You and your husband are a particularly “blended” couple, even for Santa Fe! Tell us a little about your respective backgrounds.
I grew up as a Filipina-American in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where there is a very large Filipino community — so large that my elementary school and high school were a third Filipino, a third Anglo, and the rest Hispanic or African-American. Tom grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, what you would think of as traditional Southern culture and customs. I grew up by the beach, and he grew up on a farm, with big farm animals and guns. One afternoon the first time I went to visit his family in Pauls Valley, before we had children, we loaded up the truck with dogs and guns and went off to shoot cans off a bridge. That was a very different kind of culture for me!
How do you bring your very different cultures together in your family?
It’s so important to blend these traditions, especially when you have children and want to share all that is memorable and rich from your own childhood. When we were just a couple, without kids, I don’t think it was as important to us, but when the kids were born it was something we really paid attention to. So we did sit down and talk about it. It wasn’t like we sat down to have a heavy conversation. I always say it was more like a negotiation. It means so much to me that Tom loves Filipino foods and loves incorporating them into our family, which meant being seen and honored by my loved one, and I want to see and honor what’s important to him.
So what does a holiday look like in your household?
On Thanksgiving we always have a turkey, which we both had in our houses growing up. We also make eggrolls, which were a big thing in my family, and pancit, a Filipino noodle dish with vegetables and chicken and shrimp. And we incorporate some things from Tom’s family. There’s a sweet potato casserole that’s just so decadent, with brown sugar, Bourbon, a lot of butter, marshmallows — really rich Southern cooking. One of our best friends, Thom Patterson, often spends holidays with us and he grew up in the South, too, in North Carolina, so it’s become a tradition for him to bring collard greens.
Then there are non-food things that remind us of our families. We always use Tom’s grandmother’s china from his grandmother and some Filipino embroidered tablecloths and napkins that are from my family.
Were there aspects of each other’s backgrounds that either of you didn’t want to adopt in your family?
One food tradition that Tom wanted that I said I did not want is his mom always made two turkeys: the turkey you ate, and the “show turkey” that would be on the table when everyone gathered. His mom is an amazing woman who will spend three weeks getting ready for Christmas. She was like the southern Martha Stewart. I said no to that. That’s just too much food. We just make one turkey.
Christmas often comes with bigger expectations than other holidays. Has that been more challenging for you?
Not really. We always make a prime rib on Christmas, and I also make eggrolls and pancit, which is a very common Filipino food that is meant to be eaten for good luck. We share the cooking, so that’s fun. It’s great to have him and the kids help out with different things, cutting, prep work, all the things that happen with the meal.
Our families did have very different traditions around opening presents. In Tom’s family, they stack their presents, and on Christmas morning everyone would put their stacks together and open them all at one time. It would be just this big, furious circus of wrapping paper and bows everywhere, everyone opening presents all at once, and then it’s over. In our family, everyone would open one present at a time and make a big show — look what I got; this is from Aunt So-and-So — and talk about it and pass it around. Maybe we’d go outside and ride our new bike, or read the book we got. Opening presents could be a three-hour process. I didn’t want the big everyone-at-the-same-time thing, and Tom was open to that. It’s like a negotiation. Everyone gets a little of what they want. It’s about making sure that everyone is honored and seen.
Are there things about your childhood holidays that you just miss, things you can’t recreate here?
I do miss being around all the different people, and I miss all the wonderful food. I cook Filipino dishes, but I’m not as great a cook as my aunts and uncles and mom and dad — I’m working on it, but they’re just so good. The Filipino Christmas parties would be potluck, so you’d be getting lots of different kinds of foods. I just remember that visual of abundance, going to parties growing up where they’d have to bring in a table from the garage that they hadn’t planned on because they needed more space for all the dishes and plates. People would come in with arms loaded of some big casserole or crockpot of food.
We’ve kind of tapered it down in our own family, and also added things. Sometimes the kids will add something that they want us to do. Like, lately it’s Isa’s job to do the place cards. She’ll spend the day and make everybody’s place card in a special way. But then there are other wonderful traditions that we’ve brought in. We try to bring New Mexico traditions into our celebrations. That’s a really special time for us when we make chile, and we make enchiladas, things that take a little longer for us to make.
Do you know other families that work to incorporate disparate traditions?
Yes. Last year we spent Christmas with a family from the school that came from Holland. They had a couple of dishes from their growing up. I made eggrolls again. Another family brought — I think you call it a Surprise Ball — a ball of rolled crepe paper streamers, with toys inside. We passed that around and each person would unwrap it until they get the next toy. There were those little red fortune-teller fish, and funny little hats, and charms, and someone got a yoyo. That was something they grew up with.
Do you have any words of advice or encouragement that you’d like to share with young families blending different backgrounds?
Take some time and reflect about what you really love and what really want to share with your children. And then really listen to your husband or wife, the father or mother of your kids, and hear what they really loved about growing up.
If I had to do it over, I wish we had had more of a reflection together. I wonder what we would have come up with. Our conversation was very expedient. I wonder what would have come out if we had had a whole conversation about reflecting and reminiscing and remembering, and seeing if there were obvious connections that would have created something new out of our memories in addition to holding on to what we remembered. I think it would have been a richer kind of thing.
But it sounds like your traditions aren’t static; they keep evolving.
Yes, but you know how children are. They get used to the same things and get upset if they don’t see them as they’ve been. That’s how we ended up with sage dressing and oyster dressing and rice — basically a tableful of carbs! We all want to hang onto our favorites.