Student learns about her roots during semester in Mexico

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

— Karen Cano returned to UW-Whitewater last month with a deeper understanding of what it means to be Mexican.

The 19-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants flew to Mexico in late July as a foreign exchange student.

"I know it seems kind of odd," she said, "but they considered me an international student."

Cano of Delavan studied five months at Technolgico de Monterey in Guadalajara, her father's hometown.

"It was cool because that is where my family is from," she said during an interview before leaving. "People say to me, 'Why not go somewhere else?' I want to go there to learn about myself and to learn about my culture."

At the end of the semester, she found herself asking deeper questions about her roots.

"Coming to Mexico, I thought that I might somehow resolve my 'identity crisis issue,'" she said. "Unfortunately, I think I have become more confused.

"Most Mexicans accept me perfectly fine. But I did have some tell me that I am not Mexican because I was born in the United States. This is difficult because when I'm in the United States, I don't always feel like I fit in perfectly, either."

Cano was intent on learning about her Mexican roots.

She studied Mexican literature in Spanish, her first language, and Mexican history. She kept a diary about her Mexican experiences. Now, she plans to connect the dots between Mexican and U.S. cultures.

"It will make me more open about understanding different people," she said.

Like many young Americans who grew up in Mexican families, she is bicultural and bilingual. Most Hispanics seem to have a stronger cultural connection with their home countries and make the effort to keep the language and traditions alive, she said.

"Unfortunately, through the generations, this is becoming weaker," Cano said. "Growing up, I would speak only Spanish at home and English at school. As time goes on, I feel like this has changed because now I speak to my siblings in English and my parents in Spanish. I have felt myself losing some of the Spanish, which is the main reason why I wanted to spend time in a Spanish-speaking country."

When Cano has her own family, she plans to teach her children Spanish.

"I hope to make them understand the importance of being bilingual and keeping the language," she said. "Usually, other Latinos from my generation forget the importance of knowing Spanish. Often, they do not teach it to their kids. I see this even in my own family. My nephews do not all speak Spanish. The ones that do speak Spanish know little. It is quite sad for me because it makes it difficult for them to communicate with their own grandmother."

As far back as she can remember, Cano has wanted to go to college.

"My parents encouraged me," she said. "I ended up going to UW-Whitewater because it is close. I also think its educational program is excellent. Now, my parents tell me: 'College first. College first.' My dad says, 'Don't even think about getting married.'"

Cano has been living at home and commuting to UW-Whitewater, where she is a sophomore. Her semester in Mexico was the first time she was away from home.

She is studying to become a secondary Spanish teacher. She also wants to teach children learning English as a second language. Her older brother, Joab, is in his third year at UW-Whitewater.

Because her parents are immigrants, she understands how hard it is to adjust to a new language and a new culture. She believes that discrimination is the biggest unnecessary challenge that immigrants face.

"There is so much social separation," she said. "It was painfully obvious in high school, when I could literally see a table of Mexicans and another one of white people in the cafeteria there were few tables where both mixed."

She seeks understanding.

"Most immigrants would just like more tolerance," Cano said. "It is not easy leaving everything behind. It is not any easier coming into a completely different world. They are human plain and simple, and they should be treated as humans."

Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 20, 2012

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