Tales from the Melting Pot
By: Ashley Reed-Simpson
My dad grew up in New Jersey. My mom grew up in the Dominican Republic. They both moved to Florida when they were in their late teens, met, married, and had three children.
Like many other kids in the melting pot of South Florida, I grew up in a “hybrid culture,” that combined elements of my dad’s upbringing with that of my mom’s. What did this intertwined culture look like daily? It was eating a warm bowl of sancocho with sliced avocado after church on a Sunday afternoon while watching the football game with my dad. It was learning how to cook rice on a stovetop pan. (And not buying a rice cooker until I moved out and realizing that I could only cook rice in my family’s decades-old “rice pot.” (Any other pot would lead to burned rice!). It looked like dressing up for every event that we attended “as a family” – casually dressing was for home and exercise, nothing else.
How did this upbringing influence me today? While not fluent in Spanish, I am proficient enough to help out when I see that a native Spanish-speaker is having difficulty communicating with a sales clerk. Athleisure is a clothing style that I reserve for when I am at home or exercising. I prefer to be “put together” when I go anywhere else. A prime example is the annoyance I feel at those who go to the theatre in hoodies and jeans. Put in some effort! Also, my home is not “really clean” until every surface has been wiped down and the floors smell like Pine-Sol. De-cluttered does not mean clean!
As I’ve grown older, I’ve met more people like me from mixed cultural backgrounds who share the strange predicament of not fully belonging to either culture that raised us. We can cook our parent’s ethnic food, but we are not proficient in the language. We grew up assimilated to American culture, but with strong influence from one parent’s “mother” culture. Some of the things that we see our “All American” peers do leave us slack-jawed (i.e., talking back to parents without receiving a swift slap with a chancleta). Don’t get me wrong; I am proud of my upbringing, and the values that came along with it. I feel like those of us who grew up in a “hybrid household” are shown a different worldview than those from homogenous homes. And in turn, make us more empathetic and open-minded.
Do you speak Spanish?
By: Kristina Reed
“Do you speak Spanish?”
c. It’s complicated
On the surface, this is a simple yes or no question that should require little thought to answer. However, for most of my life, my answer has been far from simple. I want to apologize to those poor souls who were trying to make small talk when they asked, only to endure an inevitably long-winded presentation of my family history and upbringing.
You see, a few decades ago, my Dominican mom and American dad made three ethnically ambiguous kids and raised us at the intersection of two cultures. This fusion of cultures means that I associate both mac and cheese and plátanos maduros (sweet plantains) with my childhood. I listened to stories about my American grandpa’s military service, as well as stories of relatives who suspiciously went missing during Trujillo’s dictatorship in the D.R. I jammed to Buddy Holly with my dad and belted out José José with my mom. When it’s time to leave the house for an event, my dad is ready to go at least 30 minutes before. My mom runs on what we like to call “Latino time,” which, when translated, means being a little more than fashionably late. I most certainly inherited my mom’s concept of time. Sorry, dad!
Growing up, my siblings and I were proficient in Spanglish. We referred to sandals as chancletas, gossip as chisme, and our aunts as tias. Of course, we could name any Dominican dish put in front of us. Talk to us in Spanish? We usually understood. Expect us to reply in Spanish? Hmmm, that depended on the day. Expect us to respond in grammatically correct, confident Spanish with no accent? No can do. While I did eventually reach a conversational level of fluency, it took YEARS of practicing and mostly fighting the deep insecurity of sounding dumb. All this effort opened the doors to friendships that otherwise would have been impossible and even stories about my family I had never known. That said, I don’t feel “more Dominican” or even “more Latina.” I never felt like I was on the outside looking in. I was raised by the most incredible family that always made you feel loved and included (even after roasting you in Spanish from the other room). I was the beneficiary of “the best of both worlds,” so to speak. I watched my parents navigate their differences and learned the value of compromise from a young age. I saw how important it is to be intentional and always resolve conflict before sundown. Most importantly, I learned that when someone loves you the way my family loves each other, it doesn’t matter which language they use to express it.
Coffee and Family
By: Erin Simula
Everyone who knows me knows how much I love my coffee. And not just in an “I need it to stay awake and alive” kind of way. I love the aroma it sends through a living space and how it draws people to one room. It’s the start of many of my friendships since it’s easy to say, “Hey, you wanna go out for coffee sometime?” Or “do you want to come to my place? I can make a pot of coffee, and we can finish our conversation.” But like a home-cooked meal with your mom’s recipe or being back at your parents after moving away, it brings me back to my childhood.
My dad is American and grew up in North Carolina. My mom is Dominican and moved to the United States when she was 15 years old with her parents and five sisters. Her and three of her sisters lived only a few houses apart from each other. So I would say I heard a lot of Spanish growing up. I never learned to speak it, but it’s funny to me that when I’m in a room full of Spanish speakers, I feel right at home. I learned enough vocabulary to kind of get it, but don’t ask me to translate. If I close my eyes and reminisce about my childhood, I can so clearly remember my mom and all her sisters all in one room, laughing so much in all high pitched voices, reiterating whatever was funny in different ways louder and louder making the joke funnier and funnier. The joy was so contagious you couldn’t help but laugh yourself. My cousins and I had no idea what they were laughing at because it was all in Spanish. But it still filled the room with joy, and that’s a memory I will never forget.
But along with all the laughter in the air was that aroma of coffee. Not everyone in my family drinks coffee. But most of them do, and so does my Abuela. I started regularly drinking it when I was in high school, and I would usually be the one to make it when my Abuela came over. For some reason, she loved the way I would make it even though her coffee is the best. When I was around five years old, I remember my Abuela pouring me a tiny little cup of it with mostly sugar. (I blame her for my “addiction” today.) But my Abuelo, who passed away six years ago, would always make sure I had a fresh slice of bread and butter to dip into it. I remember him smiling sweetly at me and saying, “Cafe con Paaaannn.” Stressing the “con pan” part, winking, and then walking away to continue watching his baseball game. I will always remember how excited I was the few days he picked me up from elementary school. And although one might think it would be an awkward car ride home, He managed to make me laugh and muster up the few English words he knew to have small conversations with me. So even though we didn’t speak the same language, I knew that he loved me and cherished moments with me too.
So for me, growing up with an American dad and a Dominican mom was a blessing. It taught me that you could be from a different country, have different color skin tones, have a different culture and still love the people around you with all your heart, grow and learn from everyone, and have a room full of laughter and love no matter what language you speak. So even after you put sugar and cream in it, and if the beans come from different places around the world, and even if it comes from a French press or a Moka Pot, at the end of the day, it’s still coffee. To many people, it brings comfort and a little happiness to the day. For me, it reminds me of my childhood. And I will cherish that forever.