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Learning to be resourceful at an early age

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Walter Gallacher Post IndependentJudith Nakagawa Ritschard
ALL |

Daughter of Japanese Brazilian father and Mexican mother remembers Christmas traditions

Judith Nakagawa Ritschard lives in Carbondale with her husband and their 2-year-old son.

Ritschard: My parents came to the United States for different reasons. My dad is Japanese and came from Brazil because his uncle told him if he learned English he could go to work for him in Japan. My mom was working in a hotel in Puerta Vallarta where she met a man who lived up in Starwood in Aspen. There wasn’t very much help in the valley at that time and so people were looking for housekeepers and caretakers. So my mom had a job here before she left Mexico.



We came to the United States and lived in his caretaker unit for about a year. That was fun. They were hardly ever there and they had a pool and dogs and a stuffed Bugs Bunny that was about six feet tall. They had those strange things that rich people have that were pretty amazing to me at 3 years old.

Gallacher: Do you remember coming here?



Ritschard: My very first memories as a child were of arriving in the U.S. We got here a couple of days before Halloween. I just thought I had died and gone to heaven, going door-to-door and getting candy. My mom was really great at encouraging us to meld into this culture. She saw that other kids were doing it, and so off we went trick or treating.

I remember that first winter and the snow and crying in preschool. I was cold and I didn’t understand the kids because I only spoke Spanish. I think I cried for about a month and then I went home one day happy and that was it. I was having fun. I had made some friends.

It helped that I had my brother with me. He was a year and a half older than me and he was my little sidekick. That preschool was the beginning of learning and adjusting to a new culture because, at home, we weren’t getting what little American kids were getting.

My parents were gone a lot, especially when we were younger. It was a real struggle for them because they had to work so much. They were trying to learn the language and adjust to the culture. I remember my mom working long days and taking English classes at CMC after work. She would take us along, and we would do coloring projects while she learned English.

My dad was working at a sushi restaurant, one of the first sushi places in Aspen. So with both parents working, we were alone a lot and had to learn to be grown up and resourceful at an early age. I think that’s what made my brother and me so close. We were in it together. So while other kids were doing after-school stuff, we were waiting in the car for my dad to be done with his shift.

He’d come up and check on us and bring us some miso soup and give us some quarters to go to the bakery. There was an elderly woman at the bakery who really loved us and would give us cookies.

My brother and I weren’t complainers. We were pretty resilient, and we took care of each other. I did spend some time being resentful of my parents and the fact that I couldn’t be ice-skating or taking piano lessons after school. But being an immigrant you learn to be resourceful and you learn to take care of each other.

Eventually, mom ran a housekeeping business and my dad had his own landscaping business. So by the time I was 10 years old, I was helping her and my brother was helping my dad. That was our summers. Other kids got to go to summer camp, and my brother and I went to work. That was hard sometimes.

Gallacher: What else did you learn from that experience that contributed to your character?

Ritschard: I learned to navigate the world. There were a lot of things that my parents couldn’t help me with so I had to figure out how to do it myself, like my college applications. I figured out the forms. I remember going into our counselor’s office at high school, and there were all the moms helping all their kids, holding their hands through the process. Part of me felt superior to that. I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, you are such children.” And the other part of me felt inferior because I was asking, “Where is my hand to hold?” So there are a lot of mixed emotions.

Gallacher: It’s complicated isn’t it?

Ritschard: Yes, when my brother and I were going through the Aspen school system we were one of only four or five families of Latino kids. So we were all pretty united and tight knit. We would do Christmases and holidays together. And over time more families came and they would look to my parents for help and jobs and guidance. My parents were amazing teachers. They bent over backwards to help others because they knew how hard it was.

Gallacher: So what was it like to grow up in a multicultural family?

Ritschard: If you were to ask me what I am most proud of, it would be the fact that I came from a fusion of so many cultures. I feel like I can connect to so many different people because of that fusion. My dad is a Japanese Brazilian. He was born and raised in Brazil, so he is open and festive like my mother.

They both love food and people, so when we had Thanksgiving and Christmas there would be people playing music and dancing. The whole house would be shaking.

The turkey would be rubbed with achiote paste* before it went in the oven. The food of Thanksgiving wasn’t that different but it felt more like a Latin party. We made the holidays our own.

Gallacher: What did Christmas look like?

Ritschard: When we were younger there were pinatas and Las Posadas**. The Posada is a Christmas play with Joseph and Mary and you replay the Christmas story. We would start at St. Mary’s Church in Aspen and walk around the block. I can remember one year my brother was Joseph and I was an angel. There we were, 50 people walking around Aspen at 9 o’clock at night in the freezing cold. And then we would go back to the church and have a big Latin potluck.

We had food from all over Mexico and South America. We had tamales and atole and the kids would break the pinata.

Gallacher: Were you comfortable as a young Latino girl dressed up as an angel walking through the streets of Aspen?

Ritschard: No! I remember thinking, “God, Mom, no one does this, parading through Aspen at night.” We did it one time in Carbondale with 10 other families and my mom dressed me in a traditional skirt with yards of red, white and green cloth. And I was thinking, “Oh my god, people are watching us.” It was partly my teenage attitude and partly my feeling that people in the community looked down on us.

Now when I look back on it, I applaud my mother for trying to hold on to a religious celebration that was such an important part of our culture.

Gallacher: That makes you emotional. What is that memory bringing up for you?

Ritschard: It makes me emotional because I know that so many of the people who come here are wonderful, hard-working people who have a story. They have a lot to be proud of. Just because you aren’t white-collar affluent doesn’t mean you are less. Everyone has a story, everyone is someone’s child.

I am proud of those people who struggle to make it in the face of so much defiance, people who fall but get up with dignity, pride and grace. Every day they are giving it all they have. That’s what it brings up for me.

Gallacher: You are that person.

Ritschard: Hmm … I guess I am in a way. I have my parents to thank for that. I am thankful for their sense of adventure and their courage and for instilling independence and resourcefulness in me. I really feel like I have a true sense of self because I had to figure out who I was at an early age. Having a strong sense of self and culture makes me beam with pride. I am so proud of them and my brother and my sister and myself.

Notes

* Achiote paste, or recado rojo, is a popular blend of spices from Mexico. The mixture usually includes annatto, Mexican oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic and salt. The annatto seeds dye the mixture red, and this gives the meat or vegetables it seasons a distinctive red hue.

** Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration from Dec. 16 to 24. Typically, each family in a neighborhood will schedule a night for the Posada to be held at their home. Every home has a nativity scene, and that evening’s hosts of the Posada act as the innkeepers. The neighborhood children and adults are the pilgrims (los peregrinos), who have to request lodging by going house to house singing a traditional song about the pilgrims. All the pilgrims carry small, lit candles in their hands, and four people carry statuettes of Joseph leading a donkey, on which Mary is riding.

At each house, the resident responds by refusing lodging (also in song), until the weary travelers reach the designated site for the party, where Mary and Joseph are finally recognized and allowed to enter.


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