Mother’s Day

On Wednesday we celebrated Mexican Mother’s Day by taking flowers to the grave of my mother in law and cards and balloons to a couple of mother figures in our lives. It had been waaay to long since we had reached out to these wonderful ladies. We had allowed the everyday routine to get in the way of maintaining our connection. These two ladies provide a strong connection with my husband’s mother, they were both dear friends his whole growing up. Since she died, we have allowed ourselves to drift away from the incredibly tight knit and supportive community that he had been part of his whole life. And do you know what is even more shameful? Both of these ladies live within two blocks of our house. Yep, now that it’s our turn to be there for folks who have been there for our family for years, somehow the busyness of the everyday gets in the way. I am resolving to do better, to reach out to folks that mean something to my family much more often, to be a better friend.

So, now that today is American Mother’s Day, I have been thinking about my mother and how, even though I see her nearly every day, we are both so busy that we rarely connect in any kind of real way. Now often we are both busy with the small person who has become the center of our entire family’s universe and much of the time my mom is pursuing her passion for music.

For me, there is always more to do than can possibly be accomplished in any given day. Often, more often than I care to admit, those chores are allowed to take my attention from the people I really do want to spend quality time with. Or, I am so exhausted by all the day’s work that I don’t have the energy to make a meaningful connection when I do have the time. Then I end up with a backlog of chores that need to be done and neglected relationships.  So, enough self-flagellation.

My Mom

Today I am going to remember a few of the people who have been a mother figure in my life, those who have loved me warts and all.   First, of course, is my mom.  She projects a gentleness that is supported by a will of iron.  When she thinks something is important, she is relentless.  She often sacrifices the things that she does for herself so that she can be sure others are taken care of.  My mother will also neglect such minor necessities like sleep to try to do it all.  She is loving, even when taking one to task and does things for all of us in the family as well as thoughtful things for friends.  If you need something, and she can do something about it, she will, often regardless of considerable inconvenience.

I learned from my mom to show up.  She was at everything I ever did growing up.  It never even occurred to me that my parents would not show up to cheer me on, even when I was doing things that they would not have chosen for me, such as my many experiments in religion.  She also shows up for important events in the family and for friends, as naturally as if it takes no effort at all.

My Mother In Law

We moved into my in-law’s home very soon after we were married to take care of my father in law who was very ill.  Mi suegra welcomed me and made me feel truly welcome in her home.  In a small, suddenly crowded home, she made major efforts to let me claim my own space.  She helped me learn Spanish and taught me many of her best dishes.  I learned some of what made her a phenomenal cook.  That was one of her amazing talents, she could taste a dish, then go home and recreate it, often better than the original.  I learned recipes, techniques, and a dedication to doing it right rather than taking shortcuts.  She almost never took shortcuts with food.  Everything came from the same basic ingredients, but she could make each dish sing.

Mi suegra loved her family with a fierce quality, she would go to bat for you if she sensed an injustice and would not back down.  She raised a large family, often never sure of their next meal, and every one of her surviving children went to college.  She was determined that they would have a better life and, by golly, she made sure they did it, sometimes despite themselves.

In the time that I knew her she was the community grandmother, “la abuelita.”  She was as interested in the lives of the second, third, and fourth generation of kids in town as in her own family.  She fostered that community that I talked about at the top and held it together by constantly calling and checking in with everyone in her epic Rolodex in addition to little gifts of food.

Other Mother Figures in My Life

I am also thinking about my Great Aunt Franny who was a professional singer, teacher, and became my confidant during my very difficult twentieth year.  She also opened her home to me when I needed it.  She shared with me some of her struggles to figure herself out, and a deep early trauma.  I am forever grateful for her opening herself up to me, a callow youth, so that I could perhaps understand her perspective on life.  I learned to attempt to see the long view, and that fear can be a very powerful anchor, but if you embrace it, you can build a life that you love.  She loved the life that she eventually built for herself, but it took years and courage.  She also taught me some of her cooking secrets, and how to be bold in design.

There are more that come to mind, each special in her own way, each that have influenced me and the woman I have become.  Here is a long overdue appreciation.  Thank you.  I hope to be as good a mother and as interesting a person as those who have mothered me and am working on it every day.

All the other MULTICULTURAL mamas out there

Thank you for all that you do, often with no recognition.  Thank you for making cultural richness in the lives of your children a priority.  Thank you for making sure both traditions are honored.  Thank you for being you and sharing this journey of multicultural motherhood with me.

Please share your stories of those who mothered you, whether that person was related to you or not.  What did you learn about the world and about being a strong person from the mother figures in your life?

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Food and Interconnectivity

I touched on the subject of the interaction of emotion with food in a previous post, but I thought it really deserved a more thoughtful look.  Food is connected to emotion in a very powerful way.  Sometimes the act of preparing food a particular way becomes a statement of identity.  Food can be an act of love or a bone of contention.  It has been both in my life.  Many of our most difficult marital negotiations have centered around food, who prepares it, what gets prepared, choices about taste and nutrition, etc.

My mother in law expressed love for her family through food.  She was an amazing cook who could recreate a dish after tasting it once, and often her version was better.  She lived on three or four hours of sleep per night for much of her adult life so that she could be sure that her family ate well, in addition to all the other obligations of raising nine children, working and keeping house.

By the time my husband came around, he is the baby of the family, she was suffering from a serious heart condition and could no longer work in the fields.  It didn’t stop her from doing all of the other things expected of a woman of her time and culture.  She thought it absolutely necessary to have the ability to feed anyone who came to her home at the drop of a hat and spent a lot of time making sure that she could.  Life and food and love were completely intertwined.  Because of this, my husband grew up equating food with love in a very deep way.

For mi suegra, was both a point of pride and an act of love to always feed her crew.  Financial hardships dictated that sometimes that meant bean tacos, but she was amazingly creative with the resources that she had.  She also had cooperative reciprocal relationships in the community that had been cultivated over the years.  She was known as “la abuelita” (little grandmother) in the community because she acted like a surrogate grandma to anyone younger than her.  When I came to live with her, we would regularly deliver food to her friends, and regularly receive food from them.  This is tomato season, and we would often open our front door to buckets of tomatoes left anonymously.  We would then can one to two hundred quarts of tomatoes for use the rest of the year and the salsa made from those tomatoes would go to others as well. The community takes care of its own, especially the elders.  It is an incredibly tight knit community with food playing a major role in the currency of communal exchange.

This is somewhat true in all cultures, more true in the more rural areas of the U.S. where my extended family lives than where I grew up.  I was in a major metropolitan area and mutual support in the practicalities of life was much less pronounced in the community I knew.  My parents moved states away from their families as young adults, so those natural networks didn’t exist either.

For me, food has always been a source of fuel or sensory experience.  I enjoy the subtle differences in flavor and texture found in good food.  I really like to eat.  On the other hand I can ignore my body’s cues for food if I am doing something more interesting and can resent the time it takes out of my day.  I could be riding bikes with my child or building something or writing or reading or any number of other, much more compelling activities.  I enjoy the zen of a cooking project, but would give it up in an instant if I could afford help.  I would hire a cook long before a housekeeper or gardener.  If I could be free of the daily obligation of feeding other people I totally would.

I take some pride in being able to carry on the tradition of the food of my mother in law.  She taught me many dishes and I can replicate them faithfully.  I can follow a recipe successfully, and even modify it, but I cannot look at a bunch of disparate ingredients and come up with something yummy.  That TV show Chopped would not be for me.  I am not a particularly creative cook, but I learned her techniques for those dishes and my versions rival any others I have encountered.  It is kind of cool to be the white girl who can make versions of Mexican dishes that are really appreciated in the Mexican community.

In the community of la abuelita, a concerted effort is made by all to keep those connections alive, often with food.  Each time food is exchanged, there is a reciprocal obligation created.  Most of the time it is a direct one to one reciprocity, but often it also works on the pay it forward principle.  If you are known to give into the community, then the community also supports you.  Those exchanges aren’t always food, often people would show up to help with a garden, or to fix a fence, or give rides, or anything else that needed doing.

Since la abuelita  has passed away, we have allowed ourselves to slowly drift away from those communal connections.  Part of that stems from the fact that many of those connections were with older folks who have since passed on, but a shameful part is that we no longer have la abuelita to push us to keep those connections alive.  The hustle and business of daily life gets in the way and we have not been good about making an effort to stay connected outside of the family.  We also don’t cook that good traditional food nearly as often, so have fewer opportunities to share.  However, I have to admit that we cooked tamales just last week, had more than we could possibly eat, meant to take some to a couple of people, and never did.  I just put the last of them in the garbage last night and I feel so guilty, that was a lot of work and an opportunity for connection that I just threw away.

 

food-and-interconnectivity

Culture Shock, Why I Started this Blog

When my husband and I got married, we had been dating for years and I knew and liked his family.  Shortly after the wedding, his father’s health took a turn for the worse so we decided to move into my in-law’s home to care for them.  At the time I had not realized how very different our worlds could be.  I realize now that most of our dating relationship took place in my world, then I was plunged into a society with very different norms and expectations.  Navigating the first years of marriage while living immersed in the old school Mexican-American culture changed the course of our relationship in both positive and negative ways.  I kept being surprised by what seemed normal to everyone around me.  Eventually I was able to feel comfortable in this world, helped enormously by my mother-in-law who was very accepting of me and my foibles.

The thing is, I can inhabit the Mexican-American society, I can be loved and accepted, but at the same time I am always other.  I am always “la huera” (the white girl).  As an aside, another difference was the use of nicknames, when I was growing up, nicknames weren’t really a thing.  In my husband’s circle, nearly everyone goes through life with a nickname, some of them not very flattering at all.  Others are used as honorifics, for instance, my mother-in-law was “La Abuelita” (grandma) to everyone in town.

I have been nervous to put my perspective out there because I am aware of how much privilege I come from.  I am aware that Mexican-American and every other minority ethnic group are so tightly knit because they must be to survive in the larger society.  In the larger society, I am a white, middle class, educated, privileged person.   In the larger society I don’t ever encounter obstacles that are an every day occurrence for someone who is not privileged.  However, as an outsider who has been immersed in another culture, I think I have a valuable perspective.  I hope I can foster a conversation between people with widely differing experiences so that maybe, just maybe, there can be more understanding of the other during this tense time in our society.  And it is our society, all of us own part of the problems of today.

I have also encountered resentment, a feeling that I am somehow separating myself from the society in which I grew up, and still live most of the time.  That some of the habits that have rubbed off onto me after nearly thirteen years of marriage make me neither fish nor fowl.  (Perhaps it’s fourteen, neither of us can remember if we got married in 2002 or 2003.  🙂

I am now a person who inhabits both spaces, and so some things are important to me that are different from what is important in white society.  I have changed, my core values have changed in some ways, in other ways they have not.  It was really eye-opening to me when I had a misunderstanding with a dear friend, and when we got down to explaining our thinking to each other, it was when I was able to explain my actions and priorities through my family history that my friend was able to accept my choices.  My friend had thought I was acting through an imposed social system from the other culture and had a deep resentment that I was making choices through a foreign lens that affected my friend .  It didn’t even occur to me until much later to question why it would not have been OK to have different priorities because of all of my experiences.  It was one of those rare moments in our friendship where we truly did not understand each other.

There is an implied superiority in cultural choices.  Each culture believes, so deeply that it is often unacknowledged, that the choices that they make as a culture are better than those made by any other culture.  When white society is lampooned by comedians of color, we laugh, sometimes ruefully acknowledging the truth and silliness of our habits.  However, deep down, we know that our habits, however silly from the outside, really are the right way to do things.  The same is true for every other culture I have encountered.

So the question becomes, how do we overcome this so that we can truly communicate across cultural boundaries.  So often I see people talking past each other, with neither side really hearing what the other is trying to say.   My fervent hope is that this space becomes a forum where people from many cultural perspectives can candidly, but respectfully, work on figuring this all out.  I also want to find others who are neither fish nor fowl and share experiences and ways of coping with our unusual situation.

How have you encountered a cultural disconnect?  How have you dealt with it?  What have been successful strategies, and how about some less stellar moments?  How do you process the different expectations of those around you?