Inspiring * Transformational * Courageous * Personable

E-Zine for September 2006

Wake Up and Shake Up- It’s About You!

Acceptance of others – their looks, their behaviors, their

beliefs – brings you an inner peace and tranquility, instead

of anger and resentment.

-Source Unknown

My favorite questions that people ask me: “Are you

Mexican?”“Are you black?”And then there’s the ubiquitous

“What are you?”I am a half-Nicaraguan, half- Colombian,

naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Canada but raised in the

U.S. since the age of three.Whew! What a mouthful. It’s just

easier to say, “I’m Latin-American.” (I can’t wait to see how my

kids will answer that question since they have a Caucasian father

to add into their “what am I” equation!) But the next time

someone asks me one of those questions, I might just reply with

a smile, “What are you?”This month is Hispanic Heritage

Month in the U.S. That observance, along with the ongoing,

heated debate over immigration law reform, got me thinking

about not only my own identity, but also how racial and ethnic

changes affect all of us.

People from all corners of the globe are choosing to start anew in

this land of opportunity that we call home. But immigration isn’t

just an American issue. Our international readers can probably

also identify with the effects of immigration. More and more, we

are living in a world without borders. My husband and I spent

three weeks in Europe last summer, primarily in Germany, where

we were surprised to discover large, vibrant Middle Eastern and

African communities. Sadly, in the news, we typically only

hear of the negative aspects of converging cultures such as

bigotry, racism and intolerance. Whether it’s protests in Texas

over illegal immigration, the recent youth race riots in France or

the incessant pitting of one religion against another, the media

encourages (dare I say almost forces) us to focus on our

differences instead of on our similarities. As a result, many

communities – and the world at large – are becoming more

polarized than ever. I often wonder what the world would be like

if we instead concentrated on the positive aspects of our cultural


Whether you live in small town America or cosmopolitan New

York City, you are undoubtedly seeing the impact of immigration.

(And if by some chance you’re not, you will very soon.)

Immigrants bring with them their culture, their traditions, their

foods and their languages. Some people see this influx of

new and different cultures as a threat to their way of life. And

yet, most people have forgotten a simple, but very profound

truth – virtually everything around us (even most of the

things we consider to be uniquely “American”) was either

created or influenced by other cultures: blues and jazz music

(from African rhythms), art (Italian Renaissance), architecture

(French Colonial), design (Chinese feng shui), furnishings (ever

been to the contemporary European mega-store Ikea?), food

(Tex-Mex), sports (soccer is the world sport), education (the

Montessori concept began in Italy), even language (American

English is full of words and phrases borrowed from other

languages). The list could go on and on.

We regularly adopt selective treasures of other cultures and

incorporate them into our own. These chosen influences become

part of who we are. And that is truly the beauty of it all – that

the world’s cultures have become interconnected by the things

we have in common. This mixing and mingling of other cultures

with our culture will continue with each new wave of immigrants,

and American culture 30 years from now will be very different

than it is today.There’s something else virtually all Americans

have in common: Whether we are of African, Asian, European,

Middle Eastern, Indian or Hispanic decent, all of us are, in a

sense, immigrants. Unless you are 100% full-blooded Native

American, you are a descendant of people who came to America

in search of freedom, peace and the right to achieve their

dreams. You are the personification of that dream, whether your

family immigrated here six generations ago or within your

lifetime. I’m always amazed when people argue that we should

close our borders to outsiders, because at one point, we were all


For hundreds of years, immigrants to the United States have

faced daunting hurdles, and Africans most certainly faced

horrendous challenges. At the very least, your immigrant

ancestors were likely ostracized for the way they looked, their

thick accents or the foods they carried in their lunch pails. But

they forged ahead knowing that overcoming the short-term

obstacles they faced would pay off for their families and

descendants in the long run. As my family and I celebrate

Hispanic Heritage Month, I encourage you to celebrate your

heritage, whatever it may be. Let this serve as a reminder that

being foreigners to this land is the one bond that ties us and

connects us at the deepest level. I can’t forget because it hits too

close to home for me. I know all too well the dreams my parents

had for themselves and their children when they came to

America and the struggles they faced as new immigrants.

There is no greater compliment for our country than the fact that

people from all over this planet would do anything – including

risk their lives – to live in the country you and I are blessed to

call “home.” And that is precisely what has been the strength of

this country for more 200 years: accepting all comers –

regardless of race, religion or ethnicity – and combining our

collective strengths to build a nation of Americans. By embracing

what makes this country so strong, we can continue to live

together in harmony. We only have a short time on this earth.

Why not accept our fellow man and enjoy all the wonderful

cultural gifts we have to offer one another?

A Call To Action

No matter where you live, everyone has different opinions of

other cultures. Often, our assumptions about and prejudices of

others are the result of harbored resentments, fear of the

unknown or simply a lack of knowledge. It’s easier to make

generalizations about a certain cultural group when we don’t

know the people as individuals. And yet, each of us wants to be

judged on our individual merits and not by the labels assigned to

our cultural heritage. Take a few minutes this month to

explore your own heritage and to discover how other cultures can

positively influence your life.

1. “What Are You?”Now it’s my turn to ask you the same

question with which I started this issue. I was surprised when I

asked my husband what nationalities were represented in his

family. He had no idea. He just said, “I don’t know. I’m white.”

Discover the wonderful cultural mixture that is your heritage. It’s

a fantastic way to build awareness, and if you’re like my

husband, it’s a great opportunity to sit down with your parents,

great aunts or even grandparents and learn more about your

family history. At your next family get-together, gather everyone

around and get the older members of your family talking before

it’s too late. The true historians of your family have a wealth of

information they’d love to share. They’re just waiting for

someone to ask. I guarantee you’ll treasure the facts, tidbits and

stories you’ll uncover. And you may just find a new source of

pride in “who you are” and where your family has come from.

2. Maybe “Different” Isn’t So Different After AllIn our

“Great Melting Pot” society, we inevitably come in contact with

people from cultures and backgrounds that are different than our

own. Perhaps it’s a co-worker, a neighbor, a fellow church

member or the parent of a child’s friend. Sometimes we have

difficulty relating to and connecting with those who are

“different” from us. Maybe that’s because we spend too much

time focusing on our differences instead of our similarities.

Think about someone in your circle who’s different than you

in heritage. Make a list of all the things you two have in common.

Some examples might be:

• We share a strong work ethic.

• Our families are very important to us.

• We both take an active role in our faith communities.

• We enjoy traveling.

If you’ll spend just 10 minutes on this list, you will find that your

similarities outweigh your differences. And before you know it,

someone who was once a mere acquaintance will become a

valued friend.

3. Exposure, Exposure, Exposure During the summers of

my youth, my older sister sat for the neighbor’s children while

the mother was at work. Those two blonde-haired, blue-eyed

kids probably had no idea what world they were entering when

they walked through the front door of “Casa de Ramirez.” They

were fully immersed in the Latin culture for three months out of

the year. They’d pick at their food and finally ask, “What kind of

meat is this? Can we have hotdogs instead?” Sometimes they’d

watch the telenovelas (overly dramatic soap operas on the

Spanish-language channel) and ask, “Why do they play that

weird music?” or “Why are Spanish songs so much longer than

normal songs?”

Eventually, these kids born and raised in Missouri began to love

Latin cooking. They’d ask us to fast forward the tape player to

their favorite Spanish song, and they even made a game of

translating what they thought the Spanish drama-queens on

television were saying. I’d like to think that they came away from

that experience more culturally aware than if they’d never been

exposed to our household. A few years ago, I learned that one of

them married a girl he met while stationed in the army in Latin

America. I guess he’ll be enjoying those “long Spanish songs” for

many years to come!

You can immerse yourself and your children into other cultures

without ever packing your bags. Have you ever gone to the Little

Italy or China Town in your city? There are restaurants, meat

markets, shops and all sorts of goods and services you can enjoy

from other lands. How about spending the day at a Greek food

festival, Irish Fest or Cinco de Mayo celebration? Or consider

renting movies that have won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Travel

cable channels and cultural documentaries (and no, that doesn’t

include reality shows filmed in far-away lands) can transport you

to the most exotic countries on Earth, all from the comfort of

your living room.

Exposing yourself and your family to other cultures and traditions

enriches your life and broadens your horizons. Get out and

experience what this big world has to offer.

Community Inspiration

This issue is dedicated to our friend Simon. He left the U.S. a few

years ago to take a position as a professional men’s basketball

coach in Germany – a country he’d never been to with a

language he didn’t speak. Immediately upon arriving there, he

had no choice but to immerse himself into the culture full force.

All the street signs, train schedules, food labels – absolutely

everything that surrounded him – were in German. But even

though he faced some struggles in the beginning, he’s living his

dream and enjoying every minute of it.

When Simon came back to visit us this summer, he said he had a

deep appreciation for the hardworking people who immigrate to

the U.S. and the challenges they face. He shares a connection

with them because he knows what it’s like being a cultural

minority in a foreign land. The fear of the unknown, the longing

to create a new home, and the desire to live with dignity are

what fuels them to work hard and move ahead in life. I know I

probably wouldn’t have the courage to uproot my life and move

away from everything familiar to me – my homeland, my

language, my traditions – to start over again in a foreign land.

But I admire the strength and drive of those courageous people

who are willing to do that for the sake of their dreams. And a

hearty congratulations are in order for Simon. In late breaking

news this week, he accepted a position with Denver’s NBA team,

the Nuggets. Way to go Simon!

Do you know of a pioneer who chartered new challenges and has

made an impact in your life? Please share your stories with us as We would love to hear from


Let Me Be Your Wake Up Call


Portions of Wake Up Call may be reprinted in your

organization’s newsletter, provided the following credit line is


Copyright Mercedes Ramirez Johnson. For more information and to subscribe

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About the Author
In 1995, Mercedes Ramirez Johnson narrowly survived a commercial airplane crash that killed 160 people, including her parents. As one of only four survivors of this tragedy, she vowed that she would make her second chance at life count…and that she has – not only for herself, but also for the tens of thousands of people who have heard her story and her message.

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