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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Love, Common Ground Make Recipe For Two-Culture Family

By Liza Rodriguez

December 22, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

When my husband and I were thinking of names for our baby son, we knew we wanted a Spanish name that English speakers could pronounce easily. It needed to be short, preferably two syllables. We came up with Diego. That gave our son the same initials as his dad - D.S., where the S is for Spielman.

Thinking about names was my family's first conscious effort to blend our cultures. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and have lived in the United States for 14 years, seven of them in Philadelphia. Even though I am a product of 12 years of Catholic schooling, I haven't practiced this faith in a long time. My husband, who is Jewish and a Philly native, comes from a non-religious family that observes the major holidays.

These seemingly different cultures did not stop us from finding love and common ground in our shared values, professional interests and social concerns. These differences are now helping us figure out how to raise our son in an environment that blends our languages, cultural traditions, family rituals, and perspectives on life.

We've decided to take what we like from each other's cultures - and from other cultures - and mix it up in flexible, non-prescriptive ways. What some scholars call "cultural syncretism," we like to call our homemade rice-and-beans-matzo-ball-soup.

When it came time to put together our son's welcoming celebration, for example, I bought How to be a Jewish Parent, by Anita Diamant and looked up baptism online in Google. Grounded in my Catholic-derived belief that babies need to be blessed when they are born, we devised our own ceremony that combined reading a poem by a Lebanese author, some verses traditionally read at the Jewish bris, and a special blessing written by our son's Puerto Rican grandparents. Our community of family and friends blessed water as it went around the room in a bowl before being poured over our son's head.

Another ingredient in our homemade cultural blend is the collection of family stories that we plan to share with our son. We hope that these stories will give him a sense of history and belonging. There's the story of his Puerto Rican great aunt, Mercedita, who helped raise my mother. She was the oldest of 10 children living on a coffee farm in Puerto Rico. After a hurricane destroyed the farm, she moved with her family to San Juan and learned to sew beautiful dresses for carnival queens and brides. Our son also will hear about his Jewish great-grandfather, Leon, who had a gift for working with wood. Most important, we will share stories about Carol, his paternal grandmother, who passed away three months before he was born. She loved to tell the story of the birth of her sons. She would have given anything to tell Diego the story herself. We will retell the story in her memory.

The mix of stories, rituals, and beliefs that we share with our son will shape his perspectives on life, people, and the world that surrounds him. We hope that our homemade "soup" will nurture the seeds of curiosity, tolerance, fairness and hope. I am sure he will meet other children growing up in similarly mixed families, as the blend of cultures and traditions increasingly becomes the norm in many American homes.

During this holiday season, I have instructed my family in Puerto Rico to light Hanukkah candles and negotiated with my husband about whether the Three Kings will ever come to our house in Philadelphia. I also remember the people and life stories that have made it possible for us to celebrate the holidays together. And, in what I believe is a pretty universal tradition, I honor them.

Liza Rodriguez lives and writes in Philadelphia.

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