Carolina De la Rosa Bustamante
Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
During the summer of 2009, by means a Travel Enrichment Grant, I conducted a project in New York City that consisted of interviewing Colombian immigrants about their experiences in the United States. My goal was to explore the links between the construction of a cultural identity and bilingualism.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived to Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood blooming with Colombians, was how familiar it looked. Most of the advertisement was in Spanish, the colors of the Colombian flag were painted on plenty of posters, walls, t-shirts, etc. The Northern Boulevard, between 93rd and 90th street had everything from ingredients for typical Colombian meals, such as arepas and empanadas, to popular brands of underwear and clothing sold in my country. When interacting with locals you were expected to speak Spanish, not English; which was actually very relevant for the answers I received from the participants.
I spent 8 days in NYC and spoke with 22 Colombians. I interviewed people with whom I had arranged meetings ahead of time, but also with workers from the restaurants and shops that agreed to talk with me about their experiences on the spot. I put together a set of questions that allowed me to learn specific data like how long the interviewees had been in the U.S. and where and how they had learned English, if they spoke it. I also got to know what their social circles were like, and what language they most commonly used to communicate with them. We had the conversation in Spanish or English, whichever they felt most comfortable speaking. In order to hear directly from my interviewees and hear what they thought and how they perceived themselves in the United States there was no set structure to our conversations.
Some of the people whom I talked to were surprisingly open and were very interested in discussing their views on bilingualism. Most agreed that speaking Spanish was one of the main ways in which they tried to preserve their cultural identities as Colombians. Those participants who were parents emphasized the important value of language when transmitting their native culture to their children. They said that if they wanted their kids to stay in touch with extended family back at home, it was crucial that they spoke Spanish. Three of my interviewees were under twenty years old, and regarding the same matter, the three of them said they wished to know Spanish better than they did and they were interested in exploring more of Colombian culture. Except for two people, all my interviewees said they considered themselves Colombian.
As a whole, the experience was enriching in a personal and intellectual way. Being a Colombian abroad myself, I very much enjoyed talking with people from my country about what it is like for them to be away from home for so long. It seems to me that when you choose to live in a different culture, you inevitably leave a bit of yourself behind to give way to other influences, customs and people. This brings about processes that you negotiate within yourself and with your new and old surroundings. They allow you (or perhaps make you, depending on how it is looked at) to recreate and transform yourself constantly.