As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, "Our Latino Heritage" series profiles a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.
Like most children of immigrants who have visited their parents’ home country as adults, Josefina Peña lives in constant gratitude for the successes in her life, which she never would have had if her parents hadn’t left Nicaragua, which is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, for better opportunities.
“I just feel really appreciative for what I have because when I go over there, it’s hard seeing my family and extended family struggle for the basics like hot water, decent food and clothes to wear, a comfortable bed to sleep on,” said Peña.
But the successful finance analyst worked through her own struggles as a child.
Her family started out with a strong base. Her mother and father, high school sweethearts, emigrated from Granada, Nicaragua separately but found each other once in the states and moved to Washington, DC.. They started a life and a family together that included Peña, her older sister and her younger brother.
And then, things got tougher.
“My mom started out learning English and cleaning houses, with every intention of getting herself into school,” Peña recalled about her earliest years. “Then in the mid-90s she had to go through divorce and she ended up a single mom raising three kids. And she had us in Catholic school both for middle and high school so she had to work all the time, I just don’t know how she did it.”
Luckily, grandma was on the scene.
“When mom was working I was always with my grandparents either on mom or dad’s side,” Peña said. “So even though there weren’t many other Nicaraguans around – I only knew of maybe two or three other people from Nicaragua in my school – I did have a sense of culture. We were raised to speak English and Spanish at home, we’d go to my grandparents house and do the cultural things like for Christmastime we did a week of praying and other religious aspects.”
All the sacrifices paid off, big time.
Not only was Peña the first in her family to attend and graduate from college – and now working in her chosen field – but her mother, too, got herself into school and earned a bachelor’s degree that enabled her to jumpstart her own career in finance, with a tax business of her own.
When she puts her family’s struggles and triumphs into perspective, Peña finds herself right in the middle of the mythology of chasing the American Dream.
“My American experience has been a good one and one that I value a lot because my family does not come from money at all, we’ve all worked hard for what we have and what we do,” Peña said. “I have to thank my family, thank my mom and where I came from.”
Peña does want to ensure that her kids eventually carry on her Nicaraguan culture, her language and her family’s religious traditions. But she feels that the labels that are so important to some today will matter less and less in the future as her generation intermarries and combines cultures.
“I am with a black guy and my brother married a black girl,” Peña said, “I have interracial couples all around me – plus I have friends from all different cultural backgrounds and a lot of them are in interracial relationships. I think it will be like that for everyone, mixing in. But still, yeah, I would definitely like to pass on my traditions and understanding about where my family comes from.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.