When my son was about 8 years old, I took him and his sister on vacation to Chicago. As we were wandering through the shops at Navy Pier, he suddenly disappeared from view. I spotted him a little ways away, in conversation with a middle-aged couple; the man to whom he was speaking had a puzzled look on his face.
After apologizing to the couple and retrieving my son, I asked him why he had been talking to them.
“I heard them speaking Spanish and it sounded different,” responded the San Antonio boy, whose father is from Mexico. “So I asked the man, ‘¿de dónde eres?’”
The couple was from Argentina.
I explained to my son that accosting strangers might not be the wisest thing to do and that in any case, he should address adults “de usted.” Still, I had to admire not only his ability to discern differences in Spanish pronunciation, but also the curiosity that drove him to explore the reasons behind the differences.
If my children gained Latin American cultural knowledge from that exchange in Chicago – a diverse city, to be sure, and one that draws visitors from around the world – how much more would they have gleaned from an actual visit to Latin America?
The last year we took a real vacation together, we went to Oaxaca and Huatulco, Mexico. Teenagers then, they savored all that was so unlike our everyday lives: eating a home-cooked meal in the family dining room of a coffee plantation, swimming under a waterfall in a mountain pond, snorkeling in a crystal-clear bay, exploring the majestic ruins at Monte Albán … They also learned that the fantastic village crafts we admired often represented months of work for the artisans, that eco-travel translates to “sunscreen damages coral reefs,” and that the letter “M” on a restroom door means “Mujeres” – not “Men”! And they saw up close how poverty can settle on a hillside like a mantle.
5 Reasons to Pack a Cultural Suitcase
So, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, here are five reasons I believe you should take your kids to Latin America – beyond the obvious ones: its incredible natural beauty and opportunities for making family memories.
- “Not all Latinos look/sound the same”: Even if you are Latino and live in a major Latino market, being exposed to other Latin groups will expand your children’s cultural horizons – in music, food, mannerisms, speech, literature, and more. They’ll be “trilingual” when they tell their friends that “strawberries” are not only called “fresas,” they’re “frutillas” in Chile.
- “Beans and rice are not just side dishes on the Mexican platter”: In fact, that may be all some kids have to eat the entire day. That’s true in the U.S., as well, of course, but the reality often seems to be so much more glaring in Latin America. Seeing the daily lives of other kids provides perspective for your own children’s lives.
- “Everybody here speaks Spanish! (except in Brazil)”: Your kids (and you!) can practice Spanish − and find that most people will politely ignore your errors. If you grew up in a time when parents didn’t want their children to speak Spanish because of fear of discrimination, the experience can be liberating.
- “You’re not in Kansas anymore”: Visiting another country helps children understand there is a world beyond their own, and ways of living that, while not like theirs, are just as valid. Books about other cultures can set the stage, but going to the grocery store or riding a bus or playing a game with another child in Latin America add greatly to the cultural intelligence that will serve your children well in a global economy.
- “Abuelita really went to school here?”: If you are Latino, showing your children where their family came from gives them roots − a base for figuring out where they’re going. Now they understand why Papi says the things he says, eats the things he eats, believes the things he believes … in short, a visit to Latin America gives them rich cultural context for their own lives.
So, where are my kids today? My daughter works in Hispanic marketing – in Chicago, by the way. My son majored in Latin American studies and worked for several years at a Mexico think tank. Adults now, they both speak Spanish, have traveled on their own to Latin America and are at home with Latinos and non-Latinos across the cultural spectrum. They’re culturally intelligent Americans, and the pride of my life.