The Bilingual Household: Changing Family Dynamics and The End of an Era

On my older son's future college campus.

On my older son’s future college campus.

Family dynamics are complicated in any household, but in a bilingual household, even more so. The addition or subtraction of one member can change everything – and I think that is what we’re getting ready to face in our family as our oldest son prepares to go off to college.

For the first time in our youngest son’s life, he will be the only child, (at least in respect to who will be physically living under our roof day-to-day.) This creates an interesting opportunity. With his brother around, he had a willing “accomplice” to speak English to. Despite my best efforts, having two people speaking English all the time has made it difficult for me (a native English speaker) to remain consistent with Spanish. It’s like when you go on a diet, but the rest of the family keeps eating cake and Doritos right in front of you — it makes sliding back into comfortable habits much more difficult to resist.

My prediction is that when my older son goes off to college, it will become easier to maintain a better balance of Spanish in the household because I’ve seen it happen before when he went off to summer camp. With only me to talk to (and Carlos usually at work), my younger son ends up speaking Spanish more easily without his brother around. Although I’ve long given up on a “100% Spanish only” household, I think a realistic expectation is that we could get closer to 50/50. Right now, unfortunately, I would say we’re down to 80/20, (Eighty percent English, twenty percent Spanish… no bueno.)

While I have my eye on this new possibility of fluency for our younger son, of course I’m also dealing with the emotional aspect of closing a chapter in our lives. There’s the expected mix of pride and bitter-sweetness at seeing our son grown up and ready to go off into the world, but there’s also a sort of ticking clock feeling, like our days together are numbered. Of course our days have always been numbered, but they felt infinite until only a handful remained, which is where we’re at right now. When time begins to run out, as a parent you start to think about all the things you’ve taught your child to prepare them, and all the things that somehow, regretfully, you never got around to teaching them.

I think we did well. We’ve taught him to be kind to others, confident, to make good choices, to be self-sufficient. We’ve taught him to be true to himself, to always ask questions, we’ve encouraged his passions. We’ve done everything we could to make sure he was well-rounded, well-educated, and knew his roots, but this “raising bilingual children” experiment which has gone on for the past 18 years is coming to an end. Was that part of our parenting successful?

The answer isn’t immediately apparent, but I’ve decided success isn’t always a pass/fail sort of thing.

While I do mourn the fact that native speaker fluency wasn’t in the cards for him, I can honestly say we gave it a good shot, and I’m content with the results. Maybe he can’t read and fully enjoy a novel in Spanish, and maybe he doesn’t dream in Spanish. Maybe he doesn’t always understand every single word, but if we were to drop him off alone in a Spanish-speaking city, I have no doubt he would be able to get about just fine on his own. He talks to his abuela on the phone without a problem, and he has lost count of how many Spanish-speaking customers he assisted at his part-time retail job. Do I wish he was fluent? Does he wish he was fluent? Of course.

But we’ve given him what we were able to, and like so much else in his life, the rest is now up to him.

Ask Latinaish: How Can I Learn Spanish?

Image source: Kasaa

Image source: Kasaa

Over the years I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who have stumbled upon Latinaish.com and, recognizing a kindred spirit, reached out to me. Sometimes they want a recipe for sopa de mondongo, or to know the meaning of a word in Salvadoran slang, and sometimes they just want to say thank you for something they found useful on my blog. Sometimes the words I receive make my day, and sometimes they keep me up at night. Sometimes the person needs mother-in-law advice, or bicultural relationship advice, sometimes the person emailing tells me they know no one else who understands their situation and they hope I can help. I’m always humbled that complete strangers trust me with their very deepest hurts. I always respond from my corazón and give the very best guidance that I can. Sometimes the person will correspond with me for awhile and I see the situation resolved, but most of the time I never find out what ended up happening.

As much as I love receiving these emails, I realize that for each one I receive there are many more people out there who may have the same question, or a similar situation, and could be helped by my reply, so I’m going to start publishing some of my responses as “Ask Latinaish” posts. I will of course always keep the identity of the person asking the question and the details of their situation completely anonymous.

The first question I’ll be answering here is:

How can I learn Spanish?

Answer:

I most often get this question from gringas like myself who have married into the culture and want to raise bilingual children. Either she has had limited experience in the language, a few classes in high school, or has just learned a thing here and there after meeting her native Spanish speaker partner.

The human tendency is to want immediate gratification – We’re surrounded by it: Lose 10 pounds in 1 week! Organize your junk drawer in 5 minutes!

Language learning isn’t one of those things you can magically speak fluently in a short amount of time – Even babies start out with the basics and build their way up. That being said, there are ways to become proficient in a language more quickly, and the very best way is through immersion.

For the benefit of yourself and your child, encourage/beg/make deals with your native speaker partner to speak to you in their native language. It is one of the most valuable gifts they have to give. Encourage your partner to speak Spanish to your child and tell him all the benefits it will bring to your son or daughter. A few of the benefits:

• Your child will be more in touch with his heritage, and better able to visit your partner’s native country to explore his roots.

• He will be able to communicate with his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Family is so important and if he can’t speak Spanish, chances are as he gets older, he will drift away from relatives he can’t easily keep in touch with.

• Being bilingual, particularly English/Spanish bilingual, means that his job opportunities increase as an adult, plus he is likely to make more money than monolingual employees!

• Research has shown that children who are raised bilingual perform better academically in seemingly unrelated subjects like math, and music, plus they’re better at multi-tasking.

• Research has shown that bilinguals have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s later in life.

Tell your partner all of this, do a quick Google search and find the articles to back it up if he doesn’t believe you. Some people just need to know concrete ways their child will benefit before they jump on the bandwagon.

As for learning Spanish yourself, aside from downloading Duolingo to your phone and playing it each day, (which I recommend!) – immerse yourself in the language as much as possible: the music you listen to, the TV you watch, the books you read, the friends you make… Surround yourself with native speakers as much as possible and SPEAK. Even if you feel awkward, make a million mistakes or people laugh at you. Speaking Spanish, more than anything else, will help your brain “click.” The more you speak, the more comfortable you become and the more vocabulary you learn, even if you have to stop mid-sentence and ask what something is called, or carry a little English/Spanish dictionary with you.

I hope this helps! Suerte! (Good luck!)

Hispanic Heritage Month 2015 Photo Challenge: Day #14 and 15

I’ll be participating in the “15 Days of Hispanic Heritage” photo challenge over on Instagram hosted by ¿Qué Means What? and The Nueva Latina. If you want to participate, just use the hashtag #HHM15Foto and take a photo for the given theme on each day! Here’s my photo and caption from Instagram for the final days of the challenge, #14 and 15.

hhm-day-14-latinaish

Challenge day 14, theme: #hoy / today (Posting a day late, ironically) … This photo of an #accionpoetica quote in #México by Flickr user esperales says “Somos instantes.” Translation: We are instants. It’s a simple reminder of the fragility, uncertainty, and brevity of life. All you have is today, this moment. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. I try to always remember it and act accordingly. #HispanicHeritageMonth

hhm-day-15-latinaish

Challenge day 15, theme: mañana / tomorrow … This #dicho in #Spanish, (“Hoy por ti, mañana por mí”) means, “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” …When was the last time you did something special for somebody? When was the last time somebody did something special for you? #HispanicHeritageMonth

El Escarabajo Dorado (a guest post)

Image source: José Luis Celada Euba

Image source: José Luis Celada Euba

Today’s guest post about a humorous turned enlightening moment had while living in Peru, comes to us from Fabianne, a high school Spanish teacher, world traveler, and the blogger behind “Blogging Is Narcissistic But…

Last year I shared an apartment in the noisy city of Trujillo, Peru with two Spanish roommates. One night, I found myself in the kitchen when a big, scary something started frantically buzzing around the room, smacking its chunky body against the walls, seemingly desperate to escape. Meanwhile, the window was, as always, wide open to cleanse the space of my roommates’ tobacco habit. I let out a little yelp and waved my hands in the air, which only seemed to offer the opposite of my intended message as it zoomed toward me in a state of panic.

I heard one of my roommates say, “She’s shouting in English again,” and the two of them came rushing to my rescue.

Cucaracha?” (Yes, that is actually how you say cockroach) asked one.

“No! I don’t know what this is!” I gasped as it propelled its seemingly light-brown body toward us. All three of us screamed simultaneously and ran for the kitchen door. Mar shut it behind us and we laughed at ourselves.

“What is that?” she shouted. “It’s enormous!”

At the time, I didn’t know the word for moth in Spanish. (Now I do. Polilla. I’ll never forget it. High stakes situations make for great learning experiences.) So I opted for the word for butterfly because once I read that most insects that appear to be butterflies are actually moths. I figured it was my best bet.

Una mariposa?” They asked, skeptical.

Algo como una mariposa pero con un cuerpo gordo,” (“Something like a butterfly but with a fat body,”) I explained. They both stared at me.

“Well we can’t just stand out here,” my other roommate Vanessa said, entering the kitchen and heroically grabbing the broom. She struck at the fat-bodied butterfly, which was still making circles around the kitchen, using two hands to wield her domestic weapon. Mar and I screamed and laughed from a safe distance, when suddenly, after one swift sweep of the broom, we watched it come spiraling down. She got it. It wasn’t dead, but injured beyond flight, rattling on the kitchen floor. Vanessa leaned over her kill to get a closer look, and let out a little gasp.

“It’s not a butterfly!” she shouted, almost angry. Yes, that much I knew, I just lacked the necessary vocabulary. “It’s an escarabajo!” A beetle, she said.

Escarabajo!” I shouted, not particularly out of concern but mostly because I love that word. So onomatopoeic. When I hear it, I picture a little black beetle scraping and digging through the dirt, making a whispery noise that sounds like, “escarabajo.” I actually only know the word because a little black one crawled into my backpack one time, and a Spaniard pointed and shouted, “Escarabajo!” I remember she told me not to kill it because “los escarabajos no son malos.” They’re not bad. Fair enough.

It turns out the escarabajo in our kitchen was a bit different than the one in my backpack. “It’s a golden beetle,” Vanessa explained. Escarabajo dorado.

I had never heard of a golden beetle and didn’t care too much until she said, “It’s a symbol of immortality.”

For some reason those words resonated with me. To be fair, this is a girl who lit the end of a small branch and waved it around our apartment to expel bad energy, and who charges her crystals by moonlight (though I know of no better way), and while I love her and admire her earthy spirit, I usually remain unaffected by her beliefs. This is not because I claim to possess superior spiritual ideology, just that I’m kind of lazy when it comes to these things. Afterlife? Can’t be bothered…But this time I felt bad. Was I an accomplice to the murder of a bug that only wanted to offer us immortality?

“It’s suffering,” Vanessa said looking at me seriously, “and you have to kill it. I did my part.”

“I don’t like to kill things!” I protested. She shot me a look of death. I get it. OK.

Both of my roommates returned to their respective rooms. The golden beetle squirmed on the floor, its gem-like shell glistening under the fluorescent kitchen lights. Not knowing what to do, I swept it into a dustpan and tipped it out our seven-story kitchen window, hoping maybe it would catch flight.

“It committed suicide,” I announced loud enough for Vanessa to hear, though she didn’t respond.

Later that night, I Google searched “golden beetle.” I found various articles about the insect, my favorite from a gardener saying she is both frustrated and delighted when she finds these beautiful pests among her plants. Another funny bug-nerd article said something like, “Everyone keeps talking about golden beetles.” Oh yeah. People just won’t shut up about them! Nowhere did I find anything about immortality, though the words that affected me most came from an article about insect collections. It recommends that you not add the golden beetle to your collection as it loses its golden color once it dries out, saying, “these bugs are most beautiful kept alive.” Ouch.

Traveling With Your Young Child to Middle-of-Nowhere Latin America

baby-coconut

Okay, “middle-of-nowhere” is an exaggeration, but that’s what it feels like when you’re so far away from everything that represents normalcy to you – And if you have a baby with you, multiply that times a hundred.

A friend of mine will soon experience this first hand as she’s traveling to a small pueblo in Mexico, so this post is for her. Although my experience traveling with babies is limited, I did learn a few things the hard way. Those hard learned lessons will have to suffice as advice – or as the Catherine Aird quote goes, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”

So, here we go. Ten pieces of advice for anyone traveling with a baby and staying at a location which may not have the modern amenities you’re accustomed to.

Disclaimer: This advice may or may not apply to you depending on where exactly you’re coming from and where exactly you’re going, but this is the advice I’m giving based on my own experiences. Just because this post focuses on the difficulties and less desirable circumstances I encountered does not mean one should assume all of Latin America is represented. Latin America is extremely diverse and just like the United States and anywhere else in the world, there are areas of great wealth, areas of great poverty and everything in between. This advice is meant for individuals coming from a lifestyle of modern conveniences who are visiting and staying in a place that does not have those same modern conveniences.

Traveling With Your Young Child to Middle-of-Nowhere Latin America

passport_sign2

#1. Get yourself and your baby up to date on any necessary shots. Besides getting your passport and traveling documents in order, you should go to the doctor and pediatrician, tell them where you’re going and when, and ask their advice about any recommended vaccinations as they may advise you to get shots that aren’t on the regular schedule. Do your own research ahead of time too on the CDC website so you can ask your doctor any questions you might have. (Also make use of the advice on the State Department website regarding your passport, closest U.S. consulate and embassy locations to where you’ll be staying, and how to handle emergencies while abroad.)

By the way, it’s somewhat controversial but some doctors will recommend “sedating” your baby or young child for a long flight using a medicine such as Benadryl. If you decide to go this route, make sure you get the proper dosing for your child’s weight and give it a trial run before the flight as some children actually become hyper on the medicine instead of sleepy, which is obviously the exact opposite of what you want when you’re 30,000 feet in the air in a cramped space with a hundred irritable strangers.

#2. Don’t let the doctor freak you out. I almost starved in El Salvador the first time we went because my doctor told me about all the diseases I would get if I ate unwashed fruit or vegetables, or if I drank the water. And I was constantly stressed and vigilant in preventing well-meaning relatives from slipping my baby a bite of food from their plates. I’m not saying it isn’t possible to get sick from contaminated food, but don’t let this be something you’re constantly paranoid about to the point that it ruins your trip. On our second trip to El Salvador I ate with reckless abandon. I ate a torta from a market stall that didn’t even have a proper sink for the owner to wash their hands. I survived.

cocina

Instead of worrying about food poisoning and other food borne illnesses, focus on trying to prevent more likely and dangerous possibilities – such as your child wandering off. This may be overboard, but I had dog tags made with our local address in El Salvador in case they became lost. If your child doesn’t know the language well or the address of where you’re staying, knowing they have the address on them at all times will ease some of your anxiety.

dogtags

#3. Packaged foods are a lifesaver. Even if you and your child happily eat from vendors, markets, and the kitchens of your in-laws, it’s possible that at some point your child is going to want the comfort that only familiar packaged food can provide. If you can find the room in your luggage, pack a few favorites – a jar of peanut butter, a box of Cheerios, granola bars, etc. For a baby, consider packing baby food (avoid glass jars) and their formula in case you can’t find them at your destination.

Local authentically prepared meals are sure to be delicious, but don’t be ashamed if you feel the need to visit a local fast food place once in awhile. (Thank you Pollo Campero and Biggest for keeping me sane.)

pollo-campero-hat

#4. It’s okay to be over-prepared. It’s better to be a little over-prepared than under-prepared. Think of all the things you use at home for your baby throughout the day, realize that some of them may not be easy to find at your destination, and pack accordingly. (Bottles, extra nipples, bottle liners, a specific brand of lotion or baby shampoo, diaper or wipe that you prefer, etc.) … If your child has a favorite blanket or toy, see if you can buy a duplicate to keep stowed away in case one gets lost during your travels.

Keep a sufficient amount of these items in your carry-on luggage in case of unexpected delays. (Wipes are especially useful for all kinds of messes so keep tons on you at all times.)

Don’t forget any prescriptions and all your preferred medicines for everything from pain/headaches, cramps, stomachache, itchiness, diarrhea, and allergies to motion sickness, (for yourself and for your child.)

If there’s any possibility of menstruating on your trip, bring your preferred feminine products as well.

Oh, and sunscreen. Bring the sunscreen and use it. If you think you stick out like a sore thumb, you’ll stick out even more if your skin is lobster red.

#5. Prepare for takeoff. For babies and young children, the worst part of the flight is takeoff and landing because of the pressure changes in their little ears. If your child is old enough, give them gum to chew. If the child is too young for gum, have them suck on a pacifier or bottle.

There’s no shame in using electronics to keep little ones quiet and occupied at the airport and on the airplane. Let them play apps on your smartphone the entire flight if it helps.

If you have an older child who has been wanting a specific toy for awhile, buy it and let him know he’s going to receive it on the flight. (Don’t let him play with it before then or it will lose its charm.) Keep a “fun bag” of random things to entertain your child – preferably new things they’ve never played with before. Cracker Barrel’s store is a great place to buy things like that. Some suggestions: Sticker books, coloring and activity books with crayons, a mini Etch-a-sketch, Rubick’s cube, Wooly Willy, slide puzzles – (The classics work best!)

#6. Mosquitoes are nothing to play with. Depending on where exactly you’re going and the time of year, chances are you and your baby or small child will come into contact with more mosquitoes than you knew ever existed on this planet. Not only will they make you itch, but some transmit diseases such as Chikungunya in El Salvador. Before you travel, ask your relatives if they have mosquito netting to cover the area you’ll be sleeping – if not, bring some. Also bring along mosquito repellent to put on your bodies as well. If your hosts offer to burn a mosquito coil (it looks like a green spiral), ask them not to. These coils are popular in some parts of Latin America but research has shown that they’re extremely toxic to breathe.

mosquito-bites

(By the way, I’m convinced mosquitoes prefer gringa blood because no one was ever getting bit up as much as I was.)

#7. The hammock is your friend. Most babies love to be rocked but you most likely won’t have access to any fancy contraptions like you have back home. Make use of any available hammocks to rock babies to sleep, (but don’t leave them unattended.)

hammock-baby

#8. Stay hydrated. This seems like a no-brainer but when you’re busy, overwhelmed, stressed, in hot weather, and have to seek out bottled water since the tap water is off limits (or turned off completely), you’d be surprised how quickly you and your child could become dehydrated. Avoid caffeine the day you travel and drink water on your flight and at the airport as soon as you get off the plane. Grab some bottles to take with you to your destination and find out as soon as possible where you’ll be able to buy more when needed.

latinaish-waterbag

(You can tell by his eyes, my younger son was getting a little dehydrated on an outing during our most recent trip to El Salvador so we stopped at the first place we found selling water.)

#9. Expect the unexpected no matter how much you prepare. Ask others who have visited the area what it’s like and have them tell you in as much detail as possible. Even after the most thorough research though, you may find that you were woefully unprepared to face such a different lifestyle even for a short period of time. Take some deep breaths (Inhala…Exhala…), and try to go with the flow.

bath-tub

#10. Take plenty of photos. This is an incredibly special moment in your child’s life, and if they’re very young, they may not remember it well or at all. Take photos of your child with all their relatives and keep a little journal of what you do each day while there. These will make a cherished keepsake for your child later. Before you know it your return flight will be departing to take you home, and while half of you will be relieved that you can come back to familiar food, hot showers, drinkable tap water, modern appliances, child-safe locks, and air conditioning – the other half of you is going to wish you could have stayed a little longer now that you were finally getting the hang of things.

latinaish_carlosbus

La Cerca (The Fence)

Image source: Orange Grove Media

Image source: Orange Grove Media

Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. If you participated in Spanish Friday on your own blog, leave your link in comments. Scroll down for English translation!

Uno no siempre puede saber todo sólo mediante observar. Ser observador es importante, pero sólo si uno recuerda que como ser humanos, nuestra abilidad de ver algo con los ojos y destilar la verdad, es imperfecto, limitado e influenciado por nuestras propias emociones, experiencias, y creencias.

Tomemos por ejemplo esta sencilla cerca. ¿Por qué estaba construida? ¿Los dueños quieren privacidad? ¿Es por protección o un sentido de seguridad? ¿Quieren previnir que salga su mascota o sus niños? ¿O que no entran extraños y animales desconocidos? ¿Tal vez van a construir una piscina o tienen un perro que muerde, y no quieren poner sus vecinos en peligro? ¿Es por razones estéticas, que se ve bonita la propiedad? ¿Quizás quieren vender la casa y están agregando valor a la propiedad? o es que ¿No quieren que su vecino les moleste?

Lo único que sabemos es que hay una cerca, pero no podemos saber por cierto por qué hay una cerca sin preguntar a los dueños. Pero ¿por qué estoy hablando de las cercas y los supuestos? Estos pensamientos se inspiraron en una hermosa serie que he estado leyendo en The New York Times. La serie se llama “The Way North“, y se trata de la inmigración.

The Way North: Day 25” es una entrevista con una mujer que se llama Francene en Wichita, Kansas. Francene ha vivido toda su vida en Wichita en la misma propiedad. Ella cuenta tanto las experiencias positivas y negativas que ha tenido con los inmigrantes mexicanos en la communidad que han estado moviendo a las casas en su vecindad. Ella contó sobre jovenes mexicanos que quebrarón una ventana, y entraron en un edificio de su propiedad, dañaron y robaron cosas. Contó también del hombre mexicano y su hijo que hicieron las reparaciones a la ventana y trataron de cobrar menos por la reparación porque se sentían mal por lo que le pasó. Una parte de la historia menciona a la familia mexicana que vive detrás de la casa de Francene. Anteriormente Francene les llevaba sandías cada domingo durante sus barbacoas familiares … hasta que se construyó una cerca.

Al final del artículo, nos encontramos con Leonel, el vecino mexicano que vive detrás Francene – El mismo vecino que construyó la cerca. Cuando el escritor del artículo hablo con Leonel y le dijo cómo se sentía Francene, Leonel expresó sorpresa. “¿En serio?” dijo Leonel. “Ella es una buena persona. Yo no sabía que iba a molestarse. Simplemente lo hicimos para hacer la casa más bonita.”

Esta historia me puso muy triste, porque estos tipos de malentendidos y suposiciones dividen a la gente más que la cerca física. Es una lección de no saltar a conclusiones.

¿Qué “cerca” estás malinterpretando en tu vida?

[ENGLISH TRANSLATION]

One can not always know everything simply by observing. Being observant is important, but only if one remembers that as human beings, our ability to see something with our eyes and distill the truth is imperfect, limited, and influenced by our own emotions, experiences, and beliefs.

Let’s take for example this simple fence. Why was in built? Did the owners want privacy? Is it for protection or a sense of security? Do they want to prevent their pet or children from going out? Or prevent strangers and unknown animals from coming in? Maybe they’re going to build a pool or they own a dog that bites, and they don’t want to put their neighbors in danger? Is it for aesthetic reasons, to make the property look nice? Perhaps they want to sell the house and they added the fence to increase the property value? Do they not like their neighbor and want to make it more difficult for that neighbor to bother them?

The only thing we know is that there is a fence, but we can’t know for sure why there is a fence without asking the owners. But why am I even talking about fences and assumptions? These thoughts were inspired by a beautiful series I’ve been reading in The New York Times. The series is called “The Way North“, and it’s about immigration.

The Way North: Day 25” is an interview with a woman named Francene in Wichita, Kansas. Francene has lived all her life in Wichita on the same property. She recounts experiences both positive and negative that she’s had with the Mexican immigrants in the community who have been moving into her neighborhood. There are the Mexican teenagers who broke a window, entered a building on her property, damaged and stole things. There is the Mexican man and his child who made the repairs to her window and tried to undercharge her for the repair because they felt badly about what had happened to her. One part of the article mentions the Mexican family that lives behind Francene’s house. Francene used to bring them watermelons each Sunday during their family barbeques… until they built a fence.

At the end of the article, we meet Leonel, the Mexican neighbor who lives behind Francene’s house – the neighbor that built the fence. When Leonel was told how Francene felt, he expressed surprise. “For real?” Leonel said, “She’s a nice person. I didn’t know it was going to bother her. We just did it to make the house look nice.”

This story made me really sad, because these types of misunderstandings and assumptions divide people even more than the actual physical fence. It’s a lesson in not jumping to conclusions.

What “fence” might you be misinterpreting in your life?

Atol de Avena

atol-de-avena-latinaish

When my suegra lived with us, she used to buy oatmeal, which she called by one name and one name only – “Quacker.” This used to make me crazy because “Quacker” sounds like a nickname for a duck, but it was her mispronunciation of the brand name “Quaker Oats” – and perhaps it’s a common mispronunciation in El Salvador, the same way Corn Flakes are called “Con Fleis” – I honestly don’t know if it was a suegra thing or a Salvadoran thing.

When my suegra would make oatmeal though, she didn’t even attempt to decipher the directions on the can; the result was more like soup than anything I previously recognized as the thick, lumpy oatmeal of my childhood. I told her many times that you aren’t supposed to add that much water or milk, but she would only look at me like I was stupid and sip her oatmeal out of her favorite cumbo.

It was only years later that I found out what “atol de avena” is – and realized that my suegra had never been attempting to make American-style oatmeal in the first place. So, here is a lesson in humility, a reminder that there isn’t always one right answer, and a recipe for “atol de avena” which I am sipping right now, suegra-style.

Atol de Avena

2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick (and/or ground cinnamon)
1 cup uncooked oatmeal (I use Quaker Oats 100% Natural Whole Grain Old Fashioned)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk (I used 2%)
4 packed tablespoons brown sugar or other sweetener (see directions below)

Directions:

1. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring 2 cups water, a cinnamon stick, salt, and oatmeal to a boil. (If you don’t have a cinnamon stick, you can add ground cinnamon to taste later.)

2. Reduce heat to a simmer. Stir continuously for about 3 minutes.

3. Add milk and stir until heated through. Remove from heat.

4. While still warm, you’ll want to add the sweetener. I usually use brown sugar, (4 packed tablespoons), but you can use piloncillo, dulce de atado, or dulce de panela. My suegra never would have added more sugar than this as she doesn’t like things overly sweet, but feel free to add more if you don’t find it sweet enough. You can also add ground cinnamon for more flavor as this recipe yields a very mild tasting atol de avena.

5. Serve warm. Makes about 4 cups.