Growing Up Without Culture

A couple weeks ago I was talking to some students in a college class. I asked them to guess what my background was. One girl raised her hand and said “Latino.” Then I asked the group to guess again, but this time I told them to base their answer on the way I dressed and talked. Someone else raised his hand and said “white.”

I then asked: “So what am I?”

While I was raised in a white middle class household, I’m not white. While I may have grown up in “white america,” I don’t necessarily feel like that defines me. When people look at me they see I’m Latino. I’ve even gotten extra questioning at airports. I’m sure my appearance had something to do with it. At the same time, other Latinos would call me gringo (white American) because I couldn’t speak Spanish. Their message was clear; you may look like us, but you are not like us. This left me feeling like an outsider to both cultural groups. I used to struggle with it a lot. I tried to figure how I could change myself to fit into one these groups.

What I eventually realized was that I had no culture. I know it’s impossible not to have any culture, but I couldn’t clearly define what mine was.

I know I’m American, but I don’t completely identify with Americans. Growing up there was a strong German influence in my house. At Christmas we would have German cookies and we often said a German grace at dinner. I was even fluent in German at one point. However, as I spent more time in Central America, that culture became a part of me as well. I started to like the music and learned how to dance. I learned the different sayings and copied the way they dressed.

All of these experiences gave me the freedom to enjoy other cultures. Experiencing other cultures meant being an outsider to the group. Since I grew up constantly feeling like an outsider I’m not scared to be only person in the room of a different race or background. I’ve learned how to blend in and mimic the people around me.

I feel like people are too often defined by their culture. Are you in the group or not? Since I’m always an outsider I no longer worry about fitting in; I can experience new ideas or cultures and let them them become a part of me.

The Power of Culture

During my life I’ve been exposed to many different cultures. I’ve been very fortunate to have lived and traveled to countries all over the world. This has been extremely fascinating because its given me insight into how people all over experience life.

The more I travel, the more I realize how powerful culture is and how much it defines us. It influences us in so many ways that we are not even aware of. I think cultural differences only become apparent when you are constantly being exposed to people in different countries, states and regions. You get to see the differences between the way they talk, dress, interact and even drive. Some of these differences are easy to spot but most are often so subtle that we don’t even realize it is culture.

When I first started going to Central America I noticed that many men and women made stiff hand gestures. When talking or resting, their hands seemed rigid as if they all had arthritis. At first I assumed this was the case because people here work more with their hands. As I spent more time in Central America I started to notice more people making the same gestures; people of all ages who weren’t old enough to have arthritis and didn’t work manual labor jobs. My next thought was that perhaps this was due to culture.

I know that people often share accents, but could they be sharing physical gestures as well? I had never heard about this happening before, but the more time I spent in Central America, the more it seemed to make sense. If this is the case, it’s fascinating to think that culture can influence us on such an unconscious level.

Culture effects everything from how we talk and move to the way we think. In my experience, the way culture impacts our thinking can be both good and bad. It’s good because we need various view points for new and incredible breakthroughs to happen. However, it can be bad because it can build barriers between people and ideas.

When people are confronted with an idea that is outside their cultural expectations it can be hard for them to accept, even if this new idea could help them. This can be very challenging when you are trying to help people and share a different perspective on a problem. It can also make people feel torn between worlds or ideas. Working through cultural differences can be very challenging and can take a long time.

Over the next couple of posts I want to share both my good and bad experiences with culture and the role it plays in our lives. I’ll talk about how growing up in multiple cultures shaped my world view and how I’ve noticed that people can struggle to accept the cultural expectations that have been placed on them.

I’d love to know how you think culture influences your life.

Return to El Salvador: Photo Essay

This trip to El Salvador was a lot different. I got a chance to look at what my life here might have been like. I got to see the effect of American culture here. I learned more about my father and my mother’s side of the family.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to find before I arrived. Now that it’s over, I left feeling more torn. I was reunited with such wonderful people from my family. I feel a little guilty for not returning sooner. If anything has complicated things, I now have another group of amazing people to split my time between.

Something I want to start doing in the new year are more posts with pictures. I love photography and capturing moments that represent the human condition. Why wait until the new year to start. Here is a collection of photos from my trip that I think capture the essence of my trip.

Empty rooms can tell us so much about life in other countries

Getting ready for our cousin’s wedding while watching football(soccer)

Aunt Dalilla and Aunt Vilma

Aunt Tiña. Tiña and her family were the first people we met when we reunited. We met in Boston because they were there visiting. What a small world.

My cousin Cesar and his beautiful family

Cesar’s wife and their son

My cousin’s children playing in the fireplace

The Bride and Groom

Diana and Nicolas

Luis’ little daughter was watching TV and dancing in front of the TV

Monic talks to me. In the background is the table where Mariano and I talked.

Time to go

We stopped by to see my Uncle Sergio. Like most of the Cotos, he didn’t say much.

At my uncle Toño’s house we have a lunch of pupusas

Toño talks with his duaghter in the U.S. over skype

Group picture outside the store

Return to El Salvador: Visiting Mariano

Luis, Mariano and Myself

After spending a couple of days with the Escobars, I thought I should reach out to my father’s side of the family. My cousin Luis picked me up at my Aunt Dalilla’s house. We were going to his brother’s house for dinner. Before we got to dinner, we stopped by his house to wait for my cousins Cecelia and Doris. Luis lives in a small apartment on top of his father’s car parts and accessories store.

Luis’ father Mariano meets us at the doorway and invites us in so we can talk. I make my way up to the second level which is filled with chairs and other supplies. Clearly it’s being used as storage for the shop. We go up another flight of stairs to the apartment. There is one main living room. To the left is a kitchen and study room. The bedroom is to the right. The only bathroom is in the living room and is not entirely closed off. It’s tight quarters with little privacy, but it’s home. We take a seat at a big table in the living room.

I met Mariano once before in 1998. It was an emotional experience for his wife. She remembered bathing me the night before my mother and I fled the county. Mariano looks a lot older now. I don’t remember exactly what he looked like back then, but now he looks old enough to be my grandfather.

He tells me about how they used to listen to the clandestine radios during the war. They would have to turn the radio all the way down so no one could hear it. He explains that people couldn’t sit and talk as we are. He tells me how he and his wife helped my mother during the war. They took care of me and helped her get things she needed.

“Is this where you lived back then?” I ask.

He says “yes”.

I look around as I realize my mother must have stayed here with me. I can almost picture her walking around the apartment with me in her arms.

Talking to him reminds me so much of my father. The way they move is so similar. However, there is something different about Mariano. He is calm and collected. There is a sadness about him but he is not resentful. He has had a hard life and yet, I feel no bitterness or anger from him.

“Do you think things have changed?” He’s not so sure. He says, my parents fought because people were repressed and poor. 30 years later, they are still poor and all that is different is the leadership.

“What do you think about what they did?”

“Your parents were fighting for change. They believed in what they were doing but it didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. The U.S. was helping the government and this is why it didn’t work out”

I explain to him that I am in many ways the product of America. It was American foreign policy that separated me, and American culture that made me who I am. Then he says something I did not expected.

“It wasn’t the people of America that did this, it was a few powerful people who acted in their own self interest that did this.” I’m blown away by his insight and wisdom. Most of the people I have talked to about the war do not have such a clear understanding of the situation.

He talks about the gangs in El Salvador. How people will rob the busses and shoot you if you don’t give them what they want. Sadly he knows all to well how about this. A couple years ago his son was killed during a carjacking. He was sitting next to him when it happened.

“Thank God that you, Ernesto and Eva didn’t have to grow up in this.”

From where he sits we are the lucky ones. In his eyes even though we were separated from each other, we were still better off.

This trip has been difficult because it showed me what life here might have been like and it made me question the decisions my parents made. It made me wish for a simpler life, where my family is not separated. But what if we had never been separated? Would it have worked out like I imagine, or would life have been just as hard as it has been for Marino.

Would I have been happy with a life in El Salvador, or would I be searching for more? Searching for the life I have now.

Return to El Salvador: The Escobars

For most of the past 12 years I have gotten to know my father’s side of the family more than my mother’s. This is because I usually stay with my father and sister. My family there is very “Coto,” and it’s easy to see how similar we are. When I first met my family, I noticed right away that the Cotos walk the same. We have a distinctive duck waddle that is easy to spot when we are together. The more time I spend with my bother, sisters and father, the more of these traits I have noticed.

Since most of the Escobars are still in El Salvador, I haven’t had a chance to get to know them as well. During this trip I really got to see what the other side of the family was like.

One night after going out to eat Pupusas, a typical Salvadoran dish, we stopped by my Aunt Haydee’s house. As she was talking, I noticed right away that my brother Ernesto and she make very similar facial movements. I chuckled a little and hoped she didn’t notice. I could just picture Ernesto making the same face.

I looked over to my aunt Tita on the couch and there she was, sitting just as I would. Back to a corner, one arm stretched resting on the sofa back, the other in the air supporting her head. Up until that point I always thought my mannerisms came exclusively from my father’s side. It was nice to see one from my mother.

I’ve often wondered what else I got from my mother. Looking so much like my father, I thought a lot of my personality might have come from her. Watching the family interact, I got to see their characteristics. My Aunt Tita and her daughters are warm, fun loving, and silly. My Aunt Dalilla and her sons are more quiet, reserved, and pensive. What a wide range of personalities! I definitely see these same traits in myself. It appears my hunch was correct, I am very much an Escobar.

That weekend was my cousin’s wedding. It was one of the reasons that I decided to go back to El Salvador. In attendance were all but one of my aunts and cousins I had not seen in 12 years. Some of them resembled my sister and her daughter. Others reminded me of my late grandmother. My cousin Cesar bares a striking resemblance to Ernesto. He was there with his wife, daughter, and newborn son. Again I’m reminded of the life I might have had. We danced and laughed the whole night.

Besides figuring out which family members looked alike, I also learned more about our family history. I learned that my grandfather, Hector Escobar, worked in construction and even helped build the Panama Canal. It’s very cool to think that our family had a small part to play in its creation.

Getting to know the Escobars was a lot of fun. I got to see another side of my family and myself.