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Why do I have to change?

NC Latin Americans proudly hold to their language and traditions


Alberto Vasquez wants his son to eat tortillas and beans, just like Dad did growing up in Guatamala. The boy, born in North Carolina, just wants to eat burgers and fries from McDonald's. Thus, the dilemma of the new immigrant family. But Hispanic immigrants refuse to abandon their native cultures without a struggle.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrants come to the United States, often maintaining strong ties to their countries of origin and nurturing in their children a love for their native culture and language. Hispanic parents want their kids to learn English, but they also want them to continue to speak in their mother tongue.

"I think it's important to teach them my language," says Guatamalan immigrant Juan Palacios, father of two. "That way, they know where they came from."

"I don't want them to be ashamed, never, about what they are, because it's nothing to be ashamed of," native Salvadoran Letty Cortes says of her four children. "I want them to be proud."

In 2002, the Pew Hispanic Center found that 72 percent of foreign-born Latinos spoke primarily Spanish and little English. Earning money for their families, not learning a new language, diet or culture, is the priority for first-generation Latinos, and most continue to speak the language of their parents.

"This is a country of immigrants, and most of the different cultures who have come usually try to preserve their heritage," says native Spaniard Conchy Farrell, who works as Spanish Language Program Coordinator for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public library. "We also understand that there's a need to integrate and for us to learn English, but I don't think one thing has to exclude the other."

Earlier this month, Farrell helped to organize a Latino arts festival, Con A de Arte ("A is for Art"), aimed at sharing Hispanic culture with the wider community. The festival honored the 400th centennial of the Spanish classic Don Quixote.

Latin musicians like Hermán Marin are trying to do their part to promote Hispanic culture and language. Last year, he and his Charlotte-based band, La Rúa, established Carlotan Rock, a Latin music festival they hope will be an annual event. Their independent album, Una Noche de Abril, features 12 original songs, all in Spanish. La Rúa was lucky enough to open a local show for the Texas-based English-language Latin rock band Los Lonely Boys, but Marin says La Rúa wants to preserve its roots by making music only in Spanish.

"We started with Spanish and we are not going to change that," he says. "I have always been doing music in Spanish, and why (do) I have to change it, if that is my way of expression?"

The members of La Rúa believe their art can speak to people, even those who can't understand the words.

Colombian painter Edwin Gil of Charlotte agrees. "I speak with my paintings," he says. "I can't speak very good English, but I paint and everybody understands."

Many immigrants not only work to transplant their culture into the United States, but also return frequently to their countries of origin and thus maintain a bi-national identity.Mexican immigrant Jose Gallegos recently brought his 14-year-old son to live with him in Raleigh, after more than a decade of seeing him only once a year. A Mexican citizen with a US Green Card, Gallegos works year-round as a North Carolina State University groundskeeper and returns to Mexico every Christmas to visit his wife and four children. Paradoxically, Gallegos has to leave his family in order to care for them, and his life will straddle the Rio Grande for as long as his children need his earnings. Eventually, he plans to retire back home.

"When I get (to be) an old man, I need to stay in my country," he says. "To die in my country is better."

It's not that Gallegos doesn't identify with the United States. For him and other Latinos, culture and language are not zero-sum games. They embrace both their Latin past and their Anglo present.

"I feel this is my country too, because I work here," says Gallegos. "I make money here for me and my family; this is my country."

Though his feet are firmly planted in North Carolina soil, Gallegos' boss Bill Beardall-Herrera remains Panamanian in other ways. With his auburn hair, freckled face and the hint of a Southern drawl, the Vietnam combat veteran could be mistaken for a man named Smith, and his American identity is defined in whole neither by his first two decades spent in Panama or the last three he's lived in North Carolina. In fact, his corner office at NC State in Raleigh displays his dual allegiances. A lonely three-inch long stars-and-stripes decal adorns the door; inside the office, ubiquitous US Marine memorabilia competes with indigenous Panamanian artwork, the flag of Beardall-Herrera's native country and an antique, black-and-white photograph of his maternal grandfather, Lino Clemente Herrera. She was Panama's first official flag-bearer following the nation's victorious war for independence from Colombia.

Speaking in the Spanish of his childhood, undiluted by an entire career lived in English, Beardall-Herrera sums up his dual identity: "I am American, but Panama is in my heart."