Spanglish and Identity Formation

It's movie Friday and lucky for all of us, I could walk on the treadmill and watch Spanglish. The good part of doing this on DVD's is you can stretch out a movie that you like. That was the case for me with Spanglish.

It struck a chord because Tuesday was my youngest son's 18th birthday. And after watching this wonderful film I had to question whether or not his father and I had done enough to pass onto him our very strong cultural identity.

Don't get me wrong. The film speaks to different people in different ways. Not everyone is going to see this and think "Identity Formation." A teenager I know mainly saw that the suburban dad in the movie was falling in love with his Latin housekeeper. To me, that was a subtext, not even interesting, a more of the same kind of plot.

But back to me and my concern about my kid. Based on objective data, at this very moment birthday boy is studying in yeshiva in Israel, or drinking beer now that he's legal. (In that country kids can drink at 18). He's not drinking, I'm pretty sure. He's learning, so one might think: so far, so good.

For those of you who don’t know much about yeshivas, they’re like seminaries, schools of study and prayer that are relatively cut-off from secular culture. Birthday Boy told me yesterday that he is literally basking in sunshine when he’s not studying the holy books.

It is a tough life. I once visited this place he's "stuck" in. Basically? Nirvana.

Anyway, I birthed him, no let me correct that, Dr. Diamante delivered him from my abdomen while I slept peacefully under general anesthetic, long story, not necessary, eighteen years ago on this day.

F.D. and I named him a Hebrew name that he would hopefully grow into (means happy) and indeed, he has been a kick to our serotonin nearly every day of his life, a funny, lovely human being, he should only live and be well, as my grandmother who escaped pogroms used to say.

Oh, enough about him. Truth is I thought I could get out of buying him a new IPod by writing a nice post about him. But that ain't gonna' happen, so back to the movie. He’ll get his electronic something. Eventually.*

Spanglish drives home that just because a kid, like my kid, appears to be culturally in sync with his family, he can and may choose to become whoever he wants to be at any time in his life. He is his own man, or will be one day. She is her own woman, or will be one day.

Were I to talk the talk, the psychiatric rap of the day, well I’d say, “And that is how it should be.”

But oh, I don’t just talk the talk anymore without more than a little consideration, not on too many things, even though when I teach I'll surely present it to you as the textbooks do.

But every case is different. Every family is different. Generalities are well, so general.

The movie.

The beautiful Paz Vega plays Flor, a young single woman raising a sweet, lovely daughter alone. Flor immigrates to California, the Promised Land, and she touches our hearts. It is because she speaks no English for the first three quarters of the film that she has to communicate her confusion, her dislike, her surprise, her disdain, her dread, her disapproval, everything that is so real, all that we tend to have to express with expletives, she shows us by face alone.

And like Helen Mirren’s recent performance in The Queen, she's masterful and eminently watchable.

It's not only that she's so drop dead gorgeous. The film has to TELL us that over and over again. It's not a perfect film. I could have done without the selfish marital sex scene, too, which is emotionally painful to any sensitive human.

Flor exemplifies strength, values, courage, heart, and identity. She knows who she is and she's proud of it. She is the paradigm Latin woman who understands passion, love, and what it means to be a woman, parent, a mother and friend.

Employed as a house domestic by Deborah and John Clasky (Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler), as long as Flor is able to keep her home life and her work separate, she's okay. At some point, however, that has to change. Flor and her daughter Cristina must move into the Clasky home. Cristina will be influenced by her garish American role model co-parent, Deborah, as her mother, Flor, the Latin goddess, tiptoes around uncomfortably, powerless to compete against Deborah's glitz.

Flor’s quiet dignified manner shouts out silently against Deborah's shallow, empty, captured-on- the- fly ethics and whims. Deborah has the American dream and believes in it, the materialism, the emphasis upon physical strength, competition, sports, hedonism. She hasn’t a clue about giving, love, empathy or healthy relationships and is over-powering in her own home, confident that her way is the right way for everyone, her daughter, her husband, her son, her mother, even Cristina, Flor's child.

Flor watches as these American values creep into her daughter's soul like a hypnotic, changing Cristina from the sensitive Latin woman that she is supposed to be to a shallow culture-vapid American. Cristina has been seduced into attending the private school that Deb shamelessly presents to her as hers for the asking (with a prearranged scholarship). Poor Flor does a slow burn as she loses her daughter. Eventually she can no longer accept this. She has to leave this job.

The foils, John Clasky (Adam Sandler is absolutely charming) and his daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele, also a great teenage actress, I loved watching her every scene) are believable in their roles, but it is very hard to believe that a guy like John could have ever married Deb. But that's Hollywood. No explanations necessary.

John is sensitive and kind, whereas Deb is over-bearing and mean, never failing to hurt her daughter, overtly rejecting Bernie because of her weight. Flor would call Bernice womanly. Bernie, by the way, is the kind of overweight that this therapy doc would have suggested she not even worry about until her hormones begin to even out, perhaps seventeen even. (Go ahead, argue with me, I can take it.)

John notices that Cristina has the qualities his wife lacks. Hence the conflict and ultimate resolution. But Spanglish, in the end, presents a troubling lesson for therapy docs. It goes against the psychiatric grain. I, of course, loved it.

Psychiatry is VERY big on something we call differentiation and individuation.

This thread has been going for about thirty years, probably since Margaret Mahler presented the concept of symbiosis in the sixties, the idea that infants and mothers have a mutually needy relationship going. The baby needs mother's milk, and mother's breasts, engorged, need that baby to suck.

Infant symbiosis gradually morphs into differentiation, a child recognizes the difference between the two blobs of protoplasm, child versus mom, and child develops a sense of self, an "I."

As the "I" develops, so does one's sense of confidence and mastery over the world.

Before too long, the "I" is saying NO to parents and YES to peers and struggling with the many options for living that call out or sometimes whisper, Try me.

That, my friends, is child development and identity formation on one foot.

And we encourage this, we therapy docs do. We tell you, the talk, the party line to tell the kids is: Try on all those hats! Be a teenager who explores identity, who learns from all people, who has a world of choices and chooses wisely. Be the person you are inside.

Were I to walk that walk I would say to my dear son and really mean it, See the world, dear, experience what life has to offer, meet new people and choose for yourself who you want to be. Your identity is yours alone, not mine.

And I do. I've done that.

But Flor, who is smarter than most of us therapy docs, looks at her daughter's emerging identity and worries, just like many of the parents who come to see me worry about their children. Before Cristina takes the scholarship, a favor Deb so obviously wrangled out of the school to pay her back for all of her contributions, Flor complains to John. She is afraid.

Why is she afraid? She is afraid that Cristina will go in either one of two directions. She will be "odd" or she'll be "the same." And "odd" is surely better than "the same." But "the same" is a much more likely outcome, she feels, and she's upset.

Without giving away the ending (why not, you got everything else) Flor ultimately leaves her position in the Clasky house, taking her daughter back to the barrio. Cristina goes kicking and screaming, furious at her mother who ultimately asks her the question that has been nagging at her ever since she reluctantly exposed her daughter to the Clasky family:


We can take a lesson, honestly, from Spanglish. Is this what we want, to encourage our children, to become people so different from ourselves? How well individuated must one be, after all?

Happy Birthday, Sim. Be the best man you can be. And don't ever forget where you come from.

*He got a Zune, by the way.

Copyright 2007, TherapyDoc

P.S. There are wonderful performances in this film by both Victoria Luna and Shelbie Bruce, young women who play Cristina at 6 and 13. How Albert Brooks finds these kids, I don't know. And Tea Leoni's performance as Deborah Clasky is brilliant. I know this woman. She might seem like a comic book character to you, but I know her. I’ve treated her many times. She is the daughter of an alcoholic vainly searching for love and affirmation in all the wrong places, in all the wrong ways, competing, competing, competing, she doesn't know why. And because she has power to act (money) she makes mistake after mistake and doesn’t know it.


J said…
Last one has flown the coop, eh?

I wasn't going to post this because I knew it would end up kind of rambly and nebulous, but what the hey. I just hope it's not too insufferable.

I spent my freshman year in an almost all-Jewish private dorm. What impressed me most was the strong cultural identity that you mentioned. One or two students who said they were agnostic still went to Shabbat services and dinner at Hillel, and one had even trained with the Israeli military, presumably before she hit 18. I can't remember quite how she worded it, but my roommate explained that they do so because Judaism is about much more than the religious aspects; it's about family, tradition, and loving and celebrating life.

Which is pretty cool. I guess from my background I just didn't initially "get" the cultural aspect of it--the only major non-Americanized custom my family keeps is the Santa Lucia breakfast.

Maybe my point in this is that I doubt you have anything to worry about (at least compared to the rest of us!). There's something pretty special about such traditions, and even people my age seem to recognize that even if they don't fully embrace everything about them. Hey, it was an experience in itself just to observe others' customs.

So, I think your son is pretty lucky if he had grew up anything like my friends from that year. And studying in Israel? I've never even set foot in the country where my dad was born, much less where we originally descended from. Honestly, with parents who were as good as I'm sure you and F.D. were, I bet he's far ahead of the game.
TherapyDoc said…
Thanks, J. All that's true about most cultures, there's a richness that's incomparable to our sterile American life. That you can appreciate this makes writing that very long movie review worth the while for me.