There are quite a few things you can learn about me just by looking at me. You can easily tell that I’m pretty tall, that I care about what I’m wearing and how I present myself, and that I have one hand. But something that always seems to take people by surprise is when they find out that I’m Hispanic. Granted, it’s not the most important fact about me and I’m probably not going to introduce myself as “Hi, I’m Caitlin and I’m Hispanic”, but it’s so funny to me how people instantly assume I’m either Irish or Italian or any number of different European nationalities. (And they’d be right on some level, since my entire family has roots in Spain.) But it usually takes listening in on me conducting a phone call or conversation entirely in Spanish for most people to realize that they had it all wrong.
I was born here in the U.S. to Cuban parents, years after they’d left their beloved homeland and established themselves in the land of the free. Just to be clear, they met and married here (well, in Miami), so I’ve lived my whole life in Jersey. I grew up listening to Celia Cruz, dancing to salsa, and eating arroz con pollo and lechon. I learned to speak and read English and Spanish together, and I celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve (aka Nochebuena). As much as my family has assimilated into standard American culture, they have not given up the traditions of their motherland. And that’s something that I want to explore because one thing that definitely plays into how people view disabilities and limb differences is culture.
Although I’m not an expert sociologist and can’t tell you exactly how Cuban or Hispanic cultures as a whole see disability, I will say that everyone around me was pretty supportive while I was growing up. My parents encouraged me to try and fail and try and succeed with everything in life. They didn’t really treat me all that differently, and they expected the same straight-A report cards and model behavior from both me and my three-years-younger and physically normal sister. But as much as I’d love to think so, I can’t say that there was no pain or drama tied to my family’s sentiment towards my limb difference. My hand is not something I openly discuss with them because it just brings back too many hurts. Still, the worst of it was from my maternal grandparents, who once desperately attempted to hide me (and my lack of a hand, specifically) from their neighbors when I was just a kid. (I still haven’t forgiven them for that, but it’s not like they ever apologized anyway.) I know they didn’t do it out of cruelty, but it wasn’t exactly the message of acceptance and unconditional love most would agree you should show a 9-year-old. And of course, I do think that their years of living in a very rural area in Cuba added to their naivety.
Anyway, I expected the same sort of hushed and self-conscious behavior from my boyfriend Chris’s family. He’s half-Irish and grew up very close to his Irish roots. I thought that they would treat my limb difference as something very unfortunate and sad, but that’s not the case at all. I asked Chris if they’d ever commented on my hand or said anything negative about it, but he answered that they hadn’t. About a year into our relationship, he casually mentioned that one of his cousins wore a prosthetic leg. “Wait…what?” was my response, as I stopped him mid-sentence. He seemed perplexed a second before he realized why I’d stopped him. “Oh,” I remember him saying. “I never told you?” No, he hadn’t. He had completely forgotten by complete accident. To Chris (and to his family), something like a limb difference wasn’t a big deal. I don’t know if that sentiment is an Irish thing or just a Chris’s-family thing, but I have noticed (based on my own experience) that people from European cultures are much more likely to overlook a disability and to separate it from the person’s personality in general. Hispanics, though many usually do get over the disability, tend to be initially filled with (always unnecessary but typically well-meaning) sympathy and pity for what I (or whoever it may be) have “lost” or lack. This is especially common in older people, particularly those who grew up thinking that disability is caused by an “evil eye” or as punishment by God. This is not always the case, though. There are exceptions in all cultures. And while I don’t know in exact detail how culture affects or defines the way people look at disability and limb difference, I do think it’s a very interesting topic to look into.
Let me know what you think about the connection between culture and attitude toward disability in the comments below.