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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

ĀteaJanuary 6, 2023

Embracing the inbetween cultures of my Puerto Rican, Pākehā, Māori family

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Summer read: Balancing the Puerto Rican culture she grew up with and the Māori and Pākehā cultures her kids also inherited has been a parenting challenge for Elisa Rivera – but she’s learning to find the beauty in that balance.

First published November 2022

What’s more important for my kids – their Spanish heritage or their Māori heritage? 

This is the question I struggled with since my son Milo was born in 2017. I was naturally overwhelmed, as most parents are, with the arrival of a cute chubby potato with huge adorable brown eyes to look after and keep alive. But above all else, I felt ill-equipped for how I was going to teach him to stand in and be proud of both his Puerto Rican and Māori heritage. I am Puerto Rican, living in New Zealand, distanced from my own community on the other side of the world.

I don’t have any Puerto Rican family here in Aotearoa, and there is no one on my husband’s side of the family that I can lean on to learn more about the iwi my son is a part of: Te Āti Awa, Taranaki, Ngāti Te Whiti. Equipping Milo with the knowledge about either side of his brown history felt solely up to me.

Growing up in California, the Spanish language surrounded me. Both of my parents, born in Puerto Rico, are fluent and always spoke Spanish in the house. I’ve been told I solely spoke Spanish until I started school. I remember Saturday mornings being filled with sounds of salsa and merengue. This was also our cue to my sisters and I that it was time to complete our chores, a tradition I still uphold today. We watched Sabado Gigante, a Spanish variety show on Saturday nights. My parents had parties where people danced and played instruments and sang. We had a community. But somewhere along the way the language sadly left me. Speaking Spanish at primary school in the 80s was not embraced. So of course, I slowly shoved the language away and only let it have life at home. 

In 1989, when I was eight years old, I went to Puerto Rico with my mom for a full three-month summer break. I came back with a full puku from the fried plantains and arroz con pollo and other delicious goodies my Abuela fed me. I watched all the Spanish soap operas at the time and understood the dramatic (and probably waaay too mature for an eight-year-old) plots. I could converse in Spanish with my family! But once I came back to California and school was back in session, I lost the language again. I look back on this time with such joy and nostalgia and feel so fortunate to have experienced this full immersion into my culture. If only I could have kept a hold on it.

I can understand when my mom and sisters use Spanish to gossip about someone else in public on the sly, which is always funny. I can sing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Spanish. I can comprehend a conversation if someone is speaking slowly. And you’re goddamn right I still love a salsa boogie. But, I have a constant shame hanging over me because I can’t speak the language. My practised line; “I can understand, but I can’t converse,” is usually met with a knowing nod that I only interpret as “Shame, girl”. 

By no longer knowing how to speak Spanish, and never learning to speak te reo Māori, am I now placing this same burden, this shame, on my son?

I first visited Aotearoa in 2007. My plan was to take a break from “real” life, spend three months in this gorgeous country on a working holiday visa and head back home to reality. But as the story goes, I met a bunch of incredible humans here, one of them my now husband of 10 years, Dan. I came back in 2008 and became a permanent resident.

Dan and I got married, bought an apartment in Auckland and then after many years of wishing and hoping, we got pregnant with Milo. 

When it was time for Milo to go to primary school we struggled with whether we should enrol him in the bilingual Te Reo immersion (Te Whānau Awahou o Te Uru Karaka) class or the English medium class. One of the requirements for the bilingual medium was that we as parents must fully commit to taking a Te Reo journey ourselves and speak it fluently. It makes sense. As I once heard Te Kuru Dewes say: Te Reo starts in the home. I wholeheartedly believe that, but how could I fully commit to Te Reo when I haven’t even fully committed to Spanish, the language spoken to me since I was born?

We decided that if we were going to devote our time to teaching our kids a second language it would be with the language at least one of us had some experience with, Spanish. I felt guilty. How could I be depriving my son of a language that he is so closely tied to? How could I be so selfish to not commit to learning Te Reo so he could experience an incredible and valuable educational experience that is so rare?

Milo started school in the Auraki – English Medium Pathway in January 2022. By term two he was thriving and loving school. He was more confident with a pen, he loved drawing dinosaurs, he was really excited about what I only know as the “top playground” and meeting so many new friends. By then some of my guilt had gone away. 

Then one night we began our normal gathering around the coffee table for dinner, Milo’s sister Desi to his right, Dan, my husband, to his left and me across from him. Before we were all about to tuck in he asked, “can I say a karakia?” Dan and I looked at each other surprised but excited. “Of course!”

Milo began. “Whakapiri ō ringa ringa, kapi ō karu, tūpou te māhunga ki raro, me inoi tātou…”

He was confident, he was happy and he had mana. We all felt it.

I was teary and proud. He finished with “thank you, thank you very much” a la Elvis Presley because he’s also a dork. It seems kinda simple, but it wasn’t until then that I realised we can have both. We can embrace the importance of our Puerto Rican heritage and our Māori heritage. We don’t have to prioritise one over the other. Even though Milo is in the English medium class at school, his kaiako are speaking to him in Te Reo every day. He sees Te Reo all around him. 

Milo loves teaching his parents about atua Māori. His favourite is Tāne Mahuta (Image: Supplied)

He’s currently teaching me about the Māori gods. I just learned the god of volcanoes and earthquakes is called Rūaumoko. He’s learning a dance to ‘Poi Ē’ – he even added his own wave variation at the end which he is super proud of – and is teaching me the lyrics. He taught me the rhyme to remember the names of all the Matariki stars, which strangely sounds a lot like The Macarena, a Spanish song! 

His sister, Desi, corrected me the other day when I said “Let’s sing ‘Tutira’,” and she said, “It’s ‘Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi’, mum.” She’s two. I taught my kids how to count to ten in Spanish and in turn they taught me how to count to ten in Te Reo. We describe our feelings using Māori words. We read bilingual stories before bedtime so we can learn together.

I now feel an even more special bond to Aotearoa. I too have island blood, and it’s been amazing to learn how close the Puerto Rican and Māori cultures align. Our vowel sounds are the same. We love our kai and use it not just for nourishment but for emotional healing, for both celebration as well as commiseration – to connect. By being exposed to te ao Māori through my kids and my place of employment I’m learning more about myself, about my own Puerto Rican heritage, about my own pepeha. I feel lucky.

I’m fortunate to work with a company which recognises Te Tiriti o Waitangi as New Zealand’s founding document and the partnership and equity it embodies. We discuss what it means for us as a business but also as individuals. I am reading, or listening, or speaking with my community about this often. I’m learning about tikanga, have had an emotional wānanga at a marae, have attended a few pōwhiri, indulged in many delicious boil-ups and hāngī and sang waiata with my colleagues. My confidence is growing every day. 

In July of this year, we spent the school holidays in California with my family. It had been four years since we last saw them and – apart from it being 40 degrees and Milo making it very clear that he didn’t like the weather in “Mami’s country” – it was perfect. We arrived to the warmest of welcomes. Milo and Desi spent time with their Welo and Wela (grandparents) and their Titis and Tios (aunts and uncles) and Primos (cousins). They impressed everyone with the Spanish words and I could see the pure elation on my parents’ faces when I asked Desi how to say shoes in Spanish and she shouted “zapatos!” They brought such delight with their silly jokes and funny accents. They are absorbing more than I gave them credit for. 

Are we fluent? No. Are we perfect? No. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. Did I say “Put the kai in your boca.” (put the food in your mouth) in a strange mashup of Spanish/English and Māori the other day during a meal? Yes. 

My kids get to attend a kura where the native language is championed at all levels. Our kids are taught to embrace all of themselves. Our kura and kaiako nurture the enthusiasm of the tamariki, they value diversity and celebrate success. And my kids are teaching me to do that. There’s no guilt. We’re all learning together, and that is so ridiculously special to me.

Keep going!