This post is part of a series of interviews with families like ours, who are ‘mixed’ and Latino. Read more interviews here: MixedFam Q&A
Carla Molina is a writer with a fierce curiosity and a deep desire to inspire people. She studied philosophy in college and credits it with giving her idea-itis (or being a perpetual state of brainstorming). Carla loves to go to the movies, is on a mission to read 2 books a week for the rest of her life (give or take) and adores hoop earrings. Previously a Latina magazine blogger and a part of the team who launched El Tiki Tiki, Carla is currently preparing to launch some very exciting projects later this year; keep up with her at her personal blog, All of Me Now, to see what she’s got brewing.
What is your individual and/or relationship mix? (culture, ethnicity, language, religion, etc.)
Technically speaking, by way of my birth parents, I am Cuban and Filipino. However, I was raised entirely by the Cuban side of my family so I consider myself Cuban-American. I grew up in northern New Jersey in a community overflowing with Cubans, so I like to more accurately say I’m a Jersey Cuban-American. The Jersey, the Cuban and the American all played major roles in defining one another so it’s the most fitting way to describe my own personal mix.
My husband is Portuguese, Italian, Irish and Spanish. When asked, he says he most strongly identifies with the Portuguese culture in his family but, after being married to me for 5 years now and dating twice that, he assures me his sense of cultural pride pales greatly in comparison to my Jersey Cuban fever. I’ve written about it on my blog and it’s really fascinating to see how people develop a sense of cultural identity. It’s something I think about a lot, especially now that I’m responsible to my two daughters as they build their own identities.
How have the communities that you’ve lived in, impacted your personal and family identities?
Like I mentioned before, growing up in a predominantly Cuban community in New Jersey played a major role in who I am today. First, it gave me the illusion I was in the majority. I can honestly say I don’t ever remember being discriminated against or feeling singled out for being Cuban-American. I didn’t live in a bubble and certainly traveled to a lot of places where Latinos were the minority, but the illusion of being in the majority always made me confident in how I identified culturally. It helped to amplify the pride my parents instilled in me about being Cuban-American.
Second, it helped to reinforce many of the values my family was trying to teach me. Not to say as Latinos we all run on the same moral compass, but I think there are some things value-wise that older generations have in common. If my parents were preaching about the value of school and studying, I could go down to the corner bodega and find the guy behind the counter telling his son to finish his homework in the back. Or watch the same mother walking her three girls to and from school every day. I’m not sure those are the best examples but what I’m getting at is this – everywhere I went I saw echos of my own family life. It gave me a tremendous sense of being part of something so much bigger than me but tied together by the same values.
Currently, my husband and I are raising our girls in southern New England and, well, it’s the least Cuban place I’ve ever lived. Prior to this I was in Boston and, while it’s no New York City, the presence of so many universities makes it a great cultural shmorgishborg. Living here coupled with parenting two young girls has made me, more than ever, really connect to my Cuban heritage. Because of where we live, I make a tremendous effort to share my culture with our daughters. I truly believe if we lived somewhere similar to where I grew up, I would probably put in a lot less effort because I’d know they’d be surrounded by the culture all the time.
It’s something I struggled with when we first started our family. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to raise my kids in a place so completely void of my own culture. Then I realized that’s why I’d had the experiences I’d had, grew up where I’d grown up. It all was my education so I could have a strong place to start on raising my own children. I also had to let go of the notion I was going to give my kids the same cultural experience I had. This is their journey and I can sprinkle a little bit of me in there but what they’ve got is unique and all their own.
Have you or your children dealt with the “What are you?” question?
I grew up getting asked all the time and it took me a long time to really own my answer. I finally realized the question didn’t really matter, it didn’t matter why they were asking or what they were expecting as an answer. What did and does matter is my answer. It took a good part of my 20s to figure that one out but now I don’t have to play around with evasive or sarcastic answers. I can be honest and true to myself.
The first time I was asked this question as a parent, my first daughter was just months old and it caught me completely off guard. At that point I hadn’t yet really come to terms with my own answer to the question. I rambled one thing or another but not the confident answer I’d envisioned myself giving. We haven’t been asked this question in a long time but for the most part I tell folks they’re Cuban and Portuguese because those are the two cultures most present in their lives (right after American culture). I’m very conscious of how I answer because I know what I say will become what they say. I worry sometimes that I should also mention the other cultures in their background but in some ways that also feels false because they aren’t surrounded by the other cultures in their background. We’ll surely educate them about what makes up their rich history and let them decide what they hold on to.
Along the same lines, in terms of intrusive questions and/or comments, we get asked all the time about our youngest daughter. “Are they sisters?” “Are they both yours?” “Her dad must have light eyes?” And if not the questions, the curious stares. My husband, our oldest daughter and I are all dark haired and dark eyed, and I’m brown. Our baby girl has creamy white skin, green hazel eyes and blonde hair. It’s funny to me because I grew up around Latinos who came in all colors, shapes and sizes – every color of the rainbow, every hair texture possible and an amazing variety of eye colors.
It doesn’t get to me like the “What are you?” question used to. What gets me is how disrespectful the question is and how little thought is given to the kind of message it sends my daughters. I worry it will put thoughts into their heads about their sisterhood and why someone would question it. But for now, I just smile and say yes.
How do you combine your American identity and Latino identity? Do you feel that the two identities come together naturally in your life or is there conflict?
Growing up, I often felt too Americana for my Latino friends. Then, I went off to college and felt too Latina for my American friends. For a long time I didn’t understand what it meant to be Cuban-American. A lot of that has to do with living two very defined cultural lives. At home, with mami and abuelo, it was all Cuba, all the time. But at school, with my Latino-hyphenated-American peers, it was all about early ’90s American pop culture. My friends had parents who were very much immersed in American culture. My mami and abuelo were older, almost 50 years older, than I was and didn’t speak English. They were part of a generation who came to this tiny part of New Jersey and created their own little Havana in the northeast. It wasn’t as much about assimilation for them as it was about bringing home with them.
My friends’ parents, on the other hand, were a generation or even two removed from my own parents; their experience was more about assimilation. I remember having conversations with some of my friends’ parents and identifying with some of the things they talked about as young people because my experience more closely mirrored theirs and not that of my peers.
It wasn’t until after college when I was as far from any culture resembling anything I’d grown up with, that I realized it isn’t about balancing the two. It’s about forging something new, defining my unique hyphenated experience. And just like I think work/life balance is a hoax, so (to me) is the idea of balance when it comes to cultural identity. It’s about being present, relishing and really experience each moment as it happens. The moments I’m feeling muy, muy (very, very) Latina? Own it. The moments when some old friends would call me más Gringa que Cubana (more American than Cuban)? Own it. Each has it’s moment to shine and sometimes they’ll shine together.
What are your fondest childhood memories related to your cultural heritage? What was your family like when you were growing up?
I remember we went to a lot of parties. I loved getting dressed up and dancing into the night. A very different experience than my girls have now with naps and early, before 8pm, bedtimes. I remember coming home late into the night, lying down on everyone’s lap in the backseat in the days before car seats. It was just a happy, exuberant celebration of being alive. I don’t remember what the parties were for but it has given me the outlook that there’s always something to celebrate in life.
A special thanks to Carla for sharing her unique story with us! It’s not often that you get to hear from a multiracial mom, raising multiracial kids. So much insight to be shared!
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