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Two days ago I started a journey with 10 members of the Latina Leadership Institute community. We traveled from San Antonio, Texas, to Mexico City to visit key historic, cultural and religious sites. The LLI offers this trip as an opportunity for participants to continue nurturing their cultural roots.
Since I grew up in Mexico, with the blessing of visiting these places during my childhood, it took me some time to realize the importance of this journey for Mexican-Americans and other USA Latinas/os. I had some indications of its significance, but this became clear to me three summers ago when I took my son on this journey for the first time. While we were there, he told me: “If only my U.S.A. friends could see what I am seeing. They only hear about the violence, drugs and bad stuff, but if they could see all these cool things.” He was referring to archeological, cultural and religious sites that made him feel proud of his Mexican heritage. No doubt, that summer his ethnic/cultural self-esteemed was heightened.
A healthy sense of self-esteem is beneficial for every human being. It allows for a person to find a level of confidence with who she/he is. Since good self-esteem reduces insecurities and fear, it allows for one to stand firm in their own identity (ethnic, cultural, social and religious), and thus engage in healthier and more productive interactions with others.
Unfortunately, many times for minorities in this country, this self-esteem is something hard to attain. When you are often told in diverse ways, overtly and covertly, that you do not belong (even if you are a U.S.A. citizen) due to your heritage, your skin color, or how you look/talk, you start doubting yourself regarding diverse areas of your life. Furthermore, if throughout your life you are led to believe that you do not fit the “norm” (a polite way to say that you are abnormal); that your history, ancestors and perspectives are not important enough to be included in academic enterprises at all levels; and that your voice and that of your people are not important at decision-making tables and public arenas, self-esteem starts to dissipate, little by little, and disempowerment starts to sink in.
This negative, harmful, disempowering process affects not only minorities, but all people as interactions between different cultural groups start to be plagued by fear, anger and violence, and prospects of a richer future, individual and collective, are diminished. Unfortunately, we just witnessed some of the painful and damaging consequences of this process last week in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas.
Two weeks ago I attended a lecture by a Harvard professor, Dr. David Carrasco. During this lecture he narrated an experience that was very similar to my son’s in Mexico City. He told the audience how the dominant, oppressive system taught him to be ashamed of his Mexican heritage. However, this shame was confronted when he was 13 years old and his father took him to Mexico City to visit different significant sites. He calls this transforming experience his Aztec moment as he became proud of being a Mexican-American. Carrasco continued by sharing that he speaks often about this Aztec moment in order to encourage people to look at their origins, and find a sense of connection with their past and their ancestors. He mentioned how some of his students from other backgrounds now refer to having an “Irish or Polish moment.”
In this present climate of extreme racial tensions, I think Carrasco’s suggestion of looking back at our roots is valuable. A journey to our origins will allow us to see that:
• All human beings have their own geographic and ethnic story, but we all share a common original story: we were created by God in God’s own image. As God’s creatures, we all have the same right to a dignified life where basic tangible needs of shelter, food, clothing, education and safety, as well as intangible needs of self-esteem, emotional affirmation and internal security, are fulfilled. As God’s creatures we all have the responsibility of interacting with each other as brothers and sisters, mirroring the way that God interacts with us, out of love — a true love deeply rooted in justice and peace.
• Most, if not all, current U.S.A. citizens have roots somewhere else. This means that we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Therefore, we need to recognize that at one point our ancestors came here looking for a better life for themselves and their families, just like the immigrants today who are involved in the same search.
• All cultures in the world have negative and positive elements. Acknowledging the negative ones is hard, but indispensable, especially if they require repentance, confession and change. Regarding the positive ones, we need to hold on to them, and start interacting from this rich platform of goodness as we build bridges of communication with each other, especially the ones who are different from us.
What does this look like? As a common citizen, I join the voices that propose the creation of honest, respectful, vulnerable and safe spaces of dialogue where we can learn from and be enriched by others’ stories and perspectives. Once we do this, we will find out that we are not that different at all, and that most of us have common goals that involve the well-being of our families and communities.
As an academic, I invite my colleagues to include diverse perspectives in their classrooms. Do not fear or minimize others’ stories and views; on the contrary be enriched by them. If you are still in doubt of the significant effects of changing the traditional academic picture, please read this powerful blog by my BUA colleague Sophia Botello. The same applies if you are a pastor. Please be sure to include diverse voices and leadership in your church service, activities and affairs.
Now, I realize that due to political, safety or economic reasons not everybody can physically journey back to their places of origin. However, there are other ways that this can be done: by watching documentaries, reading books, listening to music, admiring art and cultural expressions, and learning from others’ stories.
A journey back to our own origins is spiritual and enriching. It will connect us with God and each other. It will lead us to a positive place of empowerment where we can become healthier persons, citizens, and members of the worldwide human family.
As I continue with this journey this week, I will be blessed to experience some Aztec moments together with my dear LLI sisters. While it is true that these experiences will generate an increased cultural self-esteem, they will also bring new challenges that hopefully will lead to richer lives, ready to interact with others in productive and meaningful ways.
I invite you, too, to experience your _________ moment, and to welcome the richness as well as the challenges. It may take some hard work, but it is worth it as we are all interconnected and depend on God, but also on each other, to create a better world for ourselves and future generations.