I am multi-racial, and I have always struggled to understand the meaning of culture in my life. My mother is Mexican-American and Caucasian, and my father is African-American, but neither of my parents is deeply rooted in his or her ethnic traditions. I go to school with predominantly Caucasian students, but there are a small number of Black and Mexican students as well. My friends have had diverse ways of embracing their cultures. Some celebrate specific holidays; others express culture through food, and some embrace culture by admiring historical figures. It seems that race and ethnicity have played a significant role in identifying who they are. I, on the other hand have not identified with any single race or ethnicity. When I entered high school I felt increasing pressure to choose a single race to identify with, in order to fit in. My black friends pressured me to join the African American Student Union because after all, to them I looked Black and therefore I was Black. However, they failed to understand that, to me, race and ethnicity meant much more than the color of my skin or admiring historical figures.
In the summer of 2008 I traveled with a group of students and teachers to South Africa as part of an Ethics, Culture, and Justice course. I applied for this trip with hopes that it would allow me to gain insight into my race and ethnicity. I would have the opportunity to witness firsthand the customs and traditions of a portion of my culture. We spent one week in Johannesburg, where we stayed at the Zakheni Training Center and one week in Cape Town, where we stayed at a convent used by the community. I had the chance to share perspectives with students at Hector Peterson High School and brought joy and laughter to the boys and girls at Amakhaya, an orphanage for children living in South Africa. The highlights of my trip included a visit to Robben Island Prison, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, and time in Soweto. I visited numerous sites that commemorate the struggle for freedom, including the Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and the District Six Museum in Cape Town. One of the most memorable sites was Table Top Mountain, the most southern point of Africa. The scenery was absolutely beautiful. On this excursion group prayer and reflection was a daily part of my experience.
When I went to South Africa and witnessed firsthand, not only the customs and traditions of my ancestors, but the plight and suffering of human beings, I did not feel more African; I felt more human. I witnessed the human struggle for freedom and justice and had a greater understanding of how citizens of the apartheid era participated in the process of healing and forgiveness. This trip reinforced my values as a human being and searching for a deeper level of understanding about my ethnicity did not seem to matter in that moment. Instead I embraced the opportunity to help those less fortunate, not because I identified with them as Black, but because I was compelled as an individual to reach out and help fellow human beings. Instead of choosing sides, I embraced my entire being and have made the conscious decision not to let race divide who I am. My trip to South Africa helped me to realize that humans cannot be compartmentalized into neatly organized categories. I now know that although understanding my ethnic and cultural background has enriched my life, it is more gratifying to help people of all ethnic backgrounds.
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