SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2004        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Tracey Lopez

The Mother-in-Law and the Biracial Marriage

When I was 19 and home from college for Christmas break, I took a part time job. It was at this job that I met my future husband. We began dating and eventually I took him home to meet my parents. After having been told all my life that “we are all God’s children”, I was somewhat unprepared for my parents’, and I say parents, but really my Mom’s reaction, to me bringing home a Hispanic man. My Father, as he had always been, was caught up in his own world with his job and he really did not realize that I was even dating anyone.

I was raised on the belief that all people are alike; that everyone had the same value in society no matter what color their skin was. I did however, grow up in a middle class, European American home and neighborhood and the exposure to other cultures was minimal at best.

My Mother was not upset that I was dating a Hispanic man, but rather somewhat concerned.  I mistakenly thought that her concern was over his age. I was 19 and he was 25.  But my parents didn’t say too much, they were always very nice and polite to him. I even felt my Mom beginning to become comfortable with him. We spent all our free time together and within several months decided that we wanted to get married. Now I knew my parents would be upset that we were getting married after such a short courtship but we were prepared to take the “crap” that was surely coming our way.

What I had not counted on was their obvious and outward concern about the racial differences. I was totally unprepared for that. These were the parents that had always stressed that racism was wrong; that no one race was better than another.  However, they sat in the family room with us and expressed their concern over our racial, cultural and religious differences and asked us to really think about whether this was a good idea. Did we really think we were in love and meant to be together?  I could not believe that my parents were saying this to me?  My parents were showing signs of being prejudiced and I was hurt. I loved my boyfriend and I didn’t see any differences or problems that might occur.

The next upsetting situation came about when my soon to be husband went to tell his mother. I wanted to go with him, I had met her only once before and thought we should tell her together, just as we did with my parents. My husband however, would not let me go and when he came back he was not happy. His mother, a very enlightened woman, was very upset that he was marrying a “white” girl.

The fact that I still have such vivid memories of the night that I told my parents that I was going to marry Pete indicates to me that the incident itself was not just an important moment in my life, but a life changing moment. Two families, coming from two different cultural and social backgrounds were thrown together at one particular point in time and there were only two possible outcomes to the scenario.   The first outcome I personally thought and still think is unacceptable and that is where a line is drawn and neither family is willing to step over it to build a relationship with the other.  The second outcome is the one that I am so fortunate to be able to write about, the one in which each family takes that crucial step of acceptance towards the other.

The evening that I told my parents I was going to marry Pete was the same evening he went over to his Mom’s house to tell her he was going to marry me.  It was an early cold and windy winter evening. I was waiting for Pete to get back, very nervous that he had been gone so long. I was afraid his mother was trying to change his mind.  From the night that Pete told his mother Juanita that he was going to marry me, up until the wedding day, his mother and I had only interacted a few times. Part of this was due to the fact that Pete and I were married in a small, quiet wedding only two months from the time we told our parents we were getting married. Another reason is that Pete did not have a good relationship with his mother and had not had one since he was 18 and moved out of his mother’s house. In short, Pete and his mother have butted heads since he was a teenager. Much of this is because they are so much a like; independent, strong willed and very stubborn. I could only imagine what his mother thought about him marrying me.

I have 6 children all of whom I have been responsible for and raised pretty much on my own.  My husband died when my oldest child, my son Pete, was 13. Even when he was alive, my husband was not involved in the rearing of our children. When he was around he was drunk and verbally abusive to both me and the children.  It is no wonder that I feel so protective of my family and in particular, of Pete. I am an independent and I believe, a forward thinking woman, but I was taken aback when Pete told me he was going to marry a güera, a white girl.

 I come from a very large, traditional Mexican family. I am one of 16 children and my father was the head of the house, while my mom was the cook, the maid, the teacher and the disciplinarian. We interacted mainly with family, and while I worked outside the home and interacted with those “different from myself”, that was on the job. In my private life, I interacted only with other Hispanics and mainly with family. 

I had not ever thought about my children marrying anyone other than another Hispanic, and Pete had never brought any of his girl friends around, so it should not be a surprise to anyone that I was concerned and angry that he chose to marry someone other than a Hispanic.

In preparing for the wedding I wanted to include his mother and the rest of the family in the plans, hoping that this would help establish a relationship and possibly relieve some of the tension that I could feel every time I was around his mother.  However, I could sense Pete’s reluctance for us to spend too much time with his family; therefore we spent a lot of time with mine.  Through this two month period of wedding preparation, Pete and I spent numerous evenings with my parents  and even though we were not spending much time with his family, the time spent with my parents turned out to be invaluable.  My father and Pete spent a lot of time talking and through these conversations really got to know one another.  My mother took on the typical caregiver roll and made sure that Pete always had dinner when he came over to our house after work.  It was a few weeks before the wedding that both of my parents told me they really liked Pete and although concerned that we were getting married so quickly, felt that he was a very good person. We have now been married for 25 years and both of our parents adore each of us and each other.

My parents bonded with Pete before the wedding; however Juanita and I did not really bond until after we were married. The wedding went fine and of course everyone was amicable but I really didn’t have my mother-in-law’s full approval.  That came about 8 weeks later when she happened to stop by our new house. We had not been there long but I had already gotten us settled in and the little house was clean, comfortable and cozy.  I think the first good impression I made on Juanita that evening was the dinner I offered her to stay for.  We had a nice conversation over a good meal and Pete was on his best behavior and did not argue with his mother about anything.  The clincher for the evening though was when I told her I was pregnant. 

There is something very special about a baby and this would be the first grandchild for Juanita. She was ecstatic and I really think that it was at that point, when she realized she was going to be a grandmother and  that I in fact was capable of taking care of her son, evident by the clean home and good meal,  that she put aside her own prejudices and opened up her heart to me.

From that point on, I made sure I always called and kept her abreast of the pregnancy and life in general. I cooked dinner for her and never forgot a special day such as her birthday or mother’s day. I did everything I could to let her know that I loved her as I loved my own mother, including having get togethers with both families at the same time so that they had the opportunity to bond and get to know each other.  It was shortly after the birth of our child that the two families really started bonding. My parents and my husband’s mother had something in common, a grandchild. While having a baby certainly helped the situation I think that both of our parents came to accept our marriage when they came to realize, through observation, that we loved each other and that we were building a solid foundation together for our child. It was a foundation based on love and discipline. We grounded our son and subsequent children in a Christian faith and from the beginning, when they entered this world, they were our priority. 

Through the years the two families have become quite close and when possible, have shared in each others traditional celebrations.  There is no longer a cultural gap between the families.  A learning and appreciation of difference has taken place. My husband and I are very fortunate because even though our parents did not think of themselves as having prejudices, they obviously had some. But they have laid them aside and I think they can honestly say “we are all God’s children” and understand the need to celebrate each other’s differences.

It was not simply a lucky break that our families bonded and that we have taken it upon ourselves to learn about each other’s cultures and participate in each other’s lives.  It took work.  The families may not see it as work or even still a work in progress, but Pete and I realize we are the glue that bonded these two families,  that it was love and patience on our part to get the relationship started, and that it was the grandchildren who sealed the deal!  Each family now had something in common; a connection together, a part of each of them has been invested in our children.

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