Jose and Manuela came to the United States with their two children, Enrique and Maria, nine years ago. Jose was hard working, good with his hands and quickly found a couple of jobs doing manual labor on construction sites around town. Manuela cleaned houses four days a week to help make a little more money for their family.

Together they dreamed of their small hometown in Mexico and often talked late into the night about their plan to return. After working for a few years, they dreamed, they could return home. They would use their savings to build a small grocery store, buy a few chickens and raise their children with plenty of food to eat.

They worked hard. They saved. They prayed. And their children grew older.

Finally, after nine years, the day came. They had saved up enough money to return to Mexico and fulfill their dream!

But then, the unthinkable happened. When they told their children about the plan, Enrique and Maria wanted none of it. In fact, they started crying. Maria held her face in her hands and Enrique stormed off to his room.

Over the next couple of days, Jose and Manuela tried to talk to their children about why they wanted to return, but the kids wouldn’t even entertain the idea. After long discussions, arguments and even a few raised voices, the truth became apparent. Their children did not want to return to Mexico.

Suddenly their simple plan became a whole lot more complicated…

—————–

Ok, so I made up Jose and Manuela. They are not real. But their story is.

To which culture does he really belong?

To which culture does he really belong?

You see, many Latin American immigrants come to the U.S. each year looking for work to support their struggling families. A lot of them plan to return home once they’ve saved up enough money. But the one thing they rarely take into account is the changes that their children will undergo in the U.S.

That’s one of the things I’ve already been so fascinated with here at Shepherd… watching second generation immigrant children adapt to American culture.

First of all, most of these “third culture” kids are bilingual. They speak Spanish at home, but have perfect American accents when they hang out with their friends.

It’s so interesting to hear the middle-school aged girls in my host family rattling off a whole sentence in fluent Spanish with their parents, only to turn around and say something to me in English just like any other pre-teen American (complete with the word “like” every three words or so!).

Their entertainment is a completely mixed bag, too. In one evening, it’s not uncommon for my host family’s kids to turn off hip-hop music to watch a Disney teen show (with a guest appearance by Hannah Montana, of course) and end the night by flipping over to an epic Mexican soap opera on Univision!

How much does her last name say about who she really is?

How much does her last name say about who she really is?

When it comes to food, their stomachs are definitely bi-cultural. A common week’s diet might include tacos and Big Macs, enchiladas and pizza, rice pudding and Twinkies… The other day my host family and I started the day with pancakes and ended it with pickled jalapeño peppers!

These kids definitely have a foot in both worlds, and it creates some very interesting situations.

But there is a dark side to this multiculturalism as well…

Children born in Latin America and raised in the U.S. have a very hard time fitting in anywhere. With their American classmates, they discover that they have “weird” customs and eat “weird” food. They face a wall of stereotypes and prejudice from people who wish that they had never left home at all.

But what is home to a third culture kid? Talking to their parents, these kids are baffled by the way their parents think and act. It’s not the way their neighbor’s parents act… Trying to imagine raising goats in a tiny village seems absurd. Why do their parents look back with such fond memories?

With all this in mind, it’s not too hard to understand why so many Hispanic kids end up in gangs. Imagine… a place to belong. A community of like-minded friends with a common ancestry.

In a gang, nobody thinks you’re weird if you listen to Spanish hip-hop. Nobody looks down on you for being “foreign.” Gangs are a place for the uprooted to put down roots.

At Shepherd, many early-learning tools like this calendar are written in English and Spanish.

At Shepherd, many early-learning tools like this calendar are written in English and Spanish.

But it’s obvious that gangs can have dangerous implications. Thankfully, they are not the only place where a new cross-cultural identity can be formed.

At Shepherd Community Center, for example, Hispanic kids are encouraged to value their cultural heritage. Although they teach in English, many of the staff members here have learned Spanish to better communicate with them. Parental classes help first generation adults adapt to the realities of their kids’ changing worldviews.

Most importantly, at Shepherd these kids can find a new cultural identities, not as unwanted foreigners, but as children of God.

Now, I may never fully understand what it’s like to be a child of two cultures, but I do have a brand new respect for the Enriques and Marias of the world.

And thanks to the work of Shepherd, kids like them are finally able to have some respect for themselves

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Next Steps
    • Head over to Shepherd Community Center's website to read more about what they are doing!
    • Spend some time talking to a Latin American immigrant. Try to learn their story. Then leave a comment here and tell us about your experience!
    • Pray for all the "third culture" kids in our nation. Pray that they would find their true identity...
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Bill Shewan said... 

    Reply

    October 7th, 2009 at 12:22 pm  

    Barry, thanks for this reminder. Its obvious, and understandable, but I forget how hard it is to be “third culture”, how it feeds the gang culture. Very insightful. I’ll be more sensitive to this from now on.

  2. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    October 7th, 2009 at 6:12 pm  

    The debate over immigration will rage no doubt for the forseeable future. And while we debate the merits of fences, visas and quotas God help us if the church forgets Enrique and Maria.

  3. Jessica Shewan said... 

    Reply

    October 8th, 2009 at 5:13 pm  

    I’ve always thought that being a third-culture kid would be cool for the bilingual aspect…for first generation Americans, I wish that speaking the language of their parents (whether it’s Spanish, Korean, Burmese, etc.) along with English was more encouraged…otherwise the skill is lost!

  4. Jo Nading said... 

    Reply

    October 18th, 2009 at 12:35 pm  

    Ahhh – to belong. It IS what we all want, right? We do pretty much whatever we can to get it – to feel it. As kids, we seek, we manipulate, and ultimately we find…good, bad, dangerous, indifferent, different. I am grateful that Shepherd is intercepting these kids … teaching and imprinting the belonging they have in Jesus – in the “family of God.” Whatever it is that makes a child feel like he or she does NOT belong – it is so worth whatever the cost to build that child’s belief of belonging to Jesus. And, sometimes it is “too bad” that since humans created the disconnect it is still us humans that are called to REconnect these kiddos.

    Barry – thanks for this insight, because honestly, I think I have never really had this category of “third culture” kiddos in my sight for this.

  5. Maeven said... 

    Reply

    October 19th, 2009 at 8:29 pm  

    Mmm, close to home. Not mine, but my relatives…

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