Obesity And Preserving Culture: Latinos Discuss Parenting Challenges

Sep 17, 2013
Originally published on September 17, 2013 6:38 pm

Health, cultural assimilation and language are some of the top concerns on the minds of a group of Latino parents, social media influencers and regular contributors to Tell Me More. Health was something first lady Michelle Obama highlighted in July, when she addressed the National Council of La Raza, the nation's leading Hispanic civil rights organization.

"Right now, nearly 40 percent of Hispanic children in this country are overweight or obese," the first lady said. "Nearly 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes, a disease that is already far too common in so many of our communities. So, while food might be love, the truth is that we are 'loving' ourselves and our kids to death."

A National Council of La Raza study, America's Future: Latino Child Well-Being in Numbers and Trends, published in 2010, found that "children's success in school is ... closely tied to their parents' ability to speak English. Limited English proficiency can limit job opportunities, earnings, access to health care, and the ability of parents to interact with the school system or help their children with homework." Language proficiency in English is a particular challenge to some recent and first-generation immigrants. But for families who have been in the United States for many generations, instilling a sense of connection to their heritage through language can be a challenge as well.

Host Michel Martin invited a group of Latino parents to join a special edition of Tell Me More's weekly parenting round table, and here are some of the thoughts they shared.

Resa Barillas, mother of a 2-year-old son, on the difficulty of choosing the right foods

"With other Latinos and the culture here in America as a whole, really terrible foods are so cheap and easily available and convenient, that it's easy to choose those kind of foods, instead of whole, nutritious foods that are more nourishing and better for our bodies."

Aracely Panameno, mother of a 24-year-old daughter, on why she felt it was important for her daughter to learn Spanish

"It was very important for me for her to learn Spanish, and because I knew that she was in a societal environment where the pressure was going to be anglophone, I insisted that she be bilingual."

NPR reporter Felix Contreras, dad of two boys aged 9 and 12, on whether he has had "the talk" that many black parents feel they have to have with their sons

"Honestly, that never crossed my mind to have that kind of talk. Now certainly, with my oldest, he's going to be 13 next month ... he's very socially aware of inequities and the way things work in the world. And he's conscious of his own Latino and Italian heritage. ... So he sees things a little differently than I think his peers do. So he's conscious and aware of how people can treat people differently sometimes."

For more photos from the live show, look at the album on Tell Me More's Facebook page.

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for our weekly parenting roundtable. Now every week we check in with a diverse group of parents to get their common sense and savvy parenting advice. But in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month we decided to have a special roundtable focusing on Latino moms and dads.

We reached out to a number of our regular contributors about the issues they've been talking about most as parents. So we're going to talk about just a few of those topics today with Felix Contreras. He's a father of two. He's co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino podcast that focuses on new music from Latin America. Aracely Panameno is a mother of one. She's a regular guest in our parenting roundtables. She also works at the Center for Responsible Lending. And also with us is Resa Barillas. She is a mom of one and a contributor to Mamiverse.com. That's a site for Latino parents. Welcome to everyone. Thank you all so much for joining us.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: Now when we reached out to listeners and contributors and people, you know, who follow the program and we asked them - like what is one of the number one concerns that you have? You know, you might be surprised that the number one thing that came up was the health of their kids. And in particular, fighting obesity. Resa, you said that this was a major concern of yours. Could you talk about that?

BARILLAS: It is. Well, my family has - on both sides - has a history of lots of easily preventable diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, high blood pressure - and I mean, they're completely preventable because diet and exercise can completely alter the way that your body responds to genetic markers. So seeing the Latino side of my family especially struck by this is, you know, because of the way they eat. It's high-fat, high sodium, carbs that are so low in complexity and actual nutritious value that, you know, our bodies just are deteriorating before our eyes because of that.

And on top of that, with other Latinos - and really, the culture here in America as a whole - really, terrible foods are so cheap and easily available and convenient that it's easy to choose those kind of foods instead of whole nutritious foods that are more nourishing and better for our bodies.

MARTIN: Felix, let me bring you into the conversation, and I know you're a journalist, like I am, and you know how we love our facts and figures - so, I'm struck by a speech that first lady Michelle Obama gave - you know, first lady Michelle Obama's made fitness, particularly kids' health, a particular focus of her time in Washington. This is a speech she gave to the National Council of La Raza's annual conference in July. I'll just play a short clip.


M. OBAMA: Right now, nearly 40 percent of Hispanic children in this country are overweight or obese. Nearly 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes, a disease that is already far too common in so many of our communities. So, while food might be love, the truth is that we are loving ourselves and our kids to death.

MARTIN: Now, Felix, I know you've got two boys - I know they're very active. They're both, you know, athletic. But is this a sensitive issue? I mean, is this the kind of thing that is hard to talk about because, as the first lady said, you know, food is love and a lot of the heritage foods that many people like do have some, you know, unhealthy attributes if eaten particularly in quantity and regularly. Is it sensitive?

CONTRERAS: I think it is sensitive in a lot of ways. And I'll give you a very quick story. This weekend, we had some people over to the house and my wife, who's Italian-American - she made enchiladas from a recipe that we found on the Internet. And she poured salt in and we couldn't get the sauce right - what's going on? So we called a neighbor over, who's from Texas - who, you know, knows things - and the amount of salt that he put in there to make it taste right was eye-opening.

You know, and we all know - we hear the facts, we hear the figures, as Resa just said, we know what the food is doing to us. But being removed out here on the East Coast from the Mexican-American culture, you know, you can sort of, at a distance with that. And so to be reminded of that was really astounding. Getting back to your question - I think it is sensitive sometimes. You know, how you changed - how you change it up, how you cook. How you...

MARTIN: Is it a hazing thing though in part? Because, you know, I think many of us - people from ethnic backgrounds - we've all had the experience of going to, say, a family reunion and, you know, if somebody goes for the fruit salad, I'll just say it - the people will say, what do you - you know, think you're acting white, for example. Or you're not - kind of the suggestion is made that you're not really part of the culture anymore, that there's kind of a hazing that goes on. Is that something that you feel is a problem?

CONTRERAS: I think it can be. I think I've seen it. I've experienced it in different social situations. You know, it's not always the case - and that's not always the reason but, you know, that can be a problem and, you know - it's just how people in the room react.

MARTIN: Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about language. That's something we were talking about earlier in our conversation about social media. Is it important to you that your kid speaks Spanish? Felix?

CONTRERAS: In our situation, it's a little different. We're in a very unique situation here. Like I said, my background is Mexican-American. I'm, like, second or third generation depending on which side of the family we're talking about, removed from Mexico. So people my age and my family, I think we've more or less lost the connection to the language - as a natural connection.

MARTIN: You didn't speak Spanish to your kids at home?

CONTRERAS: Well, we didn't speak Spanish when we were growing up, OK. My kids, living here in Washington, D.C. area, Montgomery County, are in a Spanish immersion program - and the Montgomery County schools has that program where they learn everything from kindergarten to sixth grade - everything.

MARTIN: So your kids will be more fluent than you are?

CONTRERAS: They're already there.

MARTIN: I'm not being mean. I am just saying.

CONTRERAS: No, no, no it's true. No it's true, it's very true. It's very true.

MARTIN: Aracely, a different experience for you 'cause you come from an immigrant background. You're a first-generation immigrant, right, but your daughter was born here and grew up here. So is it important - I'm asking you to tell her business and now she's a grown young woman, OK, so I know you're going to get in trouble and so am I. I apologize for that. But was it important to you that she spoke Spanish?

ARACELY PANAMENO: It was. It was very important for me for her to learn Spanish and because I knew that she was in a societal environment where the pressure was going to the Anglophone, I insisted that she be bilingual. And that was actually her first ABCs, her first words were Spanish. As a matter of fact, I got in trouble with my African-American side of the family - she's half black - my ex in-law would be upset because she would say, oh, my God, the baby doesn't speak English. What is going to happen to her?

MARTIN: Well, in fact, though, there's a lot of evidence that suggests that, you know, that actually people grow up bilingual may develop language later but it's still forming in the brain. I mean, that sometimes they don't speak as - both languages early, but they speak well when they do. I mean, 'cause the brain is being trained, I mean, there's all this evidence, you know, from Switzerland and places - a lot of place where people speak - you know, or Africa, for example - many people speak several languages. So...

PANAMENO: She learned the basics, you know, early in life and then I insisted that she become - that she take classes.

MARTIN: Did she resist?

PANAMENO: She did resist for some time because of the pressure.

MARTIN: She didn't think it was cool?

PANAMENO: Right, the pressure was there. The social pressure was there, and unfortunately, I live in an area where at the time the school - some school teachers would say, you're in the U.S. of A. now, we speak English here. And I have a number of my nephews who, at the time, when they were told this by their teachers stopped speaking Spanish.

MARTIN: Well, that's true though. They are in the U.S. - English is the dominant language here. So what do you feel would be a better message?

PANAMENO: Well, it doesn't preclude - well, you see, so then, thereafter, I had to pay for Spanish classes. And it's like, wait a second, this became a business now. I could have taught this to her at home, now I have to pay for it. But in the case of my daughter, I actually had her travel. She traveled, - went back to El Salvador, where I'm from. And, you know, every time she would come back to the United States she'd speak Spanish with a Salvadoran accent - which I, myself, don't have. But she would come back speaking with a Salvadoran accent.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit about why you think that's important but let me bring Resa into the conversation - bring her back into the conversation. Resa, as I understand it, you mostly spoke English at home growing up but you have a different dream for your 2-year-old. Can you talk about that?

BARILLAS: I did. I would love for my son to be more fluent than I am. And he actually speaks more Spanish in his father's home than he does in mine because I'm not as fluent in Spanish as his father is. So I'd like to actually learn with him, if that makes any sense at all.

MARTIN: Sure, sure. Why is that important to you?

BARILLAS: Like Fernando - or like Viviana had said in the previous segment, it's that pride and plus one. It's that understanding that you have something else that's driving who you are and who - something behind you. Not to mention that it actually is great for children's learning skills and developing cultural awareness. Just the idea that there are two words with the same meaning that different people will use unlocks so much for children, and this understanding that people may have different thoughts and different approaches to things, but, at the end of the day, we're a community of people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly parenting roundtable. Our guests today are Resa Barillas. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, one of our regular contributors, Aracely Panameno. And Felix Contreras. You know him as the co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino. We asked him to put his parent hat on today.

CONTRERAS: I never take it off.

MARTIN: Never take it off. That's right, we never take it off. We never take it off. I wanted to ask each of you if there is a talk that Latino parents have with their kids that other people might not be aware of. I mean, in the wake of the tragedy involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman - it came to the fore again for general conversation. The talk that a lot of black parents feel they have to have with their kids, particularly their sons about dealing with the police and with authority. Is there a similar talk that you feel you have to have with your kids that other people might not know about? Felix?

CONTRERAS: I don't think so. Honestly, I don't - that never crossed my mind to have that kind of talk. No we've certainly, with my oldest, he's now - he's going to be 13 next month, in a couple of weeks, he's very socially aware of inequities and the way things work in the world. And so he's conscious and he's conscious of his own Latino and Italian heritage, but he's conscious of that. So he sees things a little differently than I think his peers do. So he's conscious and aware of how people can treat people differently sometimes.

MARTIN: But you think partly - and I wonder if it's because they can be ethnically ambiguous. I mean, people don't need to know that they're Latino unless they tell them that they are? Or they know they're - I don't know. Aracely really wants to jump in on this one.

PANAMENO: So as you know, Michel, I live in Prince William County. At one point the epicenter...

MARTIN: It's a suburb outside of Washington D.C.

PANAMENO: Virginia, yes. And at one point, the epicenter of controversy over immigration policy. And so, yes, I have had that conversation with my daughter.

MARTIN: And what is that conversation?

PANAMENO: The conversation of if you ever get stopped by the police, you know, how you will behave, how you get to prove that you're actually who you say you are, that you are actually legal, that you're an actual citizen. And I would actually ask her a series of questions and - not only that but she also - depending upon who looks at her. She either looks Afro-Latina or she would look African-American.

Her boyfriend is also African-American and so they have, in fact, in Prince William County, been pulled off by virtue of them two being together in a nice vehicle. And they have been pulled off - and once they find out what her name is, obviously the questioning is are you a U.S. citizen, are you legal? And then of course if they look at her as black, then, you know, are you into trouble, is this a stolen vehicle kind of attitude. So I have had that conversation with her on a number of fronts, right - from being a U.S. citizen of Latino descent and then by also looking African-American and her boyfriend, her loved one, being an African-American, as well.

MARTIN: Now Resa, your little guy is little.

BARILLAS: He's very little.

MARTIN: He's very little but is there a talk that your parents had with you or is there a talk that you feel you have to have with him that perhaps other people from different backgrounds might not know about?

BARILLAS: I never had that - those kind of discussions with my family. I'm not sure if my brother did. My brother is full Salvadorian - he's my half-brother so I'm not sure if he ever had those talks with my parents but I know I never did. Granted, I'm also half-European kind of mix. I'm freckly and very, very pale. So..

MARTIN: So the talk might be wear sunscreen.

BARILLAS: Right, exactly.

PANAMENO: Sunblock.


BARILLAS: I'm very ethnically ambiguous. I love that phrase, actually. And my son is about the same complexion that I am - dark hair, dark eyes but very, very pale skin. Unless you know who we are. Unless you - we've talked about it, it's unlikely that people know our ethnicity. So it's not something that I've ever really had to consider or thought that I might have to consider discussing with him.

MARTIN: Interesting. I wonder - do you think appearance, Aracely, makes a big difference in how people of Latino heritage kind of relate to these questions, whether how you look is perhaps more relevant than what country you're from or how - what heritage you claim or nationality, right?

PANAMENO: So the issue of skin tone, skin color is very alive and well among Latinos. My family, I think, is a resemblance of the United Nations. And I am sort of like in the darker side of the complexion scheme. And so there are full-blooded brothers who, if they were to be stopped by the cops, they would be identified as a white-Anglo. I have nieces whose both parents - both my brothers and their mothers are from El Salvador - immigrants. They're looked upon as white. And when they find out that they are actually of Salvadoran parents, you know, people react very surprisingly.

MARTIN: Let me just ask one quick question - we only have about a minute and a half left. Is it - a lot of people are saying that we are having a Latino moment, you know, in politics because of the demographics. You saw in the last election that Latino voters played a critical role. You see a lot of it in marketing now. Does it feel that way to you? And what does that mean for you as parents?

CONTRERAS: It's yet another moment. You know, 'cause, I mean, I remember when I - the reason why I got into this business when I was in college back in the late '70s is because there was a Latino moment then. And so that framed how I pursued by career and how I make these choices. So I think it's one in a series of Latino moments.

MARTIN: Does it feel good?

CONTRERAS: It feels - yes and no. I mean, when there's that power and there's that recognition, but then there are low voter registration numbers, you know, and low participation in civil engagement, that reflect back on - negatively on the community - then, you know, they need to step it up a little bit I think.

MARTIN: Resa, what about you? Final thought from you.

BARILLAS: I agree with that. It's actually - it's wonderful that there is this attention on Latino issues and they're recognized as their own issues, but it is frustrating, like, he was saying, that, you know, there are things that reflect poorly on us by not actually showing up to the polls and not participating in something that is crucial to the success of our community.

MARTIN: Well, I'll tell you like my parents used to tell me - all the bad people are going to be gone when you grow up. So it's all going to be better. Aracely Panameno was with us. She's a mom of one. Felix Contreras is the father of two. They were both with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. And joining us from member station KUCI in Irvine, California, Resa Barillas. Blogger and mom of one. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

CONTRERAS: Thank you.


PANAMENO: Gracias.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.