What is culture? Marisol asked me that last week as we drove to preschool for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. I found myself saying something like, “Culture is something a group of people share, usually from the same place, like a country, like food and music and, well, you know, like we speak Spanish.” I know — explanation fail.
I’m still not sure how to answer her question. We share a culture, stemming from the costumbres of a particular place, but people in the same place, like Los Angeles, can be part of many different cultures while participating in some kind of shared culture as well. There are cultural foods, music, dress, and language, but we don’t participate in all of them, and certainly not all the time. There’s a Latino supermarket just down the street, but we usually shop at the Trader Joe’s which is further away. We love buying pupusas at the the great Salvadoran place in our neighborhood, but I can’t tell you the last time I made pupusas. And yet…
We are Latino, Mexican, Salvadoran, American. All of these things mean a lot to me and inform the way we raise our girls. I can’t define it properly, but I feel it. It’s the reason I speak Spanish with my girls, despite my terrible accent, despite turning to google translate daily, despite knowing that I’m not doing it perfectly. The fact is, we love going to our favorite Salvadoran place, and buying burritos from the farmer’s market taco truck. We read books in Spanish and English. My girls love their Abuelita and Gammy, and eat platanos fritos and salted seaweed. We’ve just started looking at maps, and I want them to know that they have family in places far and wide. I can’t help feeling like we have a lot of culture to celebrate, but what does that mean to a four-year old?
I tell her, “We speak Spanish because that is part of our culture, and so is dancing, and mangoes, juicy and sweet. Mexican is Great Grandma Gomez’s chile rellenos and her thin dark arms hugging you. Mexican is Great Grandpa Gomez making you laugh. Salvadoran is Abueita touching your face, and Tia Mayte talking loudly. Salvadoran is me singing to you in Spanish. American is family, friends, neighbors and us, all different but together having fun.”
It still doesn’t make sense, but it’s the best I can do.
How do you explain culture to your little ones? I’d love some ideas!