Most people are a combination of various cultures, though I think their ancestors tended to confine their marriages to one continent. Mine didn’t.
I am a potpourri of Nicaraguan, Dominican, Middle-Eastern, French, Chinese, and African cultures, (hope I didn’t miss anyone); and born in Brooklyn, New York.
Often pressured to take sides and answer, ‘So what are you?’ I comprehended the complexity of diversity. But how could I choose which part of me is the most important? The combination of each nationality made me who I am, makes me whole.
Considering the current challenges that threaten to divide our country, memories carry me back to my childhood and to that pivotal moment of September 11, 2001.
Growing up in New York City my life revolved around a kaleidoscope of colors and nationalities. I was present each year at the Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade. At age twelve I learned my first Israeli folk dance. I never missed the West Indian Day Parade. The glittery costumes of performers on stilts and musicians danced the length of Eastern Parkway, home to one of Brooklyn’s largest Caribbean and Orthodox Jewish communities.
During the holidays we baked cookies for the police officers and firefighters.
The neighborhood pizzeria was our favorite hangout. I can still see Tony’s can of Medaglia D’Oro coffee on the shelf. The best desserts were from Sinclair’s German bakery where I feasted on cinnamon-raisin rugelach. For newspapers and comic books, (yes, I know, I’m dating myself), we went to Kasim’s candy store, a Yemenite, who also made the best ice cream soda. Hungry? Tom’s Greek diner for a hamburger deluxe. Need a little bling bling? The Armenian jewelry store located two doors down near the Cuban dress shop. Then stop in at the Haitian photo studio where Roland would snap your picture and let you practice your high school French. Puerto Rican bodegas, Chinese, Dominican, Indian, Pakistani, Polish restaurants, and exquisite Russian delicacies; the list goes on. We had it all.
We were so many different faces from so many different places, but we were neighbors, friends, classmates, co-workers. We were a community. We were…we are Americans.
After the attack on the World Trade Center, we felt an emptiness of something lost, and unsure if the wound would heal. Our eyes watered. Strangers held hands. Our voices cracked singing the national anthem. A palpable patriotism enveloped us as we reached out to embrace and encourage one another and ourselves. Gratitude for our peace and freedom, and thanksgiving for the abundance America has provided for us filled our hearts.
Yet uncertainty clouded our vision. In a city where everyone carries backpacks, tote bags, over-size purses, and shopping bags, we feared the contents they might contain within while the slogan warned in our ears. ‘See something, say something.’
We stepped back from colleagues and classmates measuring the people we smiled at and lunched with every day. Do I truly know him? Can I trust her? How do they really feel about me?
My brown face worried I would be mistaken for a terrorist, yet my eyes doubted the integrity of the brown face from whom I had bought my daily paper for ten years.
These unplanned thoughts and fears that arose within us revealed the inconsistencies of our human nature. On the one hand; quick to help, befriend and love, yet so easily prone to judge, accuse, and look the other way.
Our nation has known its full share of prejudice and discrimination. We have all experienced it. Throughout our history each religious and ethnic group has skillfully practiced hostility against another. And yet, somehow, we have succeeded in overcoming many of these divisions. Our collective love of freedom always forces us to cry out against inequality and injustice wherever we see it, and especially when we discover it in ourselves. It is to our credit that despite the many conflicts our country has endured, race and ethnicity have not prevailed to divide us. At every level of society, from friendships, neighbors, and marriages to work, sports, and blended families, we find strength and unity in the shared values that make us unique. This unity, forged in the fires of adversity, cannot easily be dissolved.
Just as I cannot remove any of the cultures within me, for they are part of me and make me who I am, we as a nation, cannot separate ourselves from each other. We are joined together. It is who we are. Like the colorful and oddly shaped pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, we make a perfect fit that forms and reveals a magnificent creation.
Our family portrait called America.
See you next time on September 22nd!
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