Editor’s Note: This is the latest guest post from Brandon Melendez. M.P.
Optimism and Cynicism in Multi Cultural Child Rearing
By Brandon Melendez
The glass is half empty: we still have a long way to go.
The glass is half full: look how far we’ve come.
I’ve always considered myself the cynic optimist considering that, yes, while the glass is half full, the other half is still empty. This can perhaps be explained by my primarily Jewish cultural identification, as it is fairly routine to state the affirmative with the negative.
“Are you feeling sick?”
“Sick? Why should I be feeling sick? I’m healthy as an ox.”
Of course, I try to keep it mostly optimistic as look towards the future. In which time my cynicism becomes fantastically transmogrified to that another quality: pragmatism.
It will be hard work, but it will be worth it.
We may have to compromise but everyone will benefit.
It will work out for the best but we have to be willing to sacrifice.
These are all qualities that I bring with me into the prospect of parenting. As a man of 28 I find that people are generally surprised to find that I have two children. People around my own age are the ones that are most shocked when we they first hear it.
“I want kids but I’m not ready…”
“I want to be financially stable when I have kids so I don’t have to worry…”
“How do you do it?”
And I smile and not for the reasons they might think. I don’t smile because I’ve got the secret, or I have some unattainable mystical success, or anything that gives me an upper hand that someone else might have. The reason is because:
You’ll never be ready.
Nobody is ever financially stable enough.
You just do it.
It’s really that simple. When you have your first kid the first six weeks are an experience that I can only imagine to some kind of painful living death or hell on earth. That baby is up every 20 minutes for 20 minutes asking for a bottle or a diaper or—most likely both for 24 hours 7 days. Six weeks of sleeping in twenty minute bursts until one blessed evening the child sleeps through the whole night and you’re fine. Well relatively. This where we get to the how far we’ve come/how far we’ve got to go part.
When I look at my children, sleeping happily in their beds, there is precious little that they know about the world. Mommy and Daddy love them, Elmo is awesome, cookies are delicious, Grandparents come bearing gifts. That’s about it. They know nothing of discrimination, they know nothing of hate, the know nothing of inequity, and they know nothing of fear. Not all children are this way, even at the tender ages of 2 and half years old and 9 months as my son and daughter are, but my children won’t stay this way forever. One day they’ll be cynics or optimists, they’ll be worldly or ignorant, they’ll be brave or fearful, but regardless they’ll know the world is not filled with impromptu musical numbers and happy endings. They will navigate a world of judgments, binary thinking, and pressure to self-define or be defined.
My children will be subject to a different kind of world than my wife and I grew up in, for a great many reasons, but specifically in the cultural and racial arena. I’ve spent a great deal of my life asking myself questions about my cultural identity, as has my wife, because we both come from mixed backgrounds. My father’s family is Puerto Rican and Catholic and my mother’s is European and Jewish—I was raised as a Jew and consider myself to be one despite what closed-minded and exclusionary sects (that I don’t personally consider to be Jewish) of people may argue. Similarly, my wife’s parents are a flipped mix, her father’s family is European Jewish and her mother’s family is Filipino—though religion has played no particular role there (if anything I’d say my mother-in-law is a Beatlemaniac)—and my wife was raised Jewish and considers herself to be Jewish also in spite of the same sects of Judaism that I mentioned.
However, where as I was able to pass for Jewish or White, and weaponize my Hispanic heritage on forms and applications and my wife was able to prove her “Jewishness” by rite of her maiden name my children who—believe it or not are mostly Polish—are browner than both of us, have the last name Melendez, and will be raised as Jews in a primarily Irish Catholic community. They will be attending the public schools in the neighborhood we bought into—because that’s why we bought into it—and therefore it will be incumbent upon us to infuse them with the only cultural heritage we can provide without the enormous aid of large immigrant family populations with first hand experience, or Jewish Day School and religious instruction.
I don’t know what my children’s connection is going to be with. Maybe they’ll connect with Long Island, where we live, or with being New Yorkers, or American, or some other non-ethnic/non-racial self-identity. I used to try and do the same—and define myself as an American and a New Yorker above all else but we are constantly forced to choose. Those of us with mixed heritages are often asked to define ourselves by which we “identify more” with. A professor of mine at Metropolitan College, Louis Quiros, told me while I was working on my senior thesis on the subject of being multi-cultural and multi-racial that as a people was are obsessed with a binary mindset. It took me a long time to process the idea, years to fully appreciate the value of the statement, but its true.
As Americans we can’t deal with shades of grey (incidentally the name of the paper and documentary I presented as my senior thesis). Even our president who has been titles as “The First Black President” has a white mother. The fact that he is the first black president is part of an ethnically discriminatory perspective that was nullified but is irrevocably part of our American consciousness via the Constitution’s ruling that slaves are 3/5ths a person, and Plessy v. Ferguson. Between the two, and when balanced with the existence of terms such as “mulatto”, “quatroon”, and “octaroon” as degrees of blackness (later to be replaced with more accessible terminology like “high yellow”, “light” “black black”, and “red bone”) are proof of our inability to allow people to lie in the middle as opposed to on a spectrum. Those terms are absolutely polarizing of individuals of mixed racial heritage to one clear side and entirely overlook how they might personally feel. Furthermore, the dictate how they will be treated by the masses.
The title “50 Shades of Grey” would be much better applied to a deep look at how as Americans everything needs to be polarized: democrat or republican, man or woman, gay or straight, white or black, Hispanic or non-white Hispanic, rich or poor, right and wrong, good and evil, Christian or pagan, red state or blue state, mixed or pure.
You’re either with us or you ain’t.
America: Love it or Leave it.
So when it comes to my family what are we? My wife and I chose to be Jews because outside of Puerto Rican and Filipino cuisine we don’t know very much about being our other halves. We just know how to eat like them. The Jewish side itself is a complicated choice because really its choice between being European (not white, Jews are not traditionally considered to be white) or Jewish—but that decision was made default by the Third Reich. Even secular American Jews are left with this kind of struggle because as Americans we feel compelled to support the land in which we live, but that is always tempered by the knowledge that this kind of identification was literally the death of millions. We know that Israel will always accept us, but our liberal sensibilities are often infringed upon by Israel’s military actions, which places us in a dilemma. So in America even identifying as Jewish is an internal struggle…and that’s without the competing multiculturalism within to address.
Additionally, my wife and I are not particularly religious, though I am loath to say we are culturally Jewish because we are culturally many things. We aren’t agnostic but we don’t subscribe to the general dogmatic laws and restrictions of any organized religion so it becomes increasingly difficult to manage sound plans to instill in our children a cultural identity based on religion that doesn’t make us feel like hypocrites. Instinctively we’ve turned to food and traditions based around eating—because of all our cultural backgrounds food is the common defining characteristic we can share. We’ve tried to instill Friday night dinners with candle lighting and a traditional Shabbos chicken soup (with maybe some purple ube pastries and yellow rice at the table) into our routine.
But even this action, as much as we feel it might be normalizing for our children may in fact be forcing their hands. We can only present to them what worked for us, but being that they are darker than us and both carry a Hispanic last name it may become increasingly difficult for them to navigate the world as Jews. I sometimes wonder if they’d be better served if I told them we worshipped Pan, and raised them on a religion of my own design based on the Zodiac. They’d have less to prove and people would probably ask less questions—or at least more diverse questions. Jewish peers will always be asking them for credentials of Jewishness, even when those same peers might know less than them about their own faith and culture. That has been our experience in dealing with those that haven’t had to exist on the spectrum. They take the luxury of automatic definition without the incumbent responsibility of knowing something about it.
Perhaps cultural identity is less important to people who don’t have to struggle internally and externally with societal and interpersonal forces that burn to fit them into a cookie cutter mold that cuts off their arms. It is painful to be told that you aren’t something that you know in your heart that you are. Personally, it’s why I don’t believe in rites of matrilineal or patrilineal birth or conversion rituals. You are what you feel you are in your heart. It is our utmost hope that our children will have the internal strength of character to define themselves by positive action, but that kind of strength comes with maturity and in the meanwhile we need to give them a group to feel apart of. Our family is one group, and though beautiful, once outside the walls of our home there will be larger forces to deal with.
We have come a long way though, and it is fairly “in” to be of multicultural backgrounds. Maybe all this fret and worry on our part will be for naught because this new generation of children were born in a very different world where you don’t have to “pass”, where there has been a Barack Obama presidency, where Solidad O’Brein is a household name, and young people care far less about how you identify racially, culturally, religiously, or sexually. We’ve come a long way after all. The cup is half full. Why should I be sick over this? We’ve never been healthier.