When Kafi and Rudy Carrasco fill out forms, they often have to answer with "none of the above." They can handle questions about age and education. Rudy's a 29-year-old social worker and a graduate of Stanford. Kafi (pronounced KAH-fee) is a 24-year-old second-grade school teacher with a master's degree. Beyond that, they don't fit the standard categories.
Kafi and Rudy live in a Southern California community where Latino and black tensions are rising as the growing Latino population threatens to displace black families and workers. The Carrascos' cross-cultural marriage makes a strong public statement of black/brown harmony in a neighborhood where that message is sorely needed.
Last year, Rudy became associate director of the Harambee Christian Family Center, where the community's children and youth are developed for leadership through discipleship and education. Kafi is also investing her life in young people. At the Cleveland Elementary School, which is made up mostly of African-American and Latino students, she affirms both cultures in her classroom.
Neighbors and friends often are curious about the Carrascos' marriage. "The first thing we tell them is that we are intercultural, not interracial," explains Kafi. Rudy goes on, "Which usually leads to a discussion about the concept of race and how Latinos are an interracial population to begin with. Latinos and African-Americans have many cultural similarities, such as a view of life that is much more communal than it is individualistic. When people see the common bonds rather than the differences, it goes a long way toward getting beyond the ethnic barriers."
But sometimes those barriers are easier to see than the common bonds. "There's a Mexican family on our block who told their kids they couldn't speak with Rudy because he is 'too American,'" recalls Kafi. "When we asked the kids what they meant, they explained it was because 'Rudy is married to a black woman.'"
But that doesn't keep the couple from reaching out to other black and Mexican families, with Kafi speaking to them in Spanish and Rudy participating in Afrocultural events.
"I see my marriage as a model," Kafi says. "Not as a prescription, but as a sign that cross-cultural relationships are possible."
Even their home life reflects the Carrascos' commitment to community. In an effort to redeem urban blight into urban sanctuary, they recently remodeled what was formerly a crack house in an inner-city Pasadena neighborhood. Kafi and Rudy share the home—and their vision for racial and economic reconciliation—with their friends and Harambee coworkers Derek Perkins and Karyn Farrar-Perkins.
"When people see middle-class, college-educated families moving into the neighborhood, it has an incredibly positive effect on how people view their 'hood," says Rudy. Adds Kafi, "It helps create an expectation among our neighbors that it is not impossible to create a safer, more nurturing environment for the children."
And they say having two couples share the same house brings added benefits. "When you share cooking, cleaning and childcare among four adults," Rudy says, "it makes day-to-day living much easier. It leaves energy to respond to the needs around us."
A Meeting of Minds
Rudy and Kafi began their relationship as they have continued it—by sharing dreams of urban renewal and racial reconciliation. Five years ago, Rudy was working as managing editor of Urban Family magazine at the Harambee Center, when Kafi—still a college student—came by to find out about the center's work. Rudy gave her an article he had written about institutionalized injustice, and the next time she visited Harambee the two discussed the article for so long that Rudy asked Kafi to "keep talking over dinner." She calls that conversation their first date.
Now that they've been married three years, the Carrascos still talk over dinner. And lunch. And breakfast. Friends say they talk about every intellectual, cultural and spiritual issue imaginable—which shows how similar they are. But the contrast between them is also intense.
Rudy grew up in east L.A. without a father in the home. His standard of living improved when his older sister, Yolanda, took him and his siblings in after their mother died. Yolanda was a Christian, so she took her family to church. That little neighborhood church became their extended family.
On the opposite coast in black- and Latino-heavy Brooklyn, Kafi grew up the second of nine children in a strong, middle-class African-American family. As a result of her parents' fervent push for black pride, and the close friendship of several Latina schoolmates, Kafi gained a strong sense of both personal identity and cultural respect. When she became a Christian in college, her burden for reaching urban youth gained added purpose.
When Rudy and Kafi became engaged, friends and family members wondered if they'd be able to withstand the racism they would face. Would their cultural differences be a source of conflict?
"I never considered not marrying Kafi because she was African-American," says Rudy. "I always had a real connection with the black community. I joined the Gospel choir at Stanford, read a lot of civil rights history in high school and had been immersed in the black community two years before Kafi came here." Their families approved Rudy's and Kafi's decision to marry. Still, both families made sure the couple understood and could withstand the social pressures that interracial couples face.
"I didn't think twice about marrying a Latino man, though I'd always imagined I would marry a black man," says Kafi. "I knew I'd have to give up some thoughts I'd had about how to raise kids. I'd envisioned raising my children black and proud. Now I'll have to balance both cultures. When we have kids, they'll be raised Christian first."
Rudy, too, meditates on what life will be like for their kids. Early in their engagement, he woke up one morning and realized, "My kids are going to be considered black. What if my kid came home one day and said someone called him a 'nigger'? How would I respond? I can deal with racism as a Latino, but suddenly the African-American experience in this country was becoming profoundly personal."
Kafi and Rudy regularly speak to church and college groups about their intercultural relationship. At school meetings whenever racial issues come up, they speak up in the name of cultural harmony. Before black groups, Kafi encourages African-Americans to learn Spanish and identify with Latino history. At the same time, Rudy urges Latinos to learn African-American history and fight their biases against blacks.
"Not long ago I was hanging out with a group of Latinos when they started bad-mouthing blacks," Rudy says. "There was no way I wasn't going to speak up. And they couldn't believe it. Few are used to hearing someone from one ethnic group defending another."
But this is precisely why the Carrascos' message is so powerful and why people listen. "We are ambassadors," says Kafi. "Our lives are open books.
"I think people see us as having credibility in the other's culture," she adds. "I have an authentic concern for my Mexican students because my husband's Mexican. It also gives me credibility when I say the world is not color blind, that culture does matter. We want to show Christians that we can be uniquely ourselves and still be committed to Christ."
Andres Tapia is an associate editor with the Pacific News Service. He is a co-author of Haunted Marriage (InterVarsity Press).
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.