How we divide

We were making copies using the ditto machine in the teacher’s resource room of our school.

When the teacher’s aide – we kids called “slap jaw” – walked through the intoxicating fumes of the duplicating solvent to talk to us.

She asked us where we were going to high school – we both replied Sullivan. She pulled out her copy of the Gale Echo – our school’s yearly black and white booklet and opened it to the centerfold exposing the pictures of the graduating 8th graders.

Slap jaw thrust the paper and a pen towards me and asked me to autograph my light-greyish picture, saying I would be famous one day.

You were standing next to me, my sister, my desk mate in our “gifted” class, my friend for as long I could remember, our fate sealed by our shared initials R-F-R, your dark-greyish picture next to mine.

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I remember looking at her, looking at you, then looking at her again. Perhaps I had a stupid smile on my face, thinking she just forgot, a simple oversight, she was an old white woman.

I remember that pause – that moment it took slap jaw to realize she should ask for your autograph too, but it was too late. She exposed our differences.

 

Freshman year of high school, I was labeled white for the first time. I’m not white. I’m a child of immigrants.

 

I played basketball in high school.

We played all-white suburban schools outside Chicago. We played all-black south and west side schools in Chicago.

To some, I looked more like suburban white than south side black.

My sisters of basketball.

When I fell in love with a black man from the west side, he told me I wouldn’t be accepted by his people. To his family, friends, and neighbors, I was white.

I remember feeling my love is no different.

 

In high school, I labeled myself a half-breed – something I heard or read someone call a Native American whose parents weren’t both Native.

But was I a half-breed German or a half-breed Cuban? What half of what breed would I be?

30 years later I received my AncestryDNA® results. I remember looking at the colored blobs over parts of the globe where my people came from.

The European continent was aglow in a rainbow of blobs.

90% of my DNA is European Mutt, my ancestors traversed the lands from Spain east towards Poland, from Scandinavia, south to Italy and Greece.

The other 10% comes from the continents of North and South America, Africa, and West Asia (the middle east).screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-7-54-12-am

 

The complicated mess of my DNA is a result of wars, colonization, slavery, revolutions, migration, immigration and everything in between.

My DNA unites, rather than divides.

I may not look like you. Our phenotypes make us look different to each other. But when we look inside we will find our similarities.

 

Aloha

Day 69 – Thanksgiving

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Today I give thanks to this happy couple. My parents – circa 1969 at Banff or Glacier NP. They represent what the United States of America is all about.

A country of compassion.

A country of opportunity.

A country where an economic refugee from Germany and a political refugee from Cuba, could meet, fall in love, get married, and carve out a life and raise a family.

All of that happened in a little neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago called Rogers Park.

They embodied the American Dream.

My dad, a craftsman, opened a business with his brother and my mother went to school to become a registered nurse. It took them a little over 20 years to buy a house, which by that time my brother and I were in college.

But it wasn’t all peaches and cream – if I may use that cliché.

My little nuclear family was a place where two very different cultures collided.

Yes, collided. No melting happened in the pot of my family. Although, you could argue German and Cuban DNA did blend to create my brother and me. But that is another story…

From our little experiment – I am authorized to say the American melting pot is a farce, a fantasy, a disillusioned idea.

What does it mean to melt cultures together?

What does it mean to have no diversity?

What does it mean to have no differing opinions or perspectives?

What if there was only one color in a rainbow? Blue bow? Red bow? Purple bow?

Take a walk in the woods, snorkel around a coral reef, canoe along a river through a rain forest.

In nature there is only diversity. An ecosystem is made up of diverse creatures. From microscopic plankton to huge whales. Life on Earth thrives on biological diversity. Any time one organism takes over a habitat – the ecosystem becomes imbalanced. Disease, mass die-offs, decreased food sources.

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Life on Earth thrives on biological diversity.

Why should it be any different culturally?

In my little family, we didn’t blend cultures. We didn’t create a new culinary genre where  sauerkraut is paired with arroz con pollo, lechon asado, or ropa vieja. Although bistec milanesa or empanisado (breaded steak) was very similar to wienerschnitzel – and this little Cuban/German girl loved both.

Dad never learned how to dance the Cuban son – mom never learned to polka. Neither learned the other’s language. A version of English is what we spoke in our household (although I always say English is my second language).

Dad thought my Cuban family yelled too much. And Mom thought my German family didn’t like her because she was a “darkie.”

For better and worse, my parents stayed together until my Dad’s death in 2013. Despite their outer dysfunction – the communication challenges, the short bouts of yelling, followed by years of silence – deep down inside, they loved each other.

As I approach my late 40s, I have finally realized what my parents gave me.

Cultural sensitivity, an ability to be patient with and understand people with accents, a mysterious morphological make up that allows me access into a diversity of groups, and the consciousness to see the humanity shared by all of us.

So I give thanks for them and for this country that made it all happen.

I only hope I can share their gifts with others.

Aloha!

 

 

Made in the U.S.A.

Born and raised in the city of Chicago, I was surrounded by a mix of ethnicities and cultures.

In my neighborhood of Rogers Park we were a delightful blend of spices. A little creole seasoning, chocolate molé, spicy salsa, green curry and other delicious sauces. Me, my classmates, my friends could have represented many of the countries within the United Nations. Countries many of us never visited or will visit. Countries whose language was lost on the boat or plane that brought us, our parents or other ancestor. Countries whose culture was stuffed into a suitcase or strapped to our backs. Cultures that tried to blend with those found in this new country.

Fifth grade
Fifth grade

With all of this diversity surrounding me, my identity became an amalgam of cultures. I loved hanging with my girlfriends who would put french braids in my “horse hair.” Cook refried beans – with lard! – and eat them up with fresh made tortillas with my other girlfriend. Learn how to use chopsticks at our local Chinese restaurant. Learn how to jump double dutch – I was proud to be the only “white girl” who could turn double dutch. We all played together, we all loved each other, we all were a brilliant family.

That was until we got into high school. Suddenly, we were forced to label ourselves as – white or Hispanic or black or Asian, college bound or bound for McDonald’s, athlete or book worm, pretty or ugly, skinny or fat, fashionable or dumpy, popular or lame, rich or poor. I was all of them and none of them at the same time.

The innocence of elementary school was gone.

Kindergarten

Gone were the true values one should categorize someone – mean or nice.

The complexity of all the new labels that befell us as we walked the halls of our new high school – left me wondering where did all my friends go?

Were we all really too busy thinking – she is too white or too tall or too smart or too athletic or too nice or too ugly or too stupid or too whatever – that we couldn’t all be friends just because we were nice and we all grew up together?

Many of us were made in the U.S.A. Regardless of where our ancestors came from or if we immigrated here at an early age, as children we just wanted friends to play with that were nice. As young adults some of us became leery of those who were not identical to us.   Suddenly, some of us felt that our cultural identity would be lost by whom we hung out with.

Suddenly, I found myself a friend of everyone and no one.

Many of us had parents with the same cultural heritage which made labeling easier. I did not. My genetic makeup is a melting pot of Germanic and Latin cultures.

Cultural diversity, cultural tolerance, cultural love, are all genetic expressions of my DNA, although I have been greatly influenced by the environmental stimuli found in Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.

I am really no different than you or you or you. We all have the ability to express these traits. Our biology is all a mixture of many cultures. Perhaps all it takes is to dive deep down and find your child within and remember what was your original truth.

To say to that nice stranger you just met – “Your nice, can we be friends?”