Staying in Touch

Susan Houtman, right, came to the United States as a child but never lost the language of her homeland.

When my mother came to the United States, she never intended to stay. She grew up in the Netherlands and, when she was 8, her mom and dad moved her and her three siblings to Long Beach, California. Despite occasional trips back to Europe courtesy of Shell Oil, her dad’s employer, she missed familiar places, her friends, her grandparents.

Kids in Long Beach didn’t understand why she wasn’t overjoyed to be in America. Europe, after all, was still recovering from a war. It was 1927.

As Mom finished high school, threats of another war grew abroad. She never did go back to live in Holland. She became a citizen of the United States, married a Dutch sailor and eventually bought a home in which to raise her family. She always spoke her native language with her parents, but at work and in the community, it was English. She was determined that would be my language, too.

I’ve heard similar stories from other descendants of European immigrants. Many are unable to talk with their extended families in their ancestral language. We may have old photos of great-aunts and great-uncles and great-grandparents at dinner parties in unfamiliar places. We may have even gone back to see the homes they lived in. But we’ve lost the language link to the culture that nourished our families. Now, we visit as tourists.

Susana Rivera-Mills is writing another version of this story. Her research on language and cultural ties shows how people from Mexico, El Salvador and other Spanish-speaking countries stay connected to their past (see “A Place of Belonging”). Whether families trace their roots back one generation or five, they often retain an identity linked to their traditions. Her work can help us understand this complex society we call America.

My mother had her eyes focused on the future. America is the only home my sisters and I have ever known. Fortunately, most of our Dutch relatives speak English. We stay in touch.

 

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