Keith Griffin, a freelance writer who grew up in Windsor Locks, and Manuela Canales, an educator now working for the Connecticut Department of Labor, have been married for 14 years. Canales arrived in the US from her native Valencia, Spain, on Oct. 1, 1997.
From birth, their two young daughters – Lydia and Christina – have been raised to be bilingual; their dad communicates with them in English, and their mom speaks to them in Spanish.
“It’s not confusing for children,” Griffin said.
Their daughters say, “that’s the way Mom does things, and that’s the way Dad does things,” Canales said.
“When I think of raising my kids to be bilingual, I think that when they want to learn a third language, it will be easier. I’m giving them a foundation,” she said.
In keeping with the Spanish custom, Canales did not change her last name when she and Griffin married. “In Spain, you’d never adopt your husband’s name,” Griffin said.
Though their surname is Griffin, both of their daughters’ middle name is Canales. “That’s kind of a nod to children having both parents’ last names, like they do in Spain,” he said.
In addition to Christmas, “we make sure we celebrate Three Kings Day; that’s an important part of Manuela’s culture. We keep the kids out of school, too,” Griffin said. “I’ll celebrate Spain’s Father’s Day. Manuela celebrates both Mother’s Days,” and they follow the Spanish custom of celebrating their saint’s days.
“It’s funny to think we do a lot of it automatically,” he said. “It’s not really negotiated; it’s just what we do. I’ve always had the thought that we’d combine cultures.
“I’ve always been interested in other cultures, naturally curious. I’m just open to them. I don’t think our culture is necessarily better that any others,” he said. “I think it helped me being raised Catholic. It’s a tenet of Christianity, being open to other people.”
Griffin visited Spain for the first time in July 1999.
He was surprised at how people were so friendly when they’d just met him. “They seem more inclusive, I mean instantly inclusive, than Americans,” to generalize, he said.
One sort of cultural shock was how Spaniards expressed themselves in a more physical manner, such as when they greeted someone. “Kissing my brothers-in-law ‘hello’ at first took some getting used to,” Griffin said.
The traditional Spanish greeting is a kiss on each cheek, but even now, he’s not certain what is appropriate, such as when meeting some of his wife’s more distant male relatives, so they may end up shaking hands instead.
As for their daughters, “they take cues from their cousins,” Canales said.
“We have a video of Lydia at 18 months old, leaning over and kissing a boy on the lips,” Griffin said.
Another cultural difference he noticed on that first visit was the importance of the midday meal. “Manuela likes the early dinners,” he said.
Even if it’s just a lunch break at work, “lunch has to be a warm meal… a hot meal and a coffee,” Canales said, adding that she’s always on the lookout for places that serve “good coffee.”
One thing that surprised Griffin was the relatively low profile of the Catholic church in Spain. “I always had this perception of Spain as a very Catholic country. Catholicism isn’t as in-the-forefront as I thought it would be,” he said.
“The church here is more active,” at the parish level, Canales said.
Though Canales’ family and native culture are an ocean away from their home in West Hartford, “the kids are connected with their family in Spain,” as they and their parents spend a part of each summer in Spain, she said.
“They get to see Spain, what life is like there… how people live more in cities than in small towns,” and other differences, she said.
“They’re exposed to authentic food,” like paella, Canales said. “They learn why meals are cooked with certain ingredients.”
“They’re both considered Spanish citizens (with dual-citizenship). I think it’s important that if they’re citizens they understand the culture,” Griffin said.
Canales became a U.S. citizen at a ceremony in Bridgeport, in December 2011. They brought the girls, and the family later had a special dinner at a restaurant to celebrate.
Griffin laments his own slow progress in learning Spanish. “I’m still not a competent speaker, but I continue to learn more. I never developed a good ear for it,” he said.
Lydia, their older daughter, understands and speaks Spanish well, which her mother attributes to her having had more time to spend with her, with more exposure to the language, after she was born.
Christina “does understand it. Lydia can converse; Christina’s more short responses,” Canales said.
“What is the motivation for them is they get to make presentations in their school on their heritage,” and both have done just that, she said. “They’re in a school that is an ideal school, that is a global school.”
Both girls attend, or attended, the Charter Oak International Academy, a pre-K-5 magnet school that is part of the West Hartford school district. The school is an authorized International Baccalaureate World School.
“A core concept in their education is being a citizen of the world,” Griffin said.
In West Hartford, Canales has become an unofficial Spanish cultural ambassador. “A few years ago, somebody from Hello! West Hartford said, ‘we’re having a cultural fair and we don’t have a Spanish table,'” she recalled.
Nowadays, “the kids say if I’m cooking something Spanish, ‘we’re going to a pot-luck.’ That’s when I pull out my Spanish recipes,” she said. “It’s the idea that if there’s no representation of my culture, I’ll create it.”
In a town where more than 80 languages are represented in local schools, Canales is vice president and secretary for community outreach, for the volunteer organization called Hello! West Hartford, which began by encouraging residents to greet their neighbors by saying “hello” in their native languages.
The group has posted more than a dozen videos teaching residents how to say hello and welcome in different languages and created events such as Breakfast Around the World and an annual town-wide Multicultural Celebration, to be held next April 27, which is expected to draw more than 500 people celebrating the town’s diversity through music, food, dance and language.
Diversity is second nature to the Griffin/Canales family, it is who they are.