I watched a documentary a few days ago on a well-known Canadian artist by the name of William Kurelek. A first generation Canadian, with a domineering Ukrainian father that insisted on making sure that the Ukrainian language was spoken at home. The father rejected Canada in favor of his homeland and left his children without the ability to speak English until they entered primary school. The end result was a person that felt seriously disenfranchised from society and that had no real sense of belonging. A man caught between two realities – that of his father’s Ukrainian world and that of his new home. These feelings of disenfranchisement caused him to develop inner rage, all which fed his beautiful art. The reason why I mention this artist is that a number of his experiences have been felt by many first-generation Canadians that are asked to straddle two realities, that can often clash. Now, this is my story.
We arrived in Canada in 1975. My father, mother sister and I. We did not speak English or French. We spoke only Spanish. I was enrolled in an English primary school, only to be told by a teacher that I was mentally deficient because I did not know my vowels. “You mean that you do not know your V-O-W-E-L-S?!”, uttered the teacher in the presence of thirty-two students, all chuckling. I was meant to feel shame at who I was. What I did not know was the English word “vowel”. I indeed did know my vowels, but in Spanish. That was largely irrelevant to the teacher. In their eyes, I was a dumb latino immigrant that would, at best, become a fruit-picker en los campos. My sister and I were quickly shuffled off to a class of students that had hearing disabilities, where we sat in a room calling out the word of the picture that was shown to us on q-cards. This was the preferred integration approach by a school board that did not have a clue of what it was doing. The fact that I was in a room with students that could not pronounce certain sounds made little difference to them. I was a write-off. I was a dumb latino immigrant. For years, I pronounced the word “UMBRELLA” as “UM-BELLA” (without an “r”) since that is the sound that was echoed by the students that had hearing disabilities. My sister and I endured.
At home, my father was a very dominant latino figure – a machista. A man where his word carried the day in the house and where you could not contradict him without facing a consequence. Latino pride reigned. He had a vision of the world that was anchored in what he had been taught in Lima, Peru- strong Catholic values, with a narrow view on the role that women should play in society. My sister and I straddled his world and our world for years. We endured. My father’s relationship with his children and wife was also marred with domestic violence. A woman was no more than an object that should cater to a man’s needs. He was entitled to beat her to get her to do what he wanted. The result was a divorce and further chaos for the children. Financially, we were not well off. My father brought home a pay cheque, but never enough to buy a house. We moved from apartment to apartment, never unpacking boxes, knowing that it would soon be time to move once the lease was up.
I left home at sixteen, with my bags, never to walk through the door of my father’s home. I rejected his world forever. I followed the footsteps of my sister that left a year before I did. I wandered from basement to basement, at the mercy and generosity of friends. The end result is that by the time that I started University, I was very angry. Angry at what I had been dealt by life. The very same anger that is felt by many disenfranchised first-generation Canadians that are asked to straddle two worlds, which often clash.
I write this blog not to tell you about my life’s story, but to tell all first-generation Hispanic Canadians that what you live may not be unique and that you are not alone. I write this blog to say that we all have responsibilities towards the Hispanic community, both collectively and individually. We must come together and offer support, both through networks and role models. I was lucky. I turned anger into something constructive. I became a fearless advocate, never allowing an opponent to intimidate me. This is not always the case with anger. Anger can be destructive. We have a role to play in making sure that there is flawless integration and that none of our first generation Canadian Hispanics feel disenfranchised.
Alexander Moreno Gay is Senior Litigation Counsel at the Department of Justice. He is a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa (Faculty of Law), where he teaches Civil Procedure to second year law students. He is also the author of the Annotated Arbitration Act of Ontario, 1991. He maintains a broad civil litigation practice, with an emphasis on commercial and trade disputes. He has appeared before all levels of court in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia as well as the Supreme Court of Canada. He has represented clients in arbitrations, mediations and before regulatory tribunals and boards, including the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT), the Canadian International Trade Tribunal (CITT), the Alberta Securities Commission (ASC), the Environment Canada Board of Review, the Public Service Labour Relations Board (PSLRB) and the Competition Tribunal.