Meet the parents, en español
October 13, 2019 1:25 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I have been dating for the better part of this year, and we moved in together just over 3 months ago. Now we're discussing hosting Thanksgiving next month and cooking for his parents. Added challenge: I'm white. His parents are Mexican and mostly speak Spanish. He's met my parent and sibling (and it went very well), but I haven't met his parents yet. I want this to go well! I'd love your cultural and linguistic advice.

A little bit more about our cultural and familial backgrounds: I'm a half-Jewish, strawberry blond white woman who grew up in the U.S. Midwest, with a patriarchal father and a permissive stay-at-home mother. I speak Spanish, but not perfectly. He's a Chicano man who grew up in New York City with Mexican parents. He also doesn't speak Spanish perfectly, but he definitely speaks more fluently than I do. I get the sense that his father is used to being a patriarch and providing for the family, and that his mother is strongly invested in her role as a mother, so they're both somewhat traditional. Personally, I am queer and don't care whatsoever about traditional gender roles, but I respect that they might, and that their family has, like mine yet very different, navigated some hard times. I'm mid-thirties, with one younger sibling and a very small family; he's mid-twenties and the youngest in his family, with several older siblings whose ages range up to mine. He moved out of his parents' apartment to move in with me; he'd moved out before, then back. I was previously married. Our romance is a little unconventional, with differences in culture, age, and previous relationship experience, but a lot of shared interests and ways of thinking about the world.

My Spanish-language background: I started taking Spanish classes when I was about 6 years old, and continued through high school (they had to create a Spanish 5 curriculum for me to do independent study, since I was more advanced than most students at that point). I didn't take it in college, so I read very well and pick up spoken Spanish decently, but my vocabulary is currently not the best, especially for idioms. I do have to ask for things to be repeated sometimes, and I need to work on my accent. I've been a bit shy about speaking, in part because I haven't had a lot of real-world practice, and in part because my previous long-term partner was a Spanish teacher who acted as if he owned the language, despite also being white, so I grew somewhat insecure about my abilities and stopped speaking it for several years. My younger sibling has traveled in Spain and Latin America, including time living in Venezuela. So my sibling's Spanish is much better (and more idiomatic) than mine, but Spanish is definitely deeply rooted in my brain, and we spoke it (probably badly) at home from time to time when I was growing up. My sibling, parent, and I had Thanksgiving entirely in Spanish last year, for instance. I have great appreciation for the language and Mexican culture.

I've been practicing Spanish for about an hour a day by watching Spanish-language content with Spanish subtitles, texting with my sibling in Spanish, reading articles in Spanish, translating songs in my head into Spanish, etc. I think I'm improving! But I'm interested in tips, advice, and stories from anyone who's been in a similar situation and navigated it well (or spectacularly poorly!), or who was in my boyfriend's position as well. Anything I should make sure to do or practice—or definitely not to do? I love him, and I want to be sure I'm respectful to his family, make a good impression, and establish a foundation for continued get-togethers. I want to do as much as I can to make them feel comfortable and to do the work to prepare, so I'm continuing to read as many articles as I can with advice, and I've watched a few movies that deal with similar themes. Please feel free to suggest any viewing and reading materials that will help me prepare and process my own anxiety as well! Thank you for any thoughts!
posted by INTJ to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My thought is to meet your live-in boyfriend's parents for the first time before Thanksgiving.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:31 PM on October 13, 2019 [21 favorites]

- do your best and don't be embarrassed, they're not going to judge you
- try not to make any cultural assumptions based on their country of origin
- in general if you're having your partner be the go-between for more complicated conversations, look at the person whose words he is translating and not at him when you respond

white people feeling awkward about speaking spanish or an indigenous language to native speakers anywhere in the americas is the colonialism toll and everyone should pay it at some point in their lives. it's ok.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:49 PM on October 13, 2019 [16 favorites]

My first thought is about navigating the cultural complexities of women and kitchen/food/recipes.

You and your partner should talk about what his family traditions are around Thanksgiving in particular and family holidays in general.

Is the expectation that the hosting family does all the cooking or does everyone contribute dishes? Are his parents traveling across town, across the state, across the country? More specifically, would his mother (grandmother, sisters, sisters-in-laws) expect to be bringing their special recipe? Will they show up and take over your kitchen? Or will they expect to be treated as valued guests and not have to participate in the work of the meal?

Similarly, what are the recipes that are traditional (as in "this is what we always do", not necessarily ethnically traditional) for Thanksgiving? Are these things that your partner knows how to make? I would try hard to avoid making an recipe that is new to you but has expectations of the "right way" to come out for your guests.

Also food preferences - heavy on the meat and carbs? focus on healthy (low carb, low fat, keto, vegetarian), spices high or mild? openers to trying new things? You want to make sure that everyone has a reasonable number of options that they can eat with pleasure - the complexities of doing that are very specific to the guests but your partner should have a good idea about these things for his family.
posted by metahawk at 1:52 PM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

My thought is to meet your live-in boyfriend's parents for the first time before Thanksgiving.

Yes. Thanksgiving is stressful enough when it involves people you already know and love. There's just so much work to do. If you can't meet them in person prior to Thanksgiving, then a less formal skype session or something could work. Give yourself and them all a chance to break the ice a little ahead of time so that when they come to the dinner, you're welcoming people you already know into your home, instead of strangers.
posted by acidnova at 2:11 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanksgiving gives you tons of topics, you get to share some favorite foods and compliment his family on their favorite foods, so I think it's a great time to meet them. Ask BF about them- are they religious, politics, are there black sheep, etc., to avoid conversational traps,but otherwise, be yourself/ your best self, and prepare to have fun.
posted by theora55 at 2:17 PM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've got a similar weird Spanish background as you — learned young, stopped studying before college, sometimes go a long time without using it, sometimes use it daily. My experience is

1) Social situations are fine as long as I'm willing to embarrass myself. Sometimes I hang back and listen a lot. Sometimes I have stuff to say and it comes out garbled. None of that is the end of the world, the party can go on around me, I just need to let go of a lot of my own hangups.

2) Serious communication around difficult topics is the thing I need to be careful of. I don't have specialized vocabulary. I don't have the grammar for complicated nested clauses ("Well, if I'd known that you hoped I wanted to be closer..."). And just randomly missing every tenth sentence is way worse when the stakes are high. If I'm going to have a serious conversation in Spanish, everyone involved needs to slow way down, and be really cooperative about putting up with my interruptions and questions, and it's hard.

3) Jokes and trash-talking and swapping-funny-stories-type conversations are also hard. They're just very fast paced and very slangy and full of cues that are easy to miss. I tend to sit these out entirely, because it's too easy to accidentally insult someone for real, tell a joke that's way more offensive than the situation calls for, or embarrass someone else by accidentally misinterpreting a clean joke as a dirty one.

Hopefully Thanksgiving is going to be a bunch of #1, and maybe some #3 that you can stay at the edges of. If it does get into #2 territory, your boyfriend really needs to take your side and either extricate you from the conversation or help you get what you need from it.

Another thing I've learned is that learning the language young gave me undeservedly good pronunciation: I sound closer to fluent than I am. This is sometimes nice (people compliment me! I get to practice more because people expect me to understand things!) and sometimes kind of hazardous (people are surprised when I don't understand things!) but if you're in the same boat, you might have to remind people to slow down. It helps to not take it personally, and to be light in tone when you speak up about it: "LOL omg sorry I missed that again" and not "dammit I told you don't talk that fast" or "ugh sorry say that again I'm sorry I'm so bad at this."
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:56 PM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

The challenge isn't that you're white. There are a lot of white people in Mexico. The parents are from NYC and originally from Mexico (you say your boyfriend grew up in NYC so I assume they've lived there for a while?). Living in NYC they know what Thanksgiving is about. I would ask your boyfriend to clarify with them, but I would think that if you two said you're hosting, they may be expecting to just show up and that you guys would have already prepared the food.

Unless your boyfriend knows of a specific dish that his family always makes for Thanksgiving, I would not prepare anything Mexican for Thanksgiving.

Speak Spanish, but speak English initially and don't treat them like they don't know English because they likely do and likely understand it better than they speak it and are just shy and feel more comfortable speaking Spanish. Clarify this with your boyfriend, because they might feel insulted if you approach them like they can't speak English if they've been living in this country for years.

Don't feel like you have to put on a show. The first holiday with an SO's relatives is always stressful, regardless of background. Treat them respectfully like you'd treat any partner's parents.
posted by vivzan at 3:15 PM on October 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

My wife is Mexican, and I’m from the East Coast of the US. I lived in Mexico for a year, volunteering (that’s how we met), and her entire family only speaks Spanish. I took high school Spanish for four years, and one semester of intro Spanish in college as refresher before my volunteer year, so not a ton of formal education. I eventually became fluent, but it took a long time.

Meeting her family was daunting, but it sounds like you have a lot going for you: more experience speaking Spanish than I did, and a sound knowledge and appreciation of Mexican culture. Plus they’ve lived in the U.S.—even if they don’t speak English that well, they’ll probably be able to understand you if you run into a word in Spanish that you don’t know, and need to reach into Spanglish for a word.

One of the best tips I’ve ever learned about fluency in Spanish: make sure you know how to hesitate. Don’t say “ummm” or “uhhh” like you would in English. Try dragging out “éste...”, or “o sea...”. It sounds way more natural, and helps you feel more fluent.

If you like a good book, look for “Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish” by Joseph Keenan. It’s the best book on Spanish I’ve ever read, and is super helpful (and entertaining, really).

I’d say you’ve got enough to see you through! Be confident, be relaxed, and accept that you’ll make some mistakes.

Also, this may be obvious to you (it wasn’t to me), but when it comes to parents-in-law, it’s all usted, all the time. Generally, anyone from a generation older than yours is usted. In Mexico, generally, your own parents are addressed using tu, but mother-in-laws and father-in-laws are always usted. With siblings-in-law, you can generally use tu.

But don’t confuse using usted with being distant, you can have extremely close relationships with people you only refer to as usted.

I also agree with others that you should try to meet them ahead of time, to take some of the pressure off.

Good luck! Come back and update us!
posted by vitout at 3:33 PM on October 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

Speak Spanish, but speak English initially and don't treat them like they don't know English because they likely do and likely understand it better than they speak it and are just shy and feel more comfortable speaking Spanish. Clarify this with your boyfriend, because they might feel insulted if you approach them like they can't speak English if they've been living in this country for years.

While this is definitely true of some people, other people feel would feel welcomed and respected by you making the effort to greet them in their native language. So definitely ask your boyfriend what his parents would prefer.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:09 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Jenga is a fabulous after-dinner game for people who don't all speak the same language. I bought it for the Portuguese parents of my ex and it was a mega hit.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:21 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

While this is definitely true of some people, other people feel would feel welcomed and respected by you making the effort to greet them in their native language. So definitely ask your boyfriend what his parents would prefer.

Better yet, ask them what they would prefer! It’ll hopefully come across as thoughtful and may help get things started on the right foot.
posted by vitout at 7:19 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

As an (albeit European) immigrant, honestly I prefer guests speak English unless they are actually fluent in my language; especially if it‘s a stressful event like Thanksgiving. It‘s taxing to communicate with someone in a language that isn‘t really theirs - after a while you feel like a language teacher! So even if they speak Spanish as a family language, I‘d ask them what they‘d prefer you to speak.

Of course, opening up with a Spanish greeting and some niceties shows your goodwill, that doesn‘t necessarily mean it has to be 100% Spanish the rest of the time.

Many long-time immigrants also won‘t bat an eye if you switch languages mid-sentence if you encounter a concept that‘s easier expressed in the other language - this is not a faux-pas but just a fact of life. So in general, ease of communication trumps which of the two languages you use.

But yeah, asking them what they prefer and then doing that and staying kind of flexible seems more important here than ‚how to stay 100% spanish all the time to prove I‘m totally ok with Hispanic culture‘.
posted by The Toad at 8:54 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you do end up speaking Spanish, to deal with your limited vocabulary don’t hesitate to speak “Spanglish” and throw in words in English if you need to. Sounds like they’ll probably know a fair amount of English vocabulary.

Honestly, just smile and laugh a lot. You’ll be fine!
posted by amaire at 9:37 PM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Stop watching movies and reading articles and shit and just relax. These are individuals, not ur-Mexicans. They’re perfectly capable of adjusting to you, making allowances, and being flexible. In no sense do you need to do a masters degree in Dealing With Chicanos or otherwise prepare for this any more than you already have. Seriously, you gotta relax. It’s not a test. They’re people and so are you and you’ll adjust to each other over time. Be polite, be respectful, and ask your boyfriend about his specific parents if you want to know what they’re like.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:18 AM on October 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Please don't worry so much!! You'll be more than fine. Just be polite and go with the flow. Say thank you and smile and laugh. Offer to help -- the language isn't important, people know what you're asking! Be OK with just sitting with people and not talking -- say, you and grandpa can watch the football game together without exchanging a word. Let people come talk to you, say, a similar-aged cousin who's English is stronger than their Spanish. Bring a dish if you'd like -- you can't go wrong with a dessert or side that's a family recipe. You present it to the mom and say, "Thank you for inviting me to share Thanksgiving with your family. I wanted to bring a favorite recipe from my grandma, her pecan pie!" They'll probably ask you about your family, and will be happy to hear that your family has been welcoming of their son. (Of course!) People are probably going to make jokes, including about you, but it's all in good fun. That's really the one big random difference, which my now-ex had explained to me in advance; he said, Mexican humor is different from US humor in a lot of ways, and he was right.

I met the Mexican parents of my then-boyfriend of a year during his baby sister's quinceañera, which I was also honored with a small role in. It was INTENSE but he felt that, knowing his family, introducing me during a big event was actually best. And you know what? It was! I spoke less Spanish than now but it didn't matter. If their son loved me, then they welcomed me. I once read somewhere that Latin Americans, on the whole, are some of the most open to family members dating interracially or internationally, if in part because modern Latin America is intercultural by definition. (Yes, there's racism but that's everywhere, sadly.) As others have said, the biggest differences will probably be NYC versus Midwest! Also as others have said, there is no one Mexican or Mexican-American identity, just as there is no one European-American identity so they may end up being a lot more stereotypically "American" than you think!

The biggest differences I noticed were class differences in that I came from a middle class background whereas his family was working class. He was the first one in his family to graduate high school and go to college. It was interesting seeing how, while my ex was very Mexican (his choice of ID, having grown up in the US but was born in Mexico), he was also much more "Americanized" and middle-class than the rest of his family and I know those differences were hard at times for him. He was the point of contact for his family -- as it should be -- but I also became close to his siblings and parents during the three years we were together. We shared a mutual respect and curiosity, and I cherish those memories together.

You are clearly such a thoughtful person, and I think this will go great!! I live in Argentina now, which is LatinX and Spanish-speaking but so different. I can tell you how much I realize I have in common with my North American neighbors: for all the differences that people like Trump want to highlight, people from the US, Mexico, and Canada share a lot of common values!
posted by smorgasbord at 12:50 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In case anyone who answered was wondering, this meeting did happen the weekend before Thanksgiving. He drove his parents over, and they arrived with a whole cake and a bouquet of flowers! We cooked them a lovely dinner, which his mother helped finish preparing; I served them tea; we watched a cooking show together; his father shared garden photos with me; and we even discussed family, religion, and politics. This almost all took place in Spanish! Unsurprisingly, I made mistakes in tense and vocabulary, but my boyfriend only had to bail me out or answer a "Cómo se dice...?" question for me a few times, and his parents also were encouraging and helped me finish my own sentences. I held my own and even cracked some jokes that got laughter. They were very sweet.

Thanks again for the thoughts and encouragement. It was all much appreciated!
posted by INTJ at 5:42 PM on December 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

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