As I woke up to snow this morning, our first for the year, I was reminded of where I live now and of something I never thought about while growing up: seasons. This isn’t a bad thing and although I’ve experienced a total of twelve years of my life in areas with snow, I still find myself enjoying the novelty of its beauty. There is a part of me however that finds it all surreal along with every other aspect of my day to day life. Through a few responses to recent posts of mine, I’ve stopped to think about what a vast country we live here in the United States and along with that, the cultural differences that are prevalent. It also reminded me of a time a few years back where I felt I had made a mistake in my decision to live where I live now.
I’ve done it twice. I grew up in the Southwest. I was born and raised in a small town along the Mexican border and moved to Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, when I was sixteen. Although many might see this as a major change, I really didn’t We had been to Tucson and Phoenix enough times as kids that the change was more about adapting to a much larger school and a never-ending supply of things to do. Arizona has both its own culture and has absorbed so much of the culture of the many transplants that call Arizona home today. It’s a growth state with many of its inhabitants bringing a little bit of their own culture with them. So you moved from Ohio to Arizona? No problem, there are Midwest style restaurants, Cleveland Browns bars, and plenty of other venues to keep you in touch with your roots. Are you from the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Texas, Mexico, Canada, China, Japan, England, India, or (insert where you call home here)? Again, no problem. Everyone brings a bit of themselves and will equally be able to find a bit of themselves in the greater Phoenix or Tucson area.
I went the opposite route. My wife is from New York and our annual trips there were becoming increasingly expensive after we had our first child. She wanted to be closer to her family, a day’s drive, and I agreed provided it would be in an area that would offer reasonable airfare to visit my family back in Arizona. We made the decision to move and that move would be to Wisconsin. We could visit her family multiple times a year and had four nearby airports in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago that all offered reasonable flights back to Arizona.
The Green Bay Packers
Wisconsin: major culture shock to me but in a good way. We had visited there twice as a family and then I spent a few days there interviewing for jobs. During my solo trip, I stopped into a little dive restaurant to get a few tacos. The menu offerings assured me I would not have to give up Mexican Food. The owner assured me I would not have to give up my Hispanic background either. There was an entire Mexican community in this city, complete with dances, festivals, and numerous restaurants and stores. This surprised the hell out of me to be honest. I thought we had the patent on Mexican communities in the Southwest. There were also Greek, German, Irish, and Italian communities to name a few.
I could write a very long blog post about nothing but Wisconsin but I will sum it up with a number of words: the Packers, brats, cheese curds, beer, the Badgers, the Brewers, S.C. Johnson, Case tractors, Lake Michigan, the Dells, fishing, hunting, the Packers, polka, flatlanders, Happy Days, Lavern & Shirley, Summefest, snow, summer, Friday Fish Fry, cabins up North, any festival you can imagine (chocolate, Greek, Armenian, Italian, German, Irish, strawberry, every church imaginable & with beer, Mexican, Kraut, and so on), oh, and did I mention the Packers? I didn’t bring much of my culture to Wisconsin. It had so much of its own. Well, I did wear an Arizona Cardinals coat into a bar once during a Packers game and lived to tell about it.
We lived in Wisconsin for five years. My second son was born there. It was his birth that prompted my wife and I to recognize one thing we were missing: family. My oldest at the time had just finished first grade and our youngest was just over a year old. My wife and I discussed moving again and knew there were only two choices. We would either be moving to New York or back to Arizona. I had a chance to purchase a small company in Arizona so we opted to return to my home.
My business went well, providing a nice living for us and allowed my wife to stay home with our youngest, something she had been able to do with my oldest until he was three. I was home and life was great. The greater Phoenix area had changed some over the five years we were gone, mostly growth but also in areas we hadn’t given much thought to the first time we left: crime. We lived in a very nice Tempe neighborhood that was within a few blocks of Arizona State University. Our oldest son was now playing with kids in the area but allowed only to stay on our street. There was no venturing past one of his friend’s house who only lived about ten or so houses away from us.
My wife was from a small town and I’ve already mentioned that I grew up in a small town. We both grew up being able to run around town without the worries that so many children in a large city deal with on a daily basis, yet here our now ten year old son is only allowed to play on one street. It just didn’t seem fair.
In the summer of 2007, my wife and two sons went on vacation to New York to visit her family for four weeks. Having a business, and working ungodly hours, I of course stayed home. One week into their vacation, my oldest son calls me up to tell me he wants us to move to New York. He was excited about fishing with his grandfather, hanging out at the local Little League field, and mostly about being able to just play all over the neighborhood. My wife asked if I would fly up for a few days toward the end of their vacation and then we’d all fly back home together. I agreed and when I arrived, my son and wife now pushed the idea of a move.
As a family, we went through an exercise weighing the pros and cons of living in Arizona and in New York, an exercise led by my ten year old son. New York won and within two months I had closed my company down, left a city of close to five million people to move to a small town of just over five thousand people in New York. I was fortunate that one of the two larger companies in the area was hiring and I was able to land a great job.
New York: once again, major culture shock to me and this time on so many levels. We moved to my wife’s hometown, a place we had been to many times before on vacation but it was different now. It was home. I settled nicely into my new job and the kids loved their new school. My wife took a job only to realize her calling was nursing so she went back to school to become a nurse. She loves it.
For me, something was missing and I got into a real funk. Depressed might be a better word. When you live in the city, you love the times when you can get away to the small towns or explore nature. We did it on a regular basis in Arizona and a few times in Wisconsin. Often one wonders what it would be like to move to an area like that. Well, we were living it. Small town, beautiful hills, river, little to no traffic, and our home was six miles out of town in an even hillier wooded area. Despite our postcard living environment, I wanted to move back to Arizona.
I thought at first that it was due to the fact that I was living in a small town and despite my growing up in a small town, I had become a city person and there was no going back. We started taking occasional weekend trips to the city and although this satisfied my yearning for the things a city has to offer, I was still depressed. I kept searching for something to make me feel more at home here and one day it hit me. I guess I didn’t see it because we had adapted so well to Wisconsin. The only thing I really had to give up in Wisconsin was the geographical features of Arizona, and of course the 330 plus days of sunshine. Wisconsin had everything else plus things I hadn’t experienced in Arizona. The town we moved to in New York however is a predominately white town with a culture of its own and was missing something that I have had every day of my waking life: some aspect of Hispanic culture.
OK, with a name like Cunningham you are probably wondering why that is important to me. I’m predominately Hispanic and was raised in a Hispanic household and environment. I’m Irish and Basque to be exact with a little bit of Mexican in there somewhere.
One day at work, I called my wife and explained to her what I felt the problem was. She understood and what happened next was nothing short of amazing. I came home from work and while getting out of my car, I was welcomed to Mexican music escaping through the open windows. I smiled and walked up the steps opening the door to the kitchen, and was smacked in the face with what only can be described as a heavenly aroma: the smell of Mexican food. Now I know what most of you are thinking. Big deal, everyone can make Mexican food. Yeah, and so can Taco Bell. This wasn’t just any smell; it was the smell of my mother’s tacos, in my home in the woods, some 2.200 plus miles away from my mother in Arizona. No more pre-made taco shells, or store bought taco seasoning. My wife had made taco shells in a frying pan with fresh corn tortillas and had seasoned the meat just the way my mom does. After the phone call from me, my wife had called my mom, gone to the store and bought what she needed, even stopped at the liquor store for Tequila and Margarita mix, hurried home and made a meal my mother would be proud of. A meal I was proud of her for making.
My mother started sending me numerous recipes and we now make and eat all the food I ate growing up with the exception of Menudo and Tamales. Those two will come as soon as I find tripe and masa. I’ve even shared this food with friends at work, making me the local “Mexican Food” expert. I was already a novelty to most of them as they jokingly call me Paco or Mexican Bill at work. It’s in jest and I have never been offended by it. They’ve even encouraged me to open the first Mexican Food restaurant in our town and told me what I should call it: Taco Bill’s of course. I don’t see that happening but I will continue to bring in red chile con carne, green chili burritos, carne asada, barbacoa, and tacos.
You see, what was missing is what so many people before me have done and that is brought something of themselves to where they moved. I didn’t have to do that in Wisconsin since an entire community of Mexicans from Texas moved there in the sixties many years ago I was told to work for CASE and that culture was thriving in the cheese state. But for this tiny town along the New York/PA border, I am the first (at least at work). And I’m gladly sharing.
As I write this, my wife is slow cooking chile verde venison for burritos we will eat later while we watch the Arizona Cardinals on TV. Not such a strange land anymore.