The Pain and the Delight of Colliding Cultures

Desiree Zamorano teaches multicultural education to teachers in the Pasadena area.

This year Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas. On my kitchen counter the challah sits next to the tortillas. In the pantry the Masa Harina is somewhere behind the matzo meal. In the refrigerator I store rendered chicken fat, or schmaltz, next to the manteca, or lard.

Let the culture wars begin -- and like everything else in my life, they begin at home. My husband and I were quite smug about being ahead of the curve on the Latinas-marrying-Jews trend, which hadn’t yet been documented when we wed 14 years ago.

He arrived as a teenager from England; my family has been here for generations. In his home, the language in which to keep secrets from the children was Yiddish; in mine, Spanish. My favorite joke is that I married the immigrant.


We were married by a rabbi and a Baptist minister -- my grandfather.

The first bris I attended was my son’s.

Today, in my household, we celebrate holidays different from those celebrated by my mother and sister. Although my daughter understands Spanish, she would prefer to be taught Hebrew by her father.

The religious education of our children is something I thought we had settled years ago. Now, as the time for bat and bar mitzvahs draws near, it is taking an unexpected turn, an unanticipated urgency. It is not at all settled. The menorah, the Christmas tree. The Sabbath candles, chicken soup with a lime squeezed into it.

Cultural fusion or cultural confusion? It depends on whom you ask.

What we tend to forget as we talk about “culture” or other cultures is that culture and traditions are things we create, maintain or brush aside every day. Culture is in continual flux, and those touch points or traditions that somehow remain constant do so because we make the effort.

A cozy culinary juxtaposition doesn’t brush away the pain of a family member storming out of our house because our children sang in a Christian choir. Neither does it diminish my own ambivalence about going to temple.

As much as I love the thought that we all are more similar than we are different, even with the best of intentions and motives, even with love and tenderness, we chafe against each other. Our expectations are not met. In the worst moments, our differences, our disagreements, all loom large and insurmountable.

How then, does this play out in the classroom, in larger society?

I think it depends on which definition of ourselves, our families, our society we want to cling to. I believe that American culture, like all others, is fluid, not fixed.


In my own case, I look forward to baby-sitting my grandchildren and peering into the kitchens of my children, where I will find the seminal ingredients of their own new traditions.