Beyond the Minority Mentality
“You're from Colombia?” he said. “Ah, the land of cocaine. Isn't your country run on the drug trade?”
This interaction from my early school years was perhaps one of my earliest tastes of some of the trials that ethnic minorities commonly undergo, to have a culture and country stereo-typically reduced to its social ills. As the situation stands in the U.S., racial and ethnic tensions seem to increase by the day, leaving behind a deeply fragmented culture of “us versus them.” We often feel isolated from our neighbor and can feel at a loss regarding how to relate to people from different cultures.
In my experience living in multicultural centers such as NYC, LA and the San Francisco Bay Area, I have witnessed first-hand the pain and suffering of a nation that does not know how to reconcile her hurting children. But I have also seen the beauty and unity of a Church that binds and builds a resplendent global family.
Catholic = Universal
I struggle to explain the Catholic Church’s global unity other than divine intervention. I have gone to Mass in Singapore, Peru, England and Japan, and in every one of those Masses, my Latino Catholicism has not been a marker of difference but rather a key that opens the door to the truth: The family of God transcends skin color and cultural practice.
Outside the Catholic Church, nowhere else in the world have I found a space where my Latino culture is not only respected, but also loved and absorbed into harmony with other cultures. But what is it that makes the Church so special in this regard?
It all boils down to the realm of identity. The reason why race and ethnicity is such a great issue is because they are paradigmatic signposts that tell us who we are. They are key in telling us where we come from and where we are going. Consequently, when our culture is threatened, stereotyped, mocked or discriminated against, it is not just a front on a group of people, but an attack on our very self.
It is then all too easy to live out of a reactive, self-defensive minority mentality that is out for its own survival when threatened. It becomes paramount to set ourselves apart from our differing neighbors so that we don’t lose the core of our identity. Is this not the attitude that guides much of our interracial dialogue and exchange?
As a Latino, I have experienced the pain of social exclusion, of not “fitting in” and of speaking and acting differently from everybody else. I have indeed at times fallen into a “me v. them” mentality. However, I have discovered a freedom that has set me free from resentment: The truth is, I am loved by God into existence, and am made in the image and likeness of God before I am Latino. This is the essence who I am.
It follows then that my culture is a gift — and a wondrous gift indeed — but still, just a gift. It is not the cornerstone of who I am, but a gift meant to be enjoyed and shared with others. Thus, though I may be a minority — though my culture may be mocked, seen as a threat, socially marginalized or stereotyped — I no longer live in a fundamental defensiveness rendered by my minority status. For no one can ever take away the love Christ has for me. Here is found the freedom of cultural expression and confidence in who I am.
As a Church, I believe we have a pivotal role to play in the healing of our world’s deeply broken and bloody history of interracial relations. For Christ has called each of us to be His disciples, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can bind us together more than our common love for Him and His goodness and mercy. If the FIFA World Cup can unite nations through the common love of a sport, how much more could the Church unite all peoples through the love of one Person?
I thus take pride in my Colombian heritage and seek to share it with everyone around me; it is a gift I have received and one through which I am able to love my friends and neighbors in an entirely unique way. I am part of a thriving Colombian immigrant parish community in New Jersey, and I am convinced that other parishes in the U.S. can learn from the way Latinos live out discipleship in the context of a parish. We support one another, are vulnerable with our problems, have frequent points of encounter throughout the week and make our Church community central to our social lives, not just a “Sunday crowd.”
Let’s be real, though. There is much to be done in our ostracized communities, even within our churches. Here are some ways I think we can overcome the divide:
- Serve together. Different plights affect different ethnic groups within one particular nation. Serving those in need in different contexts can awaken us to others’ humanity and evoke in us a hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness.
- Attend different liturgies. The Sacred Liturgy is one of the most powerful forces for gathering all people together in one space for one purpose. As the world tries to scatter and divide, the liturgy gathers all for one spiritual meal. Attending Mass with other communities and in other languages can begin to change our hearts to see others more deeply as our brothers and sisters.
- Encounter. Pope Francis has been all about the culture of encounter. It takes courage to get out of our comfort zone and meet others where they are — to listen to them, ask questions and strive to understand them as a person. Knowing our neighbors’ joys and sufferings is key to breaking down barriers.
- Attend an international mission trip. Instead of traveling for the sake of tourism, travel for the sake of encountering and serving through local relief organizations and churches. Encountering Christ in the poor and suffering will break down all barriers of “otherness” that poison our perception.
- Check your attitude. Meditate on how you receive others. What guides your perception of them? As Catholics, we ought to look at someone in the eye and see, before anything, someone made in the image and likeness of God and thus worthy of the dignity this truth demands.
As the family of Christ, let us rise no longer as strangers from strange lands, but as a brothers and sisters shouldering each other's burdens and woes, living in the freedom of cultural identity gifted to the children of God.