I am part of the Latino Mental Health Program, and my first class in the program is Introduction to Latino Culture. Our first assignment is to create a group presentation on the term "latino." The challenge: we only have 60-seconds to present. How in the world do you define an entire group of rich and unique cultures in one minute? Here's the other difficult part: my group is the only one in the class that is entirely Caucasian. I thought to myself, "this is going to be impossible."
Of course, my super-liberal Wesleyan education sent up a ton of red flags. For the last four years I was challenged to break down the societal constructs of race and ethnicity, reconsider stereotypes, and examine accepted norms from opposite perspectives. When I told my fellow Wes-alum housemate about my assignment, she said, "you can't do that. Shouldn't that be up to latinos to define themselves?" She's right. I feel very uncomfortable presenting my definition of the word "latino" to a class of people that identify themselves as "latino" or "latina."
So what do we do? We have to complete the assignment, so we tried to approach it in the most culturally-sensitive way possible. Another student in my group felt as uncomfortable as I did, so she decided to ask a few friends that are from Latin American countries what being latino means to them. We decided to make a powerpoint of the flags of countries that are considered to be part of Latin America. And then I chose to include one of my favorite YouTube videos: Qué difícil es hablar el español. It's a song about how complex the Spanish language is because it changes so much between different cultures. I thought that really encapsulated just how complex and different each country is. We also decided to include the Merriam-Webster definition, as well as the one from the Real Academia Española. Lastly, I made flan. I know- it sounds super cliché and you are probably thinking, "why on earth would you do that if you are trying to avoid stereotypes?"
Well, for what I know of latino culture, food is very important. It is a way of coming together, sharing, and giving. Food is a vehicle through which culture is passed on within families and between friends. And food is especially important to the culture here at MSPP, where most meetings, labs, and clinical seminar classes happen with a meal or snacks. So I used my Mexican friend's grandmother's flan recipe, and decided to share it with the class. The process of making the flan was also interesting for me. As an experienced baker, I have had tried to replicate baked goods from many other regions. And every time I ask myself, "would this come out better if I was Galician, Italian, Spanish, etc.?" The answer: probably. I don't always know the stories behind the desserts from my travels that I attempt to recreate, and so I feel like I can't get the right emotional spice into them. So now I've been researching the history of these desserts before I try them out. Here's what Wikipedia says about flan.
And you know what, maybe knowing the history was just what I needed to get it just right. I would say I made some pretty awesome flan for a chica americana, and I think most of my classmates would agree with me. MSPP is training clinicians to be culturally competent, so that we can understand the histories of our clients, even if we don't share them.