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! ☺


2 thoughts on “Cultural Literacy for Latinos 101

  1. Dearest Kurma: I love reading your blogs . I truly related to them . I admire your eternal search for identity and a place in this world . I hope I didn’t freak you out … Not ciberstalking … Blessing ..😀.. Alex Garcia


    • Alex,
      Thank you for your encouraging comments. It is comforting to know people relate to your thoughts and experiences.
      Un abrazo inmenso,
      Kurma ☺


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