One of the questions I get asked, all the time, is, “Why is your culture so important to you?” Though I hear it all the time, I’m amazed that it’s even asked. In my experience, it seems like people tend to associate culture with ethnicity and get lost within that association. Here in the U.S., we’re taught to try and be colorblind as much as possible, yet here I am writing and discussing the importance of culture.
One time, I gave a reading in support of Butterfly Warrior at the Hispanic Cultural Center. Though it’s a novel, I explore themes of cultural identity and loss through the plot and through the characters. I was discussing these themes when a man stood up and said, “You’re nothing but a racist!”
I was stunned by his words. Being a Chicano, I didn’t even think that I could be a racist, as racism is about the oppression of people based upon their race. Since the Chicano people have been trying to gain power for decades, I thought it strange that someone would call me a racist. I’m nowhere near powerful enough to oppress anyone. Besides, I don’t discuss culture from a perspective of race or ethnicity. But I can understand how people can get confused.
Culture to me, is how a person negotiates with the external world. It’s like a translator that allows any given person sees the world in which he or she lives. Really, culture is a set of meaning systems working together to provide a way to relate and interface with the world. Ethnicity can inform culture, especially through language; but culture is far more encompassing than ethnicity could ever be on its own.
For example, in three days, people in the U.S. will celebrate Thanksgiving. This holiday is basically a feast commemorating the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and mythically surviving with the Native Americans they encountered. Though I’ve heard this story a million times since my school-boy days, I’ve never seen a pilgrim nor have I ever been to Plymouth Rock. Yet, culturally, I look forward to Thanksgiving because it’s the only day of the year when I get to eat and watch football as part of the holiday. Plus, I get two days off of work. It’s a cultural day that’s meaningless anywhere but the U.S.
To continue, when my family gets together, my mom is always responsible for making “Indian Bread;” that is, she makes bread in the style that the Pueblo people make. Though my mom isn’t Native American, my great-grandmother lived on San Ildefonso Pueblo and learned how to make bread on the Pueblo. She then passed the knowledge on to my mom and we continue that tradition during holidays like Thanksgiving. I’m pretty certain that people in New England don’t eat beard exactly like the one we do. They probably have their specific food items related to their place in the world.
So, though my ancestors knew more about Camel Rock than Plymouth Rock and even though my ancestors spoke Spanish when the Pilgrims brought their version of English, I celebrate Thanksgiving through the ways of my family’s traditions and customs. So, though I’m American by citizenship and place, I’m Chicano by choice, and I translate a most American holiday through the ways of my ancestors. And all of this has little to do with ethnicity or race.
So, why is my culture so important to me? Because without my culture I lose a big piece of who I am and I ever stop relating with the world from the family and place from which I derived, I will lose a sense of myself that I won’t be able to get back. Thanksgiving, for example, is strictly cultural and I’d be very sad without my turkey and football. And green chile and Indian bread.