Weird Side Effects Of Growing Up In A 'Melting Pot' City
Miami: a melting pot like New York City with the tropical beaches of Hawaii and the crime rates of RoboCop's Detroit. It's a city where diversity is as natural a phenomenon as the hurricanes we dare to hit us as we stand on South Beach screaming at the horizon in a cocaine rage. It's a major U.S. city where Anglo white people are the minority, minorities are the majority, up is down, and people say hola when you leave and adios when you arrive.
But more than anything, it's where I've called home for nearly all my life. In that time, I've come to know this beautiful melting pot as a strange mix of imported cultural norms which somehow mesh despite feeling like they shouldn't, all combining to create a culture unique unto itself. But it's not without some unusual side effects.
It's A Melting Pot! (Of Horrific Driving Habits From All Over The World)
Driving in a city of immigrants can be best surmised in two ways. The first is this picture of a traffic sign found in a neighborhood called Miami Shores:
A sign reminding drivers to stop at stop signs. It sounds stupid, but those things can spring up on you out of nowhere. You have to keep your head on a swivel.
The second is a misunderstanding on my part of what it meant to cut someone off in traffic. South Florida drivers are routinely considered some of the worst in America. The stretch of US-1 that runs through Florida is considered the most dangerous highway in America. And the most dangerous intersection in America is in South Florida.
So it makes sense that having learned to drive in this culture of bad drivers, I would have assumed that what most people consider being rudely cut off in traffic is what I consider a routine lane change. A decade into adulthood, I noticed that my definition of cutting someone off is when in an action movie a sideswiped car launches 30 feet in the air and explodes. Since I hadn't done anything nearly that awesome yet, I assumed I was a pretty courteous driver. And then I drove through rural Georgia and the outskirts of Toronto and realized I am a one-man Max Mad gang of vehicular death marauders. I drive blissfully unaware of the chaos in my wake.
Immigrants smuggle their native driving habits past airport security and onto our roads. Habits both good and bad bump up against one another to create an overall culture of confusion that could lead to such daring antics as performing a swift four-lane change at 75 miles an hour without using a blinker or mirrors because the last time the road lines were painted was three tyrannical dictators ago. On a trip to Colombia, I saw these driving habits in their natural habitat. I've been in car accidents less harrowing than routine drives to the local empanada shop. I've yet to visit my family's homeland of Cuba, but if Miami's Cuban population is any indication, the streets of Havana are a big game of Mario Kart with more screaming.
Pretty Much Every House Is Multi-Generational
People living with their parents who're living with their parents for years beyond the traditional American standard are a cultural norm for those who've immigrated into big cities. While rural and suburban Americans clutch their pearls and collapse onto fainting couches at the news that their millennial children are living at home a little longer, residents of melting pot cities roll their eyes before diving back into the multi-generational screaming matches they call home.
Cities like LA, New York, and Miami are usually way too expensive for people who just got here -- thus the need for a 78-year-old with an oxygen tank and 22-year-old on a 24/7 game of Fuck Hunt to live under the same roof. I just described 75 percent of CBS's upcoming slate of Fall sitcoms, but it's also the reality a lot of us have lived in, myself included. Living with two other generations wasn't as weird an experience when I was a kid when nearly half of my classmates were doing the same. We all had to live among grandparents who had no idea they were ripping earth-shattering farts at the dinner table. We all got to arguments with our parents about boundaries, and then watched them have that same argument with their parents.
Our elders understood that since a U.S. apartment costs 8,000 percent more than their old 50-acre farm that the government seized at gunpoint, cramming so much of our family under one roof that it became a fire hazard was the only economically feasible situation for all living (and some deceased) members of the family.
We Still Find Ways To Hate Each Other For Our Differences
It's okay to be a refugee. You wouldn't know that if you lived in a city filled with them. But what you really don't want to be is a "ref," and you don't ever want to be caught acting "reffy." That's the slang term Miamians created to divide themselves from a certain type of Latin American newcomer who hasn't quite gotten the hang of American life yet. Even minority groups that have been traditionally oppressed and segregated in America manage to find ways to oppress and segregate amongst their own. I'm going to launch that sentence into space as a warning for any incoming armadas of aliens looking to make friends.
I don't remember the first time I heard the word. Would you remember the first time you heard "the" or "because"? It's always been around in my life. I've been trained from birth to know a reffy person when I see one. One of the telltale signs I noticed a lot in high school was any person wearing what at first glance appeared to be a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, with the big red, white, and blue logo and Hilfiger's signature writ large across the chest, but closer inspection revealed that the signature actually read "Key West, Florida." The common joke was that this was the first thing they bought when they a washed ashore from Cuba. High school usually isn't a breeding ground for insightful comedy.
Ref can be used derogatorily, as seen above, but since so many of us were once immigrants, refugees, or first-generation Americans, it can also be a prize. After making it through the hardships of assimilation, you are rewarded with being able to make fun of people who are going through those struggles for the first time. That's because in retrospect, those struggles could be funny -- like laughing at a picture of your horrible high school haircut and fashion sense, but instead it's a real human standing in front of you in the grocery store. Sometimes it's funny to watch people suffer through stuff you know all too well. That's the fundamental idea behind every sitcom ever made.
Still, it's a complicated word. I've seen children call their parents refs, and after its meaning was explained to them, the parents exploded with pride for having retained some of who they once were against the onslaught of American culture. I've also seen kids struggling to assimilate brought to tears when it was weaponized to cause maximum emotional damage. It means something a little bit different to everyone, with how "American" you've let yourself become.
Melting Pots Can Be Extremely Difficult If You're Not Bilingual (And I Am Not Bilingual)
I've said things in Spanish to people that I'm certain have left them wondering if I've ever been repeatedly kicked in the head by a roving street gang of horses. Centuries of relatives cry out in utter horror when I butcher their language ordering a guava and cheese pastry at a Cuban bakery.
I took Spanish for Spanish Speakers through all of elementary school, because they assumed that just because I'm Cuban on both sides, was raised in a Spanish-speaking home with grandparents who spoke little English, and grew up in a predominantly Latin American neighborhood, I had learned to speak a single competent sentence of the language of my people. Joke's on them; I'm dumb as shit and can't speak a word of Spanish without sounding like I'm about to give up and start crying.
I used to think I was the only one. I've since met others (but not many) who could never wrap their heads around their family's native language. I think of them whenever I visit an immigrant neighborhood in an American city. I know somewhere in that cluster of streets is a kid having a panic attack because they don't know how to order a Big Mac in Korean.
I've found this most common in first-generation Americans. We don't have nearly as deep a connection to our heritage as our parents. For some, that translates to, say, not having a firm grasp on their family's personal history. For others, it feels like being a dog among aliens. You'll have some frame of reference for hand gestures and certain emphatically pronounced curse words, but for the most part, you have an easier time understanding the flailing gibberish spoken by Sims than you do your own aunts and uncles.
They Test Your Tolerance For The Rituals Of Less Popular Religions
The trade-off of experiencing the beauty of another nation or race's culture in your own backyard is that sometimes you have to drive over dead chickens that've been stuffed into garbage bags and thrown by train tracks.
With diverse populations come their religious beliefs, as well as a test of your tolerance of their rituals. In Miami, that means Santeria and all of its gory idiosyncrasies. I've only ever known one practitioner. When Mormons would knock on his door to spread the good word, he'd speak in tongues wearing all of his Santeria paraphernalia to scare them off. This cartoonish display of a religion amounts to exactly half of everything I know about Santeria. The other half is stuff like dead chickens by train tracks, which I think are meant as an offering to some kind of transportation deity. Or maybe I'm wrong and it's just a hardcore way to tenderize chicken. I also know this gross part of it pretty well:
Living in a melting pot city loaded with diversity means that sometimes well-meaning folks will split open a cow's tongue and then nail it to a tree near your home. When I first saw that, I checked my immediate surroundings for any additional sign of a murderer watching me from afar before disappearing as a bus passed. I don't know what this ritual is about, but if this LA Times article from 1997 has it right, publicly displaying a rancid cow's tongue that's been decorated with people's names offers protection from gossip. You can just not be an asshole, but I guess this works too. As you can see, there were no names displayed on my cow tongue, but I think they were sewn inside, as this practitioner's unique twist on scaring the shit out of jogging suburbanites.
The ritualistic display of slaughtered animals and their parts is so mundane for me that I hesitated to include it in this column for fear it would bore you. I don't spot five cow tongues and a few dead chickens every time I leave the house, but it's happened enough that my response never goes beyond rolling my eyes, like an enormous cow tongue nailed into a tree is just another prank from those damn kids up the street. They're a nuisance, but God love 'em, they're just kids being kids.
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