Rooted in accents
When Alyssa Quintero speaks English, people notice her slight Spanish accent; when she speaks Spanish, her Colombian and Venezuelan friends who speak more “proper” Spanish poke fun at her Cuban-Spanish slang.
But when she did research in Graz, Austria last summer, her Italian coworkers complimented her on how well she spoke English. That was rare.
Quintero is a sophomore studying chemistry with an integrated learning major in environmental sustainability and policy. Last summer, she participated in iREU (International Research Experience for Undergraduates) and researched metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) at the University of Graz.
Her mom and grandparents came to America when she was 10 on what was called the “Mariel Boatlift,” a mass emigration of Cubans from the port of Mariel, Cuba to Florida in 1980. “It was, like, you could only go with the clothes on your back,” said Quintero.
She said that her mom became the parent in the house because she had learned English in school. Her grandmother cleaned houses, her grandfather mowed lawns, and because almost everyone speaks Spanish in Miami, they have never learned English in the close to 40 years that they’ve been in America.
Growing up in Miami Springs, Quintero interacted with a lot of different Hispanic cultures. She said that there was no white student in the school she went to and that she often went to the houses of her Honduran, Costa Rican and Argentinian friends.
“My Cuban culture inside my house was very strong,” she said. Her grandmother thinks Vicks VapoRub, a topical ointment, is a remedy for everything, which is a very Cuban belief. “She swears that if you put it on the bottom of your feet when you're sick and you put on socks, you’ll wake up perfectly fine,” said Quintero.
She would love to visit Cuba one day, but she said that her family refuses to go back. They had a tobacco farm and a nice house Pinar del Río until Fidel Castro, Communist revolutionary and former dictator of the country, claimed it as government property. Her family moved to Havana and lived there for four years before coming to the U.S.
Quintero said that her grandfather was the one who was most adamant about not returning to Cuba. He went to jail for four years as a political prisoner because he and his brothers were planning a revolution against Castro. Going back would mean giving money to communism, which is shameful, she said.
“Because we left for a reason, so there's no reason to go back. That's how they (her family) see it,” said Quintero, “She (my mom) says she'll go back when communism falls, but that's not gonna happen anytime soon.”
Her grandmother couldn’t visit her sister when she passed away. “It's coming to the point now where her seven brothers and sisters that are still there, and they're passing away and she can't go visit them,” said Quintero.
She said that her grandfather’s family name is another reason they couldn’t go back, but she has a different last name because of her dad, which could allow her to go back.
“I feel close to my roots,” said Quintero, “If you were to ever visit Miami, it is like a little tiny Cuba.” Everything in English was pronounced with a Spanish accent. “I wasn’t born in Cuba, but growing up in Miami gave me a really close sense to Cuban culture. And now that I’m here, I don’t have that anymore.”
It was really hard coming out of her own little bubble, but she also knew that she didn’t want to just interact with Hispanics. She already has that back home and wants to branch out and meet different people here.
When she found out that she was accepted to iREU, she thought, “‘Okay, well, I made it through the first year at Syracuse. And I feel like if I can make it through that, I can do anything because it was just so hard assimilating and like being in such a different culture,’” she said.
Quintero spent almost four months in Graz, doing research 9-to-5. “I didn't even know what language they spoke [before I went]. They speak German,” she said.
Quintero made friends with the locals and found out that they can drink beer and wine at the age of 16 and any distilled drink at 18. Many of them move out at 18, but she said that, for Hispanics, you could live with your parents your entire life.
“Like that's just the culture, you buy a big house and you move your grandparents in, and you live with everybody. And for them, that's not the case,” said Quintero.
It also took some getting used to when everyone had an accent speaking English. She said that there was not one person that spoke American English, and naturally, people complimented her on how well she spoke English. Here it’s the exact opposite—everyone picks up on her accent and asks where she’s from, she said. It makes her feel “lesser,” she said, when she’s presenting her work.
There’s a sort of superiority to speaking perfect English, and she feels that sometimes.
She never thought about leaving the country and moving somewhere else before she decided to study in Austria, but after her time there, she thinks that if she got a job in Europe or Asia, she’d take it in a heartbeat. She likes living in a place where you know nothing about the language, she said.
“I never thought I was going to be able to make my way around,” said Quintero. She visited cities in Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia, and was able to figure out street signs by herself.
“That was like empowering, but also humbling, because you're really scared and you’re just kind of like, ‘Well, I hope everything goes well,’” she said.
When Quintero was deciding where to go to college, she knew that SU would give her better opportunities. She remembers her mother promising her a car if she stayed in Florida, but she knew she needed to leave, she said.
She came to Syracuse wanting to do pre-med, but now wants to go into research on climate change and global warming.
“Everybody debating climate change and global warming is not a scientist and they have like, no idea what they're really talking about,” she said. She’s passionate about environmental issues and sees herself working for Congress one day.
“I think I would move anywhere in the world now [if I got a good job] whereas before, I was really reluctant to leave America. And I only saw my future in America. I don't think I do anymore,” said Quintero.
There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.