Edge of the Rez: A Philly Husband, a Navajo Wife Doctor Frank Armao grew up in Philadelphia. His wife, Fena, was born on a Navajo reservation. The cross-cultural couple has had to learn to respect each other's traditions -- as well as to pass them on to their three children.
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Edge of the Rez: A Philly Husband, a Navajo Wife

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Edge of the Rez: A Philly Husband, a Navajo Wife

Edge of the Rez: A Philly Husband, a Navajo Wife

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We bring you now the second in our series Edge of the Rez, stories produced by member station KNAU. The edge refers to town's bordering the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northern Arizona. That's where Frank and Fena Armao have made a life together.

The couple lives in Winslow, Arizona, a town of about 10,000 with historic Route 66 running right through its center. Frank Armao has been a doctor with the Indian Health Service there for about three decades. He grew up in Philadelphia and went to Winslow as part of a public health service scholarship after medical school.

Dr. FRANK ARMAO (Resident, Winslow, Arizona): I came out here and checked in to some rather seedy hotel in the middle of the night with sand blowing under the door, then I started my career here the next morning.

Winslow is a small town now. In 1979, it was an incredible outpost of civilization.

MONTAGNE: Fena Armao was Fena Louis(ph) in 1979. She grew up on the Navajo reservation and moved to Winslow when she was six.

Ms. FENA ARMAO (Resident, Winslow, Arizona): My mother moved into town so she could put me into school. And I didn't speak a word of English and she put me in first grade. There was no kindergarten or pre-school or anything at the time so. And I was fortunate enough to have a great teacher. She was real patient with me and taught me English.

Dr. ARMAO: I actually met Fena playing basketball. We had a gym we could use on Wednesday nights. This was soon after I got here in my first year here, and she was a very good basketball player, as I was not.

Ms. ARMAO: I went over there with my aunt. Her name is Starlene(ph), my aunt, and she works here at the Dow(ph) clinic and she was telling me about the new doctors that would come in. She said there was this one particular doctor you've got to meet. So we went over there and…

Dr. ARMAO: Right. I actually remember the date; it was December 8th, 1979.

Ms. ARMAO: And he struck me as just - you know, with all this hair on his face, because he had a beard and, you know, it was pretty long and scraggly. And I said, Starlene, I don't think he's my type. She said, oh well, yeah, he kind of grows on you. So we married September 21st, 1985.

Dr. ARMAO: Well, Fena can tell you stories. When Fena delivered our first son, I entered the room, the lights were kind of dimmed and she was basically sleeping there. But she had rubbed meconium, which is the baby's first stool, she'd rubbed that into her face. And of course being a doctor, I just noticed all these dark blotchy stuff on her face and I just - and my heart kind of did a flip-flop and I felt, my gosh, she's got meningococcal meningitis or something in here and I…

Ms. ARMAO: But he'd heard of this before, I think. No? I thought you had. Anyway, the reason you do that is you get a mask on your face when you get pregnant. You know, the discoloration on your face. That's the belief that if you put that on your face, the first poop of the baby, it'll take it away. And it did, eventually. So it was fun shocking him because I knew he's going to look at me and say, what in the world is that on your face?

Dr. ARMAO: And when I seemed a little quizzical about it, she reminded me that, you know, all through her pregnancy she would come into our place and we would send her down to the restroom where she would urinate in a cup and then bring it back to us. So she thought that was pretty strange, too. So, and I think that's kind of a paradigm for the whole process of cultures trying to learn from each other and accept some of our idiosyncrasies, if you will.

MONTAGNE: The Armaos have three children and they grew up in Winslow, where half the student population is Native American, mostly Navajo. Still, Fena Armao says she doesn't want her kids to feel torn between two cultures.

Ms. ARMAO: My generation, those of us that grew up on the reservation, I think that's where a lot of the inner tug-of-war is going on because we all have that history of, you know, the long walk and all of that. And then having to learn the English language, get an education and, you know, have a career. So you're getting pulled from one world into another. And I think, from my perspective, I would like to save my kids from that.

Dr. ARMAO: It's a little paradoxical because they definitely view themselves as a Navajo. I've tried to instill that in them, and I really believe their primary identity is Navajo; they certainly look Navajo. They don't really look like their dad. But I mean I do feel badly that our kids aren't better versed in Navajo tradition and culture, don't participate more. I don't know. My excuse would just be that life is busy. I know some people that can really have it both ways for their children, but it's just a lot easier said than done.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Frank Armao with the Winslow Indian Healthcare Center, and his wife, artist Fena Armao. You can hear more stories of life in border towns from member station KNAU's series Edge of the Rez at our Web site, npr.org. And that includes an interview with the mayor of Winslow. Mayor Allen Affeldt moved there 10 years ago to save a historic hotel.

Mayor ALLEN AFFELDT (Mayor, Winslow, Arizona): Well it was difficult moving here, though, no one really thought you could have a first class hotel in a little border town like this. Most of the business in downtown Winslow was what would be considered drunk bars, whose principle job was to take money from Native Americans and turn them back on the street when they had no money anymore.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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