since she can no longer live alone. She--at almost 80--speaks only Spanish and refuses to interact with anyone in any other language. My mom thinks this could simply be her attempt at maintaining stability in her changing world, a refusal to give up the past, or the feeling that it's too late in life to learn anything different. The first two reasons could be true for anyone entering the U.S. who speaks a different language. Many time, immigrants create their own bubble of family and friends who are all from the same country and who speak the same language, and who understand the same culture and traditions. Is it that hard to fathom that during a tumultuous time in their life (moving to another country, perhaps?) there is a desire to cling to what is comfortable. But, if you look around, you'll notice that many Spanish-speaking immigrants (of all ages) truly make an effort to assimilate. In fact, most of them are crazy about America and its culture, and that explains their desire to get it here. I think most people would find that some of the most patriotic, idealistic Americans are those who are immigrants--they appreciate and hope for what they believe the U.S. to stand for: opportunity, freedom, and equality. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

Life After Work: Latinos and "Retirement"

I've been doing some research on the web lately to try and find some information on the aging experiences of Hispanics and how they might differ from other minority groups, and have been successful.

I came across one tidbit in particular that did not surprise me. Studies show that elderly Hispanics--more than any other ethnic group--end up living in communities or with relatives instead of nursing homes. What did surprise me is that most of these senior citizens end up living in "barrios" which, more often than not, are in poor and crowded areas, which heightens crime rights--potentially endangering these senior citizens. Though these settings provide a sense of comfort and familiarity, they may not be able to provide proper health assistance, safety, or monitoring that many elderly people do require.

Building on this topic, many elderly Latinos spent most of their adult life making a living by doing manual labor, and thus are not able to support themselves once they reach and age or health that they cannot perform this work. In fact, the website where I've been
pulling much of information has this to say about the topic: "Hispanic American are also more likely to be unemployed than Black and White elderly Americans. As a consequence, elderly Hispanics, especially those 75 and over, are found to experience high rates of poverty."

Though these figures can be a little off-putting, there are some redeeming qualities to relationship between the family structure and the elderly Hispanic. Since, more often than not, elderly Latinos live with their children and their childrens' children, the elderly Hispanic can play a key role in child rearing (which may offset the financial burden of daycare, after school care, etc.) and create a multi-generational sense of history and morality that is often found lacking in many households.

Next: Tracing my grandmother's first step on NJ soil to age 77; what her journey can tell us about other Latino men and women...