Natasha Coons married her husband despite her Chinese family having
”major issues with Lou being Black.”
On a recent brunch outing, at the Mission on University, one of our longtime friends voiced the observation that most of the couples in our social circle are “mixed.” Out of six, five are pairs mated from different ethnic groups. It just so happens that we’re all friends—we weren’t brought together by our marital similarities. But even in California, where the rate of “marrying out” is higher than the national average — 23 percent compared to 15.1 percent — it’s unusual to find interethnic couples.
I am half of one of these interethnic marriages. I’m Eastern European-Russian-Jewish and my husband is Huichol (indigenous people from central Mexico)-Spanish-Portuguese-maybe Arab — in short, mestizo. Though common parlance refers to our relationship as “interracial,” I think the term is a misnomer. We are all members of the human race. People of many varied ethnicities comprise humanity. On this point I disagree with the United States Census Bureau, which defines five different races. Many people identify themselves in terms of race, and sometimes use the term interchangeably with ethnicity. To complicate matters, nationality often eclipses ethnicity. To me, ethnicity — defined as “a social group of people who identify with each other based on common ancestral, social, cultural, or national experience” — is what distinguishes us from each other. But I’m not hoping to finalize the definition or end the discussion.
I was born a proper New York Jew, at New York Hospital in Manhattan. As far as my mother knows, parts of her family immigrated to the United States from Russia and Ukraine. She was born in Atlantic City. My father, otherwise known as Abba, was born in Israel. My father’s father was born in British Mandate Israel to a mother who was also born in Israel at the time of the Ottoman Empire, and a father from Russia. My father’s mother, my Safta, was also born in the British Mandate, in 1927, to parents who were from Poland. My father moved to the United States at age 21, after he completed his mandatory army duty in Israel. My parents met in New York.
My husband was born at home, in his grandmother’s house in Guasave, Sinaloa, Mexico. His maternal grandmother, Juanita, was a Wixaaritari, or Huichol, native from the state of Nayarit who was born to a Huichol mother and a father who was part Portuguese. Juanita was sold at age 15 to a man of 50 — my husband’s maternal grandfather. He had moved to town from another state and dropped the surname Habbab. Somewhere along the line, his predecessors might’ve been Arab. Thus, my husband’s mother is mestizo, a mix of European and any of the tribes that called the Americas home pre-conquest. His father was mestizo as well. My husband was given his father’s surname, Garcia, originally Spanish.
But in the culture of Native Americans, as with Jews, heritage comes from the mother. A Jewish mother always makes a Jewish child, whomever the father. This age-old practice ensured the survival of the culture: if a child is more closely reared by its mother, as in most cases, then he or she will be brought up to follow her traditions, even if the father comes from a different culture. Genetic science has recently revealed biological basis for this custom: we all inherit a copy of our mother’s mitochondrial DNA but not a copy of our father’s, so lineage can be traced through the mother.
I like to tease my husband that his conquistador ancestors are trying to colonize him when a red or blond hair shows up in his mustache. But, like all Native Americans, he cannot grow a full beard. In fact, natives in the Americas did not call the Europeans the “white man,” but the “bearded man.”
Though the popular term for people from Mexico is “Mexican,” that term does not encompass all the native tribes. It refers specifically to the Mexica (me-hee-ka) people, who were one of several tribes that settled in the region that now contains Mexico City. The Mexica, founders of Tenochtitlan, assumed a superior position over some of the nearby tribes. When the Europeans showed up, the Mexica name became eponymous with the region and its peoples. Hence “Mexican.”
Our friend Rocio’s family hails from Mexico City, and she identifies as first-generation Mexican-American. She is married to our friend Mike, son of an Italian Catholic father and a Ukrainian Jewish mother. Together they’re the Giancolas, with two intelligent and sweet daughters, Liliana and Maria Helena. Rocio moved from Mexico to San Diego as a child and Mike grew up in New York. They met at UC San Diego, after Rocio had just broken up with a Lebanese boyfriend. When they met, Rocio was thinking, “Maybe I should just date a Mexican guy — it would be so much easier.” But Mike made his way into her heart, with his homemade pico de gallo and his curiosity about her culture. Mike has been learning Spanish and can communicate well with Rocio’s mother, which is important to her. This year Mike’s mom came to stay with them for Passover and Rocio tried gefilte fish for the first time.
“It wasn’t bad,” she admits of the much-maligned Jewish appetizer.
Lily and Helena’s Jewish grandmother has also taught them how to play dreidel, and they each have their own menorah. Rocio and Mike speak Spanish to their children as much as they can. On a recent trip to Mexico, the girls sat in the back of a taxi chanting, “Mommy is a Mexicana, Daddy is a gringo” and giggling uncontrollably. But in many instances, says Rocio, “Mike sort of passes.” When they were traveling in Mexico his dark hair and dark eyes fooled people — until he started speaking Spanish. Then people got to wondering where his accent was from and how he and Rocio got together.
In the Mexican community, Rocio shared with me, sometimes “judio” can have negative connotations. And it filtered down to Rocio that when they got married, Mike’s great-aunt commented on how cute it was that now he had his own “little Mexican maid.” But his parents have been “loving, accepting, and curious,” and her family loves Mike, even if sometimes they explain his unfamiliar ways by saying, “He’s just a gringo.”
When I was 25, shortly after the man who is now my husband and I moved in together, my Israeli Safta invited me to spend a week with her in New York, where I grew up and where she had lived for a short while when my brother and I were young. We would meet in the middle, between San Diego and Jerusalem.
My Safta and I stayed in my great-aunt and -uncle’s apartment on Park Avenue and 60th, on the Upper East Side. It was Pesach (Passover) and the tulips were blooming all up and down Park — a beautiful spring in New York City. One morning at breakfast in the dining room, my Safta asked me if I was happy with my boyfriend.
“Yes, very happy — and he’s not a boy.”
“Well, maybe someday you’ll come to Israel and try an Israeli,” she said in her accented English, as she went into the kitchen to get the cream cheese I had already said I did not want.
“Nope, no way, lo, todah,” I said, raising my voice to make sure she heard me. “I’m not interested in anyone else besides Irvin, the man I’m with now.”
She went about cleaning up and futzing over me in silence. Jews are not big on exogamy. In fact, I’m the only one in my family who has married outside the Jewish community. So far.
As a young girl, when pondering whom I might wed someday, I had wondered if I might marry a fellow Jew. Quite frankly, the thought of it gave me the creeps. Marrying a Jew, especially an Israeli, would be like marrying my dad or my brother. Eww.
And that’s one of the things that attracted me to my husband: the differences in our DNA. Fresh genetic material is super-sexy. Jews — an insular population — just don’t turn me on. My subconscious told me, and my hormones definitely agreed, that this man whose people came from a place thousands of miles from where mine came from was irresistibly attractive.
Even in multi-ethnic San Diego, a blue-eyed, white-looking woman with a mustachioed former U.S. Marine who was born in Mexico gets some surprised looks. But I’m not “white,” and my husband isn’t Mexican. Our friend Lou brought it up one night when we stayed late talking with him and his wife in their College Area living room.
“You’re Irvin’s little white chick,” he said with a friendly chortle.
“I’m not white, I’m Jewish,” I retorted.
“The other white meat!” Lou declared with glee, and we all had a hearty long laugh.
Natasha and Lou Coons got married in 2002 and have since produced two of the cutest children we have ever seen. Kingston and Nalu are five and ten now. We compare the elder to the Greek god Adonis. He’s athletic and tall with blue eyes and curly locks. Their younger son could play baby Jesus in the manger, with his angelic face and his budding Jew ’fro of golden ringlets. But their parents aren’t Greek or Jewish. Natasha is Chinese and white, and Lou is black and Creole. His full name is Lourent Charles Thierry-Coons — “Lourent” is Creole for the French name “Laurent.” His mother descended from Lousiana Creole people, a mix of French, Spanish, and African. Somehow Natasha and Lou’s combo of Asian, black, and white genes produced white-looking children.
The Coonses met at UC San Diego, where Lou was studying to be a teacher and Natasha had moved from her home in Hong Kong. Lou wears dreads now, but Natasha says when they met “he looked very handsome with his cleanly shaven head.” Lou’s family had no issues with his choice of lifetime mate, even though at their first Thanksgiving together she made the cultural faux pas of saying how much she loved pumpkin pie — not knowing that “Black folks eat sweet potato pie!”
But Natasha’s Chinese mother and aunts who raised her in Hong Kong “had major issues with Lou being black.” Natasha’s mother had also married outside her ethnicity. Natasha’s father was a white man from Michigan. He worked for Philip Morris and was on assignment in Hong Kong when he met Natasha’s mother. They married and had two children but soon divorced. Mr. Royer moved back to the United States with the younger of the kids (his son), leaving Natasha and her mom in Hong Kong. Natasha grew up speaking Cantonese with her family and following the traditions of her mother while attending an international school where they spoke English. She says being from Hong Kong further exacerbated the issue of Lou’s ethnicity. As a former British colony, Hong Kong sees some Chinese-white relationships, but black people are not very common in that part of the world.
Here in the United States, black people were not allowed to marry whites for much of this country’s existence. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia declared that a Virginia law banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. This decision eliminated similar laws in many states. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 kept people classified as “white” from marrying people classified as “colored,” defining race by the notorious “one-drop rule.” Any person with African or Native American ancestry was identified as “colored.” Just for getting married to each other, Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia. They appealed their case to the highest court in the land and won, paving the way for an uptick in “interracial” marriages throughout the United States. California was the first state to strike down the ban on such marriages — in 1948.
Our friends Rachel and John would’ve been kept apart by a law such as the Racial Integrity Act. Rachel is black and John identifies as Mexican. Though the U.S. Census Bureau now distinguishes Hispanic as an ethnicity and has added a sub-question to determine if a person is “Hispanic or Latino” or “Non-Hispanic or Latino,” in the days of the Racial Integrity Act people from Mexico were considered white because of their Spanish or Portuguese heritage.
When Rachel first saw John’s picture on OKCupid she thought he was cute, “all dark hair and long eyelashes.” She couldn’t tell what ethnicity he was from his profile picture, but, she says, “It was never really an issue for me. It was more about our connection.” Upon learning she was dating John, Rachel’s brother said, “Oh, he’s Mexican. We like Mexicans.” And the fact that he’s a Cowboys fan has endeared him to Rachel’s uncle and brother, too.
“Now that we’re engaged,” says Rachel, “they’re all practicing how to say his last name.” She will be Mrs. Rachel Almaz Almodovar — Jewish first name, Swahili middle, and Spanish last name. In her words, after she gets married, she is “going to confuse the hell out of some people.”
It’s true: we rely on names to tell the story of where people come from. But with inter-ethnicity, intermarriage, and the general trend of human beings to be attracted to each other across borders and oceans, names might need a bit more explanation.
In 2009, the year my husband and I solemnized our union, the Name Equality Act took effect in California. The act designates that people getting hitched have expanded options for taking married names. Each party to the marriage may adopt as a last name: 1) the current last name of either spouse; 2) the last name of either spouse given at birth; 3) a name combining into a single last name all or a segment of the current last name or the last name of either spouse given at birth; 4) a hyphenated combination of last names.
It was my husband who suggested we make use of the Name Equality Act and combine our two names into one to represent the union of two ethnicities that have rarely come together. I was Avidor and he was Garcia — together we’re “Gavidor.” It’s unidentifiably foreign-sounding, and, as far as we know, original.
“I like Gavidor,” my Safta wrote to me in a letter after we got married. She is probably pleased that her last name is still part of mine. In Hebrew, as in English, just add “G.”
With our new last name, we continued a tradition that my grandfather (who was not my dad’s biological father — he died in the 1948 War for Independence in Israel while my Safta was pregnant) began in 1920 when he emigrated from Poland to Israel. He began life as “Widor” (pronounced vidor), but when he escaped the pogroms and made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), he changed his name to Avidor, which roughly means “father of a generation.”
So, my husband and I have a name that is part Polish, part Hebrew, and part Spanish. How fitting.