Culture Bound

Aug 14, 2013

The United States is a country of indigenous, emancipated and immigrant peoples. It has one of the most unique mixtures of cultures in the world.  Are we afraid of our multiculturalism or is it the foundation of our lives? Community Voices Producer Venita Kelley explores the idea that cultural heritage and legacy matter to Americans.

People are enthusiastic about revealing the reasons they are who they are, why they understand events in the way they do, and why they do what they do if we ask, “What is your culture and how do you demonstrate it every day?”

Paul C. Brown is the Workforce Development Coordinator for Greeneworks in the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.  He began his answer to the culture question with this…

Well, I’m a first generation American.  The reason I say that is because my mother is a Native Panamanian.  She was born and raised in the Republic of Panama. At a young age, as she was… at that time… she was a professional woman which was a little bit unusual for the ‘50s. We had what they called the nuclear family. My mother and father both worked.”

Paul grew up in Chicago, the child of a caramel-skinned Panamanian mother and a Black-skinned American Indian father. 

I just like the first-generation title because of the fact that I identify a lot more with my mother’s culture because of the way I came up, and the fact that once my grandmother, who raised us, came up here she would still go back and forth to Panama every few years. And when I was young she’d take myself and my younger brother with her.”

Brown says the differences between the two countries led his own understanding of people.

My grandparents down there, they lived to older ages. It was nothing to see some of my uncles in their 70’s and 80’s still working every day. They were healthy people.  But it was a cultural difference that I noticed at an early age. Now that I’ve gotten older I appreciate the fact that I have known because I think it has helped me to understand human nature in a different way.”

VK: What do you understand about human nature because of how you…’came up’?

Now, I was into athletics. One of the things that happened when I was in Panama that was a national phenomenon that people did not understand a lot about, was in the boxing world. Panama had a lot of great boxers. At the time we had our golden boy, Sugar Ray Leonard and he fought Roberto Duran. Now me, with my little analytical self back then, I knew Sugar Ray Leonard was going to get his butt kicked, because Sugar Ray Leonard did not know that he was fighting a country. He wasn't fighting Roberto Duran.  To them it was like Panama vs. the United States because this was all during that time of the canal transition. And Sugar Ray Leonard went into that fight with a different attitude.  And, if you remember, anybody remembers that era… Roberto Duran beat him up for fifteen rounds.”

VK:  If we switch back to what your life was like as you grew up in the United States.  You’re Panamanian American, living in a Black neighborhood...Chicago based… Black neighborhood. And, you do speak another language. You speak Spanish.   What was it like for you to be Panamanian American, in the United States where you grew up?

“There were quite a few Hispanic Americans in the Chicago area, still.  There were quite a few.  And even there, they made distinctions amongst themselves. You were either Mexican, or Puerto Rican… da da da da…but there were even class distinctions there. I was able to intermingle with a lot of them because I had a Panamanian culture and background.  So, living in the Chicago area as a Black Hispanic American, it was quite intriguing. I got a lot of opportunities.”      

In the 1980’s, Brown was tapped to work in the administration of the late Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black Mayor. Brown could work among the residents of Chicago’s 95th street corridor, where African Americans and Latinos lived side by side, because he spoke Spanish, is physically African American in appearance and embraces the culture, and is clued into how to adapt to the several Latino cultures of the neighborhood’s people.

“I’ve always been blessed to feel that I was able to cross some of those ethnic, cultural lines because I didn’t have any fear of it. It didn’t bother me, and as I was growing up, a lot of my friends that didn’t have that kind of exposure there always seemed to be a divide and a hatred between Blacks and Hispanics. I always felt a lot of them didn’t know just how close we were.  We were probably more brothers than anything else.”   

When he thinks about his vantage point for understanding the troubles between the two cultures, Brown says, “The whole concept of how we are separated culturally as people kind of amazes me and it dismays me at the same time. I still say that a lot of Blacks and Hispanics are a heck of a lot closer than they think.”

As he considers who he is and why; the reasons and the nature of the divide that exists between U.S. citizens, Brown’s amusement is flavored with irony, because of what he knows.

“It gets real deep, it gets real deep,” Brown says, with a laugh.