Churches, schools, neighborhoods and many other aspects of society are often segregated. I have attended African American church services several times in the past, and I was the only white person in the congregation. Many other churches are predominately white. If diverse groups don’t know one another and do not worship together, for example, how can they value and matter to one another in their separateness?
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Fortunately, I had a wonderful experience growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico where my sister and I attended Spanish public schools from 3rd grade through 9th grade. Talk about total immersion in a culture and new language. We were the only white students enrolled with a student population of about 500 Puerto Rican students. My father, being a journalist, believed it would be a truly remarkable cultural experience although there were a few bumps along the way.
I remember my elementary teacher helping me with my Spanish vowels during lunch — A-E-R-O-P-U-E-R-T-O — while the other students were enjoying their limbers, frozen ice in a cup flavored with natural coconut, raspberry, grape and a variety of other island flavors to choose from.
But, it wasn’t all fun and games. I quickly ascertained that fighting was a Puerto Rican sport, especially among elementary and middle school students. Being the Americuchi, gringo, or yankee as they called me many wanted to fight me. I soon learned about the pajita (a blade of grass) that was placed on one’s shoulder. Many placed the blade on my shoulder to initiate the fight. The opponent would knock or blow it off your shoulder, and that meant you were supposed to throw the first punch. Eventually, I not only learned my vowels, but also the art of using my belt buckle and running when the bully was bigger, or there was more than one.
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The experience was invaluable once I was old enough to understand the cultural benefit of being a minority and learning Spanish outside the states. During my college years, I studied Spanish literature, and I remember the work of the Puerto Rican playwright Francisco Arriví who wrote “La máscara puertorriqueña” (The Puerto Rican Mask). One of the female characters lightens her skin with white powder to hide her dark skin, a result of the miscegenation of the Spanish, the indigenous Taíno, and the African ethnic groups. Arriví’s point was that Puerto Ricans should embrace their ethnic diversity composed of the cultural syncretism of their mixed heritage and not try to hide behind the mask of a racial deception.
Racism can be eliminated when we immerse and integrate ourselves in each other’s culture. Diversity is marvelous because societies learn to respect and value every life. I’m reminded that I may start attending an African American church to renew my personal journey as a proponent for an integrated cultural syncretism to take root in the United States.
Lane Carnes is the author of “The Arch’s Prism (El prisma del arco)” in 2014, “Solitary Impressions” in 2016 and “City of Voices (La ciudad de las voces)” in 2018.