what is culture?

what is culture?

culture frank bonilaculture, frank bonilla

When we were asked to describe our culture, I was surprised to learn how hard it was for me to do so. I thought to myself, I can describe American culture in a generalized sense but is that what she is looking for?
* * *

I realized that my culture couldn’t fit into one box, but instead incorporates many boxes. I like to think of my culture as one of those Russian nesting dolls. Each layer of my culture is one of the dolls, and the smallest doll in the center of all the layers of “culture” is me. I come from a family with both Mexican and German heritage. My parents have been divorced the majority of my life. I have a disabled mother, and a brother who is ten years younger than me. I am a college student, who also happens to be married.

* * *

I found that it was exceedingly difficult for myself to pick apart my own culture. I identified my culture initially as an average, middle class white male who grew up in a small, farm oriented community.

* * *

I’m a first generation American. I’ve struggled to identify which culture group I belonged to. I’ve realized that my identity is something unique and that I do not need to forego my family’s culture but rather embrace it as well as the culture and the traditions I’ve learned in America.

* * *

I do not know how to describe my culture other than saying that I view my culture as an extremely Mid-Western culture. I have trouble just saying that because I do not know how other cultures view mine, and if I were to say that to someone maybe they would think that this is not a culture or lifestyle to be proud of and would be judging me.

* * *

I define my own culture as “American”. Generally speaking, I think American culture is classified by our overall state of democracy and the diversity in the United States. Yet, it was hard for me to think of anything to put down besides American. I am a white woman and I do not identify with any religious affiliations or other sort of traditions, and those are the sort of things I normally attribute to the term “culture”.

* * *

Growing up in Minnesota, I was taught to be “Minnesota Nice”. We say hello to passerby. We wave when someone lets us go first at the stop sign. We help a lost child find his or her mom in stores and at the mall. We dread the Mall of America, but help those who are lost in the large complex. We play in the streets with other kids in the neighborhood, using the nearest house to go to the bathroom or to call home and ask when dinner is. We simply are nice to all, friends or strangers.

* * *

To be honest, I was not a fan of the “stepping forward and back” and “could you survive” activities. I would have much rather spent this time learning about other people’s cultures. Or maybe about common cultural issues/misconceptions that people hold. I’m sure I have probably said culturally insensitive things that I’m unaware of. Learning what these things are would be a lot more useful to me.

* * *



Stories from a one-time visit to the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center could only be recorded with pencil and paper.

corey davis and anonymous dane county teens

A teen in the Juvenile Detention Center, who was there for his fourth time, told me, “I’m never coming back to this place.” He then went on to say, “Most of us will probably be back in here.” I asked him why he said this, when he had just said that he was never coming back. He replied, “Because I’m eighteen, so when I get out tomorrow and screw up again, I’ll be in prison.” Looking at my misunderstood expression, he said, “It’s just who we are,” and the others at the table agreed.

Others felt that even if they tried to change, they would stand out as criminals because of their race. A young woman told me:

“America is racist. Period. No matter how good you are, how much you doin’, you gonna’ get down played cause of your race. It’s like as if, I go into a store, the store clerk, they’re gonna’ follow me, but if a white girl go to a store, they’re not gonna’ follow her.”

care givers

care givers

Reflections of those working with teens in the juvenile justice system.



Rude words directed my way
Disrespect too far
Take a breath, walk away
Harsh words strike a nerve
Face reddens, tears flow
Tomorrow is another day
Now the words roll right by
Take a breath, walk away
The words aren’t about me anyway


We have kids with all different expectations, different understanding of programming. Some kids, maybe they’ve kinda set up their mind, and they don’t care what you say or do. We have other kids who are very bold, you know, moldable, and they will take advice from you. We might be the first positive role model they had in their life. Or we might have some really hard up kids, who are like, they’re already sixteen, seventeen, they’re not changing their mind. This is who they are, this is what they’re doing. I always tell other people for my job, I’m like, I came in as a young college kid thinking I’m goin’ to change the world, I’m goin’ to help every kid who comes through this program. But it’s come to the point where I say, if I help one kid in their lifetime, I think I did a good job.


My picture is based on when I took some of you guys to the mall, and we decided to go into a store, and there’s two white chicks working there, and we walk in, 5 black kids and a white lady. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, two security guards show up. And one of you guys looked at me, and it’s “OK, time to go.” And then, as we were leaving, we kind of processed the situation, and actually one of you ran out of the store as soon as the security came, I didn’t know where you were, but anyway…what actually got to me most of all was that it seemed like you guys weren’t surprised by it. And I thought that was probably the worst part of it. Even more than it happened, that you guys didn’t think it was out of the ordinary.



being there

being there

Who is there for you when you’re in the system and need support?

anonymous artspeak participants

sojournersojourner truth

Right here is Sojourner Truth and my mom, together. The words inside her head is strong and loving, and they both are like that.


I got sweet, my mom’s sweet to me, and sweet to a lot of people.


Mine is my cousin that had passed away. He had dreds, too.


I was going to do my mom, but then I had a change of thought. I just did whatever. Inside the head I put loving.


This is supposed to be my mom…funny, my mom is real funny, she always be funny.


My dude on the inside of his head it say money, ‘cause I like money …he just cashed out, Gucci. With a peacock on his head, cause that’s what dudes do, they go peacocking when they tryin’ to find they ladies.


Even thought this looks sort of crazy, it’s supposed to be my mom. Inside the head I put proud, because she’s a very proud woman, and I used the Packers cloth cause that’s her favorite team. This is supposed to be her crown cause she’s a queen.


The word inside is persistent, cause even with all the stuff that happened to me, my mom, she kept trying to get me on the right path  and stuff, she never gave up. Even when it got very bad, she’s always been very persistent that way.




Teens in the system reflect on what it feels like to be incarcerated.

anonymous artspeak participants


I just wrote the word black, and then covered my paper in black, because I felt like I was in the dark, yeah, felt depressed, shit. I felt shitty cause you couldn’t do nothin’ now, I was locked up. Police, police yank ya, so, mm hmm.


I really didn’t know what to do, really. I just drew a rock, and just painted a picture of how I feel today. You know I feel depressed, really, for I’m a rock basically, or I’m under a rock. So I just did how I feel today…I’m not very happy today, feel depressed.


I got a bloodshot eye here, cause I guess whenever I get angry my eyes get bloodshot. I kinda got some what like the red coming into my eye, cause I guess like when I get mad I kinda, like the anger I guess takes over a little part of me, I kinda lose myself to the anger, so, I guess that’s what I got.


I don’t know what I was feeling, I just painted stuff. I painted this target, this target aiming at the opps (man, that’s cold!). I put a “RIP Folks” for my guys, my homies, got killed. And I put a cross that’s broke apart, and “F Da Police.” Then, this red, this red orange color is hard, I don’t know, I don’t know what I was feelin’…a curse on the mic.


I drew JRC [juvenile reception center], because it be depressin, and I hate sittin’, that’s all (love me).


Dis is a kind of feel, how I was feelin’ when I got locked up, feelin’ shitty, it was a bad night for me, two felonies in one night. And all I was thinkin’ about at the time, cause I was under the influence, so while I was in there, sittin’ in the holding cell ‘til like four or five in the morning, I was thinking of smoking me a pound of Lao, and like it was rainin’ on me. And everything about to change and I’m gonna face some factors that I never faced before, and it’s going to be hard for me, you know what I’m saying…it’s kind of like a projection of what I was feelin’ and thinking at the time, being what I wanted to do.

freedaguysfree da guys

I didn’t really do that much…there’s just some red, and it say “Free Da Guys.” Cause when I was locked up, I wasn’t really paying attention to myself, I mean I was in there and stuff, I wanted to get out and stuff…but I was always in there, like, not even talkin’ about free myself but talkin’ about free all my guys.

silent killerspaceship jail

I don’t know what I drew, I just drew it.
I guess this is like, they got like a spaceship jail
This is like a robot spaceship but it’s a jail
Then it’s like you look out the window, you see the stars and the moon
And then the sun is a mass of linkadinkin guys, a nuclear furnace
This is a box to freedom
And if you open a box, I guess there’ll be a passage out
Then this the Jewish star, and just like a circle, just a circle
That’s about it

notfreenot free

You know I’m angry cause I’m not free. And the green line, is for like, the police, you know they only want me for the money, cause you know, we a dollar sign. And the fire on the words, is like my anger and stuff, and ah, yeah.

chance2last chance

I just got me in court, last time. Tell me if I ever come back in this courtroom again, he’s gonna send me to the hills.



Justice-involved teens created avatars to represent themselves and protect their identities. Here are their stories about why they selected their avatars, along with the commentary of their peers.

anonymous artspeak participants


I’ve got this wolf…cuz I’m very protective of my inner circle, I guess (like a wolf pack king? Like a wolfpack gang?)…yeah (wolf gang over everything).


I don’t know what the pyramid really mean, I was just bored, but I got my initials. My name, my name to me is like (let’s see the picture!)…man!… I drew my name, my initials, and some lines. The lines to me means like never ending, so lines can go on and on (eternal?)…yeah. And my name is like the only thing that you really got in this world, is your name, so that’s why I put that there. And I got my favorite colors, orange and red (that was a good thing).

freemefree me

Being locked up! (Oh, he’s snide)… free me! (what I’d say!)



I put the incarceration word in the fire, cuz I feel that’s where it’s pulling me…

loyaltymusic  notes

I got dreds, and I like music…but I didn’t get to finish it.  The angel wings is for all the people that I know that have died in the past and that had hurt. (Let me see your wing) (Awesome!) (What I really liked about it is that it said loyalty) (Loyalty, loyal-T!)


I just drew whatever. I used two of my favorite colors, red and black.


This is the world, because this little orbit thing, right here, it’s me, going around in the world, all around. Me, goin’ around the countries, and all other states, travelin’… because I feel that one day, I’m goin’ to be the one to hold the world in my hand. I feel that I’m going to be in control, that I’m going to, you know, lead things. That’s my biggest dream, really, travelin’ around the world.

dope2silent killer

I just drew him cuz I didn’t really have my artistic expression, so this here is random. He just caged, like a animal in a cage, and he’s tryin’ to let the beast out. So, he can’t get out of the cage, so to relax his self, he smoked the dope.

thirdeyethird eye

This is my third eye, so I can see everything.