Living In a Multi-Cultural Family
Our family is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. Of course, on first appearance, it’s hard to tell. My wife is light skinned like me even though she is from Mexico. That makes the kids white too. So, without knowing beforehand, it’s hard to believe that my wife was born and raised in Mexico, and is ½ Mixtec Indian (Native American in other words). That makes my kids ¼ Mixtec (Mely’s grandparents didn’t even speak Spanish until they got to school because they spoke Mixtec instead). That’s not counting the other various indigenous parts to my boys’ genetics. Their racial make up is closer to 1/3 indigenous with the rest being pretty equally divided between Spanish, Scottish and German ancestry. That being the case it’s obvious that dividing people based on racial lines is somewhat stupid. It’s stupid because my wife is just as Mexican as the rest of her family yet she came out white and everyone else came out dark. It’s a fluke of genetics that her Spanish ancestry became dominant. Nevertheless, she grew up with classmates who made fun of her for being white and attributed all sorts of other stereotypes to her based solely on the fact that she is light skinned despite coming from the same genetic stock as her darker sisters. In the end racial makeup is irrelevant. What really makes a difference in our daily lives is not that we are multi-racial, which could be argued, but that we are very multi-cultural.
I bought a book when I lived in Mexico 13 years ago. It was called Distant Neighbors. The thrust of the book is that Mexicans and Americans are culturally worlds apart even though we share a two thousand mile border. Academically speaking I agreed with that thesis. I can see the differences in government, business, schooling, and law. Mexico’s history barely overlaps our own. Our cultures only really began to mix about 100 to 150 years ago. And, even in Europe, the Spanish and the English had completely different histories. The United States and Mexico had very different policies when it came to native populations. Mexico integrated the natives into society by converting them (even though there is still racial disparities) while the United States and Great Britain relocated and exterminated their populations. Right there that accounts for a huge part of our cultural differences. The fact is is that Mexicans don’t consider themselves Spanish and they can’t really be called native either. They consider themselves Mexicans, and they have a strong national identity as Mexicans. They are protective and insular as a country and a culture. WordPress has an 8,000 word limit or I could go on. Needless to say that their culture permeates all the way down to their family interactions. My culture is just as complicated. The point is though that my wife and I got married and had kids. Now we’ve got to work it all out. Consider it a tiny little US/Mexico summit that plays out every day in our household.
When we first married 12 years ago we decided that we would speak only English in the United States and only Spanish when we were in Mexico. That’s a pretty good deal for me because we decided to live in the United States. I would only need to break out the Spanish once a year, or less, for vacation. We made no provisions for holidays because neither of us is particularly religious anyway. We figured that the language issue was the biggest and most important issue on the table. We were wrong. Our cultural differences became pretty obvious right away when I got our first phone bill. One thing that is frequently talked about but rarely understood is the familiar connections that Mexicans seem to have and that we Americans do not, generically speaking. I call my parents about once every other month. Mely and I, because of our many differences, bickered a lot in our first years of marriage. She found comfort in her family; I found it in my friends. I went from having what I thought were many cousins to having about 300. Never mind that most of them were 2nd and 3rd cousins who, in the United States, would be considered only neighbors if they happened to live next door. No, Mexicans are notorious for hoarding family members. I thought I married Mely. I found out that I also married her family. I wanted to be independent. I didn’t want family around. I had to compromise. It took me a while, but I loosened up over time. I just thank God that we didn’t live in Mexico. We’d probably have to build a compound so the whole extended family could live within 40 yards of each other. Readers of this article can sense my tinge of sarcasm concerning this subject. It is because, after all these years, I still inwardly laugh at how very different people we are, and describing it in words is crudely done.
Lots of new marriages are difficult. Ours was especially difficult. Every tiny little cultural detail came to the surface. She wanted a house decorated in bright colors. I wanted white. She liked to eat really colorful and spicy food. I like spicy food too, but I can’t eat Mexican food every day. I love Mexican food for it’s complex flavors and many traditional dishes. Even considering that Mexican food is light years ahead of American food in terms of complexity and flavor I nevertheless craved comfort foods. Meatloaf was new for Mely as I remember. So was chicken pot-pie and shepherd’s pie. Mely comes from a big city in Mexico. Not many people living in downtown metropolitan areas in Mexico drive (which is hard to believe considering the death maze that they call driving). I taught her to drive which was a highly entertaining experience. Anybody who thinks driving is not a cultural experience has never driven in Mexico City or London. You can tell a lot about people by the way they handle a car. Mexicans, I have learned are not afraid of hurtling through traffic at 80 mph in an old Volkswagen bug while Londoners are surprisingly restrained considering the size and population density of their city. Other things, too, things that I would normally consider unimportant became important. We had a fight one time over soccer – and neither of us even like or watch soccer! Communication was a big deal too. I am used to strong women. Women in Mexico are still living in a masculine society where they are shut out and ignored. Mexican women are not typically outspoken or communicative. Mely was not, and still isn’t, an exception. I found it frustrating to communicate to someone who would demure at every opportunity. It’s been 12 years and we are still learning about each other. We both realize that compromise is the only way to make it. We are worlds apart, yet we are meant for each other. It’s weird, but true.
Many multi-cultural and multi-ethnic families attempt to graft all their traditions onto their kids. That approach would not work for us. We believe it sets up a battle of cultures and makes the kids chose between mom and dad. It is better to have a game-plan before having kids so that there is no strife later. Mely and I see eye to eye on a few issues. One of them is that we believe in the when in Rome philosophy. We both think that wherever we live we should try to fit in with our surroundings. For instance, if we lived in some African country then we would adhere to their prevailing customs. If we lived in Japan we would probably investigate Shinto as a religion and learn the proper ways to bow. In France we would celebrate Bastille day. We are in the United States. Our family, including our kids, observe the prevailing customs and holidays – with a few exceptions. We celebrate 3 Kings day and we try to get a Rosca at Christmas time. Some little things do no harm as long as there is no conflicting custom; Christmas and Hanukkah for instance would be difficult to reconcile. Neil and Alan know that they are half Mexican by heritage. They also know that they are 100% American. There is none of this Mexican-American bull crap. Mely got her citizenship 5 years ago. She is Mexican and she is American, but not Mexican-American.
We want our kids to have a clear cultural identity. Consistency is important when raising multi-cultural and multi-ethnic kids. They have to know where they belong. Kids don’t want to chose between their mothers and fathers. That’s why parents should be on the same page and decide which customs are most important before having kids. Kids don’t need the burden of deciding which stupid holidays they’re going to celebrate; they would probably pick the one with more presents anyway. I’ve found that there are some things I’ve had to give up and compromise about. Mely has had to give up much more. I recognize that and applaud her sacrifice. She is doing it because she knows the importance of consistency. If we had chosen to live in Mexico things would have been different, and I would have been the one to give up more. Maybe some day we’ll all move to Scotland or Japan. If that were to happen we would all adapt and change. We are never static. Cultures are living changing things just like people. We just go along with them so we can have a sense of belonging in our societies. When the society changes so too does the culture and us right along with it.