Young Mexicans navigate border between cultures

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

— The dark-eyed child did not speak a word of English on the day he entered first grade at Clinton Elementary School.

As with so many children of Mexican immigrants, Spanish was Pablo Carranza's first language, even though he was born in the United States.

In February 1986, young Pablo was paired with another first-grader, who tried to tell him what was going on in class. Within four months, Pablo was speaking English, and it quickly became his dominant tongue.

He spoke English at school and with his brother and sister. At home, he spoke a combination of English and Spanish with his father. For many years, his mother understood only Spanish.

Today, 32-year-old Carranza is a bilingual lawyer who represents Spanish-speaking immigrants. The Janesville attorney said he's worked hard to be fluent in his first language and to connect with the culture of his Mexican roots.

"Not a week goes by that people tell me I am so lucky to speak Spanish," Carranza says. "But when we were kids, we did not want our mom to speak Spanish with us when our friends were around."

Like other children of Mexican immigrants, Carranza navigates an intricate and often porous border between two cultures.

Sometimes, he feels apart from both.

Other times, he embraces the advantages of each.

"Americans look at me and think I am Mexican, but I don't fit in in Mexico," Carranza said. "Mexicans look at me as American, but I don't completely fit in here, either."

His coming of age in Rock County reveals how a generation loosens its sense of identity from the old country and binds to the new.

For Carranza, education made the difference.

Throughout much of high school, teachers told him he could do better in his studies, but he didn't appreciate their advice. His father, who worked 12-hour days in the nursery and garden business, went to school until sixth grade in Mexico. His mother finished fourth grade.

"My parents were inexperienced about education," Carranza said. "They had no point of reference to realize how important it was."

Instead of going to college, Carranza figured he would study a trade, maybe construction. He decided he wanted a different life after a gathering with older friends who had graduated from high school. They told him their hard-labor jobs held little promise for advancement.

"I could see by the looks on their faces that they were miserable," Carranza said. "I kicked myself into high gear and figured out how to get into college."

He attended UW-La Crosse to study finance because he had friends there. While in college, he studied two semesters in Mexico in 2000 and 2001. He attended the prestigious Universidad de Las Americas in Puebla, the equivalent of an Ivy League school in the United States.

Carranza soon realized how poor his Spanish was.

"While I looked Hispanic, I couldn't speak proper Spanish," he said. "My roommates poked fun at me all year because of it. Many students even spoke better English than I did. At a minimum, most spoke three languages, maybe five. They knew more about American social issues than I did."

In retrospect, the most eye-opening thing he learned abroad was "how ignorant Americans are about the rest of the world," Carranza said.

He also experienced Mexican culture for the first time.

"I never learned it at home because my parents were never part of it," he said. "Their culture was getting up early to do back-breaking work. In Mexico, my parents were on the brink of malnourishment, and they focused on survival. They were not educated in the culture of the rest of the country."

His mother only knew how to cook beans as Carranza was growing up because that is the only food her family could afford in Mexico.

"We got so sick of eating beans," Carranza recalls. "My mom didn't know how to cook all the things at the grocery store. While shopping, we would pull down boxes of cereal and other things that we could figure out how to eat. In middle school, I began eating at the homes of friends and just loved meatloaf."

Poverty also kept his parents from celebrating Christmas in Mexico. He and his brother and sister began telling them about U.S. holidays.

"We told them we wanted a Christmas tree because there was a lot of pressure to fit in," Carranza said. "We also wanted a Thanksgiving meal. My mom didn't know what to cook, so as an 8-year-old, I would try to tell her. I wanted to be able to say in school on the Monday after Thanksgiving that we ate a Thanksgiving meal."

When Carranza returned home from his studies in Mexico, he was motivated to keep learning. He wanted a career that would earn good money.

"For a long time, I had that American mindset that success is measured in salary," he said.

As part of his major, he was required to take a business law class. Carranza enrolled in constitutional law and got the highest grade. The professor asked if he had ever considered attending law school.

With the help of merit-based scholarships and student loans, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2005. In the last year of law school, he met his wife, Angela, whose father is from Mexico. She works as a surgical technician.

After law school, Carranza started his own practice. He took cases from Rock County with Spanish-speaking clients. He traveled to Janesville from Madison three times a week. He and Angela bought a comfortable home in Madison.

"But we both had to work so hard to maintain our lifestyle," Angela said.

They moved to Janesville in 2010 to simplify their lives.

Angela has a daughter, Kaitlin, from a previous marriage. Their family consists of Kaitlin, 12, who attends Marshall Middle School, and Luci, 4.

Both parents want their children to be fluent in Spanish, but they want them to speak other languages, as well.

"I hope we get them to embrace many different cultures," Carranza said. "We like diversity and want the girls to experience a lot of it."

He and Angela believe in hanging on to the best of both American and Mexican cultures.

"I remember learning about immigrants," Angela said. "I remember learning that America was the melting pot, and every vegetable in the stew was a country. It was so wonderful that all these cultures melted together. But nowadays, it is the 'tossed salad theory.' We don't want things to blend together as much."

Carranza has visited Michoacan, where his parents lived before coming to the United States. At the time, his Spanish was not very good.

"They called me 'el pocho,'" he said. "It is a derogatory word for a person of Mexican descent who does not speak Spanish or who does not speak it well. I was flat out teased. They went out of their way to make fun of how badly I spoke Spanish."

Mexico is not the only place where he was teased. At home, his peers gave him a hard time.

"Growing up in Clinton, I was always 'the Mexican,'" he said. "Back then, there were no others. No matter how hard I tried to fit in, I was always different."

He said he did not feel singled out.

"I would be nave to say that there was no prejudice," Carranza said. "But I'm not so quick to label it racism. Yes, I was teased a lot because I am Mexican, but one thing I noticed early on is that I wasn't the only one being teased."

Angela also was teased growing up.

"I probably felt it more than Pablo," she said. "For us, we have lived as Americans. But we are also Mexican, and we don't really fit in anywhere. When I go to Mexico, they say I am an outsider."

Pablo said he is trying to find his identity.

"I have always been reminded that I am different," he said. "In Clinton, I was 'the Mexican.' In Mexico, I am 'el pocho.' So I can't say what I am. But I am finally starting to figure it out."

He strives for something beyond the labels.

"Being American does not make me smarter or better. Being Mexican doesn't make me more cultured. Eventually, when someone asks who I am, I want to be able to answer that I am, above all, a good person."

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

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