This piece originally appeared in Timbrel magazine. For more conversations around race and racism, order your copy today.
by Alyssa Rodriguez
It is just another Tuesday in the health clinic I coordinate. A young mother, a three-year-old boy and an older lady I presume to be the boy’s grandmother walk in for his appointment. Assuming the older woman is the child’s grandmother is the furthest I go in deciding before being told what these individuals’ story is. I have learned better than to assume. In this case I am correct but in the exam room where I play the role of interpreter; we find out much more about their story.
I envision a world atlas being laid out across the table like an accordion, outlining their journey. Just two days before, they arrived to Iowa from Honduras by way of Texas. The boy’s father is still awaiting release from the family detention center where they were held. His mother recalls being placed in an ice-cold holding cell for an undetermined reason and undefined amount of time while there.
“What brought them here?” is a question stamped in my mind upon meeting newly-arrived refugees at my job as I often do, yet one I am not always prepared to have answered. It is a question I feel guilty for asking since I know the defense that boils up in me when I am asked the same thing, as though my family hasn’t been here for multiple generations and is supposed to be somewhere else.
For this boy and his parents, the “last straw” that led to a one-way trip north was when he and his mother were walking down the street hand-in-hand and suddenly, a mara of young adult men stopped and shot a man in the face right in front of them. Like the poem, Home* says, “you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”
Throughout the multitude of experiences in my arguably young life, I have continued holding onto the Latin@** question that I think is fervent within each of us of Hispanic heritage: Where do I belong? As a Latin@ growing up in the Midwest about 30 years ago, the question materialized differently than it may today. My twin sister and I were two of the few Latin@ students throughout our school years. We were othered, reminded in many instances that we were not like those around us, no matter how hard we tried. Being the minority, it was an ongoing challenge to be comfortable in and embrace our skin.
Growing up in the local Mennonite congregation which was predominantly white felt safe; although I cannot recall many times when questions about racial injustices were raised there until later into my young adulthood.
Without acknowledgement of these very real happenings in my life and others’ everyday lives, along with constant calls to be peaceful and humble, I believe opportunities for the church that made up so much of my identity to be a voice for the others among [them], like me were lost. It begs me to question whether I belonged in that environment and why I have continued participating in it as an adult.
I think the answer is that I have been blessed by faithful role models of what embodying the Christlike welcome to others looks like—first as a Mennonite Voluntary Service volunteer in San Antonio, Texas; and then on several different immigration task forces developed at my home church as we bore witness to the injustices of the broken immigration system at our own front door***.
Our identity as humble peacemakers that I so admire for many reasons causes me to consider whether as Jesus-followers, we miss the point sometimes in keeping quiet about racial injustices around us or not being the hands and feet of Jesus in acting against them. This is not to say there aren’t many Mennonite churches and individuals doing a lot of good to reverse the trend of hatred towards the stranger. I read about these cases daily yet still, I am one of a handful of members of color in my congregation of hundreds.
Also blessed with the unique opportunity of putting faith into action through serving abroad two years ago, I couldn’t help but feel torn as a Latin@ missionary in Latin America, sent to serve among individuals in their everyday reality of poverty and violence while nearly every decision about their ministries relied upon the predominantly white, financially-stable Americans overseeing them a continent away.
During my time in Ecuador, many layers to that aforementioned Latin@ question surfaced. I arrived there with a few years of a high school Spanish-language education under my belt. I did not grow up with Spanish flowing off my tongue as is often assumed. My parents, second-generation Mexican-Americans, often grimaced upon hearing their mother tongue, quickly reverting to English as they formulated a response.
I had never admitted the privilege even I held in speaking the dominant language until I landed in Ecuador and was greeted with bienvenidos signs and taxi drivers who jacked up their rates to tourist rates upon hearing my gringa accent. In Ecuador, my identity was always doubted by others. It didn’t make sense to the natives that I looked like them and yet that is where our similarities ended.
Upon my return to the United States two years ago, I tried to hold on to that ephemeral sense of what it feels like to have your efforts of acquiring a second language mocked. I clung to what it felt like to not understand certain customs and be ashamed for my lack of understanding them, too.
Underneath the “Welcome” signs at the Chicago O’Hare airport, I yearned to hold on to the Spanish I did learn by speaking it with passersby who now wore the “foreigner” role, giving them directions in their mother tongue and smiling empathetically. And then, I was blessed with my current job, being a source to basic health care for children who don’t qualify for health insurance.
As I found myself back in between worlds—a place I knew so well and hadn’t quite found comfort in, I began to look upon it with a new sense of gratitude.
As a Mexican-American woman from a long line of immigrants whose marginalization took on many different extremes; be it my great, great grandmother who was run out of U.S. territory by Texas Rangers to my grandparents whose hands were lined like the rows of the cotton fields they worked in, and to my daughter who I hope grows to be comfortable in her skin, I live in a paradox. If I were to tilt it one way I am never enough—never American enough (with my brown skin) and never Mexican enough (with my gringa tongue). But if I tilt it in a radically Christian way it becomes that I am (and I get to be) a bridge.
Without my identity as a Mennexicana**** who values serving others, I would never have lived in Ecuador and gained appreciation for my grandmothers’ tongue. I have been able to capitalize on new opportunities for inclusion where today’s immigrants are stuck—the individuals about whom our institutions and presidential hopefuls repeatedly tout a “turn away” theology and “send them back” slogan.
I am thankful my job and faith force me to be aware of the current disarray our immigration system is in as we deport pastors and detain mothers and babies and then release them but not first without the incriminating stamp of an ankle bracelet, as though their shackles of inner shame and struggles of surviving home weren’t enough. As a Christ-follower, I don’t see Jesus in the current system. Both biologically and spiritually, these people are my brothers and sisters. They belong: at the health clinic where I work and in the pews where I pray. In their faces, I see Him. May our church continue its efforts of reckoning with these systems of isolation and welcoming the strangers at our door.
*Shire, Warsan. 2015. Home. cbc.ca
**Latino is a musculine noun referring to men, latina is a feminine noun referring to women. The term Latin@ can be used simply to textually shorten writing “latina and latino.” reclaimingthelatinatag.tumblr.com
***Iowa Pastor Max Villatoro Deported After Community Rallies To Keep Him In U.S. huffingtonpost.com