I feel that foster kids should be kept in foster families of their same ethnic background. I am a Latina, and keeping my culture and raising my son to know his own heritage are very important to me. I mean, when we come into foster care we lose our families, our friends, and other things that bond us to our homes. Why should we also lose our cultural identities?
I’ve lived in two Black foster homes. I stayed in the first one for six months and the other one I moved into over a year ago and am still living there. I didn’t and don’t have a problem with the foster homes being Black, but I felt there was no place for me in those families. Our cultures may share some things, such as having to deal with being a “minority” and with stereotypes, but there are also vast differences. It’s hard to be yourself when no one listens to your music, eats the food you like, or is interested in your culture.
Feeling Out of Place
I was born in Alaska to Dominican parents and I mostly grew up in Latino neighborhoods in New York and Rhode Island. Though I am Dominican and many of my neighbors were Puerto Rican, we all ate red rice and beans and spoke fast-paced Spanish. There was always a sense of intimacy–no one ever looked at me strangely when I spoke Spanish and English in the same sentence. We shared religious customs, such as blessing ourselves at noontime or whenever we passed a cemetery or church. We celebrated festivities like girls’ “quinceaÃ±eras” (Sweet 15 instead of 16). I didn’t have a quinceaÃ±era because I was in foster care when I turned 15.
In my old neighborhoods–Washington Heights, the South Bronx, etc.–they’d sell shark cartilage (to promote general health and control blood pressure) and pastelillos (Spanish beef patties) on the street. Where I live now (Jamaica, Queens), the merchants sell musk oil and incense.
I like to eat mondongo (beef tripe) and arroz con pollo (rice and chicken). l’m lucky if I can find plantains or salchichon (a type of salami) in the neighborhood where I live now. In my foster home I don’t smell the aromas of the foods I love unless I cook them. The social worker told my foster mother to buy things that I like to eat, since I told her that black-eyed peas weren’t at the top of my list. But since my foster mother doesn’t know how to shop for Spanish food, she bought me TV dinners instead. I don’t like to cook in my foster home because my foster mother doesn’t like the smell of my food. Whenever I cook, she rushes into the kitchen after l’m finished and turns on the fan. That’s what I feel like doing when she’s done cooking.
Separate Meals, Separate Music
On Sundays my foster mother cooks a big dinner. It usually consists of collard greens, turkey necks, sweet potato pie, and pig’s feet. That’s the day I eat the least. The smell just doesn’t appeal to me, but to the other people who live there it’s like aromatic therapy. I usually find somewhere else to go on Sundays. I never sit down to eat with them, not even for dinners during the week. They don’t invite me to eat with them anyway, since they know I don’t like their food.
There are other ways I don’t fit in with my foster family. For example, one of my favorite radio stations, Mega 97.9, plays Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Freestyle and other music popular among Hispanic people. Now if I want to listen to that kind of music, I have to go to my friend’s house or listen to it on my Walkman because l’m afraid that someone might make fun of my music.
Pride in My Culture
I am very proud of being Hispanic. Even though I’ve never visited Latin America, I feel a lot of pride about my culture and in the same way that Black people like to stress their African pride, I like to express my Latin pride. I can’t do that where I live because I know that even if my foster mother doesn’t say so, it annoys her when I speak Spanish in her house. One time I was talking to someone on the phone in Spanish and she said “Maria, cut all that noise out!” I felt insulted because I don’t think of my language as being “noise.” I like to read El Diario (a Spanish newspaper) and Latina magazine (a new bilingual magazine about Latinas), but since being different bothers me so much, I keep my Spanish literature in my room.
When I first came into the system at the age of 14, I was placed in a Black family where I was expected to “fit in” and make it work out. The social workers kept trying to make it work, as if getting the foster mother to buy me a few pork chops was supposed to make it all better. I don’t even eat pork. I asked to be placed in a Latino home but my agency was very half-assed about it. They said that there weren’t any Hispanic homes for teen mothers, but when I asked to be transferred to another agency that did have a Latino placement for me, they said it couldn’t be done.
Interracial or inter-ethnic placements may work for children who are raised in multi-cultural environments or for a child who comes into care at a young age, but I had lived around Latinos all my life until I went into foster care. When I was living at home, my family and friends found that my English was fluent–and why not, I was born and raised in this country and never went to bilingual classes. I speak like a Latina who grew up in the Bronx. But my foster family just makes fun of the way I speak (they say that I have a heavy Spanish accent).
I always feel the difference between my foster family and me is obvious because I get all these strange looks when I go anywhere with my foster family. At home I had the same face (so to speak) as everyone else. I didn’t seem foreign. But in the Black foster homes, the differences are obvious. I have very light skin, green eyes, and light brown hair (it’s not dyed). Though no one in the foster home says anything, I know that they notice the difference too. They’re just polite about it. They won’t mention the differences unless I give them a reason to.
Need for Comfort
My foster mother once suggested that I get my hair permed or braided. I told her that I didn’t like to do any of that because I don’t need relaxer and I can’t wash my hair well if it’s in braids. She said that I didn’t want to do any of that to my hair because I wasn’t Black. I think she got offended. In some cases inter-ethnic placements may work, but to me it isn’t just about things not working out or getting along with the people I live with. It’s about knowing who I am. l’m not saying that you have to know all the wars that were fought in your parent’s native country or memorize all the events of the civil rights movement, but I believe we shouldn’t forget where we come from. Don’t get me wrong, l’m not prejudiced, but when I came into foster care I wasn’t looking to expand my horizons. I was looking for a loving home where I could raise my child, as well as a place for myself where I would feel comfortable about my culture.
Instead, I feel like l’m always watching what I say so that no one gets offended, or l’m hearing anti-Hispanic remarks. People in my foster family sometimes make fun of what goes on in foreign countries without even caring if it bothers me. One time there was a report on the news that stated that most of the illegal immigrants entering the country were Latino, and my foster brother said that Latinos are sucking up all the services that are meant to benefit American citizens like himself.
Keep Families Together
I’ve been in this foster home for one year and three months. It bothers me that the only exposure my son has to the people of his culture is through his father’s family, because after I came into foster care I lost ties with my family and Latino friends. I hope no one gets offended by this story. I wrote it because I feel it’s important to keep Hispanic families together so that the Hispanic children in foster care can have some sense of identity. I know that racial stories cause a lot of controversy, but I always hear Black people stressing the fact that it’s important for Black kids to know about their heritage, so I decided to write about how important it is to me to that my heritage be acknowledged and respected.
Reprinted with permission from Foster Care Youth United, September/October 1996