Culture, Diversity and Coming of Age

Imperial Valley

Today I’m all about the melting pot, total give away with a name like Rosalba Greene right? But when I was growing up, in the California desert valley I didn’t know anything about it. In my small community, we had very little diversity. 

I come from the Imperial Valley, way down at the bottom of California, right at the edge of Mexico. If you cross the line you’re in Baja. Lots of Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to pick from in El Valle Imperial. Small towns scattered throughout the region made social interactions comfortable. 

It’s what I was used to, surrounded by mi gente mostly, speaking our rapid sounding Spanish dialect.  Of course with the small elite group of whites; los Patrones who controlled the economy mostly through agriculture; we mostly spoke Spanglish, the official unofficial language.

California State Route 111 or as we called it, “El Ciento Once“, was the main route that led to the important cities. and it went right through The City of Calipatria, where the tallest flagpole in America stands. It has a reputation of being  bien chiquita, the warning was don’t blink or you’ll miss it! A “city” with a small population of almost 8,000.

The sembradores, piscadores, regadores and patrones drove the economy with agriculture and farming. How such a dry desert place produces such wealth in vegetable crops is incredible, although it didn’t really matter much to me then, I now realize it was our bread and butter. My Apa supported our family working as a regador, one English translation is irrigation technician. I guess it can be quite technical, once my dad was explaining how it was that he irrigated a field, or maybe it was how not to irrigate a field? Too little water will dry a crop, too much will drown the crop. Just the right measurement is needed, but when he used technical measurements he lost me.

Social and Economic divides

We sectioned off the city, not literally but within and gravitated to our comfort culture. It was like this, the East side across the tracks, where we lived. The West Side, where the town square rested, a good mile away from the tracks. Then there was the rich side where the whites lived. People of the same ethnic group with similar experiences, grouping together so naturally. This description is from almost 40 years ago, quizas ya cambio, maybe Valley folks are all mingled and mixed now.

Social life consisted of after school sports and the Friday night high school football game. Our special occasions included the perpetual quinceañeras on Saturday nights. I can only imagine what the rich white kids experienced. Horses, 4H club and other expensive hobbies. I really don’t know the kind of socializing that took place over there, my husband the Cold Blooded Englishman tells me he played tennis and went sailing (bien muy muy).

We all, Mexicans, Americans and Mexican-Americans crossed cultures and economic status on the 4th of July. We agreed that our fireworks displays were the best. Homecoming games were times of rallying together and getting that CIF championship! You know what’s crazy? All of a sudden, We were all cozy around each other, we all were one team, the Calipatria Hornets! I can hear the cheerleaders chanting “We are the Hornets, mighty mighty Hornets!” Then we all drifted back to our comfort cultures. 

Trophy Memories

It’s been nice remembering my days in Calipatria. Days when I shined as a volleyball player and walked the high school grounds with such confidence. I considered myself (though perhaps nobody else did) a good point guard in basketball, of course that was on the J.V. team as a junior! (the oldest player on the team). The sports banquets were always a bit awkward, but I loved that spotlight, especially when I won a trophy. Then, as my Senior year came to an end, and I was having to consider my future, I definitely never imagined that I would be anywhere else in the world.

Culture shock

I came to San Diego because I was accepted into UCSD, Third College. Pero como fue possible?! (My Puerto Rican friends would say, “Que fue?”) I was just as shocked! Submitting an application had been a last minute idea suggested by my volley coach; Miss George. I didn’t expect my immediate future to change so quickly, so completely through one application. I figured I would go to IVC– our community college and ease into adult life. When the letter arrived in the mail announcing this opportunity, it was time to tell my parents about it. 

Before I could settle down and enjoy my last summer as a kid, I found myself in San Diego, on campus with masses of students from all over the world! Summer Bridge was the program that helps students transition from kid school to hardball school, by the end of 4 weeks I should have crossed the bridge with experience and confidence. 

There I was, with my non-English speaking ama and my apa, refusing to speak his heavily accented English. We were completely disoriented on orientation day. That whole afternoon was a blur. I can now imagine what my poor mother must have felt as she said goodbye, leaving me all alone to face adulthood, with all those different people.

College Life

 One of the ice breakers we Mexican Americans use is Spanglish. Somehow it eases things up when talking to a new acquaintance to bust out your Spanglish, that is, if they speak Spanish. You can imagine what a relief it was for me to see other fellow Mexicans walking about the campus during orientation. As soon as I got close enough to one girl, I said “Estoy bien lost! Man! Ni se lo que estoy haciendo?!” She turned to look at me and said, “What?” She had no idea what I had said. I was on my own. Later, I found out that this girl was Mexican-American! Where did she leave her Spanglish? 

I was shell shocked that first year of college. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls, and wow! Talk about diversity. My bedroom would become my sanctuary when I wasn’t in classes. Allison, my roommate was this super confident black American girl, who was enjoying her independence. I don’t think I ever learned much about her except that she was always spending the night with her boyfriend, was that even legal? The other two girls were my housemates. Hilary, was from Northern California. A rich white girl, always chillin’ on a high with her boyfriend. It got to the point that literally they would do days just hitting that bong, barely going to classes, yet somehow passing exams with A’s! I was awkward with them, now it wasn’t only the white and brown difference, it was their relaxation methods that weirded me out. Don’t get me wrong, Hilary was nice, but what she offered, I did not want.

Julia, my other housemate was also from Northern California. She was a hippie type, very natural, didn’t like perfumes, or make up or deodorant. She was the most approachable even spoke Spanish, but because I wasn’t in that comfort cultural zone I avoided her too. Little did I know that one day I would be related to someone a lot like her; my brother in-law Jeremy.

Life was hard and school was just too much to cope with to even realize that I had no social life. In lil’ ole Calipat high, I was accepted. Nobody was unaccepting me, if anything, all the other Freshmen were just like me, adjusting. In high school I was cool, I was fun and crazy, but college life and the big city was way out of my league. I did manage to acquire a friend,  a legit Mexican-American. Her Spanish was better than mine and she was studious. Two awkward Mexicans in a multicultural sea of students. Margarita was smart and focused on why she was there, while I was wondering why I was there in the first place! Fatigue, depression and loneliness washed over me.

I survived that first year, but just barely. My grades were mediocre, It wasn’t until the end of the school year that I realized that all the free time I had between classes and labs was meant for studying, not The Guiding Light soap opera!. 

Staying in San Diego

I was glad when it was over, I was done with the whole experience, midterms and finals for sure! My brain was was exhausted. I was ready for my break. I needed to catch up with my sis Patty, and my valley friends before facing the reality of adulting. But, once again, an application determined my future. I had applied and was hired for a job at the Science and Engineering Library on campus, starting immediately. In this setting I would really face the diversity of cultures and generations. (I didn’t even know that students could be old!) I had to face it, accept and maybe embrace it. We would see, but first I would catch a quick weekend at home

More Change

One short summer weekend, that turned my life upside down and inside out again! My mother fretted and she looked at my sister Patty. Otra vez! She was getting blamed. My other siblings wondered what the heck I was doing. I was a different girl, hold on, same lil Mexican-American chick, but I re-entered San Diego a whole new person from the inside. Some would say “I got religion” Maybe I did. This is what I know, I discovered true friendship. 

Jesus Culture

Wow! A friend who transcended culture, age, gender, mindsets, habits. No pretending, no holding back, he loved me, just the way I was! Immediately I trusted him. No fear of backstabbing, or rejection. No worries that he’d be embarrassed of me, or that I was bothering him. He actually sought to be my friend, he wasn’t too busy. He was that friend that totally influenced every part of me and my life. Now with this new influencer in my life I was challenged to look outside my comfortable culture and accept and offer friendship outside of it. While I was open to it, it was a bit awkward. I was glad that in fact He encouraged me to mix and mingle my Mexican-American culture with his Jesus culture, and beyond! He spoke Spanglish.

I can’t wait to tell about the incredible diversity I’ve enjoyed in my relationships, starting with my marriage. Friends that I would have never chosen or been afraid to approach were arranged into my life beautifully.

Wedding Bells and the Introduction to the Hall of In-Laws

I was a very little girl when I first heard the term sister in-law. I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant. Somehow when my brother got a wife, I would get another sister, and the law was going to be involved.

I wondered if she was going to give me the same bossy big sister  attitude that my other three sisters already enforced? “Rosie, bring me some water.” “Rosie, subele al la tele. I can’t hear it” Rosie this, Rosie do that. (How many big sisters could a 8 year old handle anyway?)

Just as I was wrapping my head around the idea, I was informed that I was to be a flower girl in the wedding. Ugh! A flower girl! What was that? It didn’t sound good, sounded like a sissy-lala girly mess and I wasn’t going to have a choice in the matter! Yikes! This in-law thing was heavy.

Bridezilla

My soon to be sister…inlaw….was uptight, I wondered what life was going to be like with her in the family. Of course I didn’t know then, what I know now and that is, almost every soon to be wife goes through with another ceremony known as the Bridezilla metamorphosis. I did, my bestie/maid of honour will confirm it without hesitation. My own sweet sweet daughter scared me at one point, but I’d never admit that. (She was a beautiful Bride but ‘Zilla’ affected her quiet nature.)

Pretty can be painful

The day before the wedding, all the girls in the wedding party were giddy with excitement as they were primped and prettied. I was miserable and uncooperative. Cual fue mi pecado, that I should have to endure such silliness? Then it was my turn, everyone was excited to see how the hairdresser would transform my thick wiry long hair (BTW, long hair was my moms rule) into a beautiful hairdo.

I was mad, my lips stuck out, my eyebrows knitted together and I squirmed with every pull of my hair.  She gave me gum, which helped distract me as she pulled and separated strands of my hair and rolled them in the curlers. If my chewing annoyed her, she didn’t show it, but of course my big sisters warned me when I would pull the gum out and stretch it as thin as I could, then pop it back into my mouth. I chewed that piece of gum all day long, took it out to eat then back again.  At one point in the busy day my almost sister in-law warned me about not going to bed with the gum in my mouth. I kept getting in trouble every time I itched my head because of the curlers in my hair.

Everyone was busy, I was tired, so I was sent to bed to get me out of their hair. The gum was forgotten as I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up with gum stuck on the curlers through my hair! Everyone panicked and I was rushed to the hairdresser. (I can almost hear the siren of their distress). They all watched in suspense as she carefully clipped the gum out of my hair and released my hair from the curlers and pronounced in victory, I would still be a pretty little  flower girl. ARGH! I felt like I needed another gum.

Walking down the aisle

I walked down the aisle, in my white poofy dress and big hairdo, tossing flower petals to the ground. I heard a lady say, “Que bonita esta!” (I was very self controlled with a pasted smile and no rolling of the eyes- I mean, how could I not be with my big sisters watching me) the bride was behind me, stepping on my petals, radiant and beautiful. As I tossed rose petals to the ground I walked into in-law-ness and it seemed kind of bleak to me. 

Sister in-law

What else would this sister-in-law make me do? Relatives by marriage were to be handled with special care and somehow I already knew it. So I practiced the new role to a fault, saying the wrong things, not understanding the family connection and pretty much dismissing it, I had too many people bossing me around already and I only had one little brother to boss and he wasn’t letting me.

Becoming the In-law

Then at 22 it was my turn to become an outlaw. That’s what my husband’s family call the relatives who connect through marriage. I felt especially outlawed since I thought, that they thought, I was way out there from different land.  A Mexican-American from the West Coast who met their son in his Pentecostal church! (How much more convoluted could this get?)

In-law, Outlaw, Gringo-law?

I was kind of used to in-law-ness from a little sister perspective, now I was facing brother-in-laws who were gringos and I was the first brown Greene. They were nice, polite and quiet. (hmmm why was that?) My bottom line, they were sangrones. Stuck up, keeping me at arms length was their way of letting me know my place.

I can see my bestie, throwing her hands up in frustration at my interpretations and all I can say today is that, that I was wr…wrong.. But those kind of thoughts are real, they will can take you for a roller coaster ride if you let them, unfortunately, I did go on that ride a few times and after 32 years of being Mrs. Greene I still get that invitation for that nasty ride sometimes. 

Could our worlds come together?

The daughter in-law role was especially scary for me. Just thinking of it made me awkward and nervous. Of course I was on a one track mind, she knows I’m Mexican! (You can take this Mexican out of the barrio, but you can’t take the barrio out of this Mexican)

Soon after we got engaged my mother in-law introduced herself in a letter, since I wouldn’t meet her until the day before the wedding. Through her letter she welcomed me into her family. I’m sure she did this to put me at ease, to break the ice maybe, but instead it added to my anxieties about having a mother in-law that was another color, another economic status and she was so cool and calm. Scary.

In her letter she said she looked forward to meeting and knowing me; I was to be her first daughter! What?! I couldn’t be another mothers daughter!  

What’s in a name?

How was I supposed to address her? She wasn’t my mother, or my peer, and she certainly was not my friend. (Was that even allowed anyway?)

In my world, my sister-in-law simply called my Mom, Suegra, or by her nickname Dona Chuy, short for Maria de Jesus. Can you picture me calling my quiet poised white mother in-law suegra? Or worse, greeting her with, “Hello mother-in-law.” After we were married I avoided calling her anything, in fact I just avoided her! I was super thankful that she lived clear across the country. I did ask my husband what he thought I should call her and he suggested I ask her, as if it was easy (he didn’t know I was practicing social distancing). She graciously said to me “You can call me mom, or Nancy, whatever you’re most comfortable with.”

Well, I was most comfortable with not addressing her at all! 

She is clothed in strength and dignity

She was quiet, and serious looking. Quiet people tend to make me a bit nervous and I end up talking too much. (Which is crazy or providential because my husband, my daughter, my daughter inlaw and my bestie are quiet, calm people. Thankfully, God arranged enough crazy and loud friends in my life to keep me in reality.) Of course I analyzed her quiet nature through my brown shades and also judged her as sangrona, imagining her to be stern and not wanting anything to do with the likes of me. My mother in-law was gracious and kind to me. She had once been a new daughter in-law and was now navigating through her own new mother in-law role.

I was the new Mrs.Greene who was too careful and worked too hard at being a mature wife.  I was hoping that I looked pretty and poised next to her son. I practiced what my Ama had taught me, and took care of my husband, serving him first. Inside I felt like a lost little Mexican girl amongst all the white folks, all 4 of them. My mother in-law graciously let me find my place in my new family.

Nancy, is what I settled with. I wasn’t comfortable, but it felt better than anything else. I eventually learned that my mother in-laws’ mannerisms were, just that, her mannerisms, and not a judgment against me or about me, (as my dear friend would say, “it’s not always about you Esa!”) What she gave her son, she gave also to me.  At Christmas she gave me gifts just as thoughtfully as she gave to her son. Then soon after, she thoughtfully gave to our kids, her grandkids and reward.

In the few short years of our relationship  she wrote me letters and sent birthday cards. In her non-intrusive way she demonstrated her care and her confidence in us. My mother taught me how to make tortillas and my mother in-law taught me how to bake bread. 

Nancy was a Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart, very creative and artistic. I’m grateful that our children got those genes. I still have the lovely painting she made just for me when I was just a wee little bride; Posies for Rosie.

Posies for Rosie by Nancy Greene 1988

Crowned a Mother in-law

Now I am a mother-in-law. I can almost walk back into my mother-in-law’s shoes and clearly read the caution signs she must have seen. What a minefield this relationship can be and seeing all the explosives doesn’t make it easier. Once I had questioned every move or look from my mother-in-law and now, I’m aware of every tone I use and every look I give.

My personality is outspoken, when needed, I can be aggressive, and a momma bear. My daughter in-law is quiet, sometimes timid and soft spoken, she has an air of sweetness about her that adds to her natural beauty. I look past her timidity and see how graceful she can be and am not at all surprised at how very much my son loves her. 

I wanted to embrace my daughter in-law and welcome the newest Mrs. Greene into the family but I truly felt that I would suffocate her, (hugging is something I already do very awkwardly). I didn’t want to scare her, anymore than she already was. I had been in her shoes, so I didn’t do much at all, except smile in my gruff Zepeda way, because I needed her to know I wasn’t angry, I just looked it sometimes.

God seems to always connect me with opposites. My daughter in-law and I have come a long way, as we’ve worked out our relationship, we’ve discovered that our vastly different personalities and generation gap can still manage to produce good family ties and wonderful friendship. 

I thank God always for these incredible opportunities and connections in the in-law world.