Cultural Literacy for Latinos 101

“Cultural Literacy is the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture.” (E.D Hirsch)

Now that I am getting ready to be a panelist for NUEVOlution at the Levine Museum of the New South, I started asking myself what cultural literacy means. I read some excerpts and have found a variety of quizzes to test if you are culturally literate. These and my life experience helped me elaborate on what cultural literacy signifies to a Latino/a like me. Here are my own props after 11 years of living in the United States. This is personal (hopefully universal), but feel free to leave your opinion in the comment section.

Learn the Language

Jose at libraryBefore moving to North Carolina I learned everything I could about the American culture because even though I didn’t know about the term “cultural literacy” I knew how important it was to blend, listen, and be understood.

However, no matter how many movies and books you watch and read, I believe cultural literacy is something you acquire only when you have the physical experience of living in a different country for a period of time. I consider language as one of the main aspects of being culturally literate, though it surely extends beyond that.

“To have a second language is to have a second soul,” said Charles the Great. Language is intertwined with culture, customs, and world views. At the beginning I found it exhausting to speak in English all the time because as well as being involved in physical activity, by speaking in a second language your brain is working out, therefore it will need intervals of rest. Don’t feel frustrated, relax, take time apart, and start afresh the next day. Remember, people love it when you make the effort of learning their language, and some even find accents sexy! ☺

Use Polite Words & Expressions

When I had just arrived I heard people saying thank you, please, excuse me and sorry quite often. In my culture we might pass in front of or by another person without saying a word or by pushing gently if the space is narrow. If there is enough camaraderie we may say, “Move!” but all these little words from the American culture seemed unnecessary to me. We tend to be more  to the point. If you need something from the counter and there’s someone standing too close to what you need, you extend your hand to reach it and move on. But here in the US that is considered rude. So you need to make a conscious effort to use these words frequently. It’s the same when you are asking for a favor whether in person or by email. It’s not enough to say, “I need you to do this.” You will have greater chances of getting a positive response to your petition if you say something like, “I know you’re busy, but this thing came up and I was wondering if you would mind _____. I would truly appreciate it”

Make Sure You Know Your Way Around

In Colombia there is plenty of public transportation and the streets are numbered. You don’t even have to walk too far to a bus stop because any corner will do, as far as the bus driver can see you stretching your arm and flapping your hand. Now, you are in NC and you bought a car. The GPS is a fantastic device to get you anywhere by following that sensual voice. It wasn’t like that 11 years ago though. I knew how to get to work and back home and that was pretty much it. For other errands or gatherings I used to ask my friends and co-workers to give me a ride. They were all kind enough to drive me from and to where I needed to be, but this can become burdensome if months pass by and you are still relying on other people to be your chauffer. Carolinians are extremely kind people, but they also appreciate independence. Do your homework. Only ask for a ride if you absolutely need it, and a little tip: If you are carpooling, let’s say to a Church Retreat in Myrtle Beach or a concert in Asheville pitch in with gas money, it’s a nice gesture, and they’d be happy to carpool with you again.

Be a Good Tipper or at least Be a Tipper

Bernard in CartagenaThis takes us to restaurants, beauty parlors, taxis, etc. People from Colombia are used to paying the check, period. Even in local and fast food restaurants there is no obligation for you to leave a tip to your server since tipping is usually reserved for more upscale places. As for beauty parlors, taxis, massage therapists, and hotels (room service or housekeeping) we don’t even think about it. However, in the US it is expected that you give a tip for every service received (even medical, they usually add a 500% tip in hidden fees ☺). This could be, but not limited to, getting your dog groomed, carpet cleaning, manicures, pedicures, car wash… You name it, if there is a server involved tip him/her 15-20%.

Wash Your Hands Often

wash your hands pic

Sign found in a school restroom in Charlotte, NC

Colombians are used to buying food in the street, we handle money, the vendor receives it, serves you the scrumptious food, and none of the involved in the transaction washes their hands in between nor before. And no matter if you come from a rich or a poor background, in Colombia there are unannounced water cuts so we don’t think about washing our hands as often because we think of saving water as more important. North Carolina is a different story. You must wash your hands before eating, after blowing out your nose, after pumping gas into your car, after petting your dog, before feeding your family, before sitting at the table, and obviously after using the bathroom. Don’t feel guilty about wasting water; killing germs is the issue. If you aren’t near a sink, keep a little bottle of hand sanitizer with you and use it as needed. And a side note; handkerchiefs are disgusting. American people (as far as I have observed) don’t comprehend why we blow out our nose and put the snot back in our pocket. If you have a handkerchief, use it only next to your lapel, it is the only way it will be appreciated.

Be On Time

Yes. Colombians have our personal time zone and expect everybody else to be in there as well. Our schedule might be between 5 minutes to two hours off, but we expect you to understand and not make a big deal about it. I apologize for myself and my fellow citizens. At least in my case, this has been one of the hardest habits to break, but yes we can! A little tip: Plan to arrive to your appointments/dates 30 minutes earlier, you’ll probably arrive just in time taking into account everything that could happen between you getting ready and leaving your house. Try it for 21 days, that’s all it takes to create a habit! Your friends and coworkers will thank you for that and all their plans will run more smoothly.

Follow Dress Code

Colombian women are sexy, it goes without saying. Men love when we arrive to the work place with our tight clothes and high heels, but this might represent a big issue for your boss and female counterparts. Turn it down a notch. You still can look very nice without showing too much cleavage and/or legs. Distractions in the work place should not happen because of you. For an office party or a social gathering, ask if you are unsure. If you think you don’t have anything appropriate to wear ask a good friend if you could borrow a few pieces of clothing, or simply go shopping (if your budget is tight, go to a thrift store; depending on the neighborhood, you’ll find absolutely amazing deals just for a few bucks!) Don’t try to make a good impression. Make the best impression always!

The Pedestrian Has the Right of Way. I Repeat, The Pedestrian Has the Right of Way

In our country we respect the size and metallic power of a vehicle. Because we know it can cause irreparable damage to our bodies we rush to cross the street not without looking both sides before the short race. In NC though pedestrians are more laid back, so you as a driver has to stop and give them all the time they need. I know, I know, I know, some pedestrians take the latter to heart and cross slowly while texting or chatting with their friends, or they don’t look before crossing forcing you to make sudden stops. Well, here is when yoga comes in handy. Breathe, and Ommmm…

Appreciate, Cherish, & Respect the Free Stuff

This is a little note for my international students: America gives you FREE K-12 education, and pretty soon you will also be able to obtain an associates degree for free! If we had free education in Colombia we certainly would be a better country, crime would be reduced exponentially, people would look into the future with a new hope. Unfortunately, we have too many children in the streets, either working forced labor or panhandling. In the US though children find a shelter at school. You have free breakfast and lunch, free pencils, free paper, free textbooks, free instruction, and friends! I know many scholars think that coming from a low income family they won’t be able to pay for college, but if they build an excellent school history colleges and universities will be knocking at their door begging them to enroll in their institutions! This is truly why the United States is the land of opportunity, but you have to make it happen.

Embrace Your Culture and the Others’


Carnival of Barranquilla

This is a note for my fellow American citizens. We Latinos are loud, extremely friendly, we kiss and hug everybody, we are direct, we make a party of every occasion, and we might not be always on time, but we love your country and we are here to make it better, richer, more colorful and joyful. Accept our differences and similarities. At this point in time America is experiencing an amazing symbiosis, genetically, linguistically, culturally, and the result is a wonderful melting pot. We mix, we melt, we emerge into something different and better. Likewise there are hundreds of other cultures in the mix. Just go to the supermarket and you will hear at least five different languages, and find a variety of skin colors, and demeanors. Embrace the change, embrace the people. There is no other choice.

I would love to hear your opinions. In which ways do you feel you have changed in order to be culturally literate, or have the country changed you in any way? Do you know some people who have not “submit” to the culture at all after having lived in the US for many years?

Looking forward to responding to your comments!

Un abrazo inmenso y que Dios los bendiga (An immense hug and may God bless you).

Salud! ☺

Where Is Your Other Half?

People Are Always Trying to Pair You Up

It amazes me how people are always trying to pair you up with another human being. We are born alone, unique, except for the 2% of twins, .08% of triplets, and other multiple births; but even if people are born a twin or a triplet they sustain themselves and are responsible for their own growth, education, health, etc.

Bern on the trainSpeaking of our own individualities and commonalities we have the right to be friends with people of the opposite sex as much as we have friends of our own gender. I particularly prefer the friendship of males over the one of females. Nothing personal, I simply find their insight, emotional, and physical strength more appealing. They are gentle but firm, and they are better at solving conflict. Ladies, if you are still reading this, you know it’s true. Sometimes our girlfriends bring a lot of unnecessary drama for things that could have been resolved with a couple of words and a glass of wine (or a word and a couple of glasses of wine? ☺).

Where Is Your Other Half?

I have been seeing a guy, a friend-guy, a new male friend and he has already been called “husband”, “boyfriend”, and  “new guy” by friends and acquaintances! One day I came to the gym by myself, which I used to do anyway before I met Dwight (not his real name) and my instructor greeted me by asking, “Where is your other half?” I responded immediately, “I don’t have another half, I am complete!”

And even if I got married I would still be complete, my own self. I know that it is difficult for many single women to navigate the waves of the daily life alone, you wonder when “your other half” will come to complete your half self, you cry behind a bag of popcorn while watching a romantic comedy, or you secretly resent your girlfriends when they meet someone and things seem to be going really well for them. But your life can be full too! Every day is a new challenge, a new light, a new creation, a new poem, a new performance, a new class, a new song, a new idea for a blog…

Also someone asked me if Dwight made me happy. I hesitated because the answer is yes! Dwight makes me happy, but poetry, Zumba, and yoga make me happy too! There’s no reason to give another person the attribute or the responsibility of making you happy or sad.

a glass of wineThe One Will Come When You Are Not Looking For Him

At church we were studying the book Love, Sex, and Relationships, by Chip Ingram, and the one thing that I learned is that the one will come when you are not looking for him, when you feel absolutely comfortable and content with your circumstances, when you are not hoping for someone to come to rescue you, when you are glad to wake up even though your life is not perfect and you kind of hate your job (not me! ☺). But you have learned to live with the person who matters most in all this, you really know her, you look at her face in the mirror, you are proud of the shape of her body, her wrinkles, and her few gray hairs (when she still can pluck them ☺ ). When she finds that little dress that makes her feel amazing, she goes to that fancy restaurant and the hostess asks if it is just one, she answers proudly, it’s not just one, it’s me.

Love Attracts Love And Misery Loves Company

If you love yourself greatly you will pour out that love into others and into what you do. Discover your passion and love it! Do you like poetry? Read and write like a lunatic! Do you like dancing? Dance like no one is watching! I just remembered Dwight, this guy has a very particular singing voice. Have you watched the winners of American Idol? Think of Dwight as the complete opposite. But he sings, in solitude, he loves to listen to music, he talks about it, and he uses it to calm me down before my performances ☺

On the other hand, I have stopped (or partially stopped) talking to friends who criticize everything I do or wear. And they think they are “helping.” To give you a real life example, once I was talking to a girlfriend about plastic surgeries, so I jokingly asked her if she thought I needed one. What came out of her mouth was, Yeah, you have small breasts, if you could it would be good to get them done, maybe a couple sizes bigger, your smile is too wide, there is a cosmetic surgery to stick the upper lip to the upper gum; by the way, your jaw is kind of narrow, you need to get a cosmetic dental treatment to open space; oh, and you would need lipo for that little tummy (at this point I’m looking at her puzzled), or maybe you won’t need a lipo, just coolsculpting (she says the last part with a big smile to make me feel better)!

Warrior 2 Kurma firstUse Your Imagination

Be creative! You don’t have to become a great artist, just add some color to your life, to your wardrobe, do something nice for yourself, salute the world with a smile even if they decide to give you their back. And try something new to keep your mind engaged!

Talk to God. He is the best listener guy-friend you can have. He will remind you of how precious you are You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you (Song of Solomon 4:7). Hmm… I’m blushing ☺

Life is beautiful, and it’s not a cliché, it’s the truth! Look at all the possibilities without paying too much attention to your past (though this might come in handy), to your age (it’s never too late), or your circumstances (when there’s a will there’s a way.)

Trust in God and His promises and trust that He has given you everything you need to be happy and complete. Everything else and everybody else (including the one) will come to complement you (not complete you) in the most perfect way.

Think positive! You are love! ♥

DAILY: Pecha Kucha Vol. 14


Pecha Kucha is an evening of short presentations by creative individuals. On Wednesday, October 14, Charlotte will host its 14th edition at the Chop Shop in Noda (details here). Representation by visual artists has waxed and waned over the years, so we are excited to see a stellar group of regional artists on this year’s presenters list (bolded and linked below)!

Alex Clark
Antoine Williams
Carlos Salum
Caroline Rust and Camerin Watson
Cher Cosper
Hannah Ames Beavers
Kurma Murrain
Matt Olin
Tamela Rich
Ted Lee


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