The Difference Between a House and a Home: Latino Experiences in Baton Rouge

By Dominic Bordelon


Latinos are an increasingly important subject of Anglo-American political, economic, social, and cultural discourse. In listening to such discussion, it is too easy to think of Latinos as a group that is monolithic and not driven by individual motivations, so I wanted to hear personal perspectives. This essay presents individual Latinos telling their own personal stories about immigration to the United States, and discussing what "home" and community mean to them now. Through interviews, written exchanges, and informal conversations, I found that in Baton Rouge, where there is not a large Latino community, channels of communication such as the telephone and mass media are used to form and maintain folk groups. Social institutions and cultural expressions from the places of origin remain significant among these immigrants. Trends of human migration and communication technology are simultaneously separating groups and bringing them back together in different ways, challenging our ideas of what folk groups are and how their members communicate.

Taquerias (small restaurants) frequently become informal gathering places in Baton Rouge. Photo: Dominic Bordelon.

While Hispanics (to use the U.S. Census term) are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, Louisiana and Baton Rouge in particular have small Hispanic communities. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, about 108,000 Hispanics live in Louisiana (2.4% of the overall population) and about 7,400 of those live in East Baton Rouge Parish (1.8% of the EBRP population). However, these numbers are growing rapidly, especially since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as reflected in newspaper reportage as well as anecdotal evidence from both Anglo-Americans and Latinos.

There has been some debate over the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino." "Hispanic" was a term created by the U.S. government for demographic purposes to indicate people with Spanish ancestry; because of its origin and emphasis of European ancestry, many reject this label in favor of "Latino" (though others prefer "Hispanic" precisely because of its European implications). "Latino," as used in the U.S., is an abbreviated form of Latinoamericano, and is often favored for its emphasis of American (meaning in this case "of the Americas") ancestry, especially as it relates to mestizaje (racial mixture) among Spanish, indigenous, and African peoples (Morales 2002:1-3). (Additionally, some have adopted "Latino/a" as a way of removing a perceived bias in the Spanish language that favors male word endings (-o) in situations of ambiguity or groups of mixed gender.) My consultants used "Hispanic" and "Latino" interchangeably, perhaps indicating the absence of a strongly politicized Latino community in Baton Rouge. For my own writing, I have chosen "Latino," more for personal familiarity than any other reason.

I chose this area of study for several reasons.1 I first became interested in Latino cultures through taking college Spanish classes. My interest in the Spanish language and the cultures that speak it developed slowly over several semesters, and eventually I became fascinated by Latino culture in the United States. In a broader way, I have always been interested in immigrants and how their worldviews differ from those of the U.S. "mainstream" (if such a thing can be said to exist). Finally, it seems important to understand the recent trends in immigration as the newest phase in one of the overarching motifs of our culture, that of the U.S. as a basically immigrant nation.

All of the people I interviewed for this project were first-generation immigrants and migrants from Puerto Rico. I first met Hiram Molina, a fellow LSU student from Puerto Rico, in an Old English class at Louisiana State University. Hiram, twenty-four years old at the time of our interview, came to the U.S. when he was thirteen because his father's company was closing its Puerto Rico location, and he was offered a job in New Orleans instead.

Francisco and Pedro Alcántar, brothers from Mexico, are in their mid- and late-twenties. They came to the United States about five years ago on work permits, and they work together at the New Orleans Po-Boy Restaurant.

Kim Azenara is a Spanish professor whose classes I have taken in the past. She is also Puerto Rican, and came to Baton Rouge when she was twenty-one to attend the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, though she became disillusioned and changed her major to Spanish.

Rosario, a waitress, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico in her late thirties. Because she works very long shifts, she did not have enough time to do a face-to-face interview with me, but she did write responses to a set of questions that I gave her. Like Francisco and Pedro, she came to Baton Rouge hoping for economic gains.

Leidy Etheridge is a Costa Rican in her early thirties who came to the U.S. about nine years ago. She originally came because she likes to travel and she had a friend here with whom she was able to stay for a long time. Due to the difference in the diet here, she soon gained weight and then didn't want to return home without losing weight first. She felt that her family would judge her. It took her several months to work the weight off, and by that time she had met her future husband, a Louisianan. When she was about to return to Costa Rica, he proposed to her, and she has lived here since. I met Leidy in Spanish class, and although I was unable to schedule a formal interview with her, she has provided me with valuable material through our many, long telephone conversations.

The very notion of seeking out "Latino folklore: as such is problematic: one of my consultants, Hiram, warned that this kind of pan-ethnicity is "artificial" and very secondary to individual nationalisms. In other words, Latin Americans in the U.S. perhaps have less in common than Anglo-Americans tend to think, and therefore U.S. Latino culture is more amorphous and nebulous than it may seem to outsiders. Folklorist Laurie Sommers, in her article "Inventing Latinismo," proposes that the primary unifying elements for U.S. Latinos are "a warm, spontaneous, spiritual 'personality,' which contrasts with the cold, materialistic Anglo-American character, and a shared cultural heritage of mestizaje . . ., the influence of the Catholic Church, and the lingua franca of the Spanish language" (1991:36).

However, working against this latinismo are tensions created by differences in national and cultural origins. For example, Sommers found that Mexico has considerably less African influence than Caribbean nations because of colonial-era demographics; therefore, the types of music produced in these places are quite different from one another. Through her research in San Francisco, Sommers found that these tensions were consciously addressed in an effort to create latinismo, and only sometimes resolved (and temporarily at that) through performance of both unique and mutual cultural symbols in Latino festivals.

Grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants are the most visible signs of the Latino presence in Baton Rouge.

Anglo-Americans are generally unaware of the differences that exist among members of different U.S. Latino cultures. For instance, it was not until I went to a taqueria frequented by Latinos that I realized that the salsa and merengue music I had heard at "Mexican" restaurants for years was, in fact, out-of-place. National origins are very consciously considered in the Latino community. When I was beginning this project and approached Hiram, a Puerto Rican, I told him I would be interviewing "Latino immigrants." Admittedly, this was a poor choice of words, and he quickly responded, "Oh, we're not immigrants, we're citizens." Leidy, a Costa Rican, complained to me of machismo among Cubans and Mexicans. Jose, a friend who is a self-identified Chicano (a U.S.-born person of Mexican ancestry, though the label sometimes has political implications) also complained of Mexican immigrants' machismo, and, ironically, of their strong work ethic. When Leidy complained to me that there was no good food in the Baton Rouge area, and I naively suggested one of the local taquerias, she said that their food is Mexican, and not at all like Costa Rican food.

This panderia, or bakery, is next to one of the larger grocery stores, or supermercados, in Baton Rouge. Photo: Dominic Bordelon.

This national consciousness is maintained by a connection to "home" both through mass media (in the form of both news and entertainment) and personal channels. Leidy spoke of problems with Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica, and Kim spoke ofpr oblems with economics and overpopulation; both seemed to be speaking from informal "folk" sources rather than official ones. These connections are not concerned only with societal issues, though. Leidy recounted to me some of the conflicts in her family—which she herself becomes involved in, through phone conversations.

Despite the many differences among Latino groups in the U.S., there are nevertheless connections on some levels, especially through a shared minority language. Sommers observes that "the Spanish language undoubtedly is the most pervasive and powerful symbol of hispanidad [i.e., Hispanicness], even for those Latinos who are not fluent" (1991:36). This form of connection is probably even more important in places with small Latino communities, where newcomers may not find a group of others from their own country, but they can at least find someone who speaks their (first) language. In these situations, it seems as though national and cultural differences would be noticeably less important than in the kinds of places described by Sommers. In any event, there is by now a shared Latino identity.even if it is very diverse, perhaps linked only artificially by language at times, and at others defined in terms of its shared differences from Anglo-American culture.

I began my interviews by asking my consultants about growing up in their place of origin, and they all remember these places very fondly. In these memories, people seem to be of greatest importance: all of my consultants cited the closeness of families and communities. Kim described a feeling of "union" (unity) and said of Puerto Rico that "your neighbors are your family" and "the island is so small, that wherever you're from, you basically know everybody" (Azenara 2006). According to Hiram, part of this intimacy, especially in Puerto Rico, derives from physical closeness:

My neighbors were much closer, or rather, we were much closer to our neighbors than over here. Like one of the big things, is that we're physically closer, since the houses were closer together, so you would have to see your neighbors, you know. So you'd become friends with them. (Molina 2006)

Leidy complained to me that her Anglo-American husband doesn.t keep in touch with his family like he should, and that Americans in general aren.t close enough to their families—accordingly, she scolded me, too, in the process.

The landscapes of the places themselves are important, too. Hiram says of his returns to Puerto Rico, "I love being able to see the mountains, too [in addition to family], and being able to go up the mountains." Kim also remembers Puerto Rico's landscape fondly:

Just driving. . . I remember we had family that lived in the country and we used to go and visit them on the weekends, and just driving through the rainforest, looking, and just—all that vegetation, and all that nature, and just having water everywhere around you. . . you know, was just amazing. I mean, I just basically lived in the water. There's really not much else to do in Puerto Rico, you know, than go to the beach, or water-ski, or learn how to scuba, or things like that. But oh yeah, it was wonderful.

Similarly, Leidy always told me about the beautiful rainforests of Costa Rica. Francisco said of his Puerto Vallarta: "It was nice, it's nice. It's nice for business and for living, too. It's nice weather, nice view of the beach, right there. It's a lot of fun" (Alcantar 2006).

One of the most noticeable differences among my consultants was their motivation for and attitude about coming here. Francisco and Pedro, working-class Mexicans, came for economic reasons:

Life was good, sort of. Until you need more money, [. . .] you desire something, like a car, a place to live, then we decided to come to America.

We decided to come to America whenever we were old enough [. . .] when we were mature enough to go somewhere else, try something different. (Alcántar 2006)

Pedro echoed their goal of finding prosperity in the U.S., and added, "We come for the same, you know, dream." Rosario, who came for the same reasons but emphasized the importance of her family in the decision, wrote, "Coming here is a goal to continue forward and to have wealth or a better life for my relatives and children."2 She later added, "In Mexico you kill yourself working and at the same time there's little money. And here you live better; [as for] work, [here] there's a lot, and in Mexico there's not. That's why all us Mexicans cross the border, to get a better life."3

Pedro and Francisco weren't concerned about financial risks in coming here:

Francisco: In my case, well I was thinking I wasn't going to suffer too much because I was going to come [to live] with my sisters, so I wasn't worried about living-wise, or food-wise, you know. I didn't have any money on me.

Dominic: Right, you had nothing to lose.

Francisco: Yeah, nothing to lose over there, nothing to lose over here. Just, you know, try it. Yeah, so I said, "I got enough money for the bus, I pay for the bus, I go over there." (Alcantar 2006)

Clearly, already having family in the area, as well as the closeness that characterizes Latino families, provides an important haven for newcomers in terms of both psychological and financial comfort. (Kim similarly chose LSU instead of Ohio State for school because her aunt already lived in Baton Rouge.) Francisco said that they were excited, and not really scared at all about coming here. Pedro added, "No, not really because um, in Mexico the situation is not good but it's not bad. But, anyway when you have something [in] mind, you don't care nothing." He then opined that going to any place is dangerous, but that as long as people are willing to work to achieve their dream of prosperity, they won't have problems.

My Puerto Rican consultants, however, had much different attitudes. Hiram did not want to come at all, but was forced to because of his father's job being relocated. Kim was more interested—she was coming to attend vet school—but she still had reservations: "Oh gosh, I was scared. I was very scared. The only thing that made me feel better was that I knew [. . .] that I had family over here." Both Kim and Hiram came from middle-class families and private schools, so they seemingly felt greater risks in relocating.

Rosario too felt nervous, but for her it was because of the clandestine nature of her journey from Mexico: "To come here I prepared myself mentally because I came here without migration papers. And how did I feel? I felt nervous[ness] and sadness because I was leaving a very nice place and [going] apart from my family [. . . .]"4 Though she comes from a similar background to the Alcántar brothers, she seems to have had stronger family ties, and the voyage itself was quite risky. While the excitement of the "American Dream" accompanies some journeys, so does trepidation in many cases.

When I began this project, I thought I might be able to focus on the journey itself—what were the last few days at home like, how did one prepare oneself, what was going through their mind during the trip, what was the first moment off the plane or bus like? I had thought of analyzing immigration as a rite of passage, using Arnold van Gennep's model of ritual transformation.5 To my surprise, none of my consultants seemed to remember their journey in great detail, or perhaps my questioning could have been refined to better access this kind of information. The interviews themselves forced me to refocus on what people actually did describe, including adjustment, concepts of home, community, and identity.

Once my consultants did arrive in the United States, they seemed to experience little culture shock, which surprised me. Part of this was because mass media sources prepared them, especially in Puerto Rico. Hiram told how he read the American magazine Nintendo Power and watched American television shows. Kim said, "We're so much like the United States, [. . .] we have Sam's, we have Costco—we don't even have a Costco here in Louisiana. I mean, we are just like the United States." However, folk sources were also important in preparing the consultants, as Francisco said: "Actually my expectations—I knew it because of my family over here, you know, how was the situation. 'The situation is like this right here, you need to do this, this thing, this thing, don't do this, don't do that, do this, do that,' so it was easy."

Latino immigrants experience other problems in addition to culture shock. Frequently, foremost among these is language, though my consultants didn't report great difficulties with English—except for Rosario, who speaks little English, but lives in such a way that she doesn't need to use it often. As one would expect, an immigrant's English skills upon arriving strongly correlate with social class (and therefore, usually, education) and place of origin (more specifically, the place's relationship to the United States). Accordingly, Hiram and Kim, both middle-class Puerto Ricans, said they didn't really have any problems with the language. Both attended private schools where English as a second language was important, and Kim's mother had been raised in New York. The strong presence of U.S. culture and the English language contributed to their fluency, of course; in addition, the kind of mobility that Kim.s mother had is much more likely in a Puerto Rican family because of the island's political status as a U.S. territory. Kim's only language problems were with idioms: "Like, 'letting the cat out of the bag.' I was like, 'Huh?'" Hiram had a nonchalant attitude at the time: "I just came over here, I was just like, 'Whatever, I know English. I don't need to worry about anything.'"

Latinos from other regions, especially those of the working class, have more difficulty, however. Francisco and Pedro described previously having a low level of ability and the necessity of learning English to live in Baton Rouge:

Francisco: We knew some [English], the basics, you know, we was working over there as a waiters, you know, we—

Dominic: Is that how you learned it?

Pedro: Yeah, yeah, we only know [how] to say "thank you." [laughs]

Francisco: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, the basics, you know. "How you doing," "What you need," things like that. But, yeah.

Pedro: The thing what made it difficult, because my English now is bad too.

Dominic: Oh, it's not so bad.

Pedro: —a couple of years ago, it was really bad, but you have to make some, you know. No Spanish around, nowhere. Nowhere. (Alcantar 2006)

Francisco also spoke about places where a Spanish speaker can manage to live without ever having to learn English, but he said that Baton Rouge was not one of these. (Perhaps Rosario would disagree.) He sees this as a positive aspect, however: "I like that way, because you know, you can learn something else."

Regardless of their skill with English, my consultants described feelings of isolation. Hiram described a feeling of being "different":

Hiram: One of the things I remember most is like, hearing the radio [. . . .] The radio is something that you take for granted as mundane, [. . .] and then when you hear radio in a different language, you really feel like a foreigner. [. . . .]

Dominic: So you, you really felt like a foreigner, then, even though you weren't.

Hiram: At some point I did, I don't know. I definitely felt different. [. . . .] I kind of avoided people for a while, I think, so. . . I felt different but whenever I did encounter people, you know, I realized I felt more different than I actually was. (Molina 2006)

Kim described a similar phase, during which she experienced depression.

I didn't really have anybody to talk to, and I was—I don't know, when I came here, for some reason I was not into making friends [. . . .] I don't know if I thought I was cheating my friends in Puerto Rico, making new friends over here, "I really don't want to make friends and [. . . ] sembrar raíces, to plant roots." [. . . .] So I didn't want to get attached to anything when I came, I didn't want to make friendships that were going to, you know, hurt me. (Azenara 2006)

It was only once the rest of Kim.s family joined her here that she felt like Baton Rouge was "home." Francisco and Pedro did not report such feelings, but Francisco nevertheless said that he would always feel marked by his accent: "We can probably work in the English better [than before], but we're always going to have the accent, you know the things that [. . .] make you know from where we are." Though Rosario didn't describe feeling alienated, she indicated having an insular life here because of her inexperience with the local culture: "I'm almost completely unfamiliar with this place, so I don't know much about it, but I imagine that [. . .] it has a very nice culture."6 Leidy complained that everyone here in her age group (early thirties) has children, and since she doesn't want to have any, she doesn't feel like she can fit in with her peers.

In order to cope with these feelings, Latinos maintain cultural practices from their homeland as a way of taking solace in the familiar and keeping their sense of identity. The ways of doing this vary greatly by origin and even by individual. Naturally, all of my consultants maintain relationships in Spanish, especially with the family and the friends they still have "back home." For Hiram, this is almost the only way in which he maintains Puerto Rican culture, as he speaks Spanish with his parents and feels distanced from the culture in other ways. Though this choice of language is such a basic (and perhaps subconscious) expression of culture, it is still relevant; even though a particular consultant's family lives in a broader English-speaking culture, and many of them have the fluency to communicate with each other in English, they choose to speak to each other Spanish.

One of the most important of these connections to "home" is personal communication, usually by telephone. Kim related having talked to her best friend from Puerto Rico recently because it had been Kim's birthday, and on another occasion she told our class a story about a present she had received in the mail from Puerto Rico. Rosario wrote that she maintains a connection with home by telephone and the internet. Leidy told me that the money her husband spends on cigarettes should be spent on calling cards instead. She also told me of a conflict in her family which she felt moved to become involved in, even though she could only do so by phone.

Besides these close personal connections, cultural patterns from home are evoked to remember distant places (and times, for some). These are many and various. For instance, Francisco and Pedro are avid futbol (soccer) fans who watch the Liga Mexicana (Mexican League) on Univision, a cable Spanish-language channel. One day during the World Cup 2006, I walked into their restaurant and asked Francisco which countries he was rooting for, and he quickly rattled off a list without having to think about it. Though the brothers don't play soccer—because they don't have time with as many hours as they work—watching the games and following the struggles of their favorite teams is a way to enact their Mexican identity, just as many Anglo-Americans express senses of community—geographic, or imagined in other ways—through sports such as American football and baseball. In his article "Fútbol Nation," Christopher Shinn writes, "For Latino communities, given the history of futbol in Latin America and their ties to this history, the game clearly constitutes a source of Latino/a pride, cultural tradition, popular folklore, and psychic and social connection to distant homelands" (2002:240). Though Francisco and Pedro are not an active part of a local Latino community, except for that of their family, being fans of this sport and of particular teams nevertheless makes them part of an imagined community (or communities) with a broad geographic distribution.

Food is another important cultural expression for Latinos, as it is for other groups. While there are only a handful of taquerias in the Baton Rouge area, they accommodate a great deal of business from Latinos. These restaurants boast "authentic Mexican food" on their signs and menus, which are primarily in Spanish, with English translations. These restaurants, centered on Mexican food that is not adjusted for the Anglo-American palate, become a place for socialization among their mostly Latino patrons. There is always a telenovela or Latino music of one kind or another (frequently the ranchera music of Mexico) playing over the televisions. When I asked Francisco about one such place, it started us on a conversation about the different places to find "authentic" Mexican food in our area. Obviously he has eaten at all of them regularly and this food reminds him of home. Kim described potluck dinners with her church group in which everyone brought a dish from their home country, a simultaneous expression of "comfort food" and of latinismo. Unfortunately for Leidy, there are no Costa Rican restaurants here and she doesn't know how to cook. She has told me on multiple occasions that she longs for arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). This is intertwined with a longing for Costa Rica itself as well.

Music and dance are also prominent cultural expressions of Latino communities. Of course, as with other creative endeavors, different types of music are coded to different regions of origin. By performing and listening to different forms of music, individuals or groups can negotiate an identity specific to either their homeland or a broader Latino identity. Preferences for specific national or regional styles are further layered by generational differences and a variety of subgenres. For instance, when I attended the LSU Spanish Department's Open House, professors selected and played a broad range of music CDs. Despite differences in generation and national origin, the professors sang the lyrics together, suggesting that music is indeed one front where panethnicity has truly taken hold. Cultural distinctions are maintained, but the boundaries seem porous and flexible, allowing the participation of people of diverse origins in the same communal expressions. Although the recorded songs, like the televised fútbol matches, are experienced through the mass media, they carry personal meaning and reinforce bonds even on the local level.

Music's personal meaning does not seem to be thwarted by its (seemingly) impersonal sources in mass culture. At the same Open House, Hiram commented that one of the songs, which happened to be Puerto Rican, embarrassed him. I asked what he meant, so he answered, "Well, when you hear this, you hear something exotic. But to me it sounds like old-people music, it's like the music my parents listen to." For Hiram, playing such music was parading an outdated aesthetic that is best left forgotten; he rejected the nostalgic feelings that others might ascribe to it as being from a distant, beloved place and time. On the other hand, one day I asked Kim if she knew a couple of old Puerto Rican songs whose titles I was familiar with: "Bajo un Palmar" (Under a Place Where Palms Grow) and "En mi Viejo San Juan" (In My Old San Juan). Without being prompted, she happily sang these songs in their entirety, even though she had not heard them in about twenty years. For her, they were a way of remembering home.

Religion is profoundly important to Latino cultures, and Sommers lists it as one of the four main unifying elements of U.S. Latino panethnicity (1991:36). Three of my consultants mentioned church as a significant point in their discussion of coming here, even though I didn't think to ask them about it. For Kim, the Latino community at St. George Church was a haven that helped her adapt to her new situation:

Kim: They have Spanish Mass on Saturdays, and they have a community of Hispanic people that [. . .] have dances. . . . So my aunt had joined this, [. . . .] When I came to Louisiana, I met all of my aunt's friends, who were Hispanic.

Dominic: And they adopted you.

Kim: You know, they were all Hispanic, they were from Honduras, they were from El Salvador, they were from Mexico. They cooked Spanish—they spoke Spanish; they barely spoke English, a lot of them. [. . . .] We get together at somebody's house for Mother's Day, we get together. And for Christmas. "What are y'all doing—oh, you're not going home for Christmas? Come over." All of my mom's friends are Hispanic. She's baptized so many of these people's kids. You know, she's like everybody's madrina [godmother], everybody calls her "madrina" [. . . .] It.s a little bit easier, you know, when you come and you have that. (Azenara 2006)

Many Latino communities are truly church-oriented, as illustrated by Kim's discussion of her mother's relationship to the community in terms of her religious role. The church seems to be an extension of the family that is so important to Latinos. Kim continued by describing her church group's trips, potluck dinners, and dances, and finished by saying, "So I had that to kind of help the transition." Besides their spiritual functions, churches serve as hubs for communal life.

Hiram and Leidy took issue with how Catholicism is practiced here as compared to their places of origin. Hiram disapproved of English-language Catholic Mass here, including the lax attitude of some congregants:

I was surprised as to how irreligious a lot of people here were. You know, like people would be like, "Oh, I'm Catholic," and they would go to Mass, and they would all go to Communion. But they would also, you know, lie, and do things like that. In Latin America, people are more strict about whether they can go to Communion or not. [. . . .] If we lie, or do something that's kind of wrong, we have to go confess" [. . .] And then you have to go pray. And then, you know, otherwise you can't go to Communion. So, I was surprised by how many people went up there. (Molina 2006)

Kim lamented that Christmas is much more commercialized here than in Puerto Rico, and that lately Christmas there is becoming more ”American.” As for Hiram, he didn’t find what he wanted in Spanish Mass either:

Church in Puerto Rico tends to be sort of in between the way that church in English is over here and the way that church in Spanish is over here. Over here, well at least the church we went to, they would play music and stuff, and we were like, "What the hell is this?" Like they were really lively and so on, and the priest would talk for so long, and he would be all emotional and so on, and I'm like, "Man, this is kind of new." We were kind of put off by that, because that's a little more emotional than we expected. (Molina 2006)

This contributed to Hiram's sense of isolation and the dilemma he felt as a multicultural person. Leidy described similar feelings with English-speaking churches here, calling them "social clubs" and expressing disgust with the members' posturing and artificiality. In both of these cases, the absence of a community—a church-based community in particular—with similar cultural backgrounds led to feelings of alienation.

The final questions in my interviews explored how the consultants think about "home" and how they identify themselves. Responses to questions about home were overwhelmingly nostalgic. Though I asked about these topics in particular towards the end of the interviews, they sometimes came up before I asked about them, as with Kim when she was describing her childhood experiences: "Island life is so free, and so laid back." She later added, "What's sad about it is, . . . as a kid, . . . I didn't appreciate how beautiful my island was, it wasn't 'til, now I'm older, and I go back, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh,' you know, . . . 'I used to live here, and I didn't . . .'" (Azenara 2006).

Hiram too associates his life in Puerto Rico with a feeling of freedom. He says, "I remember what home felt like, and I remember being a little kid, and going home, and, you know, like just being at my house and being free and so on. And I haven.t felt that in a very long time" (Molina 2006).

Rosario described her life in Veracruz as nice, and she too cited a feeling of freedom there.though in the context of living in the United States illegally: "There you live in freedom. There isn't migration in which you have to go around hiding. You go to the places that you would like to visit."7 Francisco and Pedro, like Rosario earlier, described missing their family in particular:

Dominic: So, uh, is Mexico.I.m sure Mexico is still home?

Francisco: Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, we miss it all the way, yeah.

Pedro: It's not easy, when you live in another country, and . . . your country is around the corner, and it's not easy, you never forget your country, your friends.

Francisco: Especially your family. You know, your father, mother, cousins. (Alcantar 2006)

Here again the motif of the centrality of the family in Latino culture appears.

Although my Puerto Rican consultants identify themselves as Americans—and did so before coming to the mainland—some of my immigrant consultants do not. Francisco and Pedro, though they feel comfortable, nevertheless feel like they will always be apart from Anglo-American culture. Francisco half-joked, "I still have the 'cactus' over here, right here on my forehead."

Throughout the interviews, the question of returning home came up repeatedly. Obviously, since they still live here, all of my consultants were either unable or unwilling to return to their place of origin, at least to live. The Alcantar brothers and Rosario remain here to keep earning money, though they miss their homeland. Francisco's plan was to live here for three years, rather than five he had already spent at the time of our interview. He says, "You get the paycheck, you get only a few dollars for the piggy bank, that's it." Rosario wrote that she hasn't thought about returning home because she is determined to keep building wealth here. Leidy wants to return to Costa Rica but she is tied here by her husband and school. For these consultants, there is a desire to return home, but something here prevents them from doing that.

By contrast, Hiram and Kim don't necessarily feel held back by factors here, but rather by those in Puerto Rico. They don't long to return to today's Puerto Rico—at least not to live; instead, they miss the Puerto Rico of the past. Their love for the island is tempered by their knowledge that they can't recreate the lives they had there before. For Hiram, this takes an ironic twist, as the island hasn't necessarily changed, but he has.

Hiram: I get really shy when I go to Puerto Rico because the last experience I had with the culture for any extended period of time was when I was in middle school, and I wasn't very socially developed. . . . That's a weird psychological thing, like whenever I go back there, I feel kind of like shy again, young again, and it's like I feel really vulnerable. It's really strange-feeling. ...

Dominic: So when you go back, it's kind of like you're Hiram, fourteen years old, again?

Hiram: Thirteen, yeah. . . . . Yeah, that's exactly what it feels like. And I've met . . . I've actually seen people from my middle school again. . . . I just could not relate to them; we grew up apart. . . . . So when I come back over there, I feel so disconnected. And I still do so with a lot of Latin Americans, and I hate that. I mean, I want to connect to them, but, you know, they never gave me the chance, or I had to move too, so. . . . (Molina 2006)

His social development during his years in the U.S. prevents him from reestablishing a comfortable identity in Puerto Rico, which remains connected to the young, shy Hiram. Kim's concerns are on the broader social and economic scale, such as overpopulation and poverty: "It's gone downhill. . . . . Economically, it's in the hole." Though my consultants have different reasons for not returning home, they all share some desire to do so, as well as a bittersweet longing for that inaccessible place.

This shared nostalgia of place can be understood through regionalism, whose basic premise is that groups of people consciously conceive themselves as communities through their shared occupation of a geographic area. In other words, identity is tied to a sense of place. Barbara Allen cites the four fundamental factors of a region as being the physical place itself, the people that inhabit it, the sense of history that they share, and a conscious sense of distinctiveness among the group that differentiates them from other groups (1990:3). Though this model works well as-is throughout much of the U.S., it becomes problematic when applied to groups whose cohesion is not geographic. In a globalized world with a great amount of human traffic, geographic continuities are being disrupted. Arjun Appadurai writes:

As groups migrate, regroup in new locations, reconstruct their histories, and reconfigure their ethnic projects, the ethno in ethnography takes on a slippery, nonlocalized quality[. . . .] [G]roups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogenous. (1996:48)

Regionalism need not be completely discarded, however. Though Latinos are not united by a physical region, and immigrants are necessarily separated from their region of origin, there is an imaginary regionalism at work.

As Pedro said, "You never forget your country." The homeland becomes enshrined in the imagination as a paradise (Otero 2007, 2010). Nostalgia for former stages of life is a seemingly universal motif, but for immigrants it is an especially powerful one because those memories are attached to their own physical place, which is now inaccessible—either because physical travel back to the place is impossible or the place has changed and the enshrined version no longer exists. Though place-bound folk groups experience the same feelings as their environment changes, no single conception of the place is fixed in memory; the historical idea of the place slowly changes. In other words, the degree of change is less noticeable when it is witnessed first-hand through the years. For Latinos of the same homeland, similar, nostalgic versions are shared to create an imaginary region. As an example, Hiram and Kim described similar memories of Puerto Rico.

In the negotiation of diverse cultures that is latinismo, there is perhaps even a shared sense of imagined place among people from different origins. Though the physical landscapes vary, there are nevertheless shared memories of the way of life, especially as defined by its differences from life in the U.S. Though Leidy and Kim are from different countries, they can each appreciate the "laid back" lifestyle that the other describes. Here Sommers' four major commonalities among Latinos—a certain "personality," mestizaje, Catholicism, and the Spanish language—play important roles in permitting the formation of an identity centered on the broad geographic area of Latin America, which is largely imaginary among those who do not live in it. Further, this region is not exclusive of local, geographic regions, such as that of the Latinos in San Francisco about whom Sommers writes.

In diasporic communities such as these, mass media is an important channel of communication in addition to the personal telephone network. Appadurai writes, "More persons [than in the past] throughout the world see their lives through the prisms of the possible lives offered by mass media in all their forms" (1996:53-54). Despite the commodification and depersonalization of expression in mass media, its audience can receive the content on a very personal level. Though Francisco and Pedro are unable to join the fútbol games that they watch in person, and though they cannot interact with the fans at a televised game, they are nevertheless members of a geographically discontinuous community of fans. This is only one of numerous examples of the new kinds of folk groups that have emerged in our increasingly globalized and diasporic nation and world.

These layerings of place and identity beg the question of just how Latinos who do identify as Americans think of themselves and their two homelands. Hiram had this to say:

I don't know, I don't have a place of "home." Like I haven't felt home in forever. . . . . I think ever since I moved, I haven't felt at home, anywhere. . . . . But if I have to call a place home, would it be LSU? No, I don't want it to be LSU. New Orleans doesn't feel like home, but I'm very much drawn to it, there's something about it that I'm drawn to. And Puerto Rico doesn't feel like home mainly because I'm not a member of my peers. . . . Being multicultural sucks. (Molina 2006)

Hiram seems to feel caught between both cultures, not fully belonging to either. Hopefully with time he can find the kind of peace of mind that Kim seems to feel:

They're both home, but Puerto Rico of course is always going to have a special place, because it's, you know, it is. If there's a difference between a house and a home, Louisiana's my house, and Puerto Rico's my home. (Azenara 2006)


1. This essay began as a fieldwork project and term paper for Professor Carolyn Ware's Study of Folklore class at Louisiana State University. I delivered a shorter version at the 2008 Louisiana Folklore Society meeting in New Orleans.

I am indebted to Professor Solimar Otero for her guidance and insights into the Latino imaginary, sense of place, and nostalgia for home.

2. My translation of Rosario's written personal communication on November 28, 2006. Her words were, "[. . .] llegar aquí es una meta para seguir adelante y tener un patrimonio o mejor vida para mis familiares y mis hijos."

3 In the original Spanish, "En mexico te matas trabajando y vez poco dinero[.] Y aqui vives mejor[;] trabajo[,] hay mucho[,] y en mexico[,] no[.] por eso todos los mexicanos cruzamos [la] frontera[,] para dar mejor vida [sic]"

4. "Para venir aqui me prepare mentalmente porque ingrese aqui sin papeles migratorios[.] ¿y como sentia? Sentia nervios[a] y triztesa porque dejaba un lugar muy bonito y aparte a mi familia."

5. See van Gennep, The Rites of Passage.

6. My relatively loose translation of Rosario's statement, "de este lugar no se mucho porque casi no lo conosco. Pero me imagino que [illegible] bien tiene una cultura muy buena."

7. ". . . allá vives en libertad. No hay migración en el cual tengas que andar escondiendo[.] Vas a los lugares que te gustaría conocer." I translated conocer as "to visit" here, though it actually means "to know" (in the sense of having familiarity with something): "You go to the places you would like to know." This translation seemed, to me, awkward and/or unidiomatic in English, so I opted for "visit" instead. I have kept in touch with Rosario over the four years since this fieldwork, and she is much happier now, I think, than at that time. Her husband is now part owner of a taquería, where she works, and they have had a child.


Alcántar, Francisco and Pedro. 23 Oct. 2006. Interview by author.

Allen, Barbara. 1990. Regional Studies in American Folklore Scholarship. In Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures, eds. Barbara Allen and Thomas J. Schlereth, 1-13. Lexington: Univesity Press of Kentucky.

Azenara, Kim. 25 Oct. 2006. Interview by author.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology. In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 48-65. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Molina, Hiram. 23 Oct. 2006. Interview by author.

Morales, Ed. 2002. Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America. New York: LA Weekly Books.

Otero, Solimar. 2007. Barrio, Bodega, and Botanica Aesthetics: The Layered Traditions of the Latino Imaginary. Atlantic Studies 4(2):173-194.

_____. 2010. Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Shinn, Christopher A. 2002. Fútbol Nation: U.S. Latinos and the Goal of a Homeland. In Latino/a Popular Culture, eds. Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero, 240-251. New York: New York University Press.

Sommers, Laurie Kay. 1991. Inventing Latinismo: The Creation of "Hispanic" Panethnicity in the United States. Journal of American Folklore 104 (411): 32-53.

United States Census Bureau. Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000 for Louisiana and East Baton Rouge Parish, U.S. Census Bureau: American FactFinder, (26 November 2006).

This article was first published in the 2010 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Dominic Bordelon is a graduate student at Louisiana State University. It is included as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.