This article is reprinted from FORUM, the statewide magazine of the Florida Humanities Council.
© Florida Humanities Council
Moving to a new country can feel like being hit by a big wave in the ocean. You know the wave is coming, but you don't really know when-or how-it is going to hit you. You get the first hint of what's coming when you find yourself packing up everything you have, completely emptying your house. Then, instead of heading to a new house, you head to the airport to take an international one-way flight with your wife and two children and 16 pieces of luggage -- only four bags for each person. If anyone of us forgot to pack something, it would just be left behind.
My wife Adriana, my sons Nicolas and Felipe, and I came to Florida from Colombia. We were going to stay for only two years while I got my master's degree in journalism at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg
. Since Adriana and I both had lived in this country as students in the late 1980s, we thought the biggest challenge would be our children's adaptation to their American school and social life in a new country.
We weren't really concerned about the cultural changes. Our country has been influenced a lot by American media, including music, TV shows and movies. The way we dress is basically the same; even many of the brand names are the same. And, though we ate very traditional Colombian foods at home, we were familiar with many of the American fast-food brands that can be found in Colombian cities.
As it turned out, though, the things we worried about were no problem. Our sons, who had attended a bilingual (Spanish-English) school in Colombia, did just fine -- especially through the international language of soccer. But after our first months of feeling as though we were on a vacation, we really began craving a taste of home. All of us suffered from culture shock when it came to food. And, over time, we realized that in the United States, we were labeled "Latinos" along with people from many Spanish-speaking countries very different from ours.
In the beginning, we enjoyed eating American, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Cuban and other ethnic foods from the cultural melting pot. Our traditional Colombian food was not readily available at retail stores or restaurants. But after a while it hit us: It's one thing to choose to eat exciting and delicious multicultural foods; it's a very different thing not to be able to go back to our normal Colombian dinners.
Searching for the tastes of home
We missed our arepas (grilled cornmeal flatbread, sometimes stuffed, that mostly is eaten as a replacement for bread), our bittersweet hot chocolate drink, our savory corn-based soups, and our other foods from home-like fried yucca and carne oreada (beef that is marinated with a sweet-and-savory rub and vinegar, then sun dried and grilled).
Adrianna and I started looking for "our kind of food.” And when we discovered the ethnic-food section at the grocery store and the local "Latin" food stores, it felt like we'd found a direct connection to our motherland. We found all kinds of familiar items, like sodas from our country; empanadas (Colombia's quintessential street food—fried wheat or corn turnovers filled with lots of different ingredients like beef, chicken, or cheese); all sorts of canned and fresh "Latin items"; and even arepas.
We picked up a few of those items and rushed to the register. That's when we first learned that things were not as good as they looked. Every "Latin" item comes with a mark-up. (For example, an American soda costs $1.25, but a Colombian one costs $2.) But we bought everything anyway. Finally we had found what we were looking for; we were not going to stop just because it was a little pricey.
We rushed home and couldn't wait to see our sons' faces when they saw what we had found. But when we all sat down together and started eating, we experienced our second blow. Nothing tasted the same as it did in Colombia. The labels on these "Latin" products indicated they were made with the same basic ingredients as in Colombia, but the truth was that most of them didn't taste like food in Colombia.
When we thought that was all the cultural shock we could take, we came to the final realization that in the United States, we had become part of that undefined multicultural ethnic group called "Latinos." It's not about Colombians, Venezuelans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Argentinians, Peruvians or Bolivians, to name several. "Latino" covers us all, which is ridiculous because we are all very different.
Different countries, different people
Where Americans see Latinos, we see people from different countries who speak very differently, eat very different foods and listen to very different music. In fact, the most dramatic difference has to do with the language. There are cases in which I would not understand what someone from another Spanish-speaking country is saying.
Even worse, I could be offended by someone or offensive to someone without even knowing it, because some words considered bad in one country are used quite innocently in another. Spanish speakers share some customs and values, and we can establish a connection with other Spanish speakers, but there are big differences among us. People from each Spanish-speaking country are proud of what differentiates them from other Spanish speakers.
Ultimately we decided to deal with our culture shock by cooking our own Colombian food at home and dropping out of the "Latinos" designation.
But we still also love and enjoy all of the good American, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Cuban and other food that this wonderful, multicultural state of Florida has to offer.
We ended up diving into the cultural melting pot of this country, got a little bit of everything, and came out ready to enjoy all of the cuisines and customs. The best part is that we figured out how to do this without losing our Colombian heritage and culture.
Edgardo Dangond received a master's degree in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is now the Technical Director for the master's program in Digital Journalism & Design.
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