La Sara en México
May 2, 2015 1 Comment
During Spring break this year, I spent a week in Mexicali, Mexico, interpreting for a mission team from Michigan. I went on the same mission trip two years ago, after arranging a photo show in a venue attached to the church. (We flew into San Diego, and apparently the one full day I spent there was convincing enough to move later on!) Living in a large camp with many other youth groups from around the U.S., we shared daily meals and devotions before heading out to various assignments at churches and charitable organizations. I was with a group that was running a bible camp at a local church. It was the same church I worked with two years ago, so it was good to see familiar faces. We had daily bible stories that the kids acted out, crafts, memory verses, and lots of time just to play with them.
Both trips to Mexicali have been good experiences, though they certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone. I grew up very religious; I am familiar with the vocabulary and the concepts. My church vocabulary and my Spanish vocabulary never had much of a chance to overlap, however, and I had to learn some key terms. (Satanás. Alabanza. Predicar. The books of the Bible.) This year I felt a little more comfortable, because of the familiarity of the experience and because I think I was more comfortable with my role as interpreter – being a voice for the ideas of others, even when those ideas are not necessarily my own.
I grew up very religious – in the past tense, because I am not where I was as a child or as a teenager (staying in cloistered monasteries, escaping down the street to our parish church whenever I could.) In college I acquired a bleeding liberal heart that carried me away from my roots, because sometimes Finding God also is connected to Finding That God’s People Can Be Jerks. I’ve spent the last decade learning other vocabularies and trying harder to be Not A Jerk than to be a Christian. Speaking of being a liberal, I’ll quote Ghandi here: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
There are so many Christians who are like their Christ, and I’m lucky enough to know many of them among my family and my friends. The folks I went to Mexicali with have been another example, along with the wonderful pastors and their families that I met there. Growing up in one particular faith, it’s easy to narrow down your options to two easy ones: Stay in that faith, or write off all faith. I’m still trying to find the middle ground.
This year in Mexico, I thought a lot about the role of language in my life. Learning a new language was something spiritual for me. When I was younger I dreamed of growing up and helping others. I felt cramped in a house full of people who constantly needed my help, and so of course this dream always reached out to more exotic locales than Midwestern farm fields. My last year of high school, I began learning Spanish at the community college with a fantastic teacher, and I loved it. My dream of serving as a missionary or a nun began to shift. I had already asked about entrance papers to a convent during a vocations retreat, but the wise Mother Superior encouraged me to move away from home after high school and go to college for a year before revisiting the idea. (More recently, this same wise Mother accepted my little sister, who now has made her first vows.)
I took Mother’s good advice. I declared a major in Spanish and education and didn’t look back. Not at the convent, at least. I did look back. A few years into college, my enthusiasm waned under the weight of too little sleep, too many credit hours, and too many preventable personal tragedies. I got a C- for the first time, in my advanced Spanish grammar class – I either wasn’t in class, or I was waking up suddenly to my good-humored professor conjugating dormir above my head. I was doing my pre-student teaching observation hours in a local high school, where I was placed in a chaotic study hall with limited opportunities to teach or to learn anything. I thought about changing majors.
One rainy day on the way back to my car after what felt like a pointless hour spent “observing,” I saw a girl crying at the bus stop near the high school. I asked her what was wrong, and she shook her head and asked if I spoke any Spanish. She had moved recently from Guatemala, and had lost her bus pass to get home. She didn’t know anyone and didn’t know enough English to ask for help. I offered her a ride, and on the way had what was probably my first real conversation in Spanish (outside the classroom, practice with classmates, or men at Salsa night trying to hit on me.) It was the first time I used my language skills to help someone.
I didn’t change majors. I retook the grammar class, studied abroad, started teaching Spanish in Detroit, moved to Spain for a year. For me, learning a new language shaped my life in a major way. It allowed me to find a career I am passionate about, get a Fulbright grant, and end up at my dream job. Many people have discussed the new personalities that come with a second language. That rainy day at the bus stop, I met a new version of myself – separated, for the moment, from the cascade of self-involved preoccupations that my everyday self liked to scribble about (in English) instead of sleeping or studying. Sara in Spanish had a lot more potential. She could do more – she could speak a new language. She could live in a new country. Living in Spain, I learned a bit more about her. La Sara Española is quieter, better at small talk, more open, less witty, gentler. She is often uncomfortable but she is brave.
Interpreting in Mexico, I was yet another Sara. I tried to leave aside the castellano accent and the vale, vale. I became a mouth for someone else’s voice. I taught the niños about bible stories and yelled “Do you want to go to hell??” from a pulpit. I translated sermons and worship songs. I was often profoundly uncomfortable, beyond the physical discomforts of living in a dusty tent.
Beginning this year’s trip, I remembered the last trip with some trepidation. I was reading The Price of Inequality and thinking of my previous trip, when we brought bible stories to kids who didn’t even have water. Our first day in camp, on Easter Sunday, I listened to the speaker’s words about Hope as a dynamic expectation. It struck me as an excuse for allowing injustice and equality. This isn’t real – turn your eyes beyond. Rejoice in your suffering. Change your perspective, not your situation.
I often think of a quote from Isabel Allende:
The poor don’t need charity. They need a change in situation. We need a change of perspective – those of us who have always had our physical needs met. I know these youth mission trips are for the youth – a chance to pull them from their comfortable lives and the inescapable discontent of adolescence, and let them work with the marginalized and disadvantaged. They learned in a real way the way that the most profound message can be drowned out by the clamor of the body. Spiritual needs are often drowned out by physical needs. (Especially after so much water-guzzling and bumpy-road-riding, every bathroom – especially if it included indoor plumbing – feels like a miracle.) It is a lesson I need to relearn constantly.
So we went and we worked with the kids, and gave them bible stories and crafts and games. The church gave them food and water, and more lasting relationships than we could offer in our few days there. The most profound thing we had to offer was affection. The teens in my group spent time with the kids, playing soccer, jumping rope, coloring, allowing themselves to be buried in piles of giggling niños, and sometimes just chasing them around the church with more energy than I could comprehend.
The God I grew up with was a God of connection. Even when I distrusted God and his people, I still valued relationships. Spanish was how I connected to people outside the small sphere of my own experience, and how I connected to something bigger than myself. That’s why I am a language teacher. That’s why I’ve been going on these trips.
That’s the closest you’ll get to a religious testimony, at least from this particular Sara.
With all these things fresh in my mind, last weekend we went to Tijuana to see about some volunteer opportunities working with an orphanage there. It was a gloomy day, further overshadowed by the wait for news from disasters far away – an earthquake in Nepal, a murder in Michigan. We spent those hours of waiting in rainy Tijuana, meeting the kids and playing with them for a little while – kids who have their own disasters (broken families, broken school systems) but who have a space where they can just be kids – restless cooped up inside, listening to cartoons and the water falling outside.
The poor don’t need charity, but I don’t have any justice. I just have affection, two languages, and an urge to do more.