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HomeFeaturesHow My Midwestern Neighborhood Became ‘Mi Barrio’

How My Midwestern Neighborhood Became ‘Mi Barrio’

Lucía Osa-Melero battles for early childhood biliteracy in Pittsburgh

When I found out that I was pregnant with my first child in the US and I realized that my baby would be born in this country, I immediately experienced a strong feeling of nostalgia for my mother, my father, and my neighborhood friends. They live in an ancient downtown street in a small city by the Mediterranean Sea. I was born and raised in a very close-knit small town near Valencia, Spain, where neighbors more often than not become family.

Will my baby be surrounded by this type of Spanish neighborhood closeness? Will I get to enjoy the supportive network of neighbors that my parents enjoyed while raising three children? Will my husband and I be able to pursue our careers and still raise a healthy, happy, and bilingual child? My mind was spinning and spinning until I forced it to stop. “We will work it out. It has to work out,” I told myself.
At the moment, I am an associate professor of Spanish at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. My husband is an English-monolingual musician from Dayton, Ohio. He spends an average of six months a year traveling around the US and Canada with his band. We had our daughter before our careers actually took off. Soon after we had her, I got pregnant with our son. We didn’t have much financial stability, but at least we managed to buy a small house in a family-friendly neighborhood and adopt a very loyal shelter dog. We didn’t want to give up anything. We wanted it all: family, careers, stability, and personal time. Why not? While my parents, siblings, and friends are in Spain, my husband’s parents and one of his siblings are relatively close to us, in Ohio. We used to live in Austin, Texas, before I got pregnant with my daughter, but when I was offered a college tenure-track position in Pittsburgh, we made the decision to support my career as a language professor and move close to my in-laws. That way, they could help with the baby and I could focus on my research.

I wanted to raise a baby who would be bilingual. I wanted to move to Pittsburgh to start my tenure-track position. I also wanted to buy a house, meet new friends, go out, live new experiences, enjoy nature, and travel as much as I could. Except for a career in teaching, my husband wanted the same things. His world is playing music. He had finished his masters in jazz studies at the University of Texas, and he was excited to play music and continue a career as a performing artist. We agreed that moving from Austin to Pittsburgh was the right thing to do at that moment. We moved to a city where we had never been before, and we bought a house in an unknown neighborhood where we knew nobody. The houses were old, charming, small, and somewhat affordable. There were a lot of trees in the neighborhood and shaded brick streets. There was a city park right in front of our house. It was not the street with the apartment buildings and a big inviting plaza where I grew up, but it was close to my work and not too far from an airport, so my husband could easily fly in and out. The neighbors were very friendly and always willing to help.

Very soon we discovered that our neighborhood was extremely monolingual. Back in 2012 when we arrived, everybody’s first language on our street was English. I knew that moving from Austin to Pittsburgh was not going to be helpful for my children’s bilingualism, but I hadn’t expected it to be as difficult as it was. I was sad and disappointed with the situation. In Austin, Spanish is heard on every corner. Finding Spanish-speaking families in Austin is as easy as going out for a walk. To find Spanish-speaking families in Pittsburgh, I had to travel several miles to a different neighborhood, where some Latino families had settled, opened a couple stores, and attracted other Latino families. With the Midwest weather and the city geography (many extreme hills), Pittsburgh is not an easy place to travel around with a one-year-old and start conversations with fellow neighbors.

I tried to make connections with my Spanish-speaking colleagues who had children, but the ages of their children didn’t align very well with mine and neither did our schedules. I connected with a public school in Pittsburgh with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking kids to work with them for a community engagement project for one of my Advanced Spanish classes. Still, it was not enough for own my children to playfully connect with kids they didn’t see regularly. Our trips to Spain were the only time when my children were constantly exposed to Spanish. We went to Spain every 18 months to see my family and friends, and it really helped my kids with their language development, at least with their listening skills. However, soon after landing back in the States, they would go back to near-constant English despite my efforts to speak only Spanish with them. I just could not make it happen alone. My kids were growing up monolingual.

Years went by and our professional needs became more pressing. My husband’s traveling schedule became more hectic, and I had to focus on my research and service to prepare my tenure portfolio. My neighborhood was still young and friendly, and my children became good friends with many of the local kids. In order for me to teach and work when my husband was traveling, we had to share a nanny with a family near us. My son and my neighbor’s daughter spent days and days together under the watch of a caring and professional nanny. Sometimes they would be at my house, other times at my neighbor’s house. Soon after we started the nanny share, a neighborhood family from Finland also wanted to bring their one-year-old to our nanny share. I was very happy that Finnish was our new friend’s first language and our kids were being exposed to it, even if it was just a tiny bit. It was the first time that I noticed another language enriching our street. Every spring and summer, children would play outside and make friends, and that meant that the parents also chatted outside, had a drink or a coffee in the corner park, and naturally developed friendships. Gradually, the families started to connect and bond. With the bond came the dinner parties, the excursions, the concerts, the sleepovers, the care, the love, and most importantly the emotional and physical support. I kept on speaking Spanish to my kids, but it didn’t seem to be enough. They were still incredibly monolingual.

Inadvertently, we all became each other’s family and began to trust each other (sometimes more than we trusted our own families). We were always there to help each other. For instance, when a mom had to deliver her second child at 11:00 p.m., some of us went to her home to stay with her first child, who was happily asleep. To this day, we water each other’s plants, walk each other’s dogs, share clothes, cars, food, meds, tools, dinners, camping trips, vacation spots, happy stories, and sad and painful stories. When a storm comes and the power is out, we all go to the house where there is some power and we hang out and wait. When the pandemic hit, we self-isolated, but we were all emotionally there for each other every day. The group of families has become so tight and empathetic with each other that it is hard to imagine our careers and family lives without this resilient network.

Recently, a new family from Colombia moved onto the street, with two very young children and two grandparents. The young parents are pediatric doctors at a children’s hospital with crazy irregular schedules. When the caregiving grandparents are overwhelmed with their grandchildren, they ask for help. The parents’ unpredictable schedules do not really help with the routine that young kids crave. They speak Spanish, and I see in them and in their relationships the togetherness and tightness that to this day I still miss from my street in Spain. Ever since the Colombian family moved in, things just started to change for the better on so many levels. My children became close friends with their children, and they spend time with the Colombian grandparents, playing, eating, watching TV, caring for gardens, and making mischief. Spanish is spoken naturally in that household. Consequently, when they are hanging out outside, it is also spoken in their front yard and the corner park. Grandma doesn’t understand English very well, so when my children need to communicate with her, they are forced to speak Spanish. If they need a snack from her or need to tattletale, they have to do it in Spanish. Otherwise, it doesn’t happen.
Soon after the Colombian family moved in, our good friends in the nanny share moved to Puerto Rico for work reasons. Initially, they were going to work there for just one year after the Hurricane María tragedy, but work there moved very slowly, and they ended up staying two consecutive years. Their young children, now five and three, returned from the Puerto Rico stay with pretty advanced Spanish, especially their listening skills. After their Puerto Rican experience, their parents had also improved their Spanish and understood most everything. Not only did the parents’ language skills improve, but so did their motivation to learn about foreign languages and foreign cultures. When they returned to the neighborhood from their stay in Puerto Rico, this family brought a different spin to our close community of friends. They brought awareness and initiative toward Spanish and the beautiful Spanish-speaking countries. Since they have returned, two other families have also jumped on the Spanish train and registered their children in a school where Spanish is valued and taught. In addition, the parents have even made modest efforts to learn Spanish themselves.

Ten years after we first moved onto a street where neighbors were mostly monolingual, it is apparent that things have changed for the better. I am not sure if it was luck, destiny, a combination of unique conditions, or a little bit of everything. When I look back at my initial worry and disappointment about raising children in a mainly monolingual neighborhood, I just smile and tell myself, “I am glad I persisted. Language and culture, as I constantly share with my students, are fluid, dynamic, and always evolving.” People, homes, and neighborhoods are all in the same boat. My neighborhood evolved, not only toward foreign language awareness and cultural diversity but also toward connection and closeness. It became a type of barrio where you find the support to raise well-rounded children, pursue your career goals, and still enjoy good dinners with friends in a bilingual and bicultural way.

Lucía Osa-Melero, from Valencia (Spain) is an associate professor at Duquesne University where she teaches community-engaged Spanish classes. She has published textbooks centered on the learning of Spanish within the community. Her research focuses on cooperative practices in the language classroom; pre-reading activities, inductive teaching, and language learning through community engagement.

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