As a first-generation Cuban American, I was raised in a Spanish-speaking house. My first language was Spanish. I didn’t begin learning English until I entered elementary school. Coming up in Jersey along the Hudson River wasn’t easy. Much of the area was recovering from near bankruptcy. Housing was cheap. My mom, like so many others, was able to purchase a home in a crime-riddled neighborhood for next to nothing during the late-1970s.
Our neighborhood was primarily Italian prior to us moving in. As is common when large demographic changes occur, many from the “old neighborhood” harbored some animosity towards Spanish-speaking immigrants. In Union City, one of the core communities for Cuban immigrants in the United States, a lot of slurs were thrown around and we were constantly challenged to fight. For Black and Afro-Latinos, those challenges were much more frequent. It’s not an anomaly we could ignore because it was always in our faces.
Despite all of that, it was still a fun place to live. Looking back, being surrounded by ethnically diverse friends and family, learning to cook the food, and learning Cuban customs was awesome. It’s a joy to pass those on to my kids. The recipes, the stories, the music, the culture, the history. We shouldn’t have to lose any of those things because we live in the U.S. — as so many continually suggest. We shouldn’t have to anglicize our names or our cultures in an attempt to prevent discrimination. Our cultures are a large part of who we are.
Every Latino community represents its own melting pot and our identities are directly tied to that cultural heritage. There’s no denying it. Each respective community is mostly Indigenous, Mestizo, or Black with vast connections to that ancestry dating back generations. In Cuba, African heritage and culture are widely celebrated. Even in my own family, our religious beliefs and cultural identities were shaped by the diversity directly tied to our ancestors from Africa more so than Europeans. Our food represents many of the African traditions also inherited by dozens of other Latin American cultures.
Food is the key to cultural acceleration. Learning to create our favorite dishes is but one part of advocating for our culture. The best part is keeping it alive through our kids. With every dish lies a whole host of stories that are important to the food we eat as much as it is to the history of our families. It’s a true joy being in the kitchen with the whole family with music blaring throughout the house while having fun listening, learning, and teaching. Understanding our culture’s traditions is important because that’s where our identities thrive.
Food shapes who we are. For my kids, the recipes and stories will be a little different. My stepdad is Jamaican. He’s the only living grandfather they know. What culture means to them is even more diverse than it was for me. Luckily for us, we’ve been learning how to make Jamaican food while hearing the stories behind every dish. Stories we will continue to tell. Photos we will forever share. Memories we can never let die. These are our ancestors and our elders. They are the keys to why we become who we are. They shape us by giving us a sense of identity.
America provides us with access to myriad cultures, ethnicities, foods, and traditions. We learn about traditional Mexican food, or Italian food, or German food, or Cajun food from those who we associate with and others we are lucky enough to call our friends. Experiencing different cultures is something to embrace. The United States was born of multi-culturalism. To turn away from that is a tragedy. It results in cultural erasure, a lack of identity, and a broken connection to those who made us who we are; stories and traditions lost to the ether.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Our family, our history, and our cultural heritage are priceless. Perhaps if people who identify as a specific pale color identified with their histories and cultures they would see the commonalities they share with immigrants, Black and Indigenous communities, and all other non-white groups. Conceivably, if those same people reflected on our similarities more we could then begin the real journey to achieving equality for all.
I don’t claim to have all the answers but I do know this. Of my friends who embrace their cultural identities (yes, even white friends), none harbor bigotry towards others. We all hung out in diverse groups and shared our experiences which were vastly different. What we learn from each other and our families are invaluable lessons in multi-culturalism that can’t be taught anywhere. What we know of each other, the jokes, the camaraderie, the shared recipes, life, it’s all part of a much larger enjoyable experience that builds the types of friendships that last through the toughest times.
Is it as simple as researching your family history and learning about the traditions, the food, the people? It could be. It definitely won’t hurt. The journey is always enlightening and somewhat fun too. Knowing our past, who our ancestors were, and understanding our cultures help us develop identities that bear no superiority over others. It represents a level of knowledge that’s relatable across multi-cultural and multi-racial boundaries shattering stereotypes.
Before judging someone else, try getting to know them first.
*Originally published on Medium