Recently I turned to my husband and asked if he knew the North Carolina state flower.
I don’t recall what prompted my question, except as a kid I always thought it was weird that the state flower was a tree and the state tree was ... a tree. I suppose the legislators in 1941 were mostly men. And didn’t garden. Or pay much attention to the wildflowers rioting through the fields.
Whatever the rationale or lack thereof by those male legislators, my husband answered right away. He said, “Sure. It’s cornmeal.”
The more you think you know the answer, the more you miss the jolt of recognition. And the laugh.
Hidden Voices just completed an English as a Second Language summer camp. The kids were young, right out of fourth and fifth grades. Together we talked about culture, a vague word only a few had ever heard. The children devised a great definition: the way we live and how we do things. They shared examples of the culture we can see: food, celebrations, language, sports, manners. And the culture we can’t: attitude, beliefs, values. We noticed that what’s important in one culture may not be valued in another. We discussed how those different values can create challenges.
Our goal for the end of the week was to present poems and portraits expressing the dynamic tension between what’s great about living between two cultures and what’s really hard. Because both aspects are valid and valuable.
The students didn’t know the word stereotype, but they knew their parents had to work very very hard here. When I asked the kids to choose three adults in their lives and describe a physical trait, many of the children chose their mothers. The word almost all of them used to describe her was tired. I’m not sure at the age of 10 I would’ve even noticed. But their mothers worked “all the time” they explained. And clearly for very little. We carefully sent home the leftover snacks. Extra food would be welcome, a teacher explained.
But stop. The very little is my perspective. Not theirs. Not yet, anyhow.
On his Flag of Myself, one boy wrote: I always liked my life the way it is. I don’t care if I am poor or rich. The way is fine. In the bottom corner, a speech bubble erupts from a stick figure and proclaims: I love my life.
Because they do. The children love their trailers, their technology and soccer, but most of all they love their families. Family is what they talked about, over and over. Family and food.
Initially when we asked what was tough about being from two cultures, the children related their own challenges. It was hard to make friends if you didn’t speak the language. Their parents couldn’t help them with homework. Then a few expanded the circle of their concerns. It was hard for their parents to find jobs. It was dangerous to get here, and that sets your family apart.
One young boy spoke softly. “It is difficult that in Mexico, you do not have enough food to eat and sometimes if you stay there, you will die. That is what happened to us. If we stayed, we would have starved.
“And also,” he continued, “kids live in the street. That is difficult. Even if you are here, they are still there.”
One girl offered another answer. Being afraid. I expected her to talk about being undocumented and afraid of being forced to leave. But again the answer I thought I knew wasn’t hers. She said, “Being afraid I will forget my mother tongue.” The others chimed in. “Being afraid I will forget my family and relatives there.” And maybe saddest of all, “Being afraid I will never meet my family at all.”
To complete their poems, the students chose a beloved object from home, a metaphor for their own place in the world. A remarkable number selected clay drinking or cooking vessels. Why? Because these containers were handmade by a relative; they were beautiful; and they brought people happiness. Indeed. Food and family now merged into a single container.
Here is one of their poems. Read it carefully and you will see it is a love letter home.
I come from a quiet trailer, my father’s buzzsaw, the smell of fresh clothes from the dryer.
I belong to my mother’s favorite pan, La Hacienda, and sweet crunchy churros.
I come from my father’s tearless brown eyes, my mother’s bare hands,
and en el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo, Amén.
I am playing Minecraft, eating Mexican food, speaking two languages,
and kids living in the street.
This I know for sure: Enjoy life because you don’t know when you will die.
And I am a clay jug from Mexico, sturdy, handmade and artistic.
Surely we Southerners are the perfect group to welcome these new immigrants and make them feel at home. Goodness knows, from hushpuppies to tamales, corn is king. And is there anything we value more than family and heritage. Deep roots. The smell of home.
Welcome to North Carolina, where the state flower is a tree but the love of cornmeal runs deep as the red clay beneath our feet.
Lynden Harris is the founding director of Hidden Voices. Contact her at email@example.com.