In Danai Gurira’s The Convert, the main character Jekesai/Ester deals with the difficulty of the westernization of her culture on a very personal level. When she is saved from her marriage and allowed to attend school under Chilford’s tutelage, Jekesai/Ester wholeheartedly turns to Christianity. However, her native traditions and duties go unfinished to the dismay of her family. Jekesai/Ester finds herself at a cross-section between her cultural traditions and the Western world that brought freedom and knowledge into her life.
The United States has always been a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. We asked some of our Goodman friends about their challenges assimilating into the dominant Western culture here in America and how that has affected their self-identity:
Lauren Escobar, Member of the Goodman Youth Arts Council
“My name is Lauren Escobar and I am Mexican-American. I always introduce as Mexican-American because both my parents are Mexican, but I was born in the United States. I would say that I have grown up in a traditional American home. Growing up in my house was different than my friend’s because although I am Mexican, my family did not practice many of the Mexican traditions. We did, however, find it important to learn about our roots and embrace who we are. In my culture, a tradition that is important is having a “Quinceñera,” which is a cotillion when a girl turns fifteen. Usually during the party the birthday girl will have a change of shoes, father-daughter dance, and gives her childhood doll way. The night of my quiñce I only had my father-daughter dance. I felt that this was the most important and as it was my quiñce was non-traditional Mexican. Each generation is different and I think the most important thing is to remember where a person comes from because that’s what makes the person who they are. It is important to celebrate traditions, but it’s equally as important to intertwine both cultures.”
Monica Lopez, actress, Esmeralda in Camino Real
“You know, I don’t ever remember a time when I was encouraged to assimilate more into Western/American culture because I have always considered myself as a Westerner. Maybe there has been an instance where someone has said something to this effect but it did not register. Certainly not in my childhood and I cannot think of a time in my adulthood when this has happened. However, being an American of Mexican descent, I can say that there is a fence, a tightrope, that I live on and it’s as if both sides want me to choose which side to fall on. I guess I should say that most of White America is quick to dismiss my history (really, our shared history) and chalk me up as a second class citizen. That is the tendency. Although I am a fourth generation American, I know through which filter I am viewed. Because of this, I feel that if anything, I have encouraged myself to assimilate to either culture at different times.
I have chosen a career in which it is legal to not hire a candidate based on race. I am an actor. In this career, I have found myself asking what I can do to appeal to the mass market i.e. White America. I’ve asked myself how does someone like me, with obvious ethnic features and a Latino last name, make myself palatable to the companies that I desire to work for. Will I ever be cast in a Chekov play? What about Shaw? Most likely not. No matter that English is my first language, my mother is white and in my mind I am capable of speaking these plays with great creditability. I have found myself stating (to whites) that I am mixed. Not as a way to discount my Mexican-ness but because I’ve thought that by stating my heritage, it would make them accept me more. By the same token, I’ve found that I react the same way when I’m with other Latinos. I make it a point to discuss how I grew up in a big Mexican family and find myself overcompensating for my lack of Spanish speaking skills. To other Latinos, I’m fair skinned, which is a whole other conversation. I’ve spent most of my adult years adapting to how I think other people want me to be around them. This is so tiring and begs the question: when does a minority ever get the luxury to just be himself without the stereotypes and ideas and prejudices attached to their race and culture?
My culture is a thing of beauty, vibrancy and joy. We are a proud, loving, generous people and I cannot bear to see how we are portrayed in the media and used for political purposes with the wrong agenda. I wish that this society, this culture could see my heritage through my filter. I wish that I could see myself through this filter all of the time. At what point do I not feel the need to project the thought: “I’m just like you.”?”
Nazihah Adil, Institutional Giving Assistant, Goodman Theatre
“The world of cultural and religious traditions can be a tricky one to navigate, especially when the world in question is as diverse as mine. As an American Muslim of Indian and Pakistani descent, my religious and ethnic backgrounds have always formed a major part of my identity. Growing up, I remember being called out early from school when a Christmas or Halloween party was on the agenda, or turning down corn dogs at lunchtime because pork was forbidden under religious dietary restrictions. I also remember politely turning down drinks at college gatherings, and explaining my religious beliefs to classmates in the aftermath of 9/11. I remember my first days fasting from sunrise to sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan and explaining to my teachers and classmates the importance of Eid ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the holy month, and proudly wearing my first traditional Indian sari while participating in a high school cultural show.
And so it was that I grew up extremely aware of my cultural and religious identity. There were times when I felt the universe conspiring to encourage me to assimilate more into Western culture. When it might have been easier to attend the school dance than explain why it transgressed the bounds of my religious and cultural traditions. But I am who I am now, a proud American Muslim woman of South Asian descent, because of the choices I made and the religious and cultural values and traditions which were instilled in me by my parents—the same teachings and traditions that continue to dictate my actions each day and the same values of justice, compassion and equality that permeate across all religious and cultural boundaries.”
Vincent Pagan, Education and Community Engagement Intern, Goodman Theatre
I was born into a Puerto Rican family, and during our childhood, my family went to Puerto Rico every summer, and spent almost two months basking in the island’s beaming sun, walking to the waterfall two miles away from my grandfather’s backyard, and falling asleep in the maca (hammock) on the gated front porch of his house that guarded me from the rain beating against the walls and roof. Being in Puerto Rico those summers gave me a real appreciation of what part of my family’s history and legacy existed there. My grandfather was a hard-working Vietnam veteran, and many of my mother’s seven brothers and sisters worked as teachers in the community of Caguas. Seeing a place that held the culture that ran through my blood with such respect gave me a love for my heritage that I never thought I could lose.
When my sister and I were fourteen and twelve, our parents separated, and in a matter of weeks after their divorce finalized almost a year later, I went to live with my dad. He drove me into Humboldt Park, and stopped in front of a small, dilapidated looking house. I asked where we were, and he said the one word whose definition is, to this day, unclear to me: “Home.” I walked into the house the woman who came to the door was something like I’d never seen before. She wore clothes that were far too tight for her (not to mention hideous); she donned gold rings on each one of her perfectly polished fake-nailed fingers; sported dark brown lipliner with medium brown lipstick; and reeked of Elizabeth Taylor’s Red Door perfume. She shrieked and gave me a hug, introduced herself and took me up to my room.
Living on Campbell was fine for the first few months; I pretty much kept to myself. I began high school and made a diverse group of friends quickly. My best friend, Kim, was part of a bi-racial family who lived in Uptown, a good forty minute drive from our small house in Humboldt park. The first day my family met her, I sat in the car for half an hour listening to that woman bad mouth her, saying she was an “oreo,” and that she and her family weren’t “really Mexican.” “Be careful hanging around them, Vinnie. You might turn out as white as she is.” I was only fifteen, and all I could do was sit and listen.
The heckling got worse with time. For the three years after that, every clothing choice, every song that came on the CD player, every phone conversation made me more and more “white”. I tried to ignore her, and for a long time, I succeeded. I spent less and less time at home, much to the dismay of my father, who rarely got to see me as it was. I lashed out a couple of times when it was harder to keep my cool, particularly when she would tell me that I wasn’t being a real Puerto Rican. How can someone not be “enough” of something that ran through their veins, something that was a part of them? But if being like her and her dead beat son and brothers was what it meant to be Puerto Rican, I didn’t want to be Puerto Rican anymore.
When I was a senior in High School, I came out of the closet. She found out somehow before I told my father, and told him behind my back, and for the first time, my father’s conservative and traditionalist Puerto Rican roots won out against his love for his child; I was kicked out of my house for three months. I returned to the house on Campbell with enough time to spend every couple of days at my house and going to Kim’s for the rest of the week, preparing to go with her to Ithaca College, which was as far away as I could get from Humboldt Park.
I spent four straight years in Ithaca, only returning to Chicago for the odd summer internship, graduation or birthday. I returned this year and stayed with Kim’s parents, since my father still lived in the suburbs, now remarried. When it was time for me to move out of Kim’s house, the most affordable neighborhood was Humboldt Park. I went to look at a few places, but almost every corner was riddled with bad memories of her. I hated her for making me so afraid of the place where I’d grown up, and for making me wish that I was something other that who I was, if only to escape her heckling.
Then one day I saw her. Just as hideous and terrifying as the first day I met her. She was at the grocery store shouting at one of her daughters about something or another. I looked at her and looked around. She was the only one. The only one like her. An extreme of an awful stereotype of the heritage that I had, for some odd reason, wished that I could lose in the cold hills of Ithaca. And that was when I realized something: being Puerto Rican wasn’t about fitting into a stereotype; it wasn’t about liking certain things and disliking certain things. It was about having pride in knowing that your ancestors and the ancestors of those around you are from the same place, and that they came here for the same reasons: to make a better life for you.
So I moved into Humboldt Park, unafraid and proud, and knowing that no one, her least of all, would ever make me ashamed of the boricua inside again.
Liz Rice, Education and Community Engagement Assistant, Goodman Theatre
“I have always been proud, albeit a little cynical, of my Chinese heritage. Growing up it was one of the first things I would announce when meeting people. My mother was born in Taiwan although my grandparents were born in the Shan-dong province of China and no, my family is not Communist. From the age of 4 to 18, I would attend Chinese school every Sunday to learn reading and writing. It wasn’t just my mother who wished that my brother and I would learn her native tongue, but my white American father believed it was essential that we learn about our heritage. He encouraged us to learn Mandarin and sign up for our school’s speech competition as much as my mom. He became a staple at our Chinese school as a Dean of Students. My father would always mention that life would have been more difficult for our family 20 years earlier.
Growing up, my dad would hear his mother converse in fluent Polish to the neighbors. However, Polish was never spoken in the home. My grandmother never sent her children to Polish school nor made a move to teach it to them herself. I believed that my family saw the benefit of preparing their children for a multicultural world and I have never felt negative effects from my Asian heritage. I don’t think I will ever entirely assimilate into either Chinese or Western culture, but in my mind, I don’t see that necessarily as a bad thing.”