What I Learned from My First Summer Camp with my Multicultural Family

Have you ever been to summer camp as a family?  I am talking about the kind where you stay in rustic cabins, do organized activities, and share communal meals.  I took my multicultural family, we had a great time and learned a few things for next time.  And there will so be a next time.  If you haven’t thought about it, consider it.  It was a beautiful experience.  Read on for my musings about it, or just skip to the 10 Tips to Make Your Summer Camp Amazing.

Have you taken your multicultural family to an organized camp? Here are some things I learned that might help you.
I took my multicultural family to summer camp and had a blast!

We took a three day trek into the mountains for Peace Camp by the Modesto Peace Life Center. It was the first time I had participated in an organized camp since sixth grade. I grew up camping, but had gotten away from it with the demands of being a grown up and a husband who thinks roughing it is a nice hotel. Suffice it to say, it had been way too long since I had taken the time to recharge in the mountains. So when the opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. I convinced my mom and son to come with me, so we packed our bags and off we went.

It was my son’s first time “camping” since he was three and he doesn’t remember it. Time passes so quickly with one thing and another and I just realized I am raising a city boy. Oh the horror!  I was backpacking before I learned to walk.

Luckily he was enthusiastic, and had a great time.  He gets a little freaked out about bugs in the house, so I hoped it would not be a problem.  My little scientist decided that we were “in nature” which is their home and we were just visiting.  He wasn’t bothered by any of the critters, to the point where he didn’t want me to sweep the spiders out of our cabin, although he was just fine when Grandma got rid of the dead mouse that we found there when we arrived.

It was really nice to not have to plan and organize everything, especially the food. I have also gotten citified enough that I really appreciated being able to shower. The people were incredibly warm and welcoming, and the activities were well organized.  Many people really put effort into making us newbies feel comfortable and at home.

My friend, who was also there for the first time, said “It feels like we have found our tribe,” and she was right.  I have lived in California’s Central Valley for nearly thirty years, (Gah, time flies!) and I am comfortably at home here, but have had a difficult time finding a community of people who truly share my views on the world.  I have missed that, more than anything from my time living in a larger city.  At this camp I encountered people of every age and many cultures and walks of life, all focused on true inclusion on an individual and a global level.  It was a space where multiculturalism was embraced and lived.

Every person I met there had an interesting story and really thought about the world and the way they occupy it.  I haven’t had that many stimulating conversations in ages, let alone concentrated over three days.  The experience buoyed me in mind and spirit.  I am excited to go back, in fact, I’ve already got next year blocked off on my calendar.

So, what did I learn from Peace camp?

I learned that I over-pack. OK, I knew that already, but I really did bring too much stuff.  Next year I will not be so bogged down with stuff, now that I know more of what to expect.  Being able to stay in a cabin and having all the food prepared takes such a huge burden off of camping.  We brought enough snacks that we could have eaten fairly well all weekend, and never touched them.  However, I was very happy that I brought sheets for the camp cots (protection from mouse droppings).  I should have brought more warm clothes, it was just so hot down in the valley I couldn’t really believe it would be cold at night.  I knew better, it’s not like I have never been to the mountains before!  Luckily my mom also over-packs and brought an extra jacket.

My son spent hours upon hours playing with rocks and a creek and a few other kids.  I renewed my resolve to get him outside more and to take more days in nature.  Our family situation doesn’t make it easy, but we’ll work on making sure he has more unstructured time outdoors.  I may have to schedule it.  Anyone else see the irony in scheduling unstructured time?

I learned how much I had been longing for my tribe without even realizing it.  This blog has been my way of connecting with others who live a multicultural life, but now I’ve found a space where I can go to meet such folks in real life.  And that is a wonderful feeling.

10 Tips for an awesome Summer Camp
  1. Do bring warm clothing for the evening.  It gets cold in the mountains!
  2. Sheets to cover camp cots make sleeping much nicer, even if you are using a sleeping bag.
  3. Make sure to have a separate bag for shower stuff since it will be a trek from wherever you are sleeping.  Keep the toiletries to a minimum: shampoo/conditioner, soap, toothpaste/brush, sunscreen, bug spray.
  4. Bring several pairs of shoes that are easily cleaned.  Dirt and mud happen.  Closed toe will protect you from splinters and stubbed toes.  Flip flops really don’t work!
  5. Leave your electronics behind.  If you have them with you, you will be tempted to use them.
  6. Bring a camera that’s easy to carry with you if you want pictures of the experience.  Moments that just happen make the best memories.
    • Don’t hide behind your camera so much that you don’t really join in on the fun.
  7. Bring refillable water bottles that can hook on your belt and drink often.
  8. Participate.  Its the best way to get the most value out of summer camp.  Look at the schedule on the first day and decide which activities you are going to join.  Do something you have never done before, it’s a safe space to try new things since many others are new as well.
  9. On the other hand, don’t pack your schedule so much that there is no time to just play.  Let the kids play and let yourself play too.
  10. Help.  You will likely sign up for chores at the beginning.  Show up on time and work enthusiastically.  If you see something that needs doing, just do it.  Make sure your kids help too.  Depending on age they can help you with your chores or do their own.  My son held the dustpan while I swept and helped clear the tables after meals.  By next year he might be old enough to have his own chores.

Have you gone to summer camp as a family?  Please share your story in the comments.  If you haven’t I highly recommend it and will do my best to answer any questions you have.

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Getting ready for Summer Camp as a family? Here are my tips to help you make it a great experience.
Tips from my Summer Camp experience.
Have you ever been to a group camp as a grownup? The kind with organized activities and communal meals? I had not done anything like it since 6th grade and learned a few things from the experience that you may find useful if you go.
Helpful tips from our first experience at an organized camp as a family.

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.