by Antonio Sacre
Growing up in a multicultural family
My dad is from Havana, Cuba, and my mom is of Irish descent from Boston, where I was born. We ended up living in a small town in Delaware. I didn’t realize either one of my parents had an accent until my first few days of kindergarten. When my dad spoke to me in Spanish, the kids would ask me what he was saying. When he spoke to me in English, they said he had a funny voice. When my mom spoke to me in her heavily Boston-accented English, they said she had a funny voice, too.
When I asked them about their funny voices, they laughed and said, “This is how we talk!”
Hiding my culture
Later on, in first grade, one of the teachers couldn’t say my name the way my dad and my Cuban family said it. When my family said it, it sounded like music, Antonio Bernardo Sacre, lyrical and powerful, but when she said it, it sounded like plates crashing. It made us all laugh, but inside, it unsettled me. I told my mom and dad I wanted a more American-sounding name, so I changed my name to Tony.
Then, after bullies made fun of me for speaking Spanish, I realized that no one else spoke Spanish at my school, so I did what many children of immigrants do to this day. I tried to hide my culture, and I refused to speak Spanish in public with my dad. Eventually, I stopped speaking it at home with him, too.
My parents realized before it was too late what a precious gift it was to be bilingual, and they shipped my brothers and me off to spend three weeks of our summer vacation with our Cuban grandmother and her two sisters in Little Havana in Miami. I had a three-week immersion into my Cuban language, culture, food, and community, and my grandmother told me stories and jokes that planted the seeds of the stories that many years later, I would share in my books and audio recordings worldwide.
Being a parent to multicultural children
Now, I’m a parent of two young children, ages 9 and 6. They are the second generation, and while my dad is still around, the old women who provided me with that family immersion into my Cuban culture are gone. We live in Los Angeles, a long way from the dense Cuban communities of Florida and New York. My wife and I have had to make a conscious effort to raise our children with a sense of where they come from on both sides (she has grandparents from Italy), and our parenting has become so much richer. Mostly, we focus on keeping them happy and healthy, but sometimes, we even get the laundry folded and eat something other than frozen pizza for dinner, and try to help our children realize the advantages and joy that come from being multicultural and bilingual.
How do we do it? The biggest choice we made was to send them to a dual-language immersion school where they spend half the day learning in English and the other half learning in Spanish. But in our home, we are raising multicultural children with stories, based on the following 5 tips:
5 tips for raising multicultural children
- See. Show them on a map or a globe all the places their grandparents and great-grandparents come from, and using any pictures of your relatives, spend a few minutes a month talking about one of them.
- Hear. Get tons of audio CDs from the library celebrating the music and stories from the cultures they come from. We also find some typical dances from our cultures on YouTube and try to learn to dance them with our children. It’s ridiculous and silly and fun. My daughter loves dancing salsa to old Celia Cruz recordings, and my son is learning how to swing dance to the 1940s crooners my wife’s Italian grandmother adored.
- Taste. Once a month, we try to cook a meal from one of our traditions together. The kids make a mess and really jam us up in the kitchen, but they get pretty excited to help. Ssomehow, it makes the meal tastier for them when they help us cook. We use cookbooks from the library to learn about and try new dishes.
- Smell. We take outings to places in cities that we visit that help them connect to their backgrounds. Many cities around the country have at least one Cuban bakery and one Little Italy. That leads us to explore the festivals and parades of other cultures, too.
- Touch. Get them holding books from the first time they can hold anything. Read them books from your cultures, read them books from other cultures, read them books from cultures similar to yours. Read them folk tales and legends, non-fiction and history. Have your local librarian help you find the books that are just right for the age of your child.
The power of storytelling
A lot of recent scientific research has proven the powerful effect that telling stories has on the cognitive abilities of emergent readers (http://www.jneurosci.org/content/38/44/9468) and the deeper connection that can develop in the family from sharing stories from the cultures we come from can do a world of good in fostering understanding and acceptance. For our family, our exploration of the cultures that made us is often just an excuse to dance, act silly, and eat some amazing food.
His tales of growing up bilingually in a Cuban and Irish-American household have inspired children worldwide to gather their own family stories and become storytellers themselves. Antonio’s stories have been published in award-winning books and audio recordings. His Professional Developments and Keynote addresses have helped educators teach writing to students from pre-Kindergarten through graduate school. Now his stories are being developed for film and television.