The Making of Messy Madrecita | Part 2: Confessions from a White Mom of a Niña Mexicana
I’ve often been asked “why do you call yourself ‘Messy Madrecita’?” The answer is simple: My husband is from Mexico. Through creating family together, I’ve become so close to his culture that it has shifted my identity. The name “Messy Madrecita” was his suggestion.
But I have worried whether using this name is cultural appropriation.
Until recently, my white privilege manifested in an unexamined relationship to cultural appropriation.
I’ve been a student of various cultures and have even “taken on” aspects of various lineages to which I have no blood-relation. I practice a Westernized meditation practice stemming from Tibetan buddhism. Stroll through my home and you’ll find Shipibo tapestries and Turkish ceramics. If I’m completely transparent, I acquired all of this (modes of thought, customs, physical objects, etc.) all in service to the expansion of my own human experience with a half-baked understanding of what it means to take from another culture.
I witnessed many white people operating as self-ordained “cultural appropriation police”... Upsettingly, those standards were often determined by white people, at best with curated input from members of BIPOC communities.
When cultural appropriation became a more mainstream topic, I initially didn’t lean into it – not because I didn’t care, but because the ways I observed white people engage with cultural appropriation was violently alienating. I witnessed many white people operating as self-ordained “cultural appropriation police”, shaming other whites for not upholding a standard of cultural appropriateness. Upsettingly, those standards were often determined by white people, at best with curated input from members of BIPOC communities. To me, that power claiming and shaming behavior reeked of colonialism; both involve conquest and stepping into positions of authority without invitation. Repulsed but not knowing a better strategy, I moved forward numbly, continuing to taste from the global culture buffet, anxious that I would either offend certain peoples or get slapped on the wrist by the self-ordained cultural appropriation police – anxious enough to privately second guess myself, but not anxious enough to change my behavior much. And I certainly didn’t dare whisper the words “cultural appropriation”, for fear of getting it wrong and inviting criticism.
The collective flailing of light skinned people is brutal, and yet, makes a lot of sense. The pressure to get it right is real, and for good reason: there has been immeasurable, unquantifiable harm inflicted on BIPOC peoples by white colonizers over millennia, in overt and subtle ways, right up to contemporary times. White people carry the weight of epigenetic guilt, and yet by virtue of participating in modern industrial society, we continue to feed an insidious system of exploitation whether we are consciously opting into it or not. Try as we may – through therapy, community activism, spiritual journeys – we can NEVER fully understand the BIPOC experience. It’s no wonder white people are losing their minds, stuck in a toxic karmic cycle of shame, unfulfillable expectation of reparation, and disconnection. As white people, we can’t change what has been done, or the system that we were born into. We can only change how we move forward, and most of us are still figuring out how.
It’s no wonder white people are losing their minds, stuck in a toxic karmic cycle of shame, unfulfillable expectation of reparation, and disconnection... We can only change how we move forward, and most of us are still figuring out how.
Everything changed when I married my Mexican Husband
So that’s a pretty honest and exposing share of the backdrop against which I'm operating. However, my previous strategy to not explicitly engage with the topic of cultural appropriation no longer fits my role in my family unit – wife to a Mexican man, birth mother to a Latinx daughter, and stepmom to a Latinx son. In case it’s not obvious, here’s why: As the matriarch, I have the honor and responsibility to be my family’s culture carrier. For us, this includes my birth cultures, as well as la cultura Mexicana represented in my childrens’ ancestries. Upholding the Mexican part of our family culture could inspire me to wear huichol jewelry; build altars for The Day of the Dead; answer to “mamá” if my daughter chooses to address me in a Spanish accent – all choices that feel beautifully aligned to me and my family, but might set off some people’s cultural appropriation alarm bells. And yet, not owning my identity as the madre of a niña Mexicana – which implicitly means taking on aspects of Mexican culture myself – would be a huge disservice to my daughter's rightful connection to her heritage.
Essentially, I am now, more visibly, a potential perpetrator of cultural appropriation. As such, I have a heightened responsibility to have a fully formed, embodied perspective on what cultural appropriation means to me. And, the cost of NOT doing so has real consequences for me and my family. Nothing like shit getting personal to wake me up.
...not owning my identity as the madre of a niña Mexicana – which implicitly means taking on aspects of Mexican culture myself – would be a huge disservice to my daughter... I am now, more visibly, a potential perpetrator of cultural appropriation
Cultural Appropriation invites us to consider, "why engage intimately with other cultures?"
So, to understand how to navigate cultural appropriation, I began exploring why I have immersed in other cultures throughout my life. The answer is simple and obvious, yet profound: doing so has immeasurably enriched my human experience, expanded my capacity for empathy, and invited me to experience immeasurable awe and gratitude. Implicit in my choice to live this way is a belief that one does not have to identify as a member of a cultural group, let alone be of blood-relation to it, in order to celebrate and honor that culture with integrity.
As examples, I use terms "yin" and "yang", not to claim them as my own, but in reverence of the wisdom, universality and perspective-changing potency that this framework holds. While traveling in India, I wore a kirtan not to claim to be more Indian, but out of respect for that culture’s views of the female body and sexuality.
And, the fact of the matter is, by virtue of our sheer existence as human citizens of this planet, we are GOING to engage intimately with cultures other than our own. Look at the English language – if we eradicated all influences from Germanic and French language, we wouldn’t have much of a language at all. Look at art, and the way Japanese printmaking and African Masks profoundly influenced the impressionist and cubist art movements. Look at Georgian cuisine (the country, not the state), equally shaped by Mediterranean and Asian culinary traditions. In a nutshell, taking on parts of culture is inextricable from the human experience.
For all these reasons, I’ve come to believe the most conservative interpretation of "cultural appropriation" (i.e., to not carry aspects of another culture other than your blood-line) is a false construct, and is actually a very dangerous aspiration. Sure, by operating within the narrowest confines of our own cultural roots, we may succeed at not offending certain individuals – the primary and an essential goal. At the same time, I cannot imagine a bigger offense to humanity than not honoring and celebrating the beautiful diversity on this planet, or a bigger disservice to other people by not expanding our capacity for understanding their experience. We cultivate this ability by stepping outside of our own reality. Relating this to Messy Madrecita, the nuances around cultural appropriation could not be more true for mixed heritage families, adopted children, and a variety of other “non-traditional” and beautiful ways that we create family.
I cannot imagine a bigger offense to humanity than not honoring and celebrating the beautiful diversity on this planet, or a bigger disservice to other peoples by not expanding our capacity for understanding their experience. We cultivate this ability by stepping outside of our own reality.
There’s no question, avoiding this subject entirely (aka, choosing a different name) is the easier and “safer” choice – but that choice no longer felt right for me after I gave birth to my niña Mexicana. And, that fact alone does NOT mean I have the “right answers.”
My evolving approach to navigating Cultural Appropriation - in my home, and beyond
Here’s what I do have: I have a humble commitment to participate in the cultural appropriation dialogue. To share my process with others. To be a student. To remind us that you don’t have to be an expert in order to contribute in cultural appropriation conversations, and you certainly don’t have to have a certain skin color, gender, or level of privilege. I will joyfully share my ever-evolving approach, and I will joyfully invite contribution.
I make these commitments because I believe the risk of NOT engaging richly in other cultures is far greater than the risk in doing so. Only by embracing and intimately engaging with cultures other than our own can we navigate cultural appropriation, together, in a constructive way that supports mutual evolution.
Bringing this back to Messy Madrecita: I'm at peace – in mind, heart, and spirit – with use of the word "Madrecita", both privately and publicly. Here are some questions I’ve asked myself and others:
Intention: Is my intention is to claim status, absolve guilt, or gain something that’s not rightfully mine?
Permission: Have I received permission – ideally explicitly from a representative of that culture, or implicitly?
Respect: Have I cultivated genuine reverence, understanding, and gratitude?
Apprenticeship: Am I asking questions about this culture and my relationship to it? Am I engaging as a student?
Fairness: Am I gaining more than I’m giving by taking on part of this culture?
This doesn’t mean the rest of the world will be at peace – and so, I’m also scared. I’m bracing for the moment that I unintentionally offend a Latina woman for occupying a space that’s rightfully hers, not mine, and have to face the gut-wrenching reality that the purity of my intentions has zero bearing on how I will be, or should be, evaluated. I’m bracing for battle with the cancel culture, a movement that isn’t known for extending the benefit of the doubt, or engaging in subtlety. If my choice to use “Madrecita” elicits criticism or offense, I fervently hope that dissonance is met with mutual curiosity and connection. The opportunity for individual learning and societal progress is in exploring the tension and nuance surrounding cultural appropriation – not in running away from it.
And so, rather than ask “What is Cultural Appropriation” (i.e., what NOT to do), I’d like to ask us all: How do we appropriately engage with cultures that are not our own?
Will you join me in introspection, in conversation, in the shared learning that we’ll experience together?
There it is. My messy, vulnerable truth. Now I brace for the onslaught of critics and pray for a wave of collective healing. Deepest gratitude to all of you for being here and bearing witness to this unfolding.
Interested in more topics related to conscious intention? Read my other posts -
1. Introducing Messy Madrecita: Why I Created My Own Happy Place
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This experience has me set on a new theory about how interpersonal growth and evolution happen. New fractals of the self emerge and step ont