An Interview with Ms. Alices
by LaMar Torres
PANAMA, A COUNTRY RICH WITH HISTORY AND CULTURE
The Journey to America
I had to come to this country because my mother could no longer afford to keep me at home.
Describe the trip to the United States? (Feelings and Thoughts)
I was nervous about coming to this country because I had never been away from my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I knew my father had another family in the states with his new wife so I was not sure if I would get the same support. I was going from being the baby in the family to an adult that had to be responsible for the younger children (my sisters and brothers from his new wife).
Learning to Speak English
Had you studied English before coming to America since your father lived in the United States already, or did you learn English as you completed high school and transitioned into adulthood?
I heard my family speaking English to me as a child because my family worked near the Panama Canal. I never worried about learning to speak English although I could understand it because I knew I could speak to my mother and grandmother in Spanish. My family learned to speak English in order to get jobs working near around the Panama Canal. I did not learn to respond to people in English until I came to America.
When I came to this country I was in my last year of high school yet I was placed in the 10th grade because I did not speak English. In one year I went to 10th, 11th and 12th grade and I was tested on each of the grade levels. My stepmother's sister was a teacher so she was able to help understand what to do. She taught me in Spanish first then in English and I passed.
What was the most difficult challenge about learning English as a young adult?
It was difficult to learn to speak English although I could understand because the English being spoken in America was different to the broken English I learned in Panama. Learning to speak English was also difficult because every state seemed to have its own dialect and slang. Each time I went to a new place I had to learn the kind of English being spoken in that area of the country.
Similarities and Differences
The School Experience
How were your experiences at school in Panama alike or different than those you experienced in America?
The biggest difference between America and Panama was the language being spoken. In Panama they talked to me in Spanish and in the States the teachers spoke to me English. At that time teachers could use a ruler to discipline students in the classroom. That was not something I liked about school.
How was she able to overcome her concerns or fears of living in a new country so that she could adjust culturally?
My dad took care of me while I was in Panama in the United States. Once I got here I had a family waiting for me. He wanted to make sure all five of us were taken care of back home and in the states.
As you became more fluent with English how did your perception of Americans and their culture change or stay the same? Overtime, did it become easier to relate to Americans and their lifestyle?
In my country I was the baby of the family. I learned to cook and clean as young child by mother's side with the support of my grandmother and great grandmother as well.When I got to the United States I became the bigger sister and parent. Since I was used to cooking and cleaning I was often in charge of my younger brothers and sisters from my step-mother. It was not until I met and married my husband that I got see and experience more of America. Traveling around the country with the military taught me that not all Americans are selfish.
When people American or otherwise they assume that I am black and speak English only. Sometimes Spanish speaking people will speak Spanish in front of me without realizing I can understand what they are saying. It is not until I join the conversation that they realize like them I am a Spanish too. I have to remind them we come in all shades and hair textures. When American people here me speak they are surprised to learn that I speak any other language other than English. People always assume I am the anything but what I am. I am Panamanian.
I made the decision not to teach my children to speak and write in Spanish because I did not want them to struggle with learning to speak English. Even now I do not speak English perfect, I speak okay. It really took me a long time to learn and understand English.
My husband and I gave our daughter a quincearnera for her 15th birthday. That is the Spanish version of a Sweet 16 party.I still cook a lot of traditional Panamanian food for my family mixed with American food.
Think back to your time in American schools and give suggestions about what could have made you feel more welcomed or would have allowed you to have an easier transition into the school system.
I went to school in New York that students from all over the world so I could learn only English along my peers of all races. All of the Non-English speakers were grouped in one class and I think that was helpful. I think students that do not speak English should be in a separate classroom for a time so that can learn English while sharing their own language. We learned to dance, sing and speak English kind of like fame.
How are you able to balance with half of the family speaking one language and the other half of the family speaking another language?
My family in Panama speaks English because they live close to the Panama Canal. My children do not speak Spanish but they can understand what is being said.