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In Texas, I saw the biographical movie Selena, and it helped me understand the Tejano culture.
Selena Quintanilla-Perez (1971 – 1995) was a Mexican-American singer also known as the “Queen of the Tejano music” and the Mexican equivalent of Madonna. She was the best selling Latin artist of the 90s and an idol for the Tejanos and the Latin world. Selena was murdered in Corpus Christi, TX just two weeks before her 24 birthday by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar. Her death was commemorated as a great tragedy by millions of fans. That summer, her new album Dreaming of You, with lyrics both in English and Spanish, became number one in the US Billboard 200, which made it the second highest debut after Michael Jackson’s HIStory.
The movie Selena (starring Jennifer Lopez) was my introduction to the Tejano culture. Tejanos (the Spanish word for Texans) are people of Mexican heritage who live in Texas and whose ancestors arrived there before or during the Texas Revolution. In 2000, they are about 6.7 million or 32% of the population of Texas. The center of their culture is San Antonio. In general, their music is very close to the Cajun music of Louisiana, to the cowboy country music, or to the Mexican and Latino music. Their cuisine is a mixture of Spanish and American, or more commonly referred to as Tex-Mex: lots of tortillas, enchiladas, fajitas, chili, etc.
I find it very interesting that this is a culture that evolved out of the meeting of two very different peoples. Because the Tejanos live on the crossroads between Mexico and America, Selena has to be very flexible if she wants to send a message to both. The movie portrayed very well the challenges Tejanos have when it comes to cultural assimilation. One quote by Selena’s father really struck me:
We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!
Just think about it: Selena has to speak both Spanish and English and to know the customs and values of Mexicans and Ameircans in order to appeal to both and be accepted by both. Because she carries two cultural identities in her, she can never completely assimilate with one or the other. She is meant to live in both cultures simultaneously. And that’s why she has to try twice as hard.
The Tejan dilemma applies to all immigrants, people of mixed backgrounds, and even international students. You have to learn to embrace both of your identities (or both your home and host culture), but also you have to be flexible and bring forth one or the other of them when in the respective environment. In other words, you have to prove to the Mexicans that you are Mexican and to the Americans that you are American. It would be much more difficult to appeal to the Americans as a foreigner for example; yes, you might seem exotic and interesting, but you will never be accepted if you do not display an understanding of their values and ways of doing things.
Another way to put it is: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. So, having cultural sensitivity and understanding is very important for everyone but even more important for people of mixed descend and immigrants.
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During the four years I’ve been living abroad, I’ve met too many children of Bulgarian immigrants who speak broken Bulgarian. It saddens me that some of them have completely assimilated into the foreign culture to the point that they have forgotten their origins and Bulgarian identity.
I know that London as well as some American cities have big Bulgarian communities with a church or even a school, but these are not everywhere and are not able to reach everyone. Read about the Bulgarian high school in London here.
The solution is По жицата /Po zhitzata/, the First Bulgarian Online School.
I learned about the school through Valentin Nenkov, it’s founder, whom I met at a Bulgarian networking event at MIT. The Bulgarian virtual classroom provides classes in Bulgarian language, literature, history, and geography for both children and adults. The teachers are located in Bulgaria and the students are expatriates from all over the world as well as foreigners interested in learning the Bulgarian language. The lessons are conducted in real time every week.
I believe that knowing who you are means knowing your roots, so it’s very important to teach young Bulgarians living abroad about their country’s literature, history and geography. This will help them preserve their culture and identity wherever in the world they might be.
This is a quote from the website of First Bulgarian Online School. If you fall into any of these categories, you know what to do:
If you are here, chances are: you’ve been to Bulgaria; you’ve heard something about Bulgaria; you are married to a Bulgarian; you know “Zdravei” and “Blagodaria” and you are ready to learn and explore more. Whatever the reason is let us know today and start learning tomorrow with a tutor from Bulgaria.
I have three new roommates this semester, and they all have interesting stories to share.
One of them, Emma, is of Cuban descent. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Emma’s grandfather realized that his country is no longer a place where he would like to raise his children, so he drove his entire family out to Miami. None of them has been back to Cuba since.
Emma said that her grandmother is now quite old and is terrified that she might die before she sees Cuba again. Why don’t you just enter Cuba from Mexico, I asked? Because her grandmother prefers to die without having returned to her motherland than to return there while the Castro regime still lasts.
Isn’t it tragic to love and hate your country so much?
Emma says that her grandparents always keep a bottle of champagne at home in case Fidel or Raul die. So, she said, we are also having a big party at our apartment in case that happens.
Read more of my posts on immigration:
It’s a freezing Friday in London, and I just had an hour-long conversation with a Hungarian immigrant on a bench in Hyde Park.
I was sitting on a bench in front of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and reading Churchill’s biography (yes, because I’m such a geek), when I heard the very polite and pleasantly foreign sound of “Excuse me, could I sit down?” I nodded, and as the girl was sitting down and taking a bite of her hot-dog, she mumbled “I’m very frustrated.”
“Why are you frustrated?” I asked.
“When you arrive at Royal Albert Hall [the gorgeous round building across from Albert Memorial] very early before the show, they make you go to their restaurant upstairs and have a meal. But this restaurant is so expensive, and they make you go! I make good money, I’m not poor, but I wouldn’t go to such a restaurant! All they think about here is money! This is the worst city I have ever been to because they turn everything into money-making!”
The Hungarian girl whose name I never learned was beautiful in a very typical Eastern European way. She had red lipstick and white glitter on her eye-lashes. Her dark chestnut hair was diligently combed in a half-do. Her eyes were green. She was a belly-dancer. She lived and danced in several European cities, as well as in Maryland, USA. She was the apprentice to a belly-dancing teacher here in the UK. She now lived in London with her Hungarian fiancée.
“He loves the city. He works in banking, he goes out at 8, he works a lot, he travels a lot, he comes back late, on weekends he runs in the park – London is for him. I hate it. I hate the cold, I hate the rain. I miss sun and the beach,” she said. When she finished her hot-dog, she had a cigarette: “All artists smoke,” was her remark.
She said that everything in London is about money. People come here to work for a few years, earn a little fortune, and then go back home. People in Maryland were different; they were warmer. But then, it’s easier to get rich here than in the USA.
During the week, she rehearses, bikes, swims, and walks. On most weekends, she dances at weddings, bachelor parties, and other events. She earns well enough to pay some bills and have things of her own. She lives with her fiancée, so she doesn’t need to pay rent herself, but she cooks and cleans the house, which is her way of sharing the burden with him.
She was interested in my studies. She asked if I liked the university and Boston, and I said that I love being around so many interesting people from around the world. I suggested her to take a dancing class at one of the nearby universities: like Richmond or Imperial College; it had never occurred to her.
I shared how surprised I was to hear Bulgarian speech every single day here in London. She responded that there weren’t many Hungarians here.
When she asked me about the future, I told her that I was thinking of working in Europe or the States for a few years before eventually going back to Bulgaria. “Maybe you’ll change your mind. You are very young,” was her response.
“I feel that I still have things to do here. I want to master my belly dancing. I need probably two more years here. Then I might go back. Yes, I might go back when I turn 35.”
This is not the first time I meet Eastern Europeans immigrants far away from home. Read my post “One Way Ticket to the States” about my encounter with an Illegal immigrant from Bulgaria who works as a pizza delivery boy in Boston.