My story of the intersection of multiple cultures emerged when I emigrated from Mexico to the United States. Something was missing; I could not find a place or group I could feel fully accepted and belong. Why is so difficult to comprehend that managing the intersection of multiple cultures is a constant struggle for one person? In trying to fit in one “box” or tearing me apart expecting to accommodate my persona in several “boxes” at the same, I have spent many years of my life endeavoring to please different people.
I am Cecilia, a woman with a few physical disabilities resulting from my main physical disability. Altogether, I use a standard manual or a motorized wheelchair for my self-sufficiency. It will not be difficult to image my successes and failures through life based on my visible disability. It will be hard to understand my journey interconnecting my culture as an immigrant with the American disability culture. But it will be harder if not impossible to comprehend my journey when my Latina and Hispanic culture, my gender, my English as a second language, my origin, my foreign-born status, and having a disability cross and conflict with each other based on people perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and desires.
I was born average, as an able-body baby. At two years of age, my life and the life of all around me changed in a couple of minutes. I was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, which paralyzed my body from the neck down. Poliomyelitis was a virus caused by polioviruses originating paralysis, common referred as paralytic poliomyelitis or polio for short. According to my mother and my siblings I got the polio infection after I received the vaccination, such reaction was known as vaccine-associated misinterpreted as vaccine-caused (Sabin, 1992). Vaccine-caused or associated, I was one of thousands of children in Mexico (and around the world) infected by the paralyzing virus.
After the infection, medical experts argued that many children did not show any symptoms or illness, but could have fiver making the body weak allowing the virus to evolve and move rapidly leaving muscle atrophy, without sensory, affecting larger motor neurons of spinal cord and medulla (Asahina, Matsunami, Sueda, Shiraishi, & Saitoh, 2010). My older siblings told me that we were playing at a park; I tumbled and could not move anymore, but they remembered that, a few days earlier, I had some symptoms similar to having a cold. Then I want to believe that the fever of my “cold” took the virus around my entire body leaving me totally paralyzed. After four years of surgeries, physical therapy, and training, half of my body reestablished, but my legs did not respond, leaving me dependent on braces, crutches, and finally on a wheelchair. I acquired a disability –according to who witnessed it.
Although I have had the disability almost all my life, I did not see myself as disabled or having a disability. I had a regular childhood with friends with and without disabilities, my mother, my older siblings (two step brothers and 2 step sisters), and I had a regular life with struggles and accomplishments as any single mother with children could experience. I never thought or occurred to me that I wanted to be “normal” or wanted to be like everybody else in my family and friends. I saw myself as a person, with a difference, but such difference was not a major aspect of who I was, it was me –Cecilia.
My life as a child and youth had other issues such as pleasing people, searching for love, wanted to be liked, wanted to be loved, wanted to be accepted, and wanted to fit; hence I drank, consumed drugs, smoke, was promiscuous, and faced three suicidal attempts. But never related such behaviors to my disability, I thought it was the result of my father abandoning me (and my mother), or the molestation I experienced, the violence I witnessed, or my father’s family rejecting me as the “unwanted” child, or I thought it was just life, I never thought it was the result of my disability.
Today, I am not sure if I can or want to say that since the polio paralyzed my body, I have been looking for normality because I did not see my disability as an aspect of abnormality. I went to three schools specially designed for children with disabilities. I finished pre-college with people without disabilities, and I graduated as a computer programmer with “regular” people too. I achieved a category of one of the best basketball players in wheelchair in Mexico. I won several medals for different sports. I was a member of the Mexican national sports team representing the country in couple of Pan-Americans (i.e., Halifax, Canada and Mallagez, Puerto Rico), and I was selected to participate in one Para-Olympics, which I did not attend because I had an accident training for the games.
I know I experienced discrimination, biases, and prejudices based on my wheelchair (disability), but I moved on or forward without even acknowledging those attitudes and actions against me. For example, I became the first woman with and without disabilities to work as shoe shining in the entire country. I felt like I develop an option to produce income for women with or without disabilities, though former classmates and friends did not want to shake my hand anymore or turned around to avoid seeing or talking to me. During the day, I did shoe shining and at night I panhandled to support my family (which at that time consisted of my mother and two younger brothers) because I could not get a job as computer programmer. The difference of treatment did not affect me, something kept me going.
My life has offered constant positive and negative encounters before and after I immigrated to the land of opportunities. I did not know that when a person immigrates onto a new cultural experience, as noted in Walsh (1979), uncertainty emerges from the incapability or rejection to cope or adapt to the native culture. Including the methods the native culture uses to approach a situation or when the immigrant’s attitude and coping skills are not acceptable to the customs of the new culture (Walsh, 1979).
I did not have any idea about ambiguity or the need of coping skills. I only knew that, when the bus crossed the border between United States and Mexico, my feelings were sadness and loneness because my mother not only kicked me out of her house but also pushed me out of the country. My troubled attitude forced my mother to push me out of Mexico. I needed to “visit” my dad (a father I hardly remembered) and share my bad behaviors and the consequences with him. Once again, something deep inside kept me going. I remember I promised to myself not only that I would try to make a meaning of my new experiences, but also I told to my internal ‘I’ that I would go back home if things did not work for me. I survived 25 years in the biggest city of the world; I could make another 25 years or more, no problem.
My strongest dissertation topic was the self-determination theory focusing to help adults with disabilities to become leaders of transformation. While searching for information and reviewing the literature I noticed I kept agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, suggesting, recommending, hesitating, adding and removing dependent and independent variables based on my personal experiences. Much literature encouraged me to reflect on my personal journey as an immigrant with a disability. My deep reflection helped me to appreciate that my story might relate to other people with disabilities, immigrants with or without disabilities, women, Latinos, Hispanics, foreign-born, or anyone who have experienced the clash when mixing cultures or dealing with one alone and have traveled the journey while learning English as second language.
Although I believed that studying my own successes and failures could take me to other people with related experiences, the study will be difficult to explain and to understand without focusing on one single issue. I have learned that external and internal factors play an important role influencing each culture I represent; hence, something internal needed to be developed to guide a personal survival while navigating among cultures.
While analyzing different problems to be the foundation of my research question helping to survive and to emerge from uncertainty, I realized that my own experiences as a sole person representing many minorities and my lived experiences of the cultural differences in education -in life- could be a powerful tool to initiate on self-leadership. The insight that my story could have academic value, encouraged me to approach an auto-ethnographic methodology empowering me to explore the issue of self-leadership as relates to people who struggle identifying with more than one culture and have writhed with influencing factors.
There is no one single system developed for one person representing many cultures on how to deal with all the issues emerging and merging from each culture. Neither have I found information on how to be ready to target one culture at a time or to choose the culture for the day or the skills to switch cultures depending on the situation. I have not found any guidance on how to please different cultures or just one at the same time, or to close the door expecting isolation. The only possible option, based on my personal experience, is to lead our self through the path we want to take.
Asahina, N., Matsunami, Y., Sueda, K., Shiraishi, H., & Saitoh, S. (2010). Vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis in a non-immunocompromised infant. Pediatrics International, 52, 838-841. doi:10.1111/j.1442-200X.2010.03132.x
Sabin, A. B. (1992). My last will and testament on rapid elimination and ultimate global eradication of poliomyelitis and measles. Pediatrics, 90, 162-169.
Walsh, A. (1979). The relation of blood pressure levels to the assimilation of immigrants and intolerance of ambiguity. Journal of Social Psychology, 107, 257.