The best part of life consists in the experience of learning to navigate a new environment. When I’ve walked among people that I don’t understand, I have found my inner self stretching and being renewed. Every new horizon opened to me also opened me up to a new understanding of life.
When I was a little girl, I spent the summers with my mom. She lived in a building for people with special needs. Several frail elderly people lived there, but the young ones were mostly developmentally disabled or in wheelchairs. I met people who were just folks, but if I hadn’t spent so much time with them, I might have thought that their wheelchairs, speech impediments, tremors, or their wrinkly skin made them foreign or somehow other than human. I’m glad for this experience, and I’m often shocked when a disabled person avoids eye contact with me. I guess outside of their world, they’re used to being ignored. That’s sad to me.
My mom worked for a few hours every day, and so she sent me to a friend’s house for babysitting. The family was African-American, and they had moved up from Georgia to New York City. They lived in a neat, clean, middle class neighborhood. They owned their own home, a lovely house with a little Chinese dog. An intact young family, they had kids who ranged from teen to little children like me. Their food was different, their way of handling conflict was different, and even their jokes were odd to me. Yet, as I learned to navigate this new glimpse into another world, I became a richer person.
I’d been raised to believe that black people were a different type of people from us, and that we shouldn’t get too close. A respectful, distant relationship was acceptable, but any deeper closeness wasn’t appropriate. However, tell that to a little girl whose experiences in that house were so positive. I still remember Louie’s house as one of the most stable, idealistic environments of my early years. They spoke Ebonics at home, but they could navigate the white man’s world with class. They were funny and joyful, but the house was also full of tense situations at times just like any home. Louie drank a little too much, and the kids went through their wild years. The grandma who lived with them was stern and strict. She required me to eat every bite of food on my plate, including grits and greens. However, she was also fair and trustworthy. I love her to this day, though she has long left to her heavenly reward. Louie’s house was a glimpse of a real family living in a different color skin, and the thing that I learned the most there was that they were, in fact, more similar to my own family than different.
When I moved to the Bronx at aged 8, I was exposed to a completely different group of people. Unlike Louie’s family, these African-Americans weren’t from the South, and they had different, less chivalrous habits. Latinos and African Americans lived in this neighborhood almost entirely without what we would call white folks.Even the white ones, like me, were Puerto Rican or came from another non-European ethnic backgrounds. Here, people had much harder stories than I’d ever known. Teenage sisters who were pregnant at 15, mothers who weren’t prostitutes but received money from their lovers, holes in walls and doors, mice and rats as permanent houseguests…
There was so much wrong with their lives, and I could sense it all. I felt pain radiating from these children, but they didn’t want it mentioned. They’d shut down, tease you, or look for a reason to argue until you stopped talking about their problems. They wanted to discuss the normal, the day-to-day, or someone else’s messed up life. How similar to my own life this was, and once again, I saw that everyone was pretty much the same.
In Florida at aged 12 a few years later, I learned that Don and Dawn were pronounced the same in the South. In New York, the difference was extreme, but the sameness of the pronunciation in Florida led to my first big faux pas. When two girls were discussing their friend, “Don,” I jumped in and asked, “Is he cute?” “Don is a girl!” they said. I asked them to spell it. “D-A-W-N,” they said. They never let me live that one down. Or my question about the mall, pronounced m-awe-l in New York, not the Florida version which sounds more like Ma with an L at the end. What on earth had I done? I was filled with shame at my now-foolish way of speech.
I finally just adapted their accent, which is still with me today. In fact, the only time my New York accent comes back is if I’m in prolonged contact with other New Yorkers, and it’s unconscious. Or, of course, when I’m very angry. So when I got very upset at the dawg for peeing on the carpet, my kids would pick up the pup, put it in its crate, and guffaw and grin at what they had just heard me call their pet until I couldn’t stay very angry for long.
Moving to Brooklyn in 11th grade felt like another shift. I couldn’t understand why everything was so foreign to me. I was born in New York, so why did it feel like a strange land? I was isolated, unhappy, and I felt lost. It was the lowest time in my life until that moment. I expected to just grit my teeth and live through the end of this school year until I could finally hide myself away during the summer.
Some outsiders reached out to me. A white girl, an Asia guy, and an African-American dude with a slanted afro didn’t leave me alone, though I gave them no encouragement. They bought a pizza once in study hall and insisted on sharing it with me. It is still one of my favorite quirky memories. I wish I had been able to show them how much I appreciated them. But I didn’t know how at the time. My emotions were lost to me.
Back in Florida again for my senior year, I jumped into life in a Spanish-speaking church. For some reason, I could understand just about every word in the sermon, but the conversations after church were full of figures of speech and slang that I didn’t understand at all. The Spanish that my grandparents had taught me through aged 12 wasn’t enough to navigate an adult world. I could have found myself on the outside again, but one girl didn’t allow it. She insisted on sitting next to me, kept drawing me into the conversation, and eventually became my favorite person in church. She slept over at my house by first announcing to me that she was going to do so. She was tiny but formidable. And she kept telling me that I’d be perfect for her brother, a guy who was 20 years old. I didn’t think that made much sense, until I met him. His sister had been right. When he came into town from Puerto Rico in September, I was completely in love with this guy, and I was determined to marry him right away.
Living with my birth mom for the first time was a strange adventure. She was still a loving, kind mother, but she was also critical of my dedication to God. She thought it was extremist to talk about God all the time, to listen only to Christian music, and to be reading the Bible so much. I was in love with God, and I was excited about Rudy, my new fiance, the 20 year old who had come from Puerto Rico to Florida and had turned my world on its axis. I had agreed to abide by my grandmother’s stipulation that I move to New York for 6 months to test the strength of my commitment to him. Once I had waited 6 months, she would approve of the marriage and even buy me a dress.
Rudy’s family was Spanish-speaking all day long. I didn’t have that much Spanish in my arsenal, and I felt out of place. I had moved close to his parents after the wedding, and we were now in their world. It was the most foreign place I’d ever known. They didn’t shout across the house at one another. They walked into the next room to talk using indoor voices. They didn’t yell at the kids. They talked to them calmly and forgave them when they didn’t quite get it. They walked around singing hymns and songs while they worked, and they seemed genuinely caring. I felt like I was surrounded by the Smurfs. And not always in a good way.
Within two years, they had won me over completely. I wanted to be one of them. Why did it take so long? I don’t exactly know, but I had never met anyone like this bunch. I mistrusted kindness. After all, some of the kindest people in my life had been pedophiles. (I’ve got another blog about this.) They were genuinely good people. Yes, they had faults. Of course, they lost their tempers. But overall, they were the type of people I had only imagined existed. It was like living in a Latino version of “Little House on the Prairie.” I was finally home.
The changes haven’t stopped. I found that every step I took in life seemed to lead to another new leap of faith into a life and a world I’d never known. I have experienced new lifestyles, cultures, personalities, and beliefs all along the journey. I have found practicing witches who were kind and friendly acquaintances, and Christians who betrayed and hurt me. Yet, I have found that overall, the best friends and the most faithful were people who shared my faith. In or out of my faith, my desire has become to love and encourage everyone I meet, and that grew out of exposure to all types of people. In every culture, group, religion, and lifestyle, I’ve seen people who are kind. I’ve learned from them, wished I could be like them, and then put that dream into action.
What’s the use of cultural differences? Because when you finally learn all that you can about a certain group, you discover one thing: People are people, and there is always something new to learn from them. All of them. And by walking a little while in their shoes, you can earn the right to maybe teach them a thing or two, as well.