Growing Up Latino

Latino children share how they’re figuring out their place in the United States while making their way toward adulthood.

Manuela, Isabella, Joshua, Manuel y Amanda.

More than a quarter of children growing up today in the United States identify as Latino, a percentage expected to grow in coming decades.

They live across the United States, from smaller suburbs like Commerce City, Colo., to metropolises like New York City. Some hail from families that have spent generations laying roots in this country, while for others, the U.S. journey has just begun. Around 95 percent of Latino children were born in the United States — their lives inherently American and Latino.

Growing up Latino includes elements of life that all Latinos share and others that are distinct. It means swaying to mariachis or jumping to Bad Bunny or doing a two-step to Florida Georgia Line. It means speaking Spanish fluently, partly or not at all. It means watching American sitcoms to drown out abuela’s telenovelas — or watching them with her.

But being a Latino child in the United States can also mean code-switching when you walk out the front door. Hearing your name mispronounced by strangers. Being considered a foreigner even if the United States is the only country you’ve ever known or is the one you live in now.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, The Washington Post sought out the voices and stories of five children to describe what it is like to grow up Latino in the United States in 2022.

My experience can’t be summed up into a neat and perfect box.”

— Manuela

Growing up, Manuela De Armas wanted nothing more than to change her name. She was one of four Venezuelan students at her elementary school in a South Florida suburb. And she didn’t like feeling different.

Then her mother enrolled her in a summer camp with mostly Venezuelan kids. For the first time, she didn’t feel singled out. It gave her a different perspective on what it means to be Hispanic — so much so that five years later, Manuela now leads her school’s Latinx Club and is constantly brainstorming ways to raise awareness about Venezuelan culture.

“Connecting with people who had that similar background and traditions made me realize ‘Yeah, I’m Venezuelan, and I’m really proud of it,’ ” she said.

Days usually begin with a warm arepa, a corn-flour flatbread that is a staple of Venezuelan cuisine. Conversations with parents, grandparents and her older sister are almost exclusively in Spanish. At home, other members of the Venezuelan diaspora and visiting relatives often bring back memories of the country that once was — one Manuela never truly experienced.

“I don’t have enough memories of Venezuela for me to truly miss it,” she said.

It’s that lack of memories that can sometimes feel isolating. Having lived most of her life in the United States, she is sometimes perceived as too American — or gringa — by her Venezuelan loved ones. For her American friends, she seems too Latina.

“People put me in different boxes all the time, so you end up having no clue as to what you identify as,” said Manuela, 16. “Because the truth is, my experience can’t be summed up into a neat and perfect box.”

Navigating that double life can be challenging. There are frustrating offhand comments from some relatives that ignore the hardships of learning a language and staying fluent in it. There is the fear of losing touch with her family’s country — the one she last visited nearly a decade ago. There is also the desire to feel like she belongs in the nation she has called home for 13 years.

“It’s a hard balance,” Manuela said. “But being in Miami, I’m really lucky to be in a place where I can experience being American and Latino at the same time.”

“Con todo tu corazón.”

— Isabella

Isabella does not know another Cuban girl her age in Omaha. She is growing up 1,500 miles away from the land her grandparents once called home — Cuba. For her dad, raising her to feel like a cubanita is a top priority.

The 7-year-old goes to a bilingual school, though most of her classmates who are Latino are Mexican American, not Cuban. He feeds her a mix of traditional Cuban and American food, from chicken strips and hamburgers to platanitos and picadillo. On the afternoons when Isabella turns on the TV, many of the shows are dubbed in Spanish — a function her dad discovered on the remote and has kept permanent to help her learn the language.

Every night before bed, she clasps her small hands together and prays out loud in Spanish. Around the house, reggaetón and salsa fill the speakers — but so does country music duo Florida Georgia Line. Latino and American influences coexist in their home, in a quiet subdivision near Omaha’s city center — a far cry from Miami, where her father grew up.

“Something special about me is my name is Isabella, but some people call me Bella and in Spanish, that means bella” — or beautiful, she said proudly.

She speaks Spanish conversationally but still stumbles over it, mixing up her verbs or referring to a dance as a “bailo” instead of a “baile.” She talks mostly to her little brother in English but loves to call him “tonto” — or silly — when he is acting bothersome.

While some of the Cuban influence in the household comes naturally, her parents have also been intentional about keeping it alive.

Her father, Albert Varas, was used to going about his daily life in English in Omaha until Isabella was born. It was then when he realized he needed to only speak to her in Spanish if he wanted to keep the language alive in his family.

“The more that time passes by, the more that she just talks to me in Spanish, you know? It’s not like I’m pulling teeth,” he said.

He hopes to take her and her little brother to Cuba some day. But until then, he watches her grow up in a city much different from his hometown of Miami, where the Cuban language and culture thrive.

Isabella says there are a few things that her dad tells her every day. One of them is right before she goes to bed.

He will say “Cómo papi te quiere?” How does daddy love you?

And she will reply: “Con todo tu corazón.” With all of your heart.

And then there’s one more phrase she hears from him a lot, she adds.

“Pórtate bien” — behave.

“It’s that little spark that you need sometimes.”

— Joshua

Born and raised in New York, Joshua Reyes grew up surrounded by a large Dominican population in a neighborhood where speaking Spanish, dancing bachata and eating mangú were the norm.

Then five years ago, Joshua, 14, and his mom, sister and uncle moved to Allentown, Pa. — parting ways with New York’s fast-paced life and with the cultural bubble that made it easy to feel at home.

“It’s hard to not really have as much people anymore that you relate to,” he said. “But now I’m kind of getting into the gist of it. I started meeting other Latinos but also making friends with more White people. I’m really seeing that barrier breaking down.”

Though his family has lived in the Northeast for several generations, some relatives remain in the Dominican Republic. The last time Joshua visited was in 2018 — a trip that gave him a greater appreciation of his family’s sacrifices to provide him opportunities in the United States.

Still, even while being over 1,500 miles away from the island, Joshua has an intense love for his Latin American roots.

“I literally love being Latino so much because not only does it have a lot of history and culture to it, but it just brings you that extra love to yourself,” he said. “I don’t know how to put it into words, but it’s that little spark that you need sometimes, you know?”

What he cherishes the most is the duality of being American and Dominican — something that he said gives him “the perfect balance in life.”

“Just going to school in the morning and then you have all your friends, so you’re fooling around speaking English and Spanish,” Joshua said. “And then you go home and your mom’s all set up with your sofrito, mangú and salami.”

Although Allentown’s Dominican population is smaller, he unexpectedly discovered a connection to his heritage while living there. With a towering 6-foot-5 frame, the teen had always been a “basketball guy.” Then a coach in Pennsylvania inspired him to give baseball a try. Soon enough, he discovered a talent for pitching. His father had played professionally on the island, though he had never given it an earnest try.

“As a Dominican,” he said, “it’s naturally in my blood.”

“If you start something, finish it.”

— Manuel

As the rumbling bus approached the new U.S. suburb where she would go on to spend many years of her life, Maria Rodriguez stared in awe at the kaleidoscope of bright lights bursting out from the darkness of the night.

“I’d never seen so many buildings, so many lights,” said Maria, an undocumented immigrant who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border 21 years ago on a tourist visa that later expired. “I thought ‘Is that where I’m going?’ ”

Today, she is raising four children in the Denver suburb of Commerce City. The youngest is 12-year-old Manuel Guardiola. From the day he was born, Maria recognized the importance of him growing up feeling American.

Her solution? Thrusting him into school sports at age 4.

“He didn’t speak any English. For him it was like, ‘What are they telling me?’ and he struggled a lot,” she said in Spanish. She recalled one day when the coach’s secretary called her because Manuel didn’t understand what the coach was saying. But she couldn’t help either — she still has not learned English. “Little by little he learned the language,” she said.

Now, Manuel speaks English fluently and without an accent. He eats the enchiladas and gorditas his mom prepares at home, and he loves gobbling down jello and milk after sports practice.

Unlike his mom, Denver’s snow-filled winters and mountain landscapes are all Manuel knows.

He is aware of her status — that his mom could get stopped by law enforcement and deported back to Mexico. But he tries not to worry.

“I think it’s unfair,” Manuel said. “People should be able to get papers and have a better life here.”

Every morning when Manuel gets ready for school, he does a daily chore. Sometimes it’s taking out the trash, and other times it’s sweeping the house. His mom will often prepare him huevos con frijoles — eggs with beans. After school, he eats and then gets ready for practice; depending on the season, it’s basketball, football or wrestling.

Maria said she tries to shield Manuel from some of the stresses and struggles in their family. Manuel’s father, 68, recently retired and is on dialysis. They’re relying on his pension alone to make ends meet.

“It’s enough to survive,” Maria said, her voice heavy. “It’s sufficient to give the basics to our children.”

Even while facing hardship, Manuel has kept focused on sports. In 2019, he made it to the state finals for wrestling in his division.

Moments before the final match, his competitor’s family approached him. As his heart was pumping, adrenaline swelling as he prepared to wrestle, the family told him that their son had never fought against “a Mexican” before. The words stung, but he wasn’t sure what to make of them.

Soon after, Manuel won the state championship.

He gives the credit to his mom, who told him from as early as he can remember, “Si intentas algo, termínalo.” If you start something, finish it.

“I’m thankful that my ancestors came to America.”

— Amanda

Living steps away from the U.S.-Mexico border means Amanda Ortiz has never felt out of place being Latina in the United States. That’s all she sees around her — Brownsville, her hometown, is 94 percent Latino.

“I’m with my people. And if I wasn’t with my people, I would feel out of place, and that’s even worse,” she said.

Many in Amanda’s extended family, and most people around her, have lived on the U.S. side of the border for generations. Despite that, she said, Latinos in Brownsville often feel forgotten. Jobs are limited in the Rio Grande Valley. The area has one of the highest poverty rates and highest uninsured rates in the state.

When she watches television, Amanda is struck by how different the rest of the United States is. She cringes when she sees how Latinos are often portrayed.

“The only thing Latinos are known for is being poor,” she said. “Mexicans, they’re I guess known for being cholos, cholas, but that’s not true. They’re stereotyping. I think that’s also a part of our challenges in America.”

Her dad’s family has lived on the U.S. side of the border for generations. She grew up speaking the kind of dialect that is specific to the U.S. border region — English with words and inflections in Spanish.

She said the Spanish speakers in Brownsville often look down upon Mexican Americans who don’t speak the language. She recounted being called a “gringa” in Spanish class because of her English accent. But Spanish-dominant, Mexican national students face their own hardships, she said, noting that she thinks they are often punished more in school than Mexican Americans like her.

Every year, Amanda expresses her heritage in Charro Days, a four-day festival for the residents of Brownsville and their counterparts on the Mexican side of the border, Matamoros. Every year, a grito — a type of shout expressing joy often incorporated in mariachi music — starts the festival, which has traditional dances, boat races, a rodeo and food stands selling elotes, Hot Cheetos with toppings and tamarindo candies.

“I am very proud because I know some people do not have the freedom to come over to America,” she said, “and I’m thankful that my ancestors came to America so that I could have a better life.”

About this story

Photos courtesy of Eva Ortiz, Maria Rodriguez, Albert Varas, Joshua Reyes, Manuela De Armas.

Editing by Christine Armario. Copy editing by Paola Ruano. Video editing by Luis Velarde. Design and illustrations by María Alconada Brooks. Development by Agnes Lee.