Learning to respect the culture and heritage of others
By Paula Seibert Manley
My first multicultural experience began when I was eight years old. A large, smiling dark-skinned man came to our front porch. I soon became acquainted with Shemelis, or "Sheemee," as my sisters and I called him. Sheemee was an engineer from Ethiopia. He had saved the life of a friend of my parents, carrying him five miles out of an African jungle after the friend had a heart attack. So of course, when Sheemee visited Portland for several months, my parents insisted he stay at our house.
Sheemee quickly became a favorite uncle, though some of his habits puzzled me. He put cayenne pepper on most of his food, though we were able to talk him out of putting it on ice cream. Dismissing the rational explanation as to food preservation issues, I asked how he could stand all that hot red pepper. He in return asked why Americans ate burned bread for breakfast. This was probably my first realization that not everybody did things the same way, and that our culture could be just as confusing as another.
My cultural exposure continued, as my parents frequently invited friends and foster siblings from other cultures, religions and countries into our home. I learned that "different" meant "interesting," and was not something to fear. Later, my husband and I continued learning through our own foster children.
Nearly two decades ago, I took a particular interest in Latino issues, as a parole and probation officer. I spoke some Spanish; I’d studied a bit a decade earlier. I discovered use of interpreters — even competent interpreters — for assessment tasks to be frustrating and ineffective. Communication involves more than just words, particularly in substance abuse evaluations. Meaningful communication involves a connection, which includes not only words, but eye contact, body language and voice inflection. I began to study Spanish.
I soon learned that not all Spanish-speakers spoke Spanish as a first language. One client’s bilingual attorney suspected a client was perhaps mentally unbalanced because he would speak "gibberish" in the middle of a Spanish conversation. When I visited the client in jail, I discovered that his first language was, "Mixteco."
There was no way I would be able to learn the hundreds of indigenous languages and variations of Central America. So I concentrated on my Spanish, recognizing that even when I became fluent, I would not know all.
After two years of college-level Spanish and a year of studying Spanish telenovelas (soap operas) two hours daily, I studied further at a language school in San Miguel de Allende, living with a local family for a month during an immersion program. I formed a lasting relationship with this family, and returned three years later with my then eight-year-old son. My fluency increased drastically during the first trip. The second time, I participated in a way a student usually can’t — as a mother and friend of a local family — and was party to topics not usually discussed with "foreigners." I attended family picnics, celebrations, dances and soccer games.
Working in Oregon, I found that I needed to learn much more than Spanish. Besides different cultural norms, I discovered there were also immigration issues I’d never before considered. Also, when an immigrant family discovers one person in "the system" whom they trust, there is a tendency to look for help in all areas from that person, thus requiring much more time.
I learned that even when a client is fully bilingual, counseling is not as effective when not offered in a language that the client learned prior to about age five. I was surprised that different people from the "same" groups may call themselves Latinos, Hispanics, Chicanos or Mexicans, and so on. I had to ask how each individual wanted to be described.
Initially, I felt very isolated as my agency’s only bilingual employee. Fortunately, I found Latino professionals to be very open and helpful, willing to share information with a peer, even though I was not Latina. We joined together in efforts to find and develop equivalent services in Spanish.
Many new acquaintances became friends. We met with local and state-level officials, organized and participated in task forces and conferences on our own time. My husband and I opened our home to bilingual professionals visiting from other parts of Oregon.
My multicultural friends helped me understand that some of the "rules" I had learned were not effective with many Latinos. For instance, in Corrections, I learned that you never eat or drink something offered to you in a home visit. Yet, in Latino culture, by refusing food or drink, I unwittingly insulted the family. I had to learn to walk a fine line in this (and other) areas. (This was particularly difficult when dieting!)
Another discovery was that I could only gain the information I needed if I took the initial time for social amenities before starting with my questions. The ask-a-direct-question- get-an-answer approach didn’t work. I had to slow down, back up and listen to what an offender wanted to tell me about himself or his family, before I could expect him to open up on issues I wanted to address. I learned that the shortest way between two points sometimes means not only beating my way all around one bush, but sometimes several.
I have often been asked if being a female working with Latino males has been a handicap. As an older female, I am viewed as a mother figure — or even grandmother — by many of my clients. Age is more highly-respected in general by immigrants than by many people raised in the USA. Perhaps some males don’t view me as competition because I am a woman; often men find it easier to discuss feelings with women than with other men.
Since retirement as a parole and probation officer five years ago, I have worked as a batterer intervention facilitator, exclusively with Spanish- speaking men. Some professionals believe that these men are culturally predisposed to be more violent. I do not think that is a fair assumption; "power-over" gender dynamics are present in every culture. The key to promoting behavioral change is to help a person see the value of making that change. To do this, it is important to view violence within each cultural context, without blaming the culture.
Accountability is of course an essential part of behavioral change. But as any parent of teens knows, "punishment" alone is not sufficient to promote long-term change. We must help men who batter understand how false beliefs have both short- and long-term costs, for themselves and others.
I have found that most Latinos have a strong sense of being part of a larger whole. Values emphasize helping family, sometimes to the extent of hurting one’s own needs. While a man who batters typically does not arrive at the program looking at how he can help his partner, he does generally express a strong desire to do what is right for his children. So that is where I start.
Once he understands how his abusive behavior affects his children — and his partner’s ability to meet their children’s needs — he is more open to seeing the effects of his behavior on her, as well. He can start to understand the far-reaching effects of domestic violence, inter- generationally and throughout communities.
Many men have themselves experienced violence as children. Some start to understand how they are passing on the same agony they experienced. They can see how racism — which almost every Latino in the US has experienced at some point — uses the same dynamics as domestic violence, involving abuse of power.
I often point out how Cortez and the other "Conquistadores" used violence against indigenous people: murdering, raping and making them slaves. The Mexican history I learned in Mexico is far different from the Mexican history I learned in my school days. Understandably, Mexicans and others still resent these foreign conquerors who destroyed entire indigenous cultures.
We discuss how this "power over" mentality was passed down over generations. We also talk about how Malinche, the woman who was Cortez’s slave and "lover," has been blamed by many as a traitor to her people, though she was powerless and was herself Cortez’s victim.
Many indigenous cultures earlier operated in a much less oppressive manner, some with a far greater equality for women than post-Cortez. Domestic violence is not inherent; it is learned behavior. It is passed on by example, not by genes.
Latino families benefit by maintaining pride in strengths such as concern for families and communities, faith, traditions, music, art and language. We talk about how maintaining values is consistent with nonviolent behavior, which requires more bravery than a man trying to prove his masculinity to himself or others via family violence.
Culture is more than just race, language, religion or country of origin. We are each part of a unique combination of experiences that brought us to be the person each of us is now. To understand a particular "culture," we need to spend time with people in that culture, and get to really know them. We need to know enough people within that culture so that we don’t ascribe certain traits to an entire group of people, based on our experience with a few individuals.
When I respect and value other people, their heritage and experience, I can work more effectively to challenge false beliefs that support domestic violence. I will probably never speak Spanish with native fluency, nor can I experience personally what it is like to be an immigrant in the USA. But by listening and learning, by embracing and appreciating diversity, I can not only serve as a bridge, I can also enrich my own life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paula Seibert Manley of Canby worked in Clackamas County as a parole and probation officer for adults for 17 years. After becoming fluent in Spanish and certified as a chemical dependency counselor, she began facilitating Spanish speaking groups for male batterers in 1998. She retired as a probation officer in 2000 and continues her work with the intervention classes. She also is a freelance writer and composer.
© 2006 Paula Seibert Manley