Identity and the Role of Race, Religion and Ethnicity

by Laura Foti Cohen
In this issue, we use Black History Month as a jumping off point for a piece on diversity and multiculturalism.

The Ebell of Los Angeles, like the neighborhood in which it is now located, began as a haven for upper middle class whites. Ebell members have always worked to better our city, but our own ranks did not reflect the ethnic and religious variety of Los Angeles as a whole until relatively recently. Today’s membership comes from a multitude of racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Club President Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, an author accustomed to exploring race in a deep way, says she has seen enormous changes at the Ebell since she joined 16 years ago: “It was monochromatic and lacked diversity then. Now it’s a glistening kaleidoscope of faces and skin tones. I know from talking to people in the club and looking at their biographies that their backgrounds span the continents and girdle the globe from Latin America to Czechoslovakia, Armenia to Africa, Australia to Spain, England to Estonia and many places in between. The Ebell reflects the wider world but also the huge diversity of Los Angeles.”

Shirlee believes, “It can only be a good thing that all these people get together and that various aspects of their cultures seep down through the club. It brings in new ideas and talent, and lets the outside world in through various perspectives, not just the group that’s grown up here. It enriches the club’s mission of women learning more about themselves by learning about the world that is Los Angeles. Having all these people crashing against each other is all for the good; these are the kind of crashes that don’t result in injuries or fatalities.”

Many Ebell members embrace aspects of their identities they have inherited or chosen for themselves. Whether volunteering for causes tied to their race, staying active in the culture of their birth or working within the constructs of their religions, these members meld multiple aspects of who they are.

Angela Saachi, a Peruvian-American, has chaired many Latin American galas for the Ebell over the years. Despite this, she says, “I’ve been disconnected from Peru for 40 years. We have different ways to live here and the influence in Los Angeles is more Mexican. The link is the language, even more than religion. Not everybody is Catholic; that is a disconnection more than a connection. You don’t have one group you are talking to. We are all so disconnected. I could be saying everything is wonderful but it’s not.”

In part because of these “disconnections,” Angela does not believe in multiculturalism. “I think everyone who comes to America should speak English. Immigrants should not impose their ways, their language, their religion. When a group comes and stays with only itself, they do well for themselves but do not integrate into the greater whole.”

Ky Trang Ho is President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Assn., helping Asian-American journalists and journalism students. Last year she co-chaired their annual convention. She moved to the U.S. from Vietnam as a preschooler.

“The other day my mother-in-law asked me if I identify myself as a Vietnamese-American. I don’t think about the fact that I came from Vietnam. I think of myself as a banana: yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I’m not a first generation, but a 1.5 generation: I wasn’t born here but I came here when I was young.”

Despite not identifying primarily as Vietnamese Ky says, “Being Vietnamese makes me want to do something for Vietnam. I’m going there in March with Project Vietnam, which provides healthcare in rural, undeserved communities.” Ky, whose sister is a doctor and volunteer with the organization, will translate and be a liaison with non-Vietnamese doctors.

Esmay Fraser, the Ebell’s Finance Chair and a member since 2002, was born in British Guyana, now Guyana, and came to the U.S. when she was 22. She married a Guyanese man, with whom she has two grown children.

“Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America,” Esmay says. “It was a British colony and we were educated in the British system. So culturally we were sort of related to the British West Indies.” (Trinidad is the closest island.)

Esmay stays connected with her Guyanese past, and made sure her children were aware of their parents’ culture and family. “We raised our children the way we were raised: both my husband and I went to single-sex schools and so did my son and daughter. I’m from a large family so they interact with cousins and uncles and aunts. I’m the only one in California but we see each other fairly often.” She is active in her high school’s U.S.-based alumni association. She and her husband, a doctor, are affiliated with a Guyanese medical relief organization and several social organizations.

New member Pamela Whittenbury has been an American Sikh for 15 years. Because she wears a white turban, she is frequently asked about her religion, which was born in India about 600 years ago. “It’s one of the most important things in my life,” says Pamela, who is an instructor in Kundalini yoga as well as a Sikh minister and a healer.

“Although the Sikh religion does not proselytize,” Pamela explains, “in the western culture we have the concept of a minister, and we take training and have licenses. I have married people, I am active in my Gurdwara (temple) and I head up one of the seven organizational groups involved with temple functioning including Lungar [free kitchen], in charge of food for about 150 people. Whenever we have a service we serve a meal as part of the Sikh tradition.” In addition, Pamela is certified as a level two Sat Nam Rasayan, an ancient art of energy healing similar to reiki.

Pamela’s daughter, also a Sikh, got married in October at a Sikh temple; the reception was held at the Ebell. “We’re all vegetarian and don’t drink alcohol so we probably didn’t make a lot of money for the Ebell,” she says. “We had a vegetarian meal, a vegetarian cake, and we toasted with Martinelli’s. My daughter picked a date that was a religious holiday for us. We do an evening prayer and a singing meditation. The Ebell was kind enough to accommodate us for the 45 minutes before the wedding.“

Melissa Marañon, a native of Dorado, Puerto Rico, says the Spanish language and an emphasis on family life are two aspects of her native culture that remain important to her. “That’s what [husband] Guillermo and I appreciate about the Ebell: they’re always thinking of family events,” she says.

As far as her career in interior design in New York and Los Angeles, Melissa notes, “There are lots of top designers that speak Spanish and are doing so many interesting things in terms of design. I find that point of view interesting. Latins are a diverse group, and if people see you’re somehow connected with a last name that is Spanish, inevitably it touches every part of your life, from banking to politics to charities. It’s a bicultural thing and an important part of my identity.”

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