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Struggling to Connect to Your Culture
What to do when you feel disconnected from your native culture
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Did you know June is Caribbean Heritage Month?
I didn’t either. I recently made the discovery while doing some other research.
With my dad being from Puerto Rico, you would think I would automatically know these things and take pride in celebrating them. But that’s not the case. He wasn’t in my life until I was 18 years old. And although my mom tried to expose me to my Caribbean heritage many times throughout my childhood, I was very resistant. I didn’t even want to acknowledge I was Puerto Rican let alone embrace or celebrate its culture.
Shortly after meeting my dad, I learned of his deep love for his island, its history, and most of all its culture. At the time, he was a professional salsa dancer and choreographer, appearing in several films and dancing at the Academy Awards. Eventually, when his knees didn’t permit him to dance as often, he shifted to producing large salsa events around the world where he would also teach the history of Salsa, the islands, and its people.
In fact, I remember the first time I traveled to Los Angeles to spend time with him. He was producing a Dia de San Juan event to celebrate the Puerto Rican holiday honoring John the Baptist. During that week in LA, I was immersed in Caribbean culture, which became the norm during my time with him. It was rare to spend time together outside of his events. He had such a deep passion for sharing his culture with others and creating unity through dancing. I wanted to embody that same passion, and someday inherit his company continuing his legacy.
I tried. I really did.
I listened to traditional and popular bands, took dance lessons, and watched movies like Dance with Me and Mambo Kings that featured Latino stories. I even spent a week with my extended family in Puerto Rico. Those first few years together, I spent more time with Dad in LA soaking up his culture and trying desperately to make it my own.
As a salsa music producer, he attended events almost every night. When I was in town, I joined him. They always included dinner, live bands, nightclubs, and VIP treatment. I loved it all - the new dishes at the Cuban restaurant, the rhythm of the clave, the sexy movement of the dancers, and especially the feeling when the doorman saw us walking up, unlocked the red velvet rope, and welcomed us in while a line wrapped around the building. To an 18-year-old girl from a small midwest town who wanted nothing more than to belong, I felt like I’d finally found my people!
But the feeling was short-lived.
Soon I realized I wasn’t as accepted as I thought. People welcomed me because I was Albert’s daughter, but few talked to me or had the desire to get to know me as a person. Most were quick to shame me for not speaking Spanish. I tried to explain why I didn’t, but quickly found they weren’t interested in explanations. Little by little I began to feel less connected to my dad’s culture.
It took me many, many years to reconcile my cultural struggle. But when I finally did I concluded three things:
1. I don’t have to choose. Whether it be boxes on a form or sides of my ethnic heritage, I don’t have to choose just one. I have permission to identify with both in my own way. I’m White and Puerto Rican. I’m a beautiful blend of my mom and dad, and so are you!
2. I can choose my culture. When I think about culture, I imagine what it would look like if I moved to another country. If I did, I would be an American girl. I love Sunday football, summer cookouts, fireworks on the 4th of July, Disney, and many other attributes of American culture. After years of trying, I realized I was already connected to a culture - my American culture - and that was ok. I let go of the guilt I carried for not feeling a deep connection to my Puerto Rican culture.
3. I can appreciate both my ethnicity and culture. Just because I feel more connected to American culture, doesn’t mean I want to completely ignore my Puerto Rican roots. I love Caribbean food. Just this week, I found myself almost giddy at finding a Cuban restaurant in Las Vegas where I got one of my favorite dishes - papas rellenas (fried mashed potato balls filled with seasoned ground beef). The restaurant only had 4 left and I bought them all to share with coworkers and family. They were SO GOOD! If you’ve never tried them, you can find a recipe here. They’re a little time-consuming but easy enough.
And I can’t help but move anytime I hear the scratch of the güiro, the pulse of the clave, and the melody of the timbales and horns. I might not have inherited his passion for Puerto Rico, but I did learn to love parts of the island that held my dad’s heart.
Through this process, I learned two important lessons:
The way a child chooses to identify, celebrate and embrace their culture and ethnicity might look different than their parents…and that’s ok.
Parents - your mixed kids will experience different seasons on their journey. Sometimes they might identify with one side more than another. When / if they do, try to remember this isn’t a personal attack or rejection (although it will probably feel like one.)
Have you struggled to connect with your culture?
You don’t have to be Mixed to have a complicated relationship with your ethnicity and culture.
- Maybe you’re a transracial adoptee, or the parent of one and want to understand how best to support them.
- Maybe you’re a first-generation immigrant whose parents feel tightly connected to their culture, but you have a hard time living in the tension of native culture and American culture.
- Maybe you were raised by parents who felt the sting of racism and didn’t want that for you. So they learned to assimilate and expected you to do the same. So you never learned to speak your native language or feel a connection to your ethnic culture.
I’d love to hear from you. If this post spoke to you, I’d love to hear about it.
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A Little Something Extra…
Each week, I like to share a little something extra, something I’ve found fun or helpful. It might be a post, book, podcast, tv show, movie, song, Bible verse…or something else I think you’ll enjoy.
Permission to Pause
Summer is a great time to pause life’s regular demands and create space to play and rest. I admit. I’m the worst at giving myself permission to pause. But over the past few weeks, I’ve felt a tug to do just that - press pause - to give God the space and quiet to guide the future of Mixed.ology.
So I’ll be taking a short sabbatical. For now, I see it as July and August with the intent to come back with new content and resources in the fall!
I’m excited about what God’s been doing already as I step out in faith and trust him in this area. I’ll still be on Insta, so if we’re not already friends, you can follow me there.
I am so incredibly thankful for each of you and pray you have an incredible summer! Make time to play. Have a water balloon fight. Catch fireflies (or lighting bugs, whatever you call them). Take a walk and watch the sunset. Read a new book. Take a nap…or naps! Pray…often. Journal. Take a spontaneous trip. Cuddle under the stars. Breathe deep and enjoy!
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