How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Love, L.A. style: 'We are ALL the same, we just have different colored suits'

Photo by jude hill/Flickr (Creative Commons)


We know by now that interracial and interethnic relationships and families are on the rise throughout the United States, something that isn't exactly a news flash in Los Angeles. But what is life in these relationships like behind closed doors, as couples navigate life through different cultural lenses while raising children, paying bills, dealing with in-laws and other challenges?

Tonight I’ll be moderating a community forum at KPCC in which several of bicultural couples will share their own experiences. And all this week, I've been offering sneak peeks on this site as participating couples share a little about themselves in mini-Q&A interviews.

Yesterday we heard from KPCC’s OffRamp host John Rabe and Julian Bermudez, a producer of art exhibits, who shared a bit on the (mostly) ups and (some) downs of life as a bicultural same-sex couple. On Tuesday, Aris and InSun Janigian, an Armenian American novelist and his Korean American spouse, dished on communication, romance, in-laws and, importantly, food.

Today's couple in this final Q&A is Terry Dennis and Gabriela López de Dennis, a long-together pair of professional artists who are also in business together, running the Soap Design Co. studio. Gabriela is Mexican American, born and raised in L.A.; Terry is black and Texan, born and raised in the border town of El Paso. And as they've learned, they're really not so different after all.

M-A: What are the most important things you’ve learned from one another, in the context of your different backgrounds?

Gabriela: My husband being from El Paso, TX, which compared to Los Angeles is a small town, taught me about that small-town mentality or community. I see how close his entire extended family is, how much bigger his family is, and although my family is close as well, sometimes you can get lost in the bigness of Los Angeles, or Mexico City, where I also spent a lot of my childhood. I learned about that extra closeness and openness...and to slow it down.

El Paso had that pace of "it’ll get done when it gets done." Where here in L.A., we are go-go-go. And this whole thing about family reunions... with matching t-shirts? What? I had never even heard about that!

When we first starting dating, he took me to El Paso to meet his extended family for the first time. We were there for their family reunion at a picnic at the park and it was such a nice time, and they were all very welcoming. Weeks prior to that though, he had been designing t-shirts for the reunion with their family name and family portrait that we would all be wearing. I was very confused.

Terry: How close my wife is to her community. In some ways, her Latin theater community is her extended family.

M-A: What have the biggest challenges been?

Gabriela: I really can’t think of any challenges we’ve had from our different backgrounds. We are really not that drastically different as individuals, and both of our families (including the in-laws) are very open and loving. My mother-in-law even speaks Spanish, so her and my parents chat it up when we all get together.

Terry: I was born and lived 15 years of my childhood in El Paso, Texas. So I was pretty familiar with the Mexican culture when I met my wife. But just like there is a difference between black people in the South (of the U.S.) and blacks in Los Angeles, Mexican people in El Paso are different than Mexican people in Los Angeles.

I felt like, not only did I have to learn how to carry myself and speak as a black man in Los Angeles, but my "second culture" wasn't the same either and I had to make modifications to my understanding. "Learning" my wife was exactly the same, I couldn't expect anything based on my past understandings.

M-A: Can you share an amusing/enlightening/etc. cross-cultural moment?

Gabriela: Well first off, I think the way I cook “Southern food” is probably blasphemy...I make it vegetarian. Stop the presses!

Terry has always been familiar with Mexican food from his upbringing in El Paso, but I really got to learn about Southern food, or soul food, through his family. And I love it: the mac & cheese, baked beans, collard greens, et cetera. Except I make mine minus the pork and beef and use wheat flower for the corn bread. (I also make vegetarian Mexican food which is traditionally just as “meaty.”)

Visiting his extended family over the years in Texas, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, we’ve learned that sure, here in Los Angeles it is very normal for him and I to be vegetarian and there are many, many vegetarian options. In places like where his family is from, not so much. And it’s not even so much a cultural thing, but maybe just a regional thing. When I first met his family in El Paso, I got a lot of very strange looks because I didn’t “eat meat.” They were trying hard to figure out what the heck I ate. Vegetables?

We were at his aunt’s home in Oklahoma and when we arrived that night, she said she would make us dinner and proceeded to pull out two huge slabs of BBQ’d beef. I kindly explained to her that I was vegetarian, so she fixed me a raw tomato in slices on a plate. She did so in a very loving way, and it was the best she could offer this scrawny, malnourished vegetarian from L.A., so I kindly enjoyed my tomato...and I miss her dearly, may she rest in peace. Another night while in El Paso, my husband and I went to look for some take-out and I could not find anything vegetarian friendly to eat. So I just had some fries for dinner (not very healthy, I know). His other aunt was the one this time, who was very confused. BUT, her and I do agree on one culinary delight: Fries with vanilla ice cream is the best!

Terry: I accompanied my wife to Tijuana for her abuela's or grandmother's funeral. We got there a day early just so we would be there on time for the early morning procession. I had a chance to sit down with her tio or Uncle Freddy, who was an impressionable, endearing gentleman who reminded me of some of my African-American family in Texas.

When I told him that, he didn't wince or smile, he just said we are ALL the same, we just have different colored suits. When it's all said and done, we have to turn in the suit.

I'll NEVER forget that conversation.


The panel tonight at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum starts at 7 p.m. There are still a few seats left, which are free but require a reservation. See the event listing and reserve seats here.
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