Yesterday, I heard Chris Cuomo on CNN refer to himself as “second generation American.” Son of the former (now late) governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, and grandson to Italian immigrants, the self-identification irked me. If his grandparents were the first generation to come over, wouldn’t that make him third generation?
The label has personal meaning for me (I’m not actually that invested in the number of Chris Cuomo’s American generation). I have always been confused by the definition of “first generation” and “second generation.” In some contexts, it sounds like the first generation to come here is “first generation.” By that definition, I’d be first generation along with my parents, since I was born in Spain but came over (the first time) as a baby. In other contexts, it sounds like the first generation born here is “first generation.” In that scenario, both on my husband’s side and on mine, my children would be the first generation of Americans in our family.
Which would make me what?
Growing up with parents from somewhere else definitely makes you different than growing up with parents from here. I notice nuances others don’t notice. I have memories of discovering things that other kids took for granted as background, like Halloween and Snickers bars and the totally nonsensical spellings of words like rough and dough. Despite all this, I am American more than anything else. All my education was in the United States, except first grade and half of second, all my political sensibilities developed here and I’ve lived here all my life save two years (when the aforementioned Argentinian schooling happened). I’d be a migrant in the countries of my ancestry, unfamiliar with how to perform even the most basic tasks.
Still, I haven’t always been sure how my country felt about me. I’ve heard the rhetoric and have actually been told to my face (by a perfectly lovely member of my community, an immigrant himself with a strong accent) that it would have been better if my parents and I had been deported when I was a kid. I have listened to the rhetoric during Republican primaries (enough said). I have wondered where I fit in.
So that’s where this question of first generation has come in. I have long considered myself first generation. I was the first in my family to go through the school system here. I’ve never discussed it with my parents, but I’m almost certain I was the first to say the Pledge of Allegiance and feel a stirring of pride. I was the first to go to college. I was the first to buy a house, the first to vote, the one to learn the culture and find ways to assimilate into it, the one to fall in love with its maddening and seductive language. I have loved this country deeply. If I am not first generation, then I am just a preamble, just a placeholder for the real Americans. While nothing makes me prouder to look at my children’s American birth certificates, I want to feel like they’re further along than first generation.
So I did what I always do when I am wondering about a question. I took to Google. Wikipedia was vague, acknowledging that first generation could either mean the first to come over or the first to be born here. I technically wasn’t the first to come over, since I came over with my parents. Generationally, that would make them first generation. But then I was born somewhere else and I bear the characteristics of that – I speak Spanish fluently and sometimes still feel a twinge of foreignness in American customs. So I’m not second generation.
And here is where Wikipedia provided an intriguing alternative: 1.5 generation. It is defined as “people who immigrate to a new country before or during their early teens.” Wikipedia says:
They earn the label the “1.5 generation” because they bring with them the characteristics from their home country but continue their assimilation and socialization in the new country, thus being “halfway” between the 1st generation and the 2nd generation. Their identity is thus a combination of the new and old culture and tradition, and they may thus experience a third culture.
I thought that explanation best captured my experience. Not quite first generation, not quite second, but somewhere in between, seeing both but not fully participating in either. Or, to put it slightly more optimistically, fluidly moving from one to the other as the situation and the mood strikes.
The article goes on to suggest two other distinctions: 1.75 generation for children who came here between ages 1 and 9 (like I did) or 1.25 for kids who came here after 13. I like the acknowledgement that coming here younger changes the experience, but this may be putting too fine a point on it. I’ll stick to considering myself 1.5 with all the ambiguity it brings. Plus, it sounds kind of cool, like a version of software. In that analogy, that would make my kids the 2.0 Americans in our family, which they definitely are.
So, thanks, Chris Cuomo, for sending me on the quest to finally answer this question. I am a 1.5 generation American. And I love it.