The bonds between Juan and Hélène Figueroa, who’ve been married for 38 years, brought together two different bilingual, bi-cultural aspects of the American experience.
Juan Figueroa, a former state representative and current chief-of-staff for outgoing Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, is Puerto Rican. He grew up primarily in the rural mountain town of Ciales, but there were also a couple of two-year stints when his family lived in Haverstraw, N.Y., a small town in Rockland County, north of New York City. The time in Haverstraw is “one of the reasons I’m bilingual,” he said.
His family lived in the small town on the Hudson River in 1961-62 and 1966-67. His parents knew people from their hometown who lived there, but each time they returned to the island because his father didn’t like the winters.
When they got to Haverstraw, “what they did was put me in first grade,” even though he had already completed first grade in Puerto Rico, so that he could catch up with English.
Because both Ciales and Haverstraw were small towns, the transitions from one to the other turned out not to be too difficult. “I had the fortune of every time we went back, I had the same class and the same group of people.”
After graduating from high school in Puerto Rico, he eventually went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Hélène (Clement) Figueroa grew up in New Hampshire in a French-Canadian family and went to bilingual (French-English) Catholic schools when she was growing up. She is the director of the child care division of CSEA/SEIU Local 2001.
“The French-Canadian tradition is to send your children to Catholic school, where it was half a day English and half a day French,” with mostly French in the early years.
She transferred to Macalester College for her junior year. “I grew up in New Hampshire, so I thought I knew cold,” but Minnesota exceeded her expectations.
“I do speak Spanish. I understand more than I speak,” Hélène Figueroa said, adding that she does speak Spanish in her job, where Latinos make up a large portion of the clientele.
In college, “when I thought this (relationship) might be a lasting thing, I took a course (in Spanish) in my last semester,” she said.
Going to Puerto Rico
She made her first trip to Puerto Rico with her future husband a year before they married. His grandmother had just passed away, and they arrived on the first day of la novena, nine days of prayers said continuously as part of mourning the loss of a loved one.
“Her picking up Spanish was really useful,” particularly in dealing with the rural agrarian culture in the hills, Juan Figueroa said.
“Because of my French (background), my pronunciation was really good. Some people thought I was from Spain,” Hélène Figueroa said.
Before that first trip, “Juan had mentioned he had an aunt who had 19 children and another who had 14 children. I said I better go see Puerto Rico,” she said, adding that they were wonderful, warm people.
Both of their families were immediately accepting.
“Both his parents welcomed me with open arms, and both my parents welcomed him with open arms. I think they saw that he was a really good person and I was a good person, so what the heck,” Hélène Figueroa said.
Having grown up in New England and the Midwest, “I think the biggest culture shock was the bugs,” she said.
While in Puerto Rico, Juan and Hélène had a little entrepreneurial adventure, gathering raw materials for craft projects. In the process, Hélène climbed a tree to get gourds.
“The kids were amazed that I climbed the tree. So were the adults,” she said.
They would take all of the pulp, known as “dita,” out of the gourds and then set them in the sun until they became hard and oiled them. At that point they could be sold as salad bowls and planters at craft fairs back in New England.
In his grandparents’ day, that’s what people in Puerto Rico would use for eating, Juan said.
They collected bamboo and seeds for making necklaces, and picked up some guayabera shirts, and were ready to go into business under the name “Bohío Boricua.”
“It was a real hippie project,” Hélène said.
At craft fairs in Maine and New Hampshire, “people would say, ‘oh, that’s so different,'” she recalled.
Despite the bugs, she said, “it’s great going to Puerto Rico, and I liked spending time with his parents.”
The lack of privacy, compared to what people are accustomed to in the States, hasn’t been an issue for her, probably because her family was always hosting students from around the world.
“Our house was pretty open,” she said, “though in Puerto Rico, you can follow conversations in the neighbor’s house.”
Juan said, “it is true that we live in an open society because of the culture and environment where everything is out in the open. One of the things we complain about as Puerto Ricans (on the mainland) is that you can live for 25 years next to a person and never know who they are.”
In Puerto Rico, vacations mean visiting family. “Part of it is because of the extended families. People get offended if you travel there and you don’t visit them,” Hélène said.
Juan Figueroa’s parents are now 87 and 83, and they no longer drive. “I try to go every few months,” often going from Friday to Monday. “When I do those trips in the last 10 years, it’s mostly about visiting them,” he said.
Likewise, Hélène travels more frequently now to New Hampshire, to visit her mom, who is 91.
Raising a daughter
When their daughter was born, they had two different names picked out, depending on which parent she more resembled, Hélène said. “She came out looking like him,” so they named her Taina Marice.
“Her defining features are Puerto Rican,” Juan said.
They spoke mostly English at home, but, “in the summer, we sent her to Puerto Rico to her grandparents,” so she is fully bilingual.
Taina is now 33 and attending grad school in Los Angeles,
“The three of us are very close and we laugh a lot and have a great time,” Hélène said.
Still, she thinks it harder for the children of mixed marriages growing up than it is for their parents. “I explore all these differences as an adult, but when you’re a kid, there’s a lot of pressure to identify yourself: ‘Are you white or a Puerto Rican?” What 7- or 8-year-old is prepared to make such a decision, she asked.
When it came time to enroll 3-year-old Taina in a childcare center, Hélène did some research and thought she had made a good choice, and things started out fine, but one day, “she came home crying, saying ‘I don’t want to be like Papi anymore. I want to be like you.'”
So Hélène decided she would spend some time observing at the childcare center to try to find out what was going on. It soon became apparent that, “the white kids were being favored,” getting more attention from the staff, even though some staff members were themselves persons of color. They moved Taina to a different setting.
For awhile Juan’s brother lived next door to their home in Hartford’s Frog Hollow, so Taina had cousins to play with. Then, when she was 12, the family moved to New York City. “That was easier to take because it was more cosmopolitan,” Hélène said.
Despite some negative experiences that have come with being part of two cultures, “I do think that both of us and our daughter are at a distinct advantage in urban modern-day culture,” Juan said. “I think Taina is able to navigate (in dealing with) a lot of people and different settings because she grew up in a multicultural family.
“Clearly the country is changing that way. Twenty, thirty or more years ago it was taboo to go beyond your culture. Now that’s changing, and I think that’s good,” he said.
Something that has also been important to their relationship, he said, is their similarities in outlooks, interests and views. “Both of us for most of our lives have been working in the public area, in public interest… We’ve always been like-minded about things that matter to us and connected to public-interest work.
“When I was running for the first time, Hélène spoke Spanish to a lot of constituents and people really liked that,” Juan recalled. There were still a number of French-Canadians living in Frog Hollow, and she was able to speak to them in their own language, which also helped him win the race.
Likewise, in the various positions he’s held, he’s been able to help her with issues related to childcare.
“We’re committed to doing similar kinds of work,” he said. “People know us that kind of way, that we’re committed to liberal causes that we’re really passionate about.”
Hélène said that’s all an extension of their similar values: love, the importance of family, extended family, caring about your family and children, the importance of education, not a lot of emphasis on material acquisition.
Next: Raising Bilingual Children – Keith Griffin and Manuela Canales