Lessons I Learned From My Hispanic Father

Lessons I Learned From My Hispanic Father

Like what you see? Get it straight to your inbox weekly! Sign up now.

I wasn’t always proud of my father, or my heritage. When I was young, I wanted nothing more than to be American.

I remember being in school and hearing my teachers call my name for roll, tripping over the unfamiliar name, shamefully raising my hand to confirm that, yes, “Andraayz Villar reeeal” was present. I wondered why my parents couldn’t have given me a “normal” name.

I wasn’t always proud of my father, or my heritage. When I was young, I wanted nothing more than to be American.

I remember hating that we spoke Spanish at home, being embarrassed whenever I would have my friends over the house, hearing my father ask them, in his broken English, if they wanted anything to eat- and cringing when they didn’t understand him, and he had to repeat himself.

I remember hating how he always talked about Cuba. I didn’t remember it at all. I was only two when my parents left, not more than the vaguest of memories available to me. My earliest memories are of being in the US, in the little house they still have in Union City, sharing the bedroom with my parents. I did not remember this foreign land, the land of the pueblos and campesinos and the scratchy record of “Guantanamera” he always played.

I remember leaving to college, and being excited that I was finally free of him: I was around Americans, people that spoke English, people that ate hamburgers and hot dogs and weren’t burdened by the strange, alien language of my father’s homeland or of the odd, bizarre customs that came along with it- only the briefest resurgences of shame when my parents would come to visit, knowing they had never read Steinbeck or Proust or Shakespeare.

I did not remember this foreign land, the land of the pueblos and campesinos and the scratchy record of “Guantanamera” he always played.

My youthful view of this softened somewhat once I left my teen years- certainly I was no longer ashamed of my father as I once had been- but my basic vow remained the same: I would never put my children through that. They would be American, through and through. And so they were- I raised them speaking English, raised them without teaching them Spanish. They are as American as apple pie.

And yet…

I was wrong. My father is a strong, patient, respectful man, unbowed, unbroken, and proud of his own heritage, showing me what it meant to be a good man.

I remember shame of my name in school, embarrassed my father picked such a name. But he was teaching me pride, pride in the name not only of my family but of my culture, a name chosen because it belonged to my great-grandfather.

I remember his inability to speak basic English, repeating himself over and over again to everyone he met. What he was teaching me was patience and perseverance: a man doing his best to acclimate to a land as foreign to him as Cuba was to me.

What he was teaching me was patience and perseverance: a man doing his best to acclimate to a land as foreign to him as Cuba was to me.

I remember his endless talks about Cuba, his memories of his friends and his family and his scratchy records. I thought it was boring and irrelevant talk from a man too uncultured to have other topics- but it was actually a man grieving a loss, a loss of everything he had known and loved in order to give his family a chance at a better life, and teaching me what it meant to sacrifice yourself that your family might live better.

I remember him excitedly visiting at school, giving bottles of malta to my friends and asking them all how I was doing and if I was being a good boy. I thought he was simply being a bore- but what I didn’t see was a man bursting with pride at the seams that his son had eclipsed him, that his son was learning and growing and doing well at school- teaching me the the ultimate fulfillment in life is to see your loved ones do well.

He was always proud of me, always loved me, never stopped believing in me even when I tried to break away from everything he was- his culture, his lessons, his values, even when he could see that I was embarrassed of him.

And that, above all, was one of the most important things he ever taught me. To never stop believing.

He was always proud of me, always loved me, never stopped believing in me even when I tried to break away from everything he was.

My father turned 80 last week. We had a wonderful time. My wife and I packed up the kids and drove to my parents’ house for lunch, the same house that I grew up in and that my parents have lived in for over 40 years. My mother made picadillo, fried platanos (maduros, even though the rest of the family are tostones lovers), and black beans with rice- all traditional food that my father shouldn’t be eating according to all his doctors. Considering he’s 80, however, and in relatively good health, I’m willing to give him a pass.

After lunch, as we all sat drinking coffee and talking, having serradura– his favorite dessert- I allowed myself to watch my father, speaking his (by now) very good English, laughing and talking with his grandchildren – my children, who speak almost no Spanish. They love Abuela and Abuelo, love going to visit, and my parents genuinely also enjoy the company of their nietos.

I am proud of my children and my father. But I am ashamed that I never taught my children Spanish, and ashamed that there was ever a time that I was not proud of him or of my heritage that he tried so hard to pass on. A time where I turned my back on him, and he never turned his back on me.

I am glad that my children seemed to have gotten the lesson that I took so long to learn- they are not ashamed of my father’s heavy accent, or his endless loops of Cuban music, that monolithic stereotype that dominated my perception of him for so long. They see only his deep laugh, the joy he still has of the world at 80, how he always dances with my mother whenever Celia Cruz comes on.

But they also don’t see what I see- that he dances slower than he used to, and to fewer songs. Not that it matters to him- he will salsa into the sunset whether he is 80, 90, or 100, using a walker if he has to.

But it matters to me. It matters that it took me so long to appreciate him, to appreciate everything he did for me- that I ever willingly cut my moments short with him.

But it matters to me. It matters that it took me so long to appreciate him, to appreciate everything he did for me- that I ever willingly cut my moments short with him.

I am going to tell him that. And I know what he will say. He will look at me and smile, shake his head, and say what he always says whenever I apologize to him:

“Ya pasó, Andrecito. Ya pasó.”

Because he forgave me before I even apologized- because he never stopped forgiving me.

  • roddy6667

    Why do you call him Hispanic? I can’t find Hispania on the map. He’s clearly Cuban.
    I don’t refer to my Irish great-grandfather as white English-speaking. He’s from Ireland and he’s Irish.