Tag Archives: cultural differences

Love is Love

28 Mar

isa heart handsWhen I was in fifth grade, I had a crush on a boy named Jake Rubenstein. He had reddish blond hair, a dotting of freckles across the bridge of his nose and he ran faster than all of the other boys. Word on the blacktop was that he liked me back, and although I was extremely shy around boys and preferred to worship them from afar rather than talk to them, my heart was filled with innocent joy that a boy actually liked me!

While playing handball with my best friend Kelly, I told her that I thought Jake was cute, and she said, “You can’t like him—he’s Jewish!”

Jewish?” I asked, confused. “What’s Jewish?”

She informed me that it was his religion, and sometimes he wore a black beanie on his head when he went to church. She told me he couldn’t have a girlfriend who wasn’t also Jewish, so I should just forget about liking him.

“Unless you’re Jewish,” she told me. She stared at me across the handball court. “You’re not, are you?”

“Not what?” I asked.

“Jewish, dummy!” she said, bouncing the red rubber ball several times on the grimy asphalt.

“I don’t think so,” I answered. “I mean, our family doesn’t go to church or anything.”

“Well then,” she said, “you’re definitely not Jewish, because I think you would know if you were.

“Oh, okay,” I told her, a little sad, yet relieved at the same time that I had found out this important information before anything went too far. Whatever Jewish was, Jake was probably not the boy for me. That day, I decided to stop liking him.

It was the first time someone told me I shouldn’t like someone because they were different than I was.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I sat my mother down and told her that I wanted to marry Rene, an undocumented, uneducated Mexican Indian from Oaxaca. Rene and I met at a restaurant in Santa Monica where I was a waitress and he was a cook. While she liked Rene very much, my mother told me that I shouldn’t marry him because he and I were just too different.

“Jess, honey—you need to reconsider this whole marriage idea,” she said.  “The language barrier and cultural differences between you and Rene are just so vast—it’s going to make your marriage too difficult.”

Even though her feelings were expressed out of love and concern for me, thank God I was bullheaded enough not to listen to her.

When I called my grandmother back in Baltimore to tell her that Rene and I were getting married, her first reaction was, “But Jessie—your babies will be brown!” I wasn’t angry with her. In fact, I remember laughing about it with Rene. I understood that she was from a generation where it was unfathomable to think about marrying outside your own race. Her comment didn’t bother me one bit.  And yes, all four of my babies turned out to be the most beautiful brown color imaginable.

First society tells us not to love someone because they are a different than we are. Now, as is the case of same-sex marriage, they tell us not to love them because they are the same. The funny thing is, no matter what we look like on the outside, the love we feel on the inside is what truly matters, and it’s always the same. And what gives me, you, the church or the government the right to tell someone they can’t marry whom they love?

Change often takes generations to come about, but it always comes. Let’s not waste any more precious time. Love is love and it’s time to finally be fair about it.

Jesjsie and Rene in 1986

Jessie and Rene in 1986

Rene and Jessie today almost thirty years later.

Rene and Jessie today almost thirty years later.

Cafe con Leche

25 Jun

My husband leaves me every year—sometimes twice. He packs his bag, kisses me and our children goodbye and heads back to Mexico to see his other family—the one I stole him away from over twenty five years ago.

When he first leaves me, I breathe a sigh of relief because I am free. I can stay up late watching television with the volume on high. I can spend hours on Facebook without him complaining how I’m ridiculously addicted to social media. I can sleep in late and skip breakfast and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles everyday for lunch. I can bake scones and give them away so as not to eat any (okay, I eat some.) I can work in my garden for hours knowing that no one is going to call out to me and ask me to do something or go somewhere. I can send my youngest daughter over to play at a neighbor’s house and then I can savor my aloneness like a hot Grande Decaf Mocha (one and a half pumps of chocolate, extra whip) with a morning bun on the side, and no one gives me a look that says: Should you really be eating that?

For about three days my new sense of freedom makes me as giddy and excited as a teenager whose parents have left for the weekend. I make plans to clean out closets, scrub baseboards, and organize my messy life into neat little plastic containers. I drool over the stack of books on my nightstand and ponder which one I’m going to read first. I make detailed lists and compose emails and decide to use every hour—no—every minute, to accomplish what I’ve mapped out to do.

And then something strange happens. I end up sitting on the couch doing nothing. My stress level has gone all the way down to zero but for some reason I’m not happy.

I miss my husband.

My problem is that I really like to spend time with my husband. Or at least I do in reasonable quantities. Even though he readily admits to me that he’s high maintenance and difficult at times, his sense of humor, his generosity, and his ability to love is unparalleled. I’ve discovered that I like to hang out with people who have these qualities, even if they drive me nuts at times.

Not only that, he makes me laugh. I cannot stay mad at him for longer than fifteen minutes because he always tries to hug me and kiss me and cajole me out of my snit by teasing me until I finally have to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter. No matter what hurtful things we’ve just said to each other (and both of us are expert button pushers), the moment I crack that smile, he knows that everything is instantly forgiven. Trust me—I’ve tried in vain to hold on to that hot, delicious anger—it’s virtually impossible with Rene.

On June fourth we celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As money has been a bit tight this year (join the club, right?) we didn’t make plans to go away to spend a weekend in wine country or take a short cruise to Baja. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything anyway—we’ve always been sort of casual about giving each other presents.

But he surprised me the morning of our anniversary by playing hooky from work and bringing me peach colored roses (he actually remembered that peach was the color of our wedding flowers) and then he took me out to a fancy restaurant on State Street to eat French toast with fresh berries and whipped cream.

He held my hand and kissed me, just like he did during our first date, which involved the two of us making out passionately in a seedy movie theatre somewhere in downtown Los Angeles while a Chuck Norris film (dubbed in Spanish) blasted out at an unusually high volume.

In that dark theatre, Rene kissed me liked I’d never been kissed before, so completely paralyzing my body that I literally melted into the squeaky seat and could not move.  I barely heard the screaming  children who ran up and down the aisles throwing popcorn and crying out for their mothers.

Rene and I met at an upscale gourmet hamburger joint in Santa Monica (I guarantee you, there was such a thing in the 80’s) where he was a cook and I was a waitress.  He spoke mostly Spanish and I spoke mostly English. He was a dark-skinned Zapotec Indian from the mountains of Oaxaca whose first language was an indigenous dialect, and who at eight years old, was sent away to work as a houseboy in the home of a rich family in the city. I grew up a semi-privileged white girl from Santa Barbara, California, who had her own room and her own car (it was a beat-up 67 Oldsmobile, aka the Tuna Boat, but a car, nonetheless) and whose parents paid for weekly piano lessons.

Rene worked tirelessly for years, often sending his entire paycheck to his parents in Mexico so that they and his nine siblings could have a real roof over their heads, one that wasn’t made from scraps of discarded wood and corrugated aluminum. While I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in piano performance from a prestigious Los Angeles music school, he was riding the bus for an hour each way to attend ESL classes so that he could to learn English and begin his education. Seven years later, when he was thirty-one years old, he received his master’s degree in Education. At that time, I was seven months pregnant with our third child.

My husband and I are like night and day—we’re café con leche. We come from dissimilar cultures and we don’t like the same music. We’ve had some difficult times in our marriage; the most arduous being the time our youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was two. But through some kind of consecrated grace, we pulled together instead of pulling apart, and we endured. Yes, we still fight a lot, and yes, we say mean things to each other at times. Yet we also say “I love you” every single day, no matter what.

And most importantly, we laugh a lot.

I didn’t plan to fall in love with Rene after only dating him for three weeks, after which he told me he was leaving me to go back to Mexico and didn’t know when he would be back. I was heartbroken and had no idea if I’d ever see him again, but somehow I knew he was the one, and that whatever happened was meant to be.

Together in 1985. The hairstyle proves it.

He came back four months later.

I was twenty-three when he left me for the first time. He’s been leaving me without fail ever since. This time around, he’s only been gone a little over two weeks. Last night he called, the connection scratchy and faint, and told me he missed me and the kids and he was coming home early. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait too long this time.

Still together after twenty five years of marriage.