Finding Our Heritage

Oh my goodness…Imma ’bout to be very brave or stupid, depends on how you look at it. Please don’t throw rocks at me. I am actually non-confrontational, but this has weighed upon me heavily lately. Okay…here goes…

I am an American Mutt.  I love my country and I love our freedoms, but I am not blinded by nationalism–I could just as easily be happy to be British or Japanese. I am proud of what we have accomplished as a nation, though I am pretty disenchanted with some of the ways and means we did accomplish these things (we have done many a dark deed and swept it under the rug). I think our country is finally starting to get to a place where lots of people can only really identify themselves as American rather than of a certain heritage, and that is something.

I mean, so yeah, your great-great-somebody may have come here from Ireland, but do you REALLY know anything about Ireland? Can you pronounce Gaelic words without sounding like a fool?  Can you cook anything Irish other than cabbage and potatoes? Probably not.  This is both good and sad.

It is good because America is finally perhaps making our own true heritage.  We are such a young country with a young culture and our ancestors were all a bunch of transplants, that for a long time we identified ourselves as being of such-and-such heritage.  We have had enough generations now that lots and lots of people cannot say they are 100% of one thing or another, myself included.  I am German, Polish, Irish, English, and Dutch (and probably half a dozen other things).  I have been to none of those countries (though we are going to Poland in 2016!) and I do not have a cool accent or a brogue and can speak exactly 7 words in German.  The only cuisine from any of these places I know is if I Google a recipe and try my luck or I find a tourist trap on International Drive in Orlando.

Being American and from the South, I can make my words have a lilt or twang and I can make cornbread,  collard greens, red velvet cake, and chicken and dumplins so good they’ll make you wanna smack your mama (but don’t do that because it is a mortal sin to dishonor your mama).  I have the grit and the determination so characteristic of Americans.  And if I travel to England, then I AM the one with a cool accent (well, depends on who you ask, I guess, but at least I am the different one).  I have ancestors here that I can trace to really important events, like the Civil War and WWI and WWII and the Great Depression.   We have traditions of hot dogs and fireworks in the summer, Sweet Sixteens, and stuffing ourselves on Thanksgiving.

But there are some things that get lost in the wash and this is the sad part.  Because we are molding our own new heritage, and because some of us have had roots here a lot longer than others, we become less understanding and tolerant of other people who have newer roots here.  We have, many of us, certainly forgotten the characteristics that were gifted from our mother lands…like languages and food and other traditions.  As a consequence, some of us viciously attack people who are a little less removed from their mother culture.  I have seen it firsthand with my husband’s family, who is 100% Mexican.  Our kids will be the first generation born here, in fact, on his side of the family.  I wish I could tell you why I get such pushback from people, including members of my extended family and people I really love, regarding the desire to learn how to cook my husband’s food and visit the land he was born in and teach our children Spanish.  I don’t feel that it makes me less American for wanting to teach my children their heritage.  I do not feel like it makes me less American for loving to learn about my husband’s heritage.

I don’t see how or why some people think that it somehow cheapens the value of our freedoms or disgraces our country in any way to like to learn and experience other cultures.  It has always floored me.  In fact, I think it is kind of a shame that I don’t know how to make a proper pierogie like my great-grandmother or participate in Cherokee powwows or celebrate with certain traditions.  Sadly, I have actually lost relationships, including close family members, due to my affinity of my husband’s culture.  Truly, it isn’t that I value it above my own, but I am happy to have another “adopted” culture.  I LIKE to cook true Mexican food.  I LIKE to go to Quinceñeras and other Mexican parties.  I LIKE visiting Mexico, just as I am sure I would LIKE visiting England or France or India or Japan.  Being American to me is so much more than living here, speaking American English,  and having a Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Even if I were to move to another country and take on dual citizenship, I would still identify myself as American, because I am.

Being an American means that I believe all men and women were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness….no matter who they are or where they are from or what their heritage is.  Being a Christian emphasizes this even MORE to me.  It is my duty and obligation and my JOY as a Christian to spread love and goodwill and to take care of those less fortunate than myself.

Obviously, I don’t mean a free for all to allow criminals and terrorists to come willy-nilly into the country, but I DO mean treating all with respect and dignity owed to the human race.  I strongly disagree with separating families or treating anyone as a 2nd class person because they were not born here, however they got here.  You never, ever know what desperation or circumstances drives people to do what they do.

My husband immigrated here when he was a child with his family.  His older brother was blinded in a car accident at the age of 16 and his parents exhausted the medical options available to them in Mexico in an effort to restore their son’s sight.  They thought there might be a chance that he could have an operation in the States and they knew there was a good school here that is world-renowned, so they made a very dangerous voyage to give their son the very best chance.   My father in-law worked very hard in the fields and groves and then paid—in cash—for 7 acres of Florida piney woods, thick with palmettos.  He and his sons cleared all seven acres themselves and built a little farm.  The kids all went to public school and learned English and excelled in their classes.  My husband went on to join the US Navy, stationed in San Diego and deployed twice to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  He loves his adopted country and actually appreciates his freedoms better than most born-and-bred Americans.

Try digging up 7 acres of this…no thanks.

Navy pic (2)

That fresh-faced sailor on the far right is my hunny! Doesn’t the hat make you LOL????

Maybe it is where we live or some of the people we know, I am not sure, but whenever Elmer talks about his love of Mexico or traditions he knows in polite conversation, he actually gets glares and harsh words.   Once someone overheard him talking with another man in Spanish and they were told to “Speak English, this is ‘Merica!” Of course, my husband responded in perfect English, without a trace of an accent, for the person to mind his own business.   He often gets asked by people, and embarrassingly enough, members of my own family, why immigrants don’t go through proper channels and why they “take our jobs and resources”.   Nothing gets his Irish—er, Mexican—dander up faster.

For those of you that think you get just “go through proper channels”, please don’t be mistaken.  Depending on who you are and where you are from, “proper channels” may not exist or may take years. What your great great grandfather did to get here from Poland isn’t the same as what is happening today.  I thought and felt the same as many, but I have learned to understand and empathize.  Mexicans themselves want PROPER border control.  They also want the Mexican government to fix itself so they could stay in a land they love.  Mexicans themselves would like a less bureaucratic method of obtaining proper visas and residencies and would much prefer to keep their life savings rather than forking it over to crooked coyotes to lead them across a barren desert in the middle of the night.  There are a lot of problems that need fixing on both sides of the fence, that is for sure, and I don’t think anyone on either side denies it.  It really comes down to what my husband refers to as the “lottery of birth”.  You were either born fortunate, in a safe country with a warm bed and promise of food for every meal, or you were not.  If you were not, then you do whatever you can to meet the basic human needs, which could include crossing a river in the dead of night with a sock stuffed in your baby’s mouth to keep it from crying and working as a field hand for a few dollars a day to buy food.

migrant_workers_ji.top.jpg

photo from cnn.com

As Americans, we are quite rightfully protective of our country, but we are also quite quick to shift blame and point fingers…which is human nature.  People, in general, are usually afraid of something that we don’t know much about and we also tend to work ourselves into some sort of mass hysteria based on assumptions.  We are also quick to take for granted our lives of privilege and assume newcomers can immediately build what took our own families a long time to build.   I can only give insight on my own personal experiences, and I cannot speak for everyone at all times, but can tell you that I was sadly mistaken about the Mexicans I know living in our country.

My mother in law cannot speak more than 5 words in English. I have heard her say “hi!”, “bye”, “tank you” and “purdy”.  She is an older woman, doesn’t drive, and is uneducated.  She has lived her entire life as a field hand, a housewife, and a mother of 7 children.  She will turn your whole understanding of what Mexican food actually is on its head (hint: there is no cheddar, sour cream, or lettuce).  She is the first up in the morning and usually the last in bed, and she can run circles around everyone.  There is not a lazy bone in her body.  And, buddy, she LOVES America.  She has little flags everywhere and is so proud of her voter’s ID.  She votes in all elections, vigorously researching candidates.  She practices her American rights more than I do.  But she can no more shed what has been her culture for her entire 67 years of life, and her family’s culture for an untold number of generations, than you can.

La Doña y su hijo. A sweetheart and a Queen of Cooks.

La Doña y su hijo. A sweetheart and a Queen of Cooks.

I could go on and on, quite honestly, and list many immigrants that work so very hard and just want to feed their families and live peaceful lives and I know many Americans that lie, cheat and take advantage of the system, but I won’t go into all that, especially as it does go both ways.  What I do know is that our problems do not get fixed with suspicion, derision, pointing fingers, guns and high walls.  I also know we are “one nation, UNDER God” and your morals and values of human decency should far outweigh your sense of patriotism. If we truly take our motto “In God We Trust” to heart and live our values, then we can actually heal what is broken and have a true American Culture that sets us apart, a culture that IS like a salad bowl with all kinds of yummy goodies that taste good on their own, but make a magical medley when tossed together.

I leave with you the always hilarious Stephen Colbert…

Here are some really eye-opening documentaries/movies:

  • Frontera–movie on Netflix
  • This (Illegal) American Life–documentary found on youtube
  • Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man: Immigration: TV episode on Amazon prime
  • Which Way Home–HBO documentary, on Netflix
  • Homeland: Immigration in America–PBS documentary, http://explorehomeland.org/
  • Cesar’s Last Fast–documentary on Netflix

Read:

  • Esperanza Rising
  • The House on Mango Street

One thought on “Finding Our Heritage

  1. Pingback: Cooking Lessons, St. Joseph the Worker, and Me | Three Marys For A Martha

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