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Cultural Autobiography

The Unknown's picture

            I was on the floor in my two-story house covered with paintings and political figures outlining in bold black letters: “No War on Iraq,” on white poster paper and betting my brother, “I think there are going to be 1,000, not 3,000 people at tomorrow’s rally.” I was trying to decide which shirt I was going to wear- the one that read, “Democracy is not a Spectator Sport” or “Act Against War on Empire.” I was excited about going to Donald Rumsfeld’s house, the Secretary of State at the time, to tell him that he was a war criminal and responsible for thousands of deaths in Iraq.

            Since I can remember, I have been demonstrating. Michelle Alexander concisely and beautifully calls us to action: “Let’s take one more step into the river, the river of truth, of love, of courage, of justice, the river that has run through it all” (Alexander 2). It began with anti-imperialism, anti- free- market economics, and then changed to climate change rallies starting my senior year of high school. My parents are civil rights lawyers who used to represent black people who were beat up by the police in Chicago, but now live in New Mexico and have focused on climate change. I have spent countless discussions over the dinner table with my parents, my father reporting on the state of the war in Afghanistan or Palestine/Israel, or any other current issue, and my mother discussing the health effects of coal and the possibility of a clean energy future. The knowledge, perspective, and insight I have gained from these talks cannot be overemphasized. My mother once said, “I’m not a leftist, I’m radical. I fight for justice and we’re going to win.”


            I am white first. I represent the dominant culture and have opportunities that no one else is afforded. My pale, rough skin has been helped and nurtured by strangers. People assume I can pay for anything by my expensive attire and as soon as I walk in a store I am asked how I can be assisted. I have been to cultural events with only the upper tiers of society and been to parts of the globe many only imagine. I worry that there is nothing innate about my greatest strengths and that they are a result of the opportunities I have taken advantage of. My work ethic does not only derive from long hours, talking to teachers out-of-class, and constantly expanding and diversifying my strengths, but also from attending prestigious preparatory schools, having parents who have steady jobs with flexible work hours so they can come home for dinner and help me complete assignments, edit my papers, and the exposure to many kinds of education through galas, art galleries, museums, travel and other high-class cultural experiences.

            People have listened to me and assume that I have something valuable to add. My worth has mostly been questioned by myself. I have been forgiven easily, welcomed abrasively, and held by so many. A mother from Nicaragua, a traveller in Bolivia, a family in Cochabamba. These people’s stories though in many ways separate and distinct from my own have come to mold my perspectives, complicate and question my values, and dismantle my “eternal truths.” “It also ‘provides an individual with an opportunity to deeply reflect on one’s taken-for-granted, common-sensical view of things.’ In other words, culture shock is part of becoming culturally conscious of self and others” (Amos 1-2).  Trying to live in their shoes, even for only a month taught me about real perseverance. Not perseverance in climbing a mountain, finishing a long, arduous assignment, or opening my heart to new perspectives and places, but living with a husband she never loved, walking miles to attend school, and facing the aftermath of wars, dominance, and destruction. How fortunate I feel to have been inspired by them, grown from their courage and tenacity and been in awe of how open, friendly, and beautiful they are.

            Along with my parents, I was raised by a Panamanian womyn. She was a family friend, but she was also my caretaker, and from a very different background. My most vivid memories of her were in her blue Mazda that smelled like artificial forests, oranges, and sweet fruit. She introduced my brother and I to Latin music, took us to our afternoon activities, bought us McDonald’s, something that was unheard of in my organic, all-natural family, played with us, and tucked us into bed. She spoke in Spanish sometimes, soothed our worries with her eloquent, beautiful Spanish. I didn’t know it then, but I loved her.


            I grew up in Taos, New Mexico, where perhaps some of the most beautiful sunsets on the planet highlight the tall mountains, glistening snow, and grey and golden aspens. I am a womyn of the mountain. As a child, I dived in naked to the freezing acequia, ran in our four-and-half acres of sagebrush, and sprinted up ten thousand foot peaks. I found my first home in the outdoors, far away from my insecurities about not having friends and being awkward, I explored under rocks, picking up garden snakes and rolling in the earth.


              We stopped to rest on the top of Mt. Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont. The rising sun was a brilliant yellowy-red, driving the clouds away. Ravens were circling above and the gentle breeze awakened us with the rich scent of pine and alpine wildflowers.

            When I was sixteen, I backpacked the Long Trail with seven people and two counselors in five weeks. This hike from Massachusetts to Canada, through Vermont is two hundred and seventy miles long. The most challenging part of being in the wilderness was not hiking nine miles a day, carrying forty pounds of gear, or even getting along with my peers after waking up at four and getting drenched by noon, but facing myself during the long silences that frequently occur when surrounded by nature. Who was I, could I make a difference, would I find friends and a lover?  Some days I would cry in silence, often out of happiness, but other times because I was changing and the process of confronting my flaws and growing from a place of uncertainty and doubt was agonizing and formidable.

            My sense of exploration never restrained me and reached its highest peak during my gap year. Two summers ago, I lived with a family in a small town outside of Matagalpa, Nicaragua in a community called, “La Florida.” I worked with the community to help them improve their “Casa Comunal,” organizing womyn, youth, men, and seniors to participate in washing, cleaning, and repainting the house where they held meetings about agricultural and social issues. Five days out of the week we taught in Spanish in a local school in Spanish for two hours about gender and children’s rights and how the community could be more sustainable.

            In Nicaragua, I fell-in-love for the first time. Though I realize it might not be the most effective way of being multicultural, an important part of my knowledge and experience with other cultures, races, classes, and experiences has been learned through romantic relationships. Throughout my life, I have searched for new, different, eye opening, unconventional, and often startling experiences. For six weeks, I not only explored coffee plantations, the local soccer culture, and different forms of education so foreign to me, but also connections across different geographical, class, racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Coming to the realization that people with such a different upbringing can offer incites into my own life that I hadn’t explored is one of the most important lessons I carry with me.         

            I have lived with families in Peru and Bolivia, eaten at local markets there, and worked with youth groups on local issues. I have learned about coca, the Cochabamba Water Wars, mining, and the complexities of ecotourism. I saw glaciers and volcanoes.

 I also went to El Salvador four times and worked with an organization, EcoViva, which supports local initiatives in parts of El Salvador that was drastically affected by the civil war.

            For me, travelling has meant new beginnings. It is a way of seeing myself from a distance, as an outsider. Travelling is about connections, creating a transnational, transcultural identity. It is about embracing the root of those words-transition. It is about embracing a character of in-between. It is about challenging who I think I am and thought I was. Travelling is about testing and finding limits. In travel, what comfort means is twisted, reshaped, choked on, and yet still clung to. It is about patience and flexibility, and accepting that nothing will go to plan. It is about being open to similarities and trust.  

            Through all of these challenges I have grappled with the understanding that my knowledge about diversity, privilege, other cultures, religions, and environments is mainly due to this nasty, burning, choking word I am constantly hearing, “PRIVILEGE.” The money to travel, the knowledge to know about these places, the resources I had to research these programs, the education I had acquired about these country’s history before going, and the comfort I was forced to betray to learn from these places and people. Often people do not go past this idea of recognizing privilege. Many focus on acknowledging coming from an upper-middleclass or being white, but that is not enough. I am determined to use these opportunities and knowledge to create a more equal, righteous, and just society. Admission must be followed by action.


            This last summer I returned to the camp where I back-packed the Long Trial as a counselor to join children on their own journeys of self-exploration in the woods, and came back for new adventures, never knowing that I would be questioning and challenging my own identities in-motion; a process of reexamination, modification, and editing. Sakinah Nigist was a twenty-six- year old womyn who told me love was impure, murky, and wavered. Her skin was worn and held dark stories, not easy to puncture, but protected beauty that poured from her voice, her words, her kiss. She pulled me in, caressed my cheek, and told me not to think. “You’re going to fall in love with me. They always do,” she whispered. Our separate races, sexual identities, and class differences were overcome with a feeling to be wanted, to change what we could not fix, to heal what seemed to shape us. Our connection grew through loss, men who had taken what was not theirs, mistakes that manifested inside us, people we had hurt, and loves that didn’t last. I became entangled in her long, firm legs, not easily escapable. Together, I uncovered secrets that I had thought I had suppressed, traversed pathways I was not ready to explore. The “we” was never there, but the feeling of her beside me was real.


            If there is anything that has remained deeply rooted in my fists, my heart, my reddish-brown entangling curls, and my pale skin, it is my call to fight for justice and equality. “When we examine ourselves, we find who we can become depend in great part upon who we started out to be” (Huang 173). This took on a new, more defined expression when the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. to attend what was then the largest climate change rally, “Forward on Climate Rally” in the history of the United States. As I stood, alone, not able to convince anyone to go with me, there were no other options as I began my twenty-hour, two-day journey from New Hampshire at 10 o’clock at night.

            Being among 40,000 other people who shared my concerns, appreciation for the environment, and dancing, with them was refreshing and inspirational. "We are fighting for existence." People spoke about health risks and how the simple gifts that we take for granted, clean air and water, are diminishing. Climate change will not only effect what future generations will or will not be able to see, hear, smell due to destruction and distinction, but it concerns their survival in a planet consumed with natural disasters and diseases caused by pollution and contamination, speakers articulated. It was important to me to have a black man, Van Jones, articulate the severity of climate change to show this is not just a white issue, a class issue, and that environmentalism system change mandates a multicultural perspective.

            These experiences and the knowledge, inspiration, and optimism that has been generated by and from them has led me to the kinds of issues, ideas, and classes I have taken, discussed, grappled with, and questioned, which all connect to my reputation at Bryn Mawr College. During my short time at Bryn Mawr College, I have been to three demonstrations, attended many talks about race/class/ gender issues, and I have had many formidable conversations about social justice concerns that were planted in me at birth. My politics are not just my opinions or thoughts, they are at the core of my being, my interactions, how I see others, and ultimately how I define myself. My political identity has taken me to my greatest heights where I am filled with wonder, love, curiosity, questions, openness, hope, and where I have lost my voice, been silenced, been ashamed that I could be so ignorant, become so demoralized, be so inconsiderate, prejudice, classicist, silenced others, over spoken, judgmental, and racist. I am where I am not because I am the brightest, or I have worked the hardest, but because through my experiences, fortitude, and privilege I have been able to achieve my position. I am continuously reshaped and changed, but mostly in times of adversity where I challenge the principles that are a part of my evolving character.