Matador Network

How we keep our kids’ multinational heritage alive and how you can do it, too

Photo: Vborodinova

¿Quieres huevos o puuro?

Do you want eggs or puuro, Finnish style oatmeal, I ask our ten-year-old son most mornings, in a mix of languages.

Of the many ways to ensure our kids embrace their Finnish and South American roots while living in San Francisco, language and food are two of the best.

Born in Helsinki, my husband is a purebred Finn who fell in love with a South American mutt. I grew up speaking Spanish, Portuguese, and English in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Uruguay, and California. My Uruguayan mom now lives in California; my American dad is in Brazil.

1. Language

There was no question our kids should grow up speaking another language. Pregnant with our firstborn in Seattle, Washington, I had to choose between Spanish and Portuguese and opted for Spanish as the language I’d speak to her.

When she was 18 months old, we moved to California — where, if you’re fluent in Spanish, it’s just silly not to speak it with your kid since it’s the state’s second language.

After our second daughter came onto the scene, I spoke to both girls in Spanish. I’d say, “Vamos al parque” and the older girl would tell her sister, “We’re going to the park.” Why she assumed her months-old sister would understand English over Spanish, I can’t say.

Kids prefer the language of their peers, so raising them to be bilingual is hard work. We’d combine vacations with language study, like hiring a retired schoolteacher in Costa Rica to teach them every morning — when they couldn’t answer back in English. We also put them in a Spanish immersion preschool in San Francisco.

2. Food

Food is another key link to family heritage. Starting the day with a hearty bowl of hot oatmeal, seasoned only with butter and salt, is a morning reminder of Finland. Or we have an avocado shake, like the ones they serve in Brazil, with milk and lightly sweetened; it’s southern heaven north of the equator.

Even our picky son loves spinach when it comes to one of his favorite foods, pinaatti lettu, savory Finnish crepes with spinach in the batter. Our middle daughter, now a high schooler, likes to bake alfajores, a delicate Uruguayan cookie of flour and cornstarch filled with dulce de leche, for school events. Around the holidays we make Finnish pulla, cinnamon-cardamom rolls, and Christmas stars, flaky pastry cookies with a sweet plum filling.

3. Traditions

Those holiday treats are part of our traditions. In Finland, Santa drops off the presents in person on Christmas Eve, December 24. The early delivery must be because Finland is so close to the North Pole.

We actually own a Santa suit that we persuaded a friend to wear each year until our youngest was no longer fooled. After the visit from Santa, who gets a shot of vodka and then goes on his merry, wobbly way, it’s time for a Finnish Yule dinner. After herring and gravlax appetizers, a big baked ham is served with winter vegetables like beet salad and rutabaga. Then the present opening begins.

4. Family

Our kids first learned these holiday traditions from their Finnish grandparents. And that’s the other big way to keep roots alive: extended family. Grandparents have been a big part of our kids’ lives. Every Christmas has been spent with their Finnish grandparents, and their Uruguayan grandmother visits us every few weeks. My dad and his Brazilian wife live with us for a month a year.

We also visit family when we travel. We go back to Finland nearly once a year, where my only-child husband is very close with his cousins, many of whom have kids who are our kids’ ages. Our son loves to go to summer cabins with his Finnish second cousins, getting hot in the sauna and jumping naked into an icy cold lake or sea.

5. Travel… anywhere

We also believe in traveling anywhere, not just the places we’re from. Travel helps you realize the world is bigger than your hometown, and it’s helped our kids understand what it means to be international. They have multiple passports; we want them to feel they are citizens of the world.

We’ve traveled to Uruguay and Argentina, where I also have family, and my oldest and I traveled to Rio de Janeiro, seeing the places and people that were part of my youth. But we’ve also taken our kids to Chile, where we have family friends. Our teenaged girls have both spent time in Chile away from us, one attending school and the other participating in an international science trip.

Although they’ve got no blood relatives in Chile, spending time there and being able to communicate fluently in Spanish has reminded our girls of their South American roots. Even traveling to unrelated places like Montenegro or Japan have made our kids deeply curious about the world, and open to the idea that they aren’t just San Francisco kids.

6. Life abroad

Our family was lucky enough to live in Barcelona for two years when our older girls were in middle and elementary school and our son was in preschool. While Spanish is not the politically mandated language there, everyone speaks it. The girls took history and literature classes with native Spanish teachers and, although their ski and soccer teams were coached in Catalan, the instructors spoke to them in Spanish if something was unclear.

Those two years were important for our kids, cementing their multicultural upbringing. We go back to Barcelona nearly every year, and all three kids keep up connections with their friends there. Coming back to San Francisco and being able to fluently communicate with recent Latino immigrants here helps our girls feel Latin American themselves, despite their Finnish blond hair. (Our son got my darker hair and skin tone.)

And we keep on taking every opportunity to have them spend time abroad. Beyond her science trip to Chile, our eldest has spent her summers working in Senegal, attending high school in Brazil, or doing a science camp in England. Before our second daughter spent a month as a student in Chile, she’d already gone to school in Finland, and she’s done summer programs in France and England.

7. Internationalism

We’ve also hosted exchange students from Japan, Brazil, and Germany… bringing the international vibe home. If you ask our kids which city they are from, they will tell you, San Francisco. If you ask them which country they are from, that will be a much longer answer.