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My Passport to Understanding: A Cultural Autobiography

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Palsgrove, ran a very multicultural classroom. For social studies

we did all sorts of fun cultural activities. We learned to sing Frere Jacques (in French!), dance traditional hula dance from Hawaii, and learned how to use chopsticks (that’s all I can really remember this late in life). However, most of my educational experiences were not very multicultural at all. I grew up in white, suburban southern California in the ‘70’s and 80’s. In fact, most of my memorable learning experiences happened outside of the classroom, outside of school. It was not until I attended a crunchy, hippie college in northern California that the curricula I was exposed to asked me to consider racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Sad. The majority of my exposure to cultural contexts different from my own came from rich personal experiences that were largely due to the fact that my father is not an American and my mother is Chicana. Perhaps this was why, in grade school, the one other Latina in my class was a good friend of mine and when Florence moved to California from France, we were fast friends. I was always attracted to those who were different than the white cultural context that I was surrounded by.

As a duel citizenship holder, I grew up traveling. My father escaped from the former communist East Germany in 1959 and ended up in California via Canada. In typical German fashion, he took us everywhere. The first time I was in Europe, I was two years old. We traveled to Cold War Eastern Europe several times to visit family before the wall came down, and the exposure to that drastically different world was instrumental in the formation of my perspective of a lot of things; myself as a U.S. citizen, the relative freedoms I was afforded as a citizen of this country, the dark side of Marxism in practice, the gluttony and waste that is so much a part of living in the U.S., the false sense of need created by capitalist marketing, and how political and cultural contexts shape people. East and West Germany for example were totally different worlds, and I remember that East and West Germans even looked different from each other. Yet, it was only fate and barbed wire that divided them. I was also made aware of how much I shared with people who seemed to be so different from me. Love and laughter, fear, frustration and the desire for freedom and safety are universal.

Before my return to Leipzig the summer of 2008, it had been eighteen years since my last visit. I was last there in 1990, a month before the official reunification of Germany. I was at the deathbed of the cold war. The transformation of eastern Germany under the influence of capitalism is stunning. Leipzig has reemerged once again as the Paris of the East as it was once known; a beautiful, vibrant city boasting art, music and stunning architecture. The superficial effects of capitalism in Leipzig are nothing short of impressive, but I cannot speak of the effects on the individual, as most of my father’s relatives are dead. However, the few family members I did get to visit praised the changes in freedoms and standard of living. But unlike many of the other eastern block countries, East Germany benefited economically from joining with the already powerful west. It is undeniable that my connection to Germany’s evolution has a powerful influence on why I am a believer that cultural transformation can happen within a capitalist structure with a dose of some socialist practices thrown in for balance. It is this political perspective that puts me a bit on the defensive when I read Dr. Peter McLaren and his staunch Marxist philosophies about educational reform. I think there are valuable socialist practices, such as redistribution of wealth in school funding structures, but I believe that dismantling the capitalist structure to the extent that McLaren proposes is just unrealistic in this country. Instead of fighting capitalism head on with Marxism, I think we need to concentrate on sneaking in some socialist practices through the back door.

My experience living in South America has also helped to shape my understanding of how cultural contexts shape people and visa versa. I taught for three years at a private international school in Sao Paulo, Brazil; the largest country and largest city in South America. Brazil is a stunning land of dichotomies. Boasting the seventh largest economy in the world, Brazil is a rich country filled with poor people (about a third of the population lives in poverty). I often describe Brazil as the most beautiful nightmare. If you have money it is like living in heaven; if you are poor, it is hell. Much of this economic disparity is a result of deeply ingrained racism and sexism. In regards to women’s rights, Brazil is more progressive than most other countries in Latin America. However, that unwritten cultural rule that dominated U.S. women in the ‘50”s, has not been totally transformed yet in Brazil, even though women have equal rights under the law. Also, Brazil’s class separations are drawn along racial lines. If you are black and poor, your fate is sealed. Yet if you talk to a white Brazilian, he will proudly tell you Brazil does not have racial tension like that of the U.S. And it is true. Much like the U.S., Brasil is a great “melting pot” of people of many colors and creeds, from all over the world, yet here is not the tension and anger that characterizes race relations here in the U.S. But I think that lack of anger is part of the problem. As an American, single woman living in Brazil, I would often say in conversation that women and people of color in Brazil need to get angry and start mobilizing if this situation is ever going to change. The reason for this lack of anger and frustration at the entrenched inequality is that people of color are largely uneducated or undereducated. They just don’t know enough to know there can be change. But, what would that “necessary” anger do to the culture? Brazilians are the gentlest, most affectionate and forgiving population I have ever encountered. And despite the racial, gender and economic disparities, Brazilians seem to have a cultural unification that we North Americans lack. Is it possible to equalize the playing field, to transform the Brazilian culture without destroying that unifying “Brazilianness”. And will equality in the U.S. curb the frustrations and tensions that taint our race relations? I firmly believe that education is the great equalizer, as Horace Mann has stated, but I wonder, how will equal and equitable education affect the relationship of individual people across racial and economic lines? Or does the mend in our relationships have to happen first in order to reach equality? But how does that happen without adequate education? Is it even possible for North Americans to relate to each other the way Brazilians do? And where does that unification begin if not in public school? This is what Nel Noddings argues in her book The Challenge to Care in Schools. She claims public education has become a factory of test scores and achievement scales and has completely abandoned the idea that we are teaching kids not subjects. Perhaps her call for a more humane educational system to inspire more compassionate citizens is what the U.S. needs in order to unify us as a collaborative nation without so much anger and paranoia against “the other”.

I have no answer for the questions I ask above, but this is the cultural transformer’s stream of consciousness. I call myself a cultural transformer, and I firmly identify with that role, but I think I pragmatically engage in cultural transmitting and mediating as well. I do believe there is a dominant culture and I think that that dominant culture is forever evolving. As a cultural transformer, I see it as necessary to mediate and transmit information about that dominant culture so that marginalized populations can have access to the inner workings of that dominant culture and can have a hand in influencing the evolution to better accommodate all people living in this nation. So how does all this exposure and reflection translate to the classroom?

One of the most poignant experiences happened to me in Mexico and it happened in a fleeting moment as I was walking through the streets of Guanajuato. There was a poor campesina sitting against the storefront with her hand held out begging for money. She had an infant suckling at her breast and her toddler was sitting next to her; a scene all too common in Mexico. As I placed the coin in her hand and looked in her eyes, I had an epiphany; the only thing separating her from me is fate. I just happened to be born when and where I was born, and I got lucky. It was then and it is now that upon my return from a foreign country that the deepest learning happens. The reverse culture shock, as it is known, is where the transformation of self happens. That realization has stuck with me ever since and I revisit it all the time. Admittedly, there is nothing farther from my experience than being an African American boy who has suffered a life of poverty and oppression, growing up on the street, running with gangs as a form of survival. But I know what it is like to be a kid and feel fear, insecurity, low self-esteem. So I go back to my own experiences with those feelings and imagine them being magnified a hundred times. That is what some of my student’s are living with each day of their lives. Being able to look at them and understand that the only thing that separates me from them is fate, allows me to maintain compassion in those most difficult times working with a diverse student population in public school, because love and laughter, fear, frustration and the desire for freedom and safety are universal.

Between Germany, Mexico and Brasil, there are many other cultural influences resulting from various life experiences. All of which have taught me deep and lasting lessons about culture, politics, globalization, the giant evolving organism that is humanity and how each individual shapes and is shaped by that evolution.

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