MULTIRACIAL FAMILIES The best of many worlds

For these families, racial and cultural differences have only enriched their lives.
& lt;a & gt;By MARALINE KUBIK & lt;/a & gt;
HEN JOHN VAZQUEZ went to pick up his 6-year-old son Manolito at school, the little boy was playing with two friends. His dad asked him which ones they were and he proudly identified the boy in the red shirt and the boy in the blue shirt.
Manolito, who attends kindergarten at Market Street Elementary School in Boardman, was oblivious to the colors of his friends' skin -- one black, one white -- and his mom and dad couldn't be more proud. They have striven to bring him up in a multicultural environment where he can learn to appreciate all people.
For the Vazquez family, that is a necessity: John is a white Hispanic from Puerto Rico. His wife, Francine, is black and from Youngstown. She also has two daughters from her first marriage -- one who still lives at home -- who are black.
"Manolito has the best of both worlds," Francine said. He is growing up in both cultures, free from prejudice. She continued: "Racism is taught."
"You're not born with it," her husband said, finishing her thought.
John and Francine finish each other's sentences a lot.
Holiday celebrations
At Christmas, Francine said, "we have a black Santa and a white Santa and we celebrate all the holidays and then some." Kwanzaa, Spanish holidays -- the family even celebrates Ramadan with Muslim friends, Francine said. "So, Manolito knows about all the cultures and he's happy with everybody. Cultural differences are wonderful."
John and Francine say they are very outgoing, attending numerous school, office and social functions. Although they are often the only interracial couple at such events, John said, "We blend in and talk to people. We tend to make friends ..."
"... Very easily," Francine said, finishing his sentence.
Even so, gaining acceptance is not always a sure thing.
Most of the time, people are inquisitive, John said, but sometimes he and his wife can sense that people are uncomfortable.
When they first started dating, Francine said her brothers "had a little problem" with John.
"But after they got to know me, they were all right," John said.
"John's family was a little reluctant at first," Francine continued, "but they have all accepted me and treat me like gold."
In the seven years they've been married, the couple recalls losing only one friend because she could not accept their interracial relationship.
"We figure it's her loss," Francine said.
"We have better friends now," John added, smiling at his wife.
To celebrate diversity at work -- John and Francine both work at the Department of Jobs and Family Services -- the couple and their co-workers sometimes plan a smorgasbord of ethnic foods. Each person brings a dish: Francine brings Italian greens.
"Everybody likes the way I make it," she said, noting the irony.
Another family's story
In another part of the Valley, Lowell and Ellen Satre's family and its rainbow of faces has been conquering prejudice, too.
The Satres have four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren whose racial and ethnic heritages vary as much as the squares in a patchwork quilt.
Their first child, Ruth, is a Sioux Indian. They adopted her in 1969 as an infant.
That same year, their son Peter was born to them.
In 1975, the Satres adopted Lorie, a 17-year-old who had come to them through foster care. Like Peter and their parents, Lorie is white.
Then, in 1976, the family adopted 41/2-year-old Jody, whose birth parents are black and Mexican. He also was born with a physical disability: His arms are shorter than normal and his hands were malformed with missing and webbed fingers.
Despite the differences within their family, the Satres found a good fit in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood on Youngstown's North Side. "We grew up in a neighborhood where everybody accepted you," said Jody, now 31. "We were stared at a lot, but I think it was more because of my hands."
Jody said people still stare at his hands but he's learned to shrug it off. "Sometimes I tell them, 'If you took a picture it would be easier,'" he chuckled. Other times he jokingly informs them that hands like his are available in area discount stores.
Learning lessons
Dealing with racial prejudice has always been less of an issue for Jody than dealing with stares from people who notice his hands. Learning about his cultural heritage was relatively easy, too.
"My parents are pretty liberal in getting to know different cultures," he said. "We learned a lot through traveling. They would take us everywhere."
The family visited the Indian reservation where Ruth was born, and even lived in England for a year while Lowell, who teaches history at Youngstown State University, was on sabbatical.
At age 19, Jody located his birth family. His birth parents and siblings, including a brother who is less than one year younger, live in California. They speak mostly Spanish and have a different lifestyle than his adoptive family, Jody said.
"I was fortunate to be raised by Mom and Dad. I can see a difference in the way I was raised. I don't think they [my birth family] could have met my needs," he reflected. "Growing up in a diverse family and community, I have a lot more open mind than my [birth] siblings. It taught me to be really accepting of other people."
Ruth, now 34, feels the same way. It took her only a week to find her birth family.
"I never wanted to meet them to fill a void," she said. "My brother was trying to find his birth family and my mother was helping him and it wasn't bothering her, so I decided to look, too."
No trading
After meeting her birth mother and her older sister, Ruth said, "I would never take away the life I have now for that life."
When Ruth was born, her birth mother was only 15 and already had one child. Today, her birth father has 12 children. Life on the reservation is also much different than what she grew up with, Ruth said. People are poor, there is a lot of drinking and it is so far out in the country it seems desolate, she said.
With her adoptive family, Ruth grew up as best friends with her blond, blue-eyed brother Peter. Although her appearance is a stark contrast -- Ruth has black hair, brown eyes and a much darker complexion -- it never mattered because everyone knew her family was diverse, she said.
Peter, now 33, agrees.
"She was adopted before I was born. So growing up, I didn't know anything different. It wasn't until I was out of grade school that I even noticed the [racial] differences," Peter said.
The older he got, the more privileged he felt. He said the uniqueness of his family excited him. "I'm better off because I've got different perspectives and have been exposed to a wide variety of experiences."
Living in a diverse family, Peter said, has helped him relate to other people, which is especially important because the Columbus neighborhood where he now lives is even more diverse than the one where he grew up.
He said his three children, who range in age from 1 to 6, will have an even greater advantage. "They are real comfortable" with people of different backgrounds, he said.
Ruth said her two children, ages 10 and 14, are also comfortable and freely associate with her multiracial family, their father's black family, and their uncle Peter's white family.
"Variety is a great thing in life," Jody said. "It took a lot of give and take to do what my mom and dad have done. You have to have a lot of love and patience."
"This is a very gratifying way of living one's life and building a family," Ellen reflected. While her children were growing up people would often ask how she and her husband maintained the stamina to handle so much complexity. Meeting the individual needs of each child, and learning about cultural heritages together, she said, "provided an opportunity for an enriched life for all of us."
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