Identity in a Brown Paper Bag

sack lunch

Image source: Jeffrey Beall

My 13 year old is going on a field trip this week to a museum in DC and because buying food at the museum is cost prohibitive, I’m packing his lunch.

This is new territory for me because under normal circumstances our kids don’t bring a packed lunch – they buy lunch at school. I carry a little guilt about this since my mother usually packed my lunch when I was a kid. In a plastic lunch box or brown paper bag I could expect either a turkey, baloney or peanut butter sandwich, a Hi-C juice box, an apple and/or carrot sticks, some type of snack cake, and once in awhile, a note written on my napkin telling me how loved I am.

This lunch is different from what I pack for Carlos – arroz con albóndigas, tacos, escabeche, galletas María, semita de piña … I can’t pack these things for my 13 year old, can I? Sure, he eats them here at home but – in public? Around gringos? … I think about a story I read on about what it’s like to bring “ethnic” food for lunch when your gringo classmates bring “normal” things.

The dreaded grade school lunch trade – when my ethnicity was undeniably made public, with the contents of my lunch making who, and what, I was unmistakable.

I wanted to blend in, to be one with the bologna and mayonnaise sandwich crowd, the chocolate chip cookies, the plastic bottles filled with Sunny-D.

But nothing screamed “Not One of Them” louder than my sliced white goat cheese and Goya guava jelly sandwiches, with a chunk of pineapple thrown on top for extra Latino measure.

Oh the squeals and screams of the other non-Latino children as they recoiled — as if watching a horror movie.

– Alexandra on

This is what I don’t want my son to go through – although popular and well-adjusted, he already deals with people asking him if he’s Mexican and if he’s related to George López. And so, while at the grocery store picking items for his lunch, I stood, feeling kind of torn, in the middle of the aisle – a bag of all-American Cracker Jack in one hand, and a bag of plantain chips in the other. He likes both equally. Do I strengthen his identity or allow him to blend in?

Cracker Jack vs. Plantain Chips

I decided I would buy both and let him choose, but I couldn’t wait until I got home to find out which he would take in his lunch. I put the bags into the cart and texted him.

Field trip snack – Cracker jack or plantain chips?

Thirty seconds later, he texted back.

Plantain chips.

I found myself smiling – but does this mean anything? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it means he’s confident in who he is. Maybe it means I’ve done a good job of instilling Latino pride into my boy. Maybe it means he’s not worried about trying to fit in and refuses to succumb to peer pressure… or maybe it means he’s just in the mood for plantain chips.

I have to say though, he asked if he could pack a semita de piña as well and I won’t pretend I’m not happy about it.


Related Reading:

Trading Lunches
El Lonch-eh Latino

Feminine Strength vs. Machismo

Image source: Ray Larabie

In high school we would have one week of gym class that we spent in the weight lifting room. It was in a dark, windowless room down a forgotten hallway. Students were allowed access to it after school but it was often forgotten, except by the jocks. The girls stood in a corner talking, watching the boys, examining their nails and refusing to do anything other than a minute on the rowing machine – preferring to take a zero for the day. I, however, loved our week in the weight lifting room.

Already known for challenging boys to arm wrestling contests at lunch time, (and sometimes winning), my reputation was further sealed by my behavior in the weight lifting room. The boys gathered around to see how much I could bench press, taking bets that I wouldn’t be able to do it each time the peg was moved lower and the weight got heavier. I fed on their pessimism. I loved being underestimated. I took a deep breath, felt the muscles ripping but pushed, pushed, pushed, my lips closed tight, my nostrils flaring. I heard them say knowingly to each other, “She can’t lift it” – as I struggled. My arms shook and I pushed harder still until I would feel the weight give way and my arms straightened above me in victory.

I didn’t care that I wasn’t the kind of girl you ask to the prom, but instead the kind of girl you ask to help push the car when it breaks down. I come from a family of strong women. My mother is well-known for re-decorating while my father is at work – sometimes moving heavy furniture up and down two flights of stairs by herself.

I associated femininity with weakness and wanted no part of it, but I realized how simplistic this point of view was when I gave birth to my first child. Giving birth is an act that is simultaneously the height of femininity and strength. Now, as the mother of two boys, the lone female in a household full of males, I value my feminine side more than I did growing up. Being married to Carlos though, has made me examine my femininity from a cultural perspective. It hasn’t been easy to sort out.

I will try to open a jar of pickles. Carlos will offer to help, reach his hand out for the jar, and I’ll turn away with the jar, stubbornly determined to do it myself. This is when Carlos will tell me I’m like my mother or say, “Why do you have to be so American?!” … to which I’d reply, “Why is it an insult to your manhood for me to open the pickles myself?!”

Over the years, I’ve learned to (usually), hand over the jar of pickles. It makes Carlos feel good to do it for me. I never pretend I can’t do anything, but if it’s difficult, why not give him the satisfaction of feeling that he takes care of me?

I thought that over the years, Carlos and I had mostly ironed out this one cultural wrinkle. We both have made compromises. I let him open jars of pickles that are difficult for me to open, (damn you, carpal tunnel) – and he doesn’t expect me to act completely helpless – fair enough… but at the grocery store while I was unloading the cart at the cash register, I retrieved the case of bottled water from the bottom of the cart and hefted it up and onto the conveyor belt. I thought nothing of it but Carlos whispered through clenched teeth, “Hey, you should have asked me to do it. You’re embarrassing me.”

Embarrassing Carlos was not my intention or even something I had considered – I just wanted to get the groceries checked out so we could go home, (and for the record, the cashier seemed completely unaware of the battle going on right in front of her.) I guess the lesson here is that Carlos and I will always have cultural issues to work on – nothing is ever resolved so completely that it won’t pop up again, so ingrained are the traits we bring from our two different backgrounds.

What is your take and your experiences on the topic of feminine strength vs. machismo?

Immigrant Voices: Christmas

Image source: wallyg

Immigrant Voices is a new feature I hope to do here on once in awhile. Basically I will pick a topic and those who identify with being a Latino/a immigrant will send me their thoughts/memories on that topic to share here. Those who participate are welcome to remain anonymous if they wish. If a name is given, I’ll also provide a link back to their Twitter profile and/or blog.

Today’s topic is “Christmas.” I hope you enjoy the stories shared here today.

“My first Christmas in the United States, I don’t really remember. I had only been here a couple months and I wasn’t working yet. All the days passed the same sometimes. My second Christmas here, in 1997, Tracy and I had a wedding date picked in January but she lived with her parents and I still lived with my brother. That year my brother went with his wife and daughter to Puerto Rico to visit her side of the family. I was all alone in their apartment on Christmas Eve and there wasn’t even any food in the house. I didn’t have money or a car. I didn’t really have any friends. It started to snow outside the windows, and someone knocked at the door. It was Tracy and she came with grocery bags full of food. We pulled the sofa bed out of the couch and spent the evening eating and watching T.V. together. It wasn’t anything like Christmas in El Salvador, but I was happy during those hours she stayed with me.”

– Carlos López (Blog)


“My best memory is that of the Christmas I spent with my grandpa in Tejutepeque, a small village in Cabanhas.

My sisters and I ended up living with him for a while and part of that time included the Christmas season. He didn’t have a tree or anything else as he wasn’t accustomed to having kids over or in general, decorating his house.

His solution: chop down a coffee tree from the local hills. He then proceeded to decorate it with whatever was around the house like packing peanuts, etc. In the end, everyone in town wanted to check it out because it was so unique.”

– Angel Magaña (Blog/Twitter)

Image source: marthax

“For my mom, my sister and I, living ‘sin papeles’ was hard enough, but when the holidays came around it felt like we had it twice as hard…mainly because we moved around a lot and we never knew if we were even going to have a Christmas or where we would end up. But somehow my mom always worked her magic and found a way to get a tree and put gifts under it for us. And if we needed a place to stay, we knew we could always count on friends or family. We may not have had much, but just being around family and friends during the holidays was very comforting and gave us some of the best memories of our childhood.”

– Rafael Gameros (Twitter)

“I was 7 when I came to live in the States. Besides the general cultural shock, the Christmas tradition shock was even greater. I had always spent Noche Buena with my Abuelitos in El Salvador, but only my Abuelita migrated with me. Abuelito refused to come. So the first 3 or 4 years, right after opening presents, stuffing my face with “Sanwiches de Pollo Salvadoreños” and having fun with my family, my stomach would become a knot and I would retire to my room, to cry. It would not be a melancholic cry either, it would be a hysterical sob fest. I still get chills remembering my 9 year-old self crying into my pillow, missing my Abuelito and the Salvadoran Christmas of my younger years. Abuelo passed away 3 years ago, and I only saw him twice after emigrating to the US…”

– Emisela (Twitter)

Image source:

Celebrating Christmas as a Latino in the U.S. means strategically finding the line between your own cultural beliefs and society as a whole. For us, it means going to mass on Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus but also enjoying Santa and all the commercialism of the day. When my “American” friends ask how we celebrate Christmas, I find it hard to say that we had tamales – my response is usually, “traditional/family.”

– Hector Flores (Twitter)

Image source: mexicanwave

“Growing up, my sister and I would have to board a plane every other year to spend Christmas with our dad and his new family in Houston. We were always happy to visit and be with him, but I could never get over the fact that Christmas in Houston was much quieter and serene than it was in El Salvador. I always missed the smell of pólvora (gun powder) and going to sleep way, way past midnight to the sound of cuetes being lit all around.”

– Ana Flores (Blog / Twitter )

Image source: Joe Shlabotnik

Early Christmas Day… we groggily made it out of bed, following my mother into the living room…There, smiling from ear to ear next to the white three story bookshelf he’d built with his own hands was my father, not saying a word, just pointing at what was sitting on each layer of the shelf…Immediately we raced across the room, screaming and hollering, jumping from one end of the room to the other with our brand new toy cars in our hands. The size, make, model, and even the color of our cars, today, are memories long gone, many, many years ago, but the one thing that has always remained in the deepest and most treasured of my childhood memories is the feeling in our hearts that morning.

We knew we didn’t have any money. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, or even so much as a single Christmas light anywhere inside or outside of our house, but somehow, some way, whatever little money they had, our parents had managed to make certain we didn’t wake up to just another day on Navidad. Even better, my two older sisters didn’t get anything at all and they were just as happy and excited for us as we were.”

-Juan Alanis (Blog / Twitter)
(Read this story in its entirety: Miracle in Edingburg, Texas)

Image source: kfergos

My first Christmas was in Michigan. I was recently married, so it was the first Christmas with my hubby, (so romantic). I loved the idea of a white Christmas, a freshly cut tree, a fireplace, different food to what I usually had etc. But then it hit me. I had no family to hug at 12 o’clock, no fireworks, no kids’ laughter, no cumbia music in the background. I felt very nostalgic. I felt so lonely and even though my husband had tons of love and presents to give me, there was an enormous emptiness in my heart. I talked to my family, every single one of them. They were all together at my house. They told me what the menu was going to be, all the fireworks they had bought, and how much they missed me.

-Claudia (Blog / Twitter)

Image source: emilyonasunday

Salvadoran Nacimientos vs. American Nativities

Our nativity scene

Nacimientos, or nativities, are something that both Carlos and I grew up with. In my case, the nativity was a simple wooden manger scene with plastic figures: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in a bed of straw, an angel, the three wisemen, a cow, a donkey, a couple sheep and their shepherd. My mother always placed the nativity beneath the Christmas tree and my sisters and I were allowed to play with it just like we played with our Barbies or any other toys where we’d act out elaborate storylines while laying on the carpet, completely lost in our own imaginations.

In Carlos’s case, the nacimiento of his childhood took up a large area of their house during the Christmas season. The clay figures included all the same characters we had, plus many more. Salvadoran nacimientos often look more like a bustling city than an intimate scene. No figure is considered inappropriate, from a woman at a pupusería, national soccer players, politicians, drunks, Chavo del 8, and short-skirted cheerleaders with batons known as “cachiporras” to the devil himself.

Carlos’s childhood nativity sounds like a dream come true! I can only imagine how many hours my sisters and I would have played with such a scene – except that Carlos tells me that playing with it was absolutely not allowed.

Now that we’re grown and married with our own household, we put up our own nativity scene. The first year we bought it and put it up, we had an argument about baby Jesus. Carlos couldn’t understand why I put baby Jesus into the manger and I couldn’t understand why he kept taking it out and hiding it. Carlos says that in El Salvador, you don’t put El Niño Jesús in the manger until he’s born. What I was doing – displaying the complete scene with the baby weeks before Christmas – made absolutely no sense to him – (Although cheerleaders attending the birth of Christ apparently makes sense, but I digress.)

For a few years, although I thought it was weird, I let him hide baby Jesus. I also insisted that by his logic, the three kings should be hidden until January, but he ignored me. At this point I must have gotten used to his way of doing things because when I set up the nativity, I handed Jesus over to him without a word and watched him stick him behind a picture frame on a shelf.

This year I’ve tried to make our Nativity a little more Salvadoran. I added a house plant as a palm tree and some rocks from la Libertad, but I definitely want to buy some characters in the years to come. I like the idea of expanding the nativity to look like a town in San Salvador… as long as Carlos let’s me play with it.

What kind of nativity do you have? Do you allow your children to play with the nativity? Why or why not?

Other links to check out:

Los tradicionales nacimientos de barro – Youtube video from

El Trompo

Una tía de El Salvador está visitando. Nos trajo trompos y fuimos al parque para que Carlos pueda enseñarnos (yo, y los cipotes), cómo hacerlo.

An aunt from El Salvador is visiting. She brought us toy tops and we went to the park so Carlos could show us (myself, and the kids), how to do it.

Participaste en Spanish Friday? Deja tu link en comentarios!
Did you participate in Spanish Friday? Leave your link in comments!


As much as I wanted to, lullabies in Spanish were not something I could give to my children. Lullabies are the quiet songs whispered in the middle of sleepless moonlit nights – songs that come from our hearts, somehow deeply remembered within us but never formally taught, songs our mothers sang to us as babies.

My mother would gently swipe the hair from my forehead and sing “You are my sunshine”, and this was always the song that came to my lips when my children needed comforting.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy, when skies are gray,
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,
Please don’t take, my sunshine away.

That is the song I was raised hearing, and so that is the song that I sung. And sometimes I would inexplicably sing “Blackbird”, among a couple other Beatles songs. My father is a big fan of The Beatles, so maybe he listened to them while my mother tried to put me to sleep. ¿Quién sabe?

Lullabies in Spanish on the other hand, were provided to my children at times by Suegra, but I always found the lyrics puzzling, funny, frightening.

Duérmete, mi niño — (Go to sleep, my child)
Cabeza de ayote, — (Pumpkin/squash head)
Si no te duermes, — (If you don’t sleep)
Te come el coyote. — (The coyote will eat you.)

It loses some of its charm in English, no?

And another one she often sang was:

Qué bonito es mi niño — (How beautiful is is my child)
Se parece a su papá — (He looks like his Papa)
Qué bonito es mi niño — (How beautiful is my child)
Se parece a su mamá — (He looks like his Mama)

(Except when she was mad at me, she’d change the song to repeat the second line at the end.)

I wish I had known lullabies in Spanish to sing to my children, but I’m hoping I will know some for my future grandchildren… I will sing them the silly ones I learned from Suegra, but I want to sing them beautiful lullabies as well. Here is one I recently found que me encanta.

Lindo, ¿sí?

Which lullabies were sung to you? Which lullabies are sung to your children?