“I wanted To experience my culture... not as a spectator, but as somebody who was living in the moment.”
“When East meets West” (Indian, that is) should be the title of Serena’s cultural journey. With pride on both sides of her identity, we hear how she fell in love with the West Indian celebration of Carnival as an adult, but still has incredible heart for her more traditional East Indian roots. We explore how much she values her familial heritage, how she embraces multiple cultures in her children’s lives, and how she cherishes the stories and moments behind her favourite family foods. But perhaps the most important part of Serena’s story is how she surrendered to her authentic self in this journey, leaving the opinions of others behind - to be her whole self at home, at work, and at play.
Serena Anthony is Chief People Officer for GroupM North America. Serena is an expert Human Resources Management professional with over 20 years of experience working across complex, disparate ecosystems where she demonstrates her true capabilities as an innovative thinker and change-maker in the field. As a member of GroupM’s North America Executive Committee, Serena is a key player in designing, driving and championing GroupM’s people strategy. With a passion for diversity & inclusion programming, and a focus on culture, Serena aims to position GroupM as an employer of choice. She is known for her motivational leadership, dynamic personality, and delivering valuable impact.
Serena is the proud mother of identical twin girls and currently resides in Canada, splitting her time between Toronto and New York City.
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Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed. A podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
You know when you don’t want something to end? Especially a great big event, something significant and memorable? That’s exactly how we feel about this season, it feels like a party that we want to savour and enjoy forever. But alas, we are almost at the end of this season today with episode 7 of 8.
Last episode, Michael impressed us with his own rich cultural awareness and how he has used that as inspiration to be an advocate and evangelist of the stories from other cultures. What has resulted is an incredible library of stories with no two being alike.
Because cultural observance is so individual, there’s no prescription for exactly what you will feel an attraction to and what might fill you up. This episode, we learn that sometimes what we dig into and embrace culture-wise might not be what we were exposed to overtly growing up. Sometimes there’s this kind of innate feeling of connection to a tradition, celebration or ceremony that is in our blood. Something that we just feel like we need to explore. Today we meet Serena, a woman whose parents and grandparents had grand love stories that defied stereotypes and convention. Growing up with Indian influences (both east and west) and with a mother who was raised in Trinidad, it was only a matter of time before Serena would have gone back to explore that side of her roots, and eventually fall in love with the globally renowned festival of Carnival.
Serena is a proud Indian with both Hindu and Muslim heritage. She was raised in a conservative Hindu home, but one that was also filled with the colour and celebration of traditional holidays and festivals. She is a wife, a mother and an HR professional. Head of people for a global media advertising agency and oversees 6,500 people. It takes such a diverse experience and profile to be true to her authentic self. With her Trini roots, a culture that is full of jubilance, dancing and music. It was an instant connection to this connected way of life as soon as she was exposed to it. But perhaps it's the genuine way that Serena talks about the festival that is worth celebrating the most.
It's so funny that you ask because Carnival is a very big deal to me. I am a 44-year-old woman who discovered Carnival much later in my life. So I visited Trinidad for the first time in the 90s. I participated in Trinidad Carnival probably in the early 2000s for the first time and when I say participated, I went and had a lot of fun and went to a lot of parties and listened to the music and barely slept. But what I did not do was actually participate in the parade which was in full costume. Pretty revealing, it's equivalent to a bathing suit on the streets, where people parade for two days straight, sing, dance and have a very liberating and free time. I observed it because I have a very conservative family on both sides, my East Indian side and my West Indian side.
And there was some judgment towards those who chose to jump in the streets half naked, partying and drinking for two days straight. And as an Indian woman, I was very concerned about what the family would think if I actually decided to play in the Carnival. That was something I had to spend some time thinking about.
So my first few visits were just to enjoy the experience, but not actually be immersed in it and partake. It was much later and I think this is when I kind of came into my own as a woman who happened to be a mother of two small girls where I said, I want to do this. I want to experience the true essence of what Trinidad Carnival is and not as a spectator, but as somebody who’s living in the moment.
I'm not sure I spent too much time sharing with my family that that’s what I had intended on doing, but I took a group of girlfriends and we went down and we registered with the band and we picked our costumes, which was for me a very conservative, Indian woman who grew up in a very conservative way. Very nerve-wracking to put a bathing suit on with some tights and glitter and feathers and get ready to party for two days straight.
But I did it and I will do it every year until I'm 70. That's how much fun it is. There is absolutely nothing like it and the reason I say I'm doing it until I'm 70 is because I kid you not when you participate in Carnival you see people of all ages. I use the word liberating because it is so freeing to hear music that gets everybody really excited, to see people sort of just freely dancing and hugging and it's a parade. So you march down in addition to everything else, you get about 30,000 steps. So it's good exercise and you end up having the time of your life and all of the events leading up to it are sort of the, we're going to get you super excited about Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
So there's all these parties and live Calypso and Soca performances. And there are parties that start at 5:00 AM, so they're called breakfast parties so that you can start partying while watching the sunrise, and then you pretty much start going two weeks prior.
Then Carnival Monday and Tuesday happen and that's where you're on the streets and you're in costume and it's the event itself. And then come Ash Wednesday which is always the signal of the end of Carnival. That Wednesday there's something that sort of takes over everyone who was living through the Carnival experience and it's something called tabanca. Tabanca is post-Carnival depression. It is a real thing. It is a real thing because the buildup is so intense and you're on for weeks and if you're a local Trinidadian, for months, you're prepping for Carnival and partying and having all these events and concerts.
When it's over and it sinks in that it's over, you feel it. And in Trinidad people actually report kind of going into a little bit of a depression and that depression is called tabanca. There's lots of Calypso and Soca songs about this, but I remember getting on a plane to return home on that Ash Wednesday, which is when I leave every year and that feeling of it's over is so sad it takes me a while to get over it.
But the good thing about Carnival is you start planning for the next year's launch almost immediately. It is the time of your life and I don't know if you've ever been to Trinidad, but it's music, culture, food. The food is absolutely incredible. Mouthwatering, delicious and it's an experience that I highly recommend everybody try once.
And what does your grandmother think?
She laughs at this, they all do. I'm the free-spirited Serena that is unstoppable. I'm going to do what makes me happy and it's somewhat of a family joke. Serena's annual time of year is coming up, is everybody ready? My grandmother laughs and she's fine, she's supportive. She was very strict with all of us growing up, very strict with my parents. My mother would have never played in Carnival. My grandmother's brothers and sisters who live in Trinidad, they've all passed away today, but when I used to play it was just something nobody spoke about. They loved me, so I saw them while I was there and we had lots of family dinners, but we just didn't speak about my participation in Carnival.
This sounds amazing when grandma can get on board, you know, it's a good time. Serena had hinted to some of the misconceptions in her explanation about the celebration so we asked her to dig deeper in hopes of trying to build awareness and to dispel stereotypes about Carnival.
I think there's a stigma to Carnival in particular. Like I said there's some judgment and when I share with people sort of my love for Carnival and maybe they see pictures. I've had things happen at work, instances at work where somebody will say, "you go to Trinidad every year and play mass?" Which is you play in the Carnival and my answer is yes, I do and I love it. And they're like, aren't you worried about sort of somebody at work finding out that you did this? And my response, at one point in my life, yes, I would be very worried. I actually didn't play mass and participate in Carnival because I worked in corporate and I always held senior roles. I was concerned about the perception of knowing that I was going to Trinidad for a period of time and would be dressed in costume and the likeliness of a picture surfacing would scare me. I tell people this often at 40, I think I realized who I was as a human being and decided that I was going to live my true authentic life and not worry about what anybody thinks because I'm very self-assured and I know what my values are and I live my values every day.
It was at 40 that I said no more. I'm just going to live the way I want to. So I've played more in Carnival, in my forties than ever, than ever. So my experiences at Carnival were always as a spectator prior. It was only in my forties, the past two years because two years it's been shut down as a result of the pandemic, were spent very recently. And so the misconception is the culture is immature. It's a culture that is laced with way too much drinking, partying, people go there to mistreat women. There are a lot of perceptions about the event and itself that I want to dispel. You can make it what you want it to be. So I'm sure there's aspects of some of the perceptions that are true, but that's not what I enjoy. I go and I live and it's fun and I dance freely and I have bonding time with my girlfriends and we get to stay in a hotel together for a week and enjoy that time together.
There's nothing like it and there's no aspect of it that's dirty or inappropriate, as it relates to how I participate in it. So that's what I would want to dispel.
We would be remiss if we didn't hear about the rest of Serena's diverse family life. Serena is also super proud of her East Indian side, noting a deepening spiritual connection as she's gotten older. And she has deliberately constructed a life rich in experience, so we asked her what tradition she holds near and dear to her life and wishes that the next generation continues to learn and nourish.
You know, just the connection to our occasions. Christmas is a big deal, my husband's a Christian and even growing up as Indians, as Hindus as well, we celebrated Christmas. It was a very, very big deal to us because it was and it was a time for family to get together.
Christmas for the kids obviously is very much a huge celebration and we have all kinds of traditions tied to how we interact as a family. Christmas Eve, everybody knows it's PJ's night, everybody comes over in pyjamas and everyone knows they're staying at our house and my parents and my sister and her husband and the kids come. So we place a huge emphasis on that. What's important to me is that my kids don't lose sight of the Indian side.
My kids are mixed race, so they are half Indian and half Saint Lucian. So my husband's a Saint Lucian, he was born and raised there. So they get a lot more sort of Western exposure and they love every aspect of my side, the Indian side and look forward to Diwali and whatever festivities happen throughout the year. And my parents are very active in my children's lives. So they make it a point to ensure that my children know where they come from.
I just don't want them to lose that. I want them to celebrate Diwali in the same way that they celebrate Christmas. And so that's something I have to foster and ensure continues to happen over time, but it's that connection to where my parents came from, what I grew up living and what my culture is. That's very important to me.
What a kaleidoscope of experience deeply rooted in a multi-generational and multicultural family that values time together. As we've been doing for the last two seasons, we're ending our conversation with a question from the Root and Seed conversation tool. We have an entire section about food, but we wanted to know in Serena's family, what is your most important family dish or recipe?
So my mother is a phenomenal cook. My sister and I never took up cooking Indian food because we knew we could never live up to my mother's cooking. She's known within the community for her cooking.
Whenever there's an event everyone says let's do it at Razia and Bhisham’s house because Razia is cooking and we want to go and eat whatever it is she's making. So I'm a Sindhi, my father is a Sindhi and the one item that my mother would cook that brought all of us together, running down the stairs, getting excited about breakfast was something that we call lolis.
It’s whole wheat with chillies and onions and it's very basic, but it's something my father grew up eating as a child that my mother mastered. And I don't know what she puts in it in particular, but it's filled with Indian spices and we eat it with yogurt. So that was my mom. On my grandmother's side, she too was a phenomenal West Indian cook. She was known for her cooking, it's probably where my mother had got her touches from. My grandmother used to make soup. A West Indian soup and it was filled with very traditional Caribbean eats, which were ground provisions, so green bananas, cassava, potatoes, dumplings and then a meat of your choice.
So sometimes she would do beef, sometimes she would do chicken and she would make a massive pot of soup and let everyone know that she was making it. And the entire family, my mom had four siblings, would race over to fight for the soup that my grandmother was making. So I grew up on two things that we savoured and loved very much, and it was this West Indian soup that my grandmother made and lolis. A very basic, but delicious thing that my mom made for my dad to continue on with his tradition of what he used to eat growing up.
Serena has celebrations to enjoy from both her parents' sides, her husband’s and now from herself. Multicultural and true to her roots, this is what celebration is all about. The pure unbridled, liberating dancing in the streets.
Freedom to be who you are, despite what people or your profession might think. We hope this inspires you to look back a few generations and see what traditions, customs, celebrations or dishes you might want to bring to your life.
This episode was a story about an adult child who goes back to her mother’s home country to celebrate her roots and experience something that her mother never did. But in our next episode, we meet Grace who goes back and enjoys everything about her family culture that her parents can't. As a child of political refugees, we explore the other ways that immigrant children can celebrate their roots. We can't wait for you to meet Grace.
And we have a special announcement. We're launching a private Facebook community where we're inviting in people who love culture, family, heritage and tradition to connect over thought provoking, nostalgic and heartwarming stories. And to celebrate cultural pride and curiosity all the while being honest about the duelling impulses of our complex identities. Follow us on social media. You can find our links in the credits or sign up for our newsletter at www.rootandseed.com to get information on how you can join.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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