I lived with my Puerto Rican mother in New York’s Lower East Side until I was 16 and went into care. My mother spoke English and Spanish to me, and my grandmother, who lived nearby, spoke mainly Spanish. My mother cooked yellow rice mixed with pigeon peas, white rice, beans, seasoned beef, pork, baked chicken, pastelles and tostones (fried plantains).
My mother also took me to Spanish concerts. I didn’t understand every word, but the language, the food, and the music stayed in my heart and memory. Puerto Rican culture trickled down from my grandmother, to my mother, to me, the youngest of four girls.
My mother was strict. In my younger years, I got hard slaps and beatings with the chancleta (a slipper), a belt, or a hanger. I got fewer whuppings after I turned 13, but as I entered my teens, my mother wouldn’t listen or support my growth. I had no say in what I wore or what religion I followed.
Into my teens, my mother made me go to one of two Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses – one Spanish-language, one English. The Spanish gathering was uncomfortable because I was afraid to mess up while talking in Spanish. I felt out of place because I was older than the others, yet I was behind the younger kids in Bible studies.
We started attending the English Kingdom Hall after that so that I’d be able to absorb the information better. I did, but I had become more interested in writing, reading, school, and music. Jehovah’s Witnesses was my mother’s thing.
I could never interest her in my hobbies and interests. If I brought up my poetry, or even my education and career ideas, she’d listen for a little while, then cut me off. She’d say, “You can work here in the housing project. I see teens applying all the time,” or “You can do the work of God. You’d be fine without college or extra schooling.” It felt like her crushing my attempts to grow.
I did and still do believe that Jehovah God and his son exist, but between the ages of 12 and 17, attending the Kingdom Hall felt less and less relevant. I mostly went with my ma to make her happy.
Besides the Kingdom Hall, I didn’t spend much time with people outside my family because my mother was overprotective. So even though we lived in the projects, with Mexican, Dominican, African-American, and Chinese neighbors, I only really knew my family’s ways close up.
Oxtail Stew and Creole
It wasn’t until I entered foster care at age 16 that I experienced other cultures. I only stayed in my first foster home for a week, but my second foster mom, Sandra, was Haitian, and my foster dad, Henry, was Guyanese. Sandra made oxtail stew and other Haitian dishes with spices that were too hot for me. She was kind enough not to make it really spicy, plus she kept non-Haitian food around for my foster sister and me. After my mom ignoring my wants, I appreciated this consideration.
I’d listen to Sandra talk on the phone in Haitian Creole, which is similar to French. I had taken a little French in school, so I could understand a bit of Creole. I liked the way Creole words sound like they overlap, and I liked learning more about a new language and culture.
To be fair, sometimes the new language and food and everything else made me awkward or uneasy. I wasn’t happy that I was in care and I felt some guilt and regret for putting myself in that position. (I had said things in a hospital about my unhappiness at home that led to Child Protective Services removing me.) I was glad that I didn’t have to deal with my mother shutting me down. But at the same time, I missed my old neighborhood and my dog, Gigi.
Sandra took an interest in me and what I cared about. She read my poems and supported my writing at Represent. She gave me positive feedback. When I’d been living with her a few months, I was featured in Scholastic’s Choices magazine through my writing in Represent. She let the photographer into her house to take pictures for the story. She also took interest in what careers I had in mind for my future or ideas that I had for jobs. Our relationship felt more open and loving than the one with my mother.
It only felt right that I check out Sandra’s church. I felt a little guilty, but I went in part to see how it compared to my childhood religion.
In Sandra’s Christian church they passed around a basket for donations, which they don’t do in Kingdom Hall. People wore whatever they wanted, while regulars at Kingdom Hall were encouraged to dress modestly: dresses and skirts below the knees, and high necklines.
There is singing in Kingdom Hall, but at Sandra’s church, a choir in shiny robes up front led the singing. The lyrics of their hymns mixed up God and Jesus and used the word Lord for both: I wanted to ask for their historical evidence that they were the same.
Sandra’s church made it seem that if you did anything bad you’d go to hell, which wasn’t something I could believe in. I told her a little about Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. In our small conversation, I found out she had spoken to Witnesses before. She agreed that they’re good people. We quietly agreed to disagree on Christian beliefs, and I felt grateful to be able to have an exchange like that with her.
My third foster mom, Ms. Ali, was Muslim and had West Indian roots. When I moved there, all I knew about Islam was that women’s head scarves showed respect for their god. I thought that Muslims didn’t eat meat.
Being in that home aroused my curiosity, and I decided to share things about my life to get us talking.
Acceptance and Admiration
My first week there, I said to Ms. Ali, “We don’t know each other yet, and I want to tell you a little about me and maybe even you tell me a little about you.” My leg shook nervously underneath the table. She let me talk. I wondered if a new kid trying to converse this way was new for her.
“My name is Angie. Well, technically it’s Angela, but I started going by Angie because it felt like my life changed when I entered care at 16.” She listened to me attentively. “I felt as if I was no longer Angela when I ended up in a diagnostic center in Staten Island. I felt a change. I knew that my circumstances and environments were going to push me into growing mentally and emotionally.”
“OK, I’ll call you Angie, thank you for telling me. I just want you to feel comfortable. Angie, what foods do you like?”
“Umm, honestly, I don’t have a problem with foods unless they’re spicy.”
“Uh-oh.” She smiled.
“I make a lot of spicy food,” she continued. Then she added, “But I can make yours with less spice if you like.”
I asked her why she was a foster parent. She told me she wanted to help youth who needed a place to stay, and she had the extra space in her house. She didn’t mind helping out with school, medication management, and making sure her foster kids got to their appointments.
After I’d lived there a while, I asked Ms. Ali about her calendar, which had marks on different days indicating sunrise, sunset, moon phases, and fasting times. I asked about her dietary restrictions and her fasting.
She told me, “Ramadan is a month where we stay away from things such as smoking, sexual activities, and fighting or lying. We fast from before sunrise until sunset, 17 or 18 hours out of the day.” When I saw the way my foster mom gave food and clothing to the community while hardly being able to eat throughout that month, I grew to admire her.
Sometimes foster youth complain about being put in a home with a new culture. For me, it was a positive experience. It expanded the foods I liked and taught me about religion. I learned about the world and gained understanding, open-mindedness, and tolerance. In Ms. Ali’s home, for example, I got a clearer picture of Ramadan and was impressed with Ms. Ali’s selflessness that month. She worked at JFK Airport in a demanding job with people from around the world, but she still came home and was an attentive mother to her biological sons and her foster children.
Both of my foster mothers supported me in my interests; Sandra got me into Represent. Both of them were considerate: They’d leave me food to eat, ask me how my day was, and listen to me ramble without getting irritated. They encouraged me to pursue what made me happy.
If a foster parent welcomes a new child from a different culture with love, understanding, and open communication, the child and foster parent can connect across cultural divides. And the child will learn about the world. Living in these foster homes, I discovered a love of diversity, and I hope to travel in the future to learn more about other cultures.
The fact that I had to ask about things I didn’t understand in a new home actually helped me connect with Sandra and Ms. Ali. I showed them the curiosity my mom wasn’t showing toward my life. Asking questions and sharing my experiences helped me open up my heart again after my mom shut me down as a teen.
Different food, music, and religious beliefs don’t divide us as long as people listen to each other and are open to each other’s history and culture. If foster homes are open and flexible, foster parents and youth can build a bond by sharing their cultures. Learning about where Sandra and Ms. Ali came from and knowing that they were genuinely interested in my background helped me learn that I matter and that I can connect with and trust new people.