Friday, November 6, 2009

Boxing Maya

I knew this day would come. One day. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced with Trent and Michela. It was simple with them. With Maya, there are more choices. That’s what makes it harder. I knew one day I would have to put her in a box. It’s bad enough that she is being raised by parents who are, arguably, incapable of raising her properly. But to have to box her in. When we are trying to live up to her rich history. To be forced to box her in. I hated it.

Today I registered Maya for school in Yonkers. She will turn 3 soon and will be eligible to go to pre-k next year. But to send her, I had to fill out the paperwork and register her by going downtown. I had made my appointment weeks ago. But I was running late because Maya had colored herself with orange Crayola marker and I had to take time to scrub her hands and face and toes before leaving. Finally, with Maya in tow, I entered the Board of Education building armed. I had all of my paperwork: I had her official birth certificate stating that Maya Nevaeh Nikol Gardner was born to Tim Gardner and Michelle Rago in Northhampton County PA. (Never mind that the birth certificate is a total fake. And that Tim and I had never set foot in Northampton County until months after she was born. That is a bitch session for another day.) I brought in my Verizon cellphone bill, my internet provider bill, and my ConEdison gas and electric bill (which I NEVER knew was so expensive since Tim pays all the bills). I proved that we were residents of Yonkers. I also brought in Maya’s immunization records and proved that she has been appropriately immunized.

After waiting only a short while (they are pretty organized for such a large city with 30,000 students in the school district), I sat down with a Board of Ed employee, filled out the last paperwork, and was interviewed. “Whoa, Ms. Rago.” The words stretched out slowly before me. “Help me here with this question. What are we putting down for your daughter’s ethnicity?” With a sigh, I began. “I filled it in. I want to put ‘Multi-ethnic.’” Maya has a history that pre-dates Tim and I. I have always wanted to be forthright about that. With her. And with other people. That means, first and foremost, we acknowledge the diverse family background that Maya has inherited. The woman interrupted my thoughts. “I see that you have written here – African American, Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Native American.” I responded, “Yes, she is all of those. She has a Japanese grandmother, a Native American grandmother, and an African American father with Cuban ancestry. So I didn’t know what to write. How do I choose?” The woman responded. “I can’t choose for you. You have to choose.” I thought. “Well I can’t choose. I want to put multi-ethnic. I don’t want to deny any of her heritage by choosing one over another. The U.S. census has finally changed this year. In 2010, people will be able to choose multiple ethnicities as they identify themselves. That’s what I want to do for my daughter.” I could see my interviewer was slightly exasperated. “I understand your frustration. The U.S. census has changed. But this is the Yonkers school district. I have to check one box.” I patiently tried to explain my position, as I knew I would have to do many times in the future in order to advocate for my daughter. “Well, if I had to choose, she has more African ancestry than any other. But I really don’t want to choose. What does a child do when he has a Caucasian parent and an African American parent? Deny that he is as much Caucasian as African American just because there aren’t sufficient boxes?” My interviewer finally came clean. “Look. I have sympathy for your position. When you came in here with Maya, I had to do a double take. She looks exactly like my niece, Brittany, who is half black and half Irish. My sister married an Irish man and feels the same way you do.” She pulled out a photo of her niece who had the same complexion and curly hair as Maya. “I have written letters to the Superintendent. I have tried to explain,” she went on. “But, this is Yonkers. This is not the federal government. Yonkers doesn’t understand that none of us are pure blood. We are all mutts. And it shouldn’t matter.”

I knew that she understood that it did matter. I protested. “It shouldn’t matter. But it does matter. My daughter is being raised by white people. But she has an identity. She is not all white or all black. How do I raise a child with a healthy sense of herself if I have to categorize her as something she isn’t? It shouldn’t matter, but it does.” My new friend was very sympathetic. “Let’s hope that when Maya grows up, it doesn’t matter. But right now, it does. If I were you, I would put Caucasian because that’s what her brother and sister are listed as being here. Then, when she grows up, she can be anything she wants to be. She can just be American.” I thought about it and I chose Caucasian as recommended.

She is an American baby, I thought. Just like my husband. When people ask him where his family is from, he usually answers, “America. Here. And Switzerland.” My husband’s father’s family has been here from the time of the Mayflower. They are descended from Priscilla and John Alden. They are Dutch and English. But, after so many generations, what does it matter? No one speaks Dutch anymore. No one cooks Dutch. The farm that old Abraham Van Nest owned in Greenwich Village has long since been divided up and sold, (in part to New York University). His mother’s family fled Switzerland to avoid religious persecution as Mennonites. But, even that flight was so many years ago that no ties to Switzerland remain -- save a few of Grandma Liechty’s recipes.

I thought about how my life differed from my husband’s life growing up, and what that would mean for our children. I was “pure” Italian, as far as I knew. My father’s mother was from Muro Lucano, Italy, in the region of Basilicata, “provincia di Potenza.” (I had been to my grandmother’s house several times, even bringing my husband and children to meet my remaining relatives there several years ago.) Grandpa Rago was from Salerno, the launching point for the Almalfi coast. My mother’s parents were from Benevento, Italy, which was further north and east – a town famed for its witchcraft. Everyone I knew growing up was Italian. No one came into our home that wasn’t Italian. They sat around at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, and speaking Italian. My father was a shoemaker, working at a shop with his father. Everyone we knew were carpenters, plumbers, tradesmen or employees in the government. It was very insular and we knew our place in society. We were told about when the neighbors came to the door and tried to get my mother to join a group to keep Italians out of the neighborhood. We knew when we brought in eggplant sandwiches that other kids didn’t eat the same. And when we confused English words for Italian words on homework, we knew we were not like most of the kids in class. I never felt American as much as I felt Italian.

Trent and Michela have some sense of being Italian. They eat my food and I only know how to cook as I was taught by my mother and grandmother – start everything with olive oil and garlic and it will turn out. They have been to Italy and have heard Italian spoken. They want to learn Italian. They are also very proud of their father’s heritage. They know that his father is descended from people who came over on the Mayflower. And that his mother has Swiss Mennonite ancestry. They are true American children, but to outsiders, they are Caucasian.

Maya will have a more difficult road to understand her identity. Being raised by me and Tim, she will inevitably feel some kinship to Italian people and Swiss Mennonites and Mayflower descendants. That will be the environment in which she grows up. Still, she has a relationship with the mother who gave birth to her. Her mother Nikki is one quarter black, one quarter Native American, one quarter Caucasian, and one quarter Japanese. She lives amidst people from many different cultures in her town. Unlike the home I grew up in, the home in which Nikki lives frequently has Polish, Puerto Rican, African American, and Cuban visitors. However, while we live in a completely white neighborhood of European descent (overwhelmingly Italian American), our children go to Yonkers public school, which is truly as diverse as the United Nations.

Maya is a smart cookie. She will have no problem understanding the heritage into which she was born and the heritage into which she was adopted. But that is an intellectual undertaking. My job as a parent is also to raise an emotionally healthy and happy child. I believe that, in order to do so, Maya needs to feel proud of who she is: she is a multi-ethnic child being raised by European descended parents, amidst their families, and amidst her Mama Nikki’s diverse family. I have a hard time teaching her to be proud if the Yonkers public school district makes me box her into one category.

I think it is time to write my own letter to the superintendent of schools.


  1. I laughed at your post because I feel the same way. My baby is white, black and hispanic. Which do I choose? My husband says mark white. Why I ask? Because that's what we are he says. Hmm, but the baby is a combo....and I am forced by the boxes to choose one.

  2. Thanks for reading. Hope to see you back again soon.