Sexuality in Color: On Dating As a Second-Generation Immigrant

sexuality in color logo

I didn’t date a lot in high school.

When I did, I didn’t date another Latinx person.

It wasn’t on purpose. I was one of very, very few on campus. But it wasn’t much of a problem either. Generally, it was fine. I had to explain parts of myself every so often or give crash courses in my identity, so to speak—more than once, I’ve had to pull out a map to prove that Guatemala, my parents’ home country, isn’t a city in Mexico or located in Asia. At worst, I dealt with the occasional fetishization (“Are you one of those spicy Latinas?”) I didn’t think much of it; for a long while, I assumed this was the norm.

Then, in college, I met A. Like me, he had family in a Latin American country. He dealt with the same shoulder-rubbing of cultures I’d experienced all my life. And personally, between the news of a renewed travel ban and increased hostility towards Latinx immigrants in general, I find myself feeling lucky that I’m in a relationship with someone who gets that part of my identity in an intimate way.

Some of that came through things as simple as the way I speak. In Spanish, there are a few ways of saying “sorry,” each conveying a different dimension of meaning. Among them: perdón and lo siento. I’ve found less nuance in the English “sorry.” In the past, I’ve been slightly frustrated when I’d say “sorry” in English following the death of a friend’s dog or someone else’s bad day and they’d respond “it’s not your fault”; that sort of conversation doesn’t happen in Spanish. Instead, perdón means something akin to “I’m sorry for what was my fault” while lo siento means “I feel you” (which is a phrase sometimes said in English, but not as commonly and without the same tinge of reverence I feel when hearing lo siento).

All that to say: early in our relationship, when A had a terrible day at work, I said, “sorry.” Then, after thinking a moment more, I said, “Lo siento.” It was the simplest moment, and one I’d never shared with a partner before. There was no explanation. There was no confusion. He just knew. It’s in moments like those that I feel seen fully; not just as that Latina, or something “other,” but all my pieces, all together at once.

I didn’t always seek Latinx connection. My parents, who’ve never been unsupportive of my previous partners, would remind me that “common ground” is important in relationships. When I was younger, I often read that as close-mindedness—I mean, shouldn’t I be able to date whoever I want? What’s wrong with a little difference, whether it be cultural or something else?

And here’s the thing: I was right. There’s nothing wrong with cultural difference. Freely dating who you love, whoever they may be, shouldn't ever be called into question.

Still, dating my current boyfriend sure made a lot of things easier. Oftentimes, when I realize I don’t have to overexplain my protective parents, the kisses on the cheek when they say hello, the food we’re eating, the Spanish-speaking artists I’m into, and pretty much every aspect of my home life, I feel like I’ve found a shortcut. I don’t have to spend quite so much time explaining who I am.

The new experience framed a new question for me: what would my romantic life have been like had I not met A? If A was suddenly hit by a meteor and I was forced to find a new love, would I choose someone who wasn’t Latinx? Or would that be something on my mind more than I previously imagined? Would I be willing to give up that easygoing cultural connection?

Concern about loss of culture through romantic relationships isn’t unfounded. For the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, there's substantial research on the loss of ability to speak Spanish and distancing from Latinx culture over generations. For immigrants in general, similar trends have been documented; much of that comes from "marital assimilation"— marrying people who are part of the ethnic majority in your country outside of your own ethnicity—and it increases over generations, contributing to children identifying less with the cultures and identities of their parents. Overall, culture changes as it mixes with others over generations. I know this in my own life; my concept of identity and culture is different than that of my parents, who grew up in Guatemala, simply because I grew up and have explored what it means to be Latinx in the States.

The research of Olena Nesteruk, an associate professor at Montclair State University and immigrant herself, focuses on these gradual changes in immigrant generations. In a study she co-authored on dating among second-generation young adults like me, she found that immigrant parents fear loss of cultural identity through marriage. The parents of the second generation often hold endogamous views—meaning, they wanted their children to marry within their specific “group” or in this case, cultural background/ethnicity—while their kids shirk strict endogamy by seeking bicultural partners.

But even though the participants in the study made different choices in their love life than their parents, many seemed to have experienced the same trajectory in understanding over the course of their life as I did. Nesteruk observes in her work that as the second-generation participants grew older, they “now recognize the importance of cultural similarity in a relationship, and report seeking partners that would share their ethnic, cultural, and language background.”

“The findings were not surprising to me, [as a] first generation immigrant, and I imagine my own children (second generation) might feel this way as they get older,” Nesteruk told me over email.

Even so, of the sizable 43 million plus immigrants residing in the United States, many choose to marry outside of their own ethnicity. Pew Research studies indicate that one-in-six married second-generation adults has a spouse of a different race or ethnicity from themselves. With that mix of cultures, change in perceptions of identity aren’t so surprising.

Inevitably, all this has run through my own mind and been the topic of conversation with second-generation friends. Many of my relatives live in Guatemala and many speak, primarily, Spanish. Even without kids in the picture, having a non-Latinx partner who doesn’t speak Spanish or understand their background is a daunting prospect the older I get. I have enough to worry about in that regard. While my Spanish-speaking abilities are adequate, they’re far from perfect. How could I expect my partner to support me culturally when I have trouble accessing literature or film or other medias in Spanish on my own?

But also, my culture is different than that of my parents. Growing up where I did in the States, away from the country my relatives call home, and making this my home—that’s as much a part of my cultural identity as the languages I speak, the food I eat, and the whole other country of my ancestors.

So, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the course of my own relationships (both bicultural and endogamous, if we’re using those terms), it’s this: there are no hard-and-fast rules for what’s right or wrong, and there are different ways to be supportive. You can be open to the identity of your partner. Affirm them in the ways that they celebrate their identity by showing interest and seeking understanding. And sometimes, in the end, you’ll have to embrace the ways that culture changes too; in my own life, every clash and intersection of identities has become integral in my understanding of myself.

In my conversation with Nesteruk, she told me she didn’t hold such endogamous views herself; (as she says, “like any population, immigrants are very diverse”). However, regarding her own kids and their cultural understanding, it’s something she’s thought about.

Of her own family, she said: “We came to the US to start a new life, and are open to learn the new, and let our children find their own way.”

And so we do.

Know of a blog, organization, or resource that belongs here? Send it to our curator, Al, at al AT scarleteen DOT com.

Interested in contributing as a guest writer for our Sexuality in Color series, or any other part of Scarleteen? Check out our information for writers and then take it from there! Queer and trans writers of color of varied abilities and experiences are always strongly encouraged to apply.