In my late teens, I began to spend more and more time away from my hometown – flipping burgers at McDonald’s on the I-95 highway, attending community college, then working my first corporate job as an office clerk. I noticed there was a big-time gap between my life experiences and education as a second-generation, inner-city Latina and those of my co-workers.
As the new girl in the office, I’d been invited to join a group of women for lunch. After introductions, the conversation naturally moved to current events. Names I’d never head of – captured journalist Terry Anderson, Cormac McCarthy, Follet’s Pillars of the Earth – filled my head with doubt. I folded like origami to fit neatly into the tiny box I believed contained people like me, those who felt stuck in between two worlds: the one they knew and the one they were too intimidated to enter.
I nodded and listened, wondering how I knew so little. I’d been sucker-punched. At first, this realization upset me:
How dare my schools not prepare me enough; students from more prosperous school districts were trusted to take books home with them – to read the classics and spend time with passages and characters, bringing the words and images to life – while we inner-city kids were lucky if we had twenty minutes to read aloud before stacking them into a tower on our way out of class.
Do my co-workers assume I don’t understand things because I’m Hispanic? How will I ever catch up?
I’m not smart enough.
I don’t belong here.
Then, I feared being found out.
I tired from trying to erase myself invisible. Worked myself sick figuring things out on my own rather than ask for clarification, because I believed asking questions was a sign of ignorance – too slow to get it right the first time.
Shame followed me like a thunder cloud. When I did engage others, I found myself slipping into a dangerous habit. Lying became my umbrella. It felt easy at first. I could walk the red carpet with everyone else: Por supuesto, I’ve been to the new restaurant downtown; Claro, I’ve heard of that bestselling book; Pues sí, we also set the dinner table during Thanksgiving and ate as a family.
The fact was that my family never ate out besides the rare trip to McDonald’s for breakfast sandwiches or Duchess Restaurant for onion rings and vanilla shakes.
I grew up eating at Abuelita’s house where there was always a pot of rice or chicken stewing on the stove. At grandma’s we ate sitting on the floor, if the sofa was full, or on the bed while we either watched telenovelas on full blast or listened to the latest hip hop cassette on the boom box that was glued to my cousin’s shoulder. We didn’t read novels. We lived them hanging out on Caroline Street and Hough Avenue in Bridgeport, and summers spent owning the pueblo in Manati, Puerto Rico.
But the dishonesty only made me feel more anxious about my place in the world. I felt like a fraud.
“The first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t.” – Paulo Coelho
One day, a friend at the office said she dined at the restaurant I had recommended. She enjoyed it so much she wanted to hear details of my experience. I generalized, nodded, and smiled nervously in agreement, but as she dug into the details, my reddened face told her I’d never been. She was gracious and moved on to another topic. I stopped listening and prayed that quicksand would swallow me whole.
I made the decision to stop. Both the not asking and the knee-jerk lying. No longer would I pretend to know what I didn’t. And no longer would I agree to have the same experiences when I hadn’t.
Instead, I would find a way to flip my reaction of embarrassment into excitement and an opportunity to learn more.
I created a three-step approach to keep me from falling into my old habit.
Step 1 – Prepare to reply without a fight
I knew I needed help, a sort of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency response, to volley the questions I felt defensive and small answering, so I memorized the following phrases:
“I have not experienced (or visited or heard of, etc.) that. Tell me more.”
“I want to be sure I understand. Will you please repeat the instructions?”
Step 2 – Listen up, nena!
I would also need another trick in my back pocket to keep my shame umbrella tucked away because I knew I’d most likely reply with a “Yeah, I get it” (when I didn’t) or “Yes, I’ve been there, done that” (when I hadn’t).
So I decided that listening would become my superpower. I let go of the need to respond for the sake of looking smart and decided instead to listen and absorb the lessons.
Step 3 – Reflect back
As a sign of respeto, I would paraphrase what was shared with me. For example, if instructions were repeated to me, I would reflect it back: “What I heard you say was this… is that right?“ If a friend shared a new experience with me, I’d tap back with, “It sounds like you really enjoyed tal y tal (at that restaurant, about the book, Thanksgiving dinner).”
I tested my approach for each situation. Here are the three things I learned:
- I felt free from shame and open to absorb new things when I stopped sabotaging myself
- Most people expressed empathy and were happy to share their knowledge and experience
- Everyone felt understood when I validated what was said
People appreciated my eager interest in their experiences, and they became interested in mine.
I described my neighborhood and our traditions like pig roasts in the summer that began at 4am, and parrandas, traveling sing alongs during Christmastime when carolers and musicians showed up at your home unannounced any time of day or night to sing carols and eat and drink.
Once I brought my own lunch to work: chicken noodle soup using sofrito – a Puerto Rican cooking base made with cilantro, garlic, onions and green peppers. Everyone at the table commented on its delicious aroma and asked for the recipe. One woman, who became a lifelong friend, even tasted it. A few days later one of the women slipped me a wink and a post-it with a recipe for her Sicilian family’s sausage soup.
The more we got to know one another, the more we understood that our cultures share similar dynamics and customs. From this respectful exchange of personal experiences, we became closer and more trusting of each other, our perceptions broadened.
I began to understand that my dual worlds – my beautiful Puerto Rican culture where traditions and values ground me and my American culture where my aspirations are possible – could coexist if I propped the door wide open.
Still today, I find planned emergency responses helpful in dealing with difficult situations. For example, people asking me for money or to cosign on a loan: “As a personal rule, I don’t lend money, but I’m happy to help you find resources you can use now and in the future,” or a disagreement with someone: “I want to hear your thoughts. Can you help me understand?” Think for a minute what the conversation might be in these situations if instead I replied, ”Oh, hell no,“ or ”It’s you who doesn’t understand!”
Here are some situations when a practiced response can help:
- A troubled friendship: I value our friendship and I miss spending time with you. Can we get together soon?
- Pressure to have sex: I don’t have sex until I feel it’s the right time for me. If you care about me, you’ll respect that.
- If you’re asked to do something you’re not comfortable doing: I don’t do things I’m not 100% sure about. It’s a rule I won’t break. If you care about me, you’ll understand.
How about you?
When did you last lie or present a false front? What would be gained by being real?
Is there a situation you’re currently dealing with where a planned response can help?
Let me know if you try this and how it worked!
Here are recipes for sofrito and sopa de fideo. Buen provecho!
Sofrito is the base for many Puerto Rican dishes. It’s similar to the mirepoix of French cooking, or the “trinity” of Creole cooking. This is my version using items you can easily find in your local grocery store.
Yield: About 1 1/3 cup
1 large bunch cilantro
1 green bell pepper or 3 cubanelle peppers (also known as Italian peppers), chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 large Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
6 large cloves of garlic, crushed
(and, if you can find them, ¼ pound small sweet chili peppers called aji dulce, sliced in half with inner seeds removed)
1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree, adding a little water or olive oil until it has a thick but smooth consistency.
Storage tip: Freeze sofrito in ice cube trays. When frozen, pop them out and seal in a freezer bag and your sofrito is always ready to use.
Usage: There are so many simple dishes you can make using sofrito. I like to pop one or two cubes into my soup stock for a quick burst of flavor and into my pasta meat sauce for a Puerto Rican twist on the Italian classic. Have fun exploring ways to use this simple base in your cooking.