I was guided by Jesse Sifuentes, a sculptor, artist, teacher and friend, to a mural in the East End of Houston, an area home to many Latinos. Showing steps leading to a deep-rooted oak in front of a vivid orange and yellow sunrise with the words no olvides tus raices billowing from either side, it reminds the passer-by to stay true to culture and to not forget his roots.
The mural struck a chord. Like any music, the notes rippled out along the contours of my convoluted mind to words I heard at a Families in Global Transition conference. I’ve scrabbled through my Just Write notebook of that year (compiled by Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing) and have found my notes. Scrawled in a hand reserved for note taking, part long-hand, part vaguely remembered short-hand were the words, “grew up a nowhere kid, wanted to be a somewhere kid.” I’m sorry to say I didn’t make a note of who said it – like I said, scrawled.
Then I recalled the words of French Reunaisse singer song-writer, Gerald de Palmas, Je Suis un Homme sans Racines. Born to a French father and a Reunaisse mother, De Palmas sings of the pain of dislocation felt when he left Reunion as a teenager and struggled to feel ‘at home’ in France. “Plus je prends de l’age plus j’oublie la ou je suis ne” (the older I grow the more I forget the place where I was born) perhaps can be said of us all as we age. However those born and raised in one country do not, unless traumatised by an unpleasant childhood, tend to lose the core of their childhood memories. Pulling at those intangible strings de Palmas continues, “Peu a peu mon coeur a enfoui e qui fait mon passé” (little by little my heart has hidden what makes up my past). Powerful words for those struggling to remember their roots in the melange of schools, shipments and social integrations of a nomadic childhood.
But should we stay true to our home culture even when it technically might never have been home? It is an ethos that can help nudge young men and women of immigrant families, and TCKs (Third Culture Kids), into the hands of gangs and sects – that desperate need to belong. To fit in, to feel at home when often straddling two cultures, the adopted one by day and the birth one by night. For many TCKs, often trundled around the world from an early age to one, two, three or more countries, each one leaving an indelible mark on the psyche.
Combined those different cultures can merge into a gloopy soup of half-beliefs that don’t quite fit any mould. I sloshed around that tureen for a number of years. Feeling comfortable wherever I was but not entirely sure of where I fitted, not confident enough in myself to just be me. It was my husband’s easy acceptance of my not always rational thoughts or emotions, his understanding of the melange of ideas and beliefs, that drive me in sometimes diametrically opposed directions that allowed me to be me.
That acceptance was not always something I got from my father, who was old school English brought up on a diet of Britannia, the Raj, and ‘what one does’, though I never doubted I was loved. His determination to hold onto all that was British through over forty years overseas was amazing, and ultimately disappointing when he retired to a very different Britain. That does not mean he did not learn, both the language and many aspects of other cultures, but he intrinsically stayed an Englishman abroad.
Since living in America, this crucible as Arthur Miller described the country, with the myriad of nationalities that have made it their home I have seen how generations hold onto their heritage with a strange, sometimes determined, intensity. There is often no real understanding of what those beliefs, formed through the eyes of another generation themselves possibly removed from the original culture, are based on. Whoopi Goldberg famously angered many African Americans on her return from her first trip to Africa, the cradle of civilisation, when she said, “Honey, I’ve been to Africa and I’m an American!”
The older I get the more I believe roots are vastly overrated. Yes it is interesting to know where we came from, whether one generation or ten generations ago, but do we really need to hold onto archaic beliefs from a country we may never have even been to? Absolutely our culture and history should guide us, if only to ensure past horrors are not repeated.
We have to let those rhizoids clutching the earth beneath our feet and stretching from the roots filled with the different elements of each country lived in, or from familial pasts, be a guide and not a blueprint for how we live now.
We should never forget but we should move on.