Editor: As the year comes to an end, CTLatinoNews.com is glad to continue to present stories that provide a unique glimpse into the Latino experience. In this three-part series, a look at the blending through marriage of those with Latino roots with other cultures.
As American culture has become more Latino, it’s no stretch to say that Latinos in the U.S. are also becoming more integrated into the overall blended society.
Many defy stereotypes, looking beyond the familiar touchstones of their ancestral lands as they pick and choose everything from clothing, food and the TV shows they watch to the types of education and jobs they pursue, neighborhoods they live in, pastimes, political affiliations, lifestyles, friends and even life partners.
In addition, the willingness of a growing number of Hispanics who marry and raise families with persons of different ethnic or racial backgrounds brings with it unique experiences and families. (Pew Research: Among all newlyweds in 2010, 26% of Hispanics married spouses of different race or ethnicity)
Each of the three couples we are profiling in this “Latino mixed marriages” series is unique in the ways they do – or do not – celebrate and pass on the culture, food, language and traditions of each partner, resulting in a unique and, ideally, personally meaningful cultural blend.
Their stories explore the lives and experiences of Latino culturally mixed families.
The ‘Puerto Rican Vikings”
Nancy Roldán Johnson, who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bridgeport, and Craig Johnson, an American of Scandinavian ancestry native to Rochester, N.Y. , have been married for 17 years and have two sons, ages 12 and 15. A few years ago they added another layer to their already diverse family experience as a culturally-blended family by embedding themselves in yet another culture, in a country where the first language is neither English nor Spanish. Roldán Johnson, her husband, Craig and their two sons, live in Stockholm, Sweden.
“We have learned over the years what it is that we need to communicate with the other… First of all, both of us were open to different cultures. When you have that fundamental sense of security of one’s self, I think it’s fun,” though hard work, she said. Adding,”Like all marriages, it’s a constant work-in-progress; we had to learn how to converse. I’ve been accused of being passionate and emotional, where he’s more Scandinavian,” cool, logical and reserved.
“My parents came in the ’60s from Puerto Rico, and they met in New York,” she said. Ultimately, “they found themselves in Bridgeport with other family members.”
Johnson’s ancestry goes back to Sweden and he even has living relatives in Scandinavia, but growing up, he had come to love Latino culture. “His parents moved to Brazil for Kodak. He just loved the culture, the happiness, the celebrations. That attracted him,” Roldán Johnson said. “I think he’s got a Latino soul, definitely.”
His parents loved the culture, too. “His family accepted me immediately, and I loved them immediately,” she said.
Craig Johnson enjoys having lots of people around and enjoyed having his in-laws come along on outings when they still lived in Connecticut.
The family has always celebrated Christmas day in a more Latino style, with an emphasis on music and food and family, she said.
“It’s been a harmonious balance,” she said. “I think being open about differences is a big thing,” and it ultimately allows you to see that people from different cultures have more in common than they first realized.
Johnson learned to speak Spanish, but being in Sweden and so busy with work, he doesn’t use it a lot these days. Their sons speak a little Spanish, learning it in school and they’re eager to master it, Roldán Johnson said. “My children love the culture and they love the language, and they continue to practice it.”
Actually, Roldán Johnson didn’t speak a lot of Spanish when she was growing up. “When my father came from Puerto Rico, he joined the army; he really tried to integrate,” she said. As many Latinos did then, he spoke English at home, believing it would be to his children’s advantage if they did as well.
Living in Sweden
When Johnson, who is employed as vice president of global marketing for Absolut Vodka, had the opportunity to work in Stockholm the family welcomed the prospect. Roldan said, “One of the reasons we moved here was for our sons to get exposure to the other side of their culture and roots.”
They call themselves “a Puerto Rican Viking family,” with all the bravado the term implies. In preparing for the move, both parents talked with their sons about celebrating the opportunity, looking at it as an adventure, “and being brave and open with (new) experiences. It’s something we talked about a lot,” and it helped make them more brave once they were in the middle of this unfamiliar culture.
The family learned quickly that the culture in Stockholm is far from homogenous. Twenty percent of Sweden’s population is persons of non-Swedish origin. During the huge refugee crisis of recent months, Sweden has been a place where the refugees have been welcomed.
Their sons, who are 15 and 12, attend a school where the curriculum is entirely in English. “They’re getting a really wonderful education here,” Roldán Johnson said.
Sixty-six nationalities are represented in the student body. “Change and differences are the norm, so they don’t experience things the way I do,” she said.
“The kids do really well; they’re into sports,” she said.
As far as cultural differences, “I think one of the big things with respect to my children is the level of nudity. I think Swedish people, Europeans are more comfortable with nudity,” as well as some of the uncensored music and programs on TV, she said.
Her sons play basketball, and before the games they play music over the PA to help get the players revved up for the game. “The words that the rappers are saying are uncensored, there’s no bleeping,” she said. “It just doesn’t ring the same as it does for us because English is their second language.”
She added, “We have really interesting conversations about being in an environment that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves of our values. It has definitely made us closer as a family in a deeper and more open way.”
It’s good for her sons to see that there is more than one way of doing things. “I think it’s great for them to be exposed to these things,” and for them to be thinking about them critically at such young ages is extraordinary, she said.
The Roldán Johnsons are also sure to ensure their sons know their Latino heritage as well. They have spent the last seven summer vacations in Puerto Rico, staying with Nancy’s grandparents, so the boys became familiar with the island’s foods, traditions and celebrations.
At home in Sweden, Roldan said there are a few challenges as there are anywhere. Being so far north, “we definitely have to take precautions, not because of the weather but because of the darkness.”
Even in late-October the days were short, with the sun rising at about 9 a.m. and setting at about 2:30 p.m. Exercise is important, and the family does light therapy every morning to get the Vitamin D essential for maintaining their physical and emotional health.
Last year, Roldán Johnson experienced seasonal affective disorder (SAD),a type of depression related to changes in seasons. “It really is a challenging experience to go through every year,” she said. “Fortunately, the kids aren’t phased by it. As a Latina, I have to tell you I feel very much the Caribbean influence. I think the darkness has affected me the most. I think I just found I need the sun.”
Part of the treatment is to go somewhere with a lot of light, so the family recently vacationed in Portugal, she said.
Fortunately, she knew another Puerto Rican woman about her age in Stockholm who understood what she was going through.
“We bring things back from Puerto Rico for one another,” such as ingredients for sofrito — achiote, cilantro and green peppers, she said. The availability of Goya or similar products is rather limited in Sweden, and if she wants to eat her beloved arroz con gandules, she has to contact friends back home to send them to her.
Not long ago, some friends sent a care package filled with some of her favorites. “Receiving that is like receiving a piece of your past. It’s really thoughtful,” she said.
Born in 1970, Roldán Johnson grew up at a time when Latinos were not embraced and acknowledged the way they are now. “At work, I was always asked, ‘what are you?’ I would say I’m Puerto Rican. They say no,” meaning they wanted to know whether she was black or white.
“I used it as an opportunity to educate people about what (being Puerto Rican) is,” she said.
When she was younger and set her sights on getting a college education and a professional career, even some members of her own family “didn’t know what I was trying to achieve,” sensing a kind of disloyalty in her aspirations.
In recent years she came to see that many young first and second-generation Latinas “often feel invisible from American culture, from Latino culture.” She wondered, “how do you seek your authentic self, the person you aspire to be,” to move forward and find a way to say to loved ones, “I love you, but I need to see what’s out there. I’m not leaving, but I need you to be there for me.”
When she became the first member of her family to attend, and later graduate from, college, “I didn’t have that language and for a time it cost me relationships with extended family,” Roldán-Johnson said.
As time went on, it became apparent that the growing population of first- and second-generation Latinas was facing many of the same challenges that she had. “I was always asked how I managed to steer away from things that would have derailed me from my goals,” she said.
A friend, Dr. Carmen Marcano-Davis, a clinical psychologist then working at Gateway Community College in New Haven, found herself treating a large number of second-generation Latinas, a group with high rates of teen-pregnancy and suicide.
In 2009, Roldán-Johnson and Marcano-Davis founded The Latina A.R.M.Y., Inc. (thelatinaarmy.org), a volunteer-based nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Latina girls ages 12-18.
“We had positive Latina role models who facilitated programs and served as positive role models
TLA workshops and role models who serve as facilitators are designed to provide girls life skills to help them reach their life goals.
“We’re very, very proud of the work we do,” Roldán-Johnson said.
Once or twice a year she travels back to Connecticut to catch up with the latest developments at the New Haven-based organization. Modern technology is helpful, but, “it’s important to be there and with the people driving the program,” she said.
As for the future, Roldan said their already blended family has been fortunate to have been exposed to so many new experiences, values and cultures, from Connecticut to Sweden and beyond. They look forward to many more.
Next: Shared Values – Juan and Hélène Figueroa