Spanish has BY FAR been one of the biggest unexpected struggles I have faced since moving here to Tucson. Please allow me to expand on the fact that a week in Mexico did not help. I’m going to be frank in this blog post that my white privilege comes out a lot when I get frustrated over being monolingual. As a house, we have a goal to point out white supremacy when we see it, and I am expanding that right now to publicly admitting when I am wrong. There have been many times this year where I have felt just a pinch of what it must feel like to be a minority in a setting. However, even in those times that I think I understand, I am speaking on the stance of my privilege.
My job placement this year, primarily speaks Spanish. Our Monday meetings are in Spanish and everyone goes to great lengths trying to accommodate to me, but I hate the feeling that I am missing out on conversations and bonding moments. I get frustrated that I am missing out on so much due to not being able to be authentically open and be my normal talkative self in spaces. I also feel I am constantly letting down coworkers because answering the phone, calling clients, and even answering the door and doing basic office functions that I normally love to do, provide a struggle. Although I know basic phrases and with the help of a few coworkers am attempting to learn more, I get lost rather quickly as the conversation progresses.
In my second week in Tucson, I went out with coworkers to a sushi restaurant. The waiter spoke clearly to my coworkers in Spanish but not to me. He didn’t acknowledge me. When menus came around, one of my coworkers had trouble reading their options. As I leaned over to explain, I noticed my menu was in English and all the rest were in Spanish. I was being stereotyped. Correctly so, but still stereotyped.
A month in, I attempted to take a Spanish class at an intermediate level. I figured I took all four years in high school and a semester in college, I had a basic vocabulary and didn’t need to start from the beginning. Soon, however, I found I was mistaken. We were doing introductions around the room and were asked to give three things about ourselves. That was the only part of the class I understood. And luckily, I was the last to speak so all I had to do was copy my other two roommates that went before me. And luckily, although they were late, they made it. The end of the class didn’t go so well. We had to say something we learned from class today. Fortunately, I learned a lot from that class; unfortunately, I had no idea how to recite any of it in Spanish and this time we went counterclockwise around the room- I was first. I rushed out of the room after and apologized to the instructor that I didn’t feel I was ready for intermediate. I was STRUGGLING. I was also mad. I was mad at myself for not remembering, understanding, and being mono-lingual.
In Mexico this past month, I was presented with constant situations in which I was uncomfortable and frustrated with myself. Whether it be through buying things and talking with cashiers, asking questions of our tour guides, or even understanding firsthand the experiences and stories our guides, friends, and mentors were sharing. I wanted to be present but I was not ready to be vulnerable. I was learning from other’s vulnerability that week, that was enough right?
A few Mondays ago, I attended a meeting for my workplace. As soon as we got there, there was an announcement that there were translation devices (like walkie talkies) upfront for those that did not speak Spanish or English. Frustrated I turned to my coworker and in the echoed room stated, “this meeting is in English AND Spanish?” To which he (a native Spanish speaker) replied calmly, yes. I got my headset and wandered back to my seat and turned it on. The frustration grew when only two of the people spoke Spanish and the rest of the meeting was in English. It wasn’t until we went to approve proposals that I was put in my place. We were approving a proposal about the use of translators and equipment in event spaces, emails, and meetings. Everyone was confused at the request and organizations seemed to believe they were all doing well with translating and keeping lines of communication open for everyone. That’s when our personal translator (a bi-lingual woman who was translating the meeting in both languages through a walkie- talkie) spoke up and addressed that 3/4th of the room was bi-lingual. We could be having the whole meeting in Spanish and the same number that spoke English would need things translated like the current Spanish speakers were then. We as a culture assume and project that everyone knows English and if they don’t, they can follow along. We don’t think about the fact that it’s just as uncomfortable for Spanish speakers to struggle to understand- like it is frustrating for me to understand.
I was never more ashamed as I was in that meeting. As the translator was “pitching” why we should be doing better at accommodating to everyone, I had been agreeing and was frustrated that people weren’t understanding. Then, I realized just how many times I have been in the wrong this year and just how many times I have not given the same courtesy of “accommodation”. I have come to recognize (rather slowly) that through my frustrations, the person I am really mad at is myself. I am an independent person who is now limited by my language speaking abilities. I am mad at how it affects my social life and my work and its easier to get frustrated at others than myself and to admit that I am uncomfortable even trying to attempt speaking Spanish because it puts me in a vulnerable place. I thought I had the vulnerability component of being a YAV covered, I open up to more people than necessary and I share more than people need or want to know. Just as long as it is within my comfort zone of knowing what I am talking about. Just so long as it is in English.
Let us go across to the other side
In the Gospel of Mark there are a lot of times when Jesus and the disciples cross from Jewish land to Gentile land and vice versa. This gospel is read by the delegation groups in preparation for their trip to Agua Prieta/Douglas, and I too read and have been discussing with each group various verses from it.
It has had me thinking a lot about who is willing to cross and who is able to cross these borders. For example, there is a passage in which Jesus and the disciples cross into Gentile land. Jesus leaves the boat and begins healing gentiles, and in this passage, the longest in Mark, none of the disciples are mentioned at all. My boss pointed this out to me, and questioned if they stayed behind in the boat and let Jesus go to do his thing alone. Where they not willing to go across to the other side?
Though I have physically crossed the border, I question, in what ways have I stayed behind in the boat? Have I been fully present in the community of Agua Prieta? Am I fully present with each of the migrants?
And then there’s the HUGE question: who is able to cross?
All of the delegation groups will testify how surprisingly easy it is to cross into Mexico- no lines, no presentation of your papers. But with over a thousand migrants on the list to stay in CAME (the shelter for migrants), it is clear that the reality is not the same when crossing the opposite direction. Beneath blankets tied to the fence-style wall that borders the US, sleeping on mats laid on top of the concrete, are migrants that could testify how surprisingly (?) hard it is to cross into the United States.
My white skin and my “passport privilege” make this a reality I am blind to. And as I ride my bike past the 2 hour long line of cars waiting at the port of entry, I greet the migrants staying in la línea, I am able to “go across to the other side” with an ease they’ll never know.
There multiple realities here, regarding “the other side”, “el otro lado”.
I am really grateful to be here to take it all in. Both by sharing in the experience of living amongst a border, and by learning from those whose realities have to be different than mine due to which side we were born on.
I have never been so aware of the color of my skin.
That was my main reflection after spending a day of YAV orientation in New York City.
My time as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) started with all 48 YAVs gathering for orientation, or as it is affectionately called “Dis-orientation.” There was no time wasted in disorienting us! We jumped into Crossroads Antiracism training on the first day which focused training people to have the tools to dismantle racism.
As one of the first activities, we were asked to work in our small groups to write a six word essay about why it was important to have these conversations about race before we go out to do a year of service. One group wrote “Because white supremacy isn’t extinct yet.”
This statement first stuck out to me because the use of the word “yet” reminded me of an inside joke. But as we continued this training, my thoughts kept coming back to that sentence. Even though I am guilty of thinking it is a thing of the past, white supremacy isn’t extinct. But it can be.
During training, we discussed what characteristics, abilities, and qualities are valued and seen as good or the norm. Some examples were white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, English speaking, educated, healthy, employed, well dressed, clean. These characteristics allow people to be in the center of society.
From there we dove into the harder question: What characteristics don’t fall into this narrative that we have painted to be right and good? Who are the people that we cast into the borderlands, the outskirts of society? Maybe you are already thinking of some. The qualities that make you uncomfortable and put people on the outskirts of society. Things that we tend to view as bad or wrong. A few of the examples we used were: brown or black skin, overweight, uneducated, having an accent, not speaking English, illiterate, depressed, unwealthy, old, weak.
That may have been hard to read. But it’s real. And one thing I learned from this is to not brush away the hard feelings, but to lament.
We are built around a center of white supremacy and that leaves many people in the borderlands-the area that surrounds this center of norms. Not just in this country, but around the world. There are characteristics that are seen as good and bad and the value of people is based around how well they fit into the center of our social hierarchy. And the center of this system is white.
It’s okay for it to be hard to hear this. Its okay for this to be bringing up a lot of feelings. It did for me. I had so many hard feelings while doing this training. All of them in a big jumbled mess to the point where I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling or thinking. I still don’t know if I can. I know that there is anger toward our systems of oppression, sadness for the pain and trauma white people have caused throughout history and today, and guilt for my complacency in seeing problems but doing nothing about them.
But white guilt and shame gets us nowhere. White supremacy isn’t extinct yet. It can be, but it isn’t an easy road to get there.
I sat in this training wanting to do something about all of this but not knowing what to do. I was hoping the facilitators would tell us how we can fix it. I wanted to have a checklist of things I can do to make me not be racist and to fight systemic racism.
But that is not how this works.
New York City
We took a trip to New York City the day after we officially completed the Crossroads Antiracism training, but the discussions of race had not stopped there. The excursion was to help us put into practice some of what we had been learning and notice the systems of White Supremacy all around us.
I was very aware of my white skin the entire time. The fact that I have lived for 24 years never having to think about how my skin color is affecting me and those around me shows how White Supremacy is ingrained as a norm. I was aware of my whiteness as I sat on the subway and walked through the streets.
I was aware of my white skin as my group walked into a small visitors center and gift shop to use the restrooms. The employee at the counter happily greeted us and talked with us. As we milled about waiting to use the restrooms but buying nothing, our presence of eight white adults did not seem to be an issue for him. Would it have been the same story if eight black young adults walked in off the street in search of a bathroom? I think not.
I don’t want to make this seem like I am saying I am now so aware of my white skin and I am ready and equipped to fight racism in every way. I am so far from perfect. I mess up. I messed up less than 24 hours out from this training as we were in New York City.
As we walked down the streets of Harlem, we saw a black man laying on the sidewalk, obviously in pain and needing help. There were two people who had stopped to help him and were calling an ambulance. Many people were walking right past him with little regard for what was happening. Classic bystander effect.
As we walked toward him on the sidewalk, I had time to think of what I was going to do. When we got to him, laying on the sidewalk in pain, I did nothing. I kept walking. Didn’t ask if I could help in any way.
I was thinking about being white and walking through a predominantly black neighborhood. I didn’t want to be seen as a white savior. I was so hyper aware of my white skin, aware of all the harm that white people have done trying to fix things. I knew I didn’t want to fall into that category, so I did nothing.
Two weeks later I am still thinking of that specific moment and feeling the same thing for how I acted. I feel ashamed and sad that I did nothing. It makes me feel sick.
Inaction is an action
After learning what I have, I cannot be complacent in this unjust world any longer.
With the constant reminder that white supremacy isn’t extinct yet, I am spurred to take action. I can’t go back and change that moment in Harlem, but I can change how I react in this world of white supremacy each day going forward.
It is hard to think about, but I would rather acknowledge that I have benefited from my ancestors oppressing people and work to fix that rather than ignore the damage that was caused and keep the unjust systems going.
Two weeks after this training, it is still fresh in my brain. I hope it stays there for the rest of my time as a YAV and long into my life. Taking action to break down the borders that oppress people is the only way I see to move forward and that’s what I plan to do during this year.
I wish this blog post was a little more cheerful than any I’ve really posted lately. Spoiler alert, it’s really not. This year is a journey of discovery and living into the reality that things I take for granted are not guaranteed. Things I enjoy and look forward to may mean harsh times for others. Fall/Winter weather has finally arrived in Tucson. Temperatures that make my friends up North scoff mean we shiver and put on jackets. And while our heat was broken and our maintenance man, Mike, was super concerned, I realized I was whining about how my blankets barely kept me warm enough in my house, where I have a bed, a roof, and food. A chance to take a shower everyday, and wash and dry my clothes whenever I please.
And I go to work everyday to serve women who don’t have those things. Tomorrow I’ll go in and sleep on a cot with a mat with the women we are able to shelter. And there will be many more who sleep on the street, in the cold. Unsafe and unsheltered. We give them what we can, sleeping bags, blankets, warm clothes, and a breakfast and sack lunch. We hope to have enough time for everyone to shower and do laundry, but there is never enough time. Everyday I ask myself, how can anyone who has the ability to make this stop, the ability to make sustainable, long term change sleep at night if they choose not to? I can barely sleep sometimes for knowing I have tried to make all the change I can, for knowing that in the past two years I have realized more about my privilege, my ability to sit in discomfort and allow it to gnaw at me, and that it still isn’t good enough. That until every woman that walked through those doors today and the day before and will walk through them tomorrow and the next and the next and so one is housed, it will never be good enough. I am one small voice. But I will keep speaking. Because at some point those who sleep soundly in their beds writing policies that allow fortunes to pass hand to hand comfortably from generation to generation on the backs of the poor will have to answer to the poor who work for them. I believe it.
Enough listening to my soapboxing, I started writing to tell you a story, not to preach to the choir, because you’re reading this for a reason. Everyday, a mass of human experiences teems through our double doors. Right now, we’re decked for a myriad of holidays, Kwanza, Hannukah, Christmas, you get the idea. It’s light and bright in an attempt to bring joy. And it does help. So two more stories. We’ve had a new guest lately, I do not know her name, because she’s not in everyday and she’s very soft spoken. She wears full Hijab and I was curious how others would respond. She carries her prayer mat with her things. Somehow, amidst being on the street and experiencing homelessness, this remarkable woman still manages to do her prayers five times daily as she is called to do in the Q’uran. Today, I overheard her speaking with another of our ladies who was asking about her practice and how she does it. her first prayer time is at 4am. All of the ladies know her now and make space, allowing her to use the library for her prayers. They have learned not to walk in front of her when praying, that it breaks the direct contact with Allah (God in Arabic, for those who have missed that memo). It was one of those moments where you realize when people share being so very marginalized already, learning about another piece of someone’s marginalized culture is not scary to them. It made my heart feel light.
The other was watching a new woman come to the center who clearly needed much help and interact with our executive director. Hearing someone explain the pain that drove them to alcoholism, to drinking, to staying on the street away from family. This woman’s story of having been incarcerated, of learning of the death of her children while she was in prison, and being unable to do anything but attempt to numb herself. It was gut wrenching. I wanted to rip my heart out for her. To give her something that might be broken, but maybe a little less so. Jean found out what she needed. Not only got her those needs, but knew who would be a good person to help comfort her. And then did something that amazed me. “Promise me you won’t leave without telling me first.” She wanted to make sure to say goodbye. That has stuck with me throughout this day. She wanted to make sure, I think, that this individual was welcomed, and that she would know she was welcomed back. “I’m so tired.” That’s all I remember her saying, over and over.
Tonight, I want to pray, for those who are tired, weary, out in the cold whether it is their first night or their five hundredth night. They all have a story, whether someone has listened, another person experiencing homelessness or an angel on earth like Jean. We have no right to decide if they deserve help. They are human. They are us, with a different set of life circumstances.
It always amazes me how the smallest interactions can often be the ones that teach us the most. These small things can almost smack you in the face with how real and unexpected they are. If you’re curious as to what privilege is, this is it.
About a month ago I was in our local grocery store buying some snacks before the bus came by (confession, I’m addicted to Mexican cookies). I went through the line like it was any other day that I needed my cookie fix. I went to the cashier and began speaking to her in Spanish, as is the norm here. Then, to my surprise, the cashier responded to me in perfect English. She asked me where I was from and why I was living here in Mexico. I explained a little bit about Frontera de Cristo and the work we do here on the border. After hearing about our work, she shared with me how she had been living in the US for the majority of her life. She shared how her family still lived there and how she had recently been repatriated to Agua Prieta and how much she missed them. Afterwards I shared a little bit about our Migrant Resource Center and told her that if she needed anything or was curious about something, we would be there to try and help.
Fast forward to today. I had seen our friendly cashier (I’m ashamed to admit I still don’t know her name) and few times and always shared some words with her. Today when I saw her, I asked her how she was doing. She shared how there were good days and bad days, and how she missed her family. She didn’t know if she was still unused to living in Mexico and life here, or if she just missed her family an incredible amount, or if it was a combination of both. She shared with me how it was tough for her because she couldn’t escape it. She is unable to leave and take a vacation and see them to rejuvenate. She told me “It’s different for you. You can just leave and say you’re gonna go for a month and then come back. You can do what you want.” And she’s right. Because of where I was born, because of my fancy passport, I can go home whenever I want and see my family. Hell, I can go across into Douglas to spend some time in Wal-mart if life here is getting to be overwhelming. It’s so easy for me. Because I’m lucky enough to have that privilege, I was conveniently born in the US.
There are thousands of people like my friendly cashier. People who are as unused to Mexico as I was when I first moved here, regardless of being born here. And all they want is to see their families and be with those they love. Remember that when you choose a candidate and hear their plan for immigration. Remember that when you see your family and are able to hug them. And remember that when you look down at your passport or birth certificate showing you as an American. Remember that regardless of where we are born or what language we speak, we all have families. And we want to be with them and see them. And be sure to pay attention to the little things. Because you never know when they might teach you a major life lesson.
Like most people in the United States, I was heartbroken when I learned about the slaying of nine members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was overwhelmed by this event, especially due to it's significance within a history of violence against Black churches and Black people. Living on the border, I have begun to fully realize, for the first time, the ways in which our society consistently marginalizes and abuses people of color. On the border, this racism is embodied in unjust immigration policies, racial profiling, and the death, detainment, and deportation of mainly Latino migrants. On the border and in our nation, this racism is embodied in the death and incarceration of countless young Black men, hate crimes, and unequal access to education, job opportunities, and healthcare for people of color. Recently, these injustices have felt almost unbearable for me. As a privileged White woman, I am not as aware of these inequities because I do not have to face them everyday. I merely wake up to these injustices, ever time there is a large national events.
As an educated college student, I naively thought I was knowledgable about these issues as I had learned about institutionalized racism, slavery, and various forms of oppression in classes. But it is very different when you are surrounded and immersed by issues of race. These issues affect you differently when your friend tells to you about leaving a job because they were racist towards her. These issues cut more deeply when you tell someone your roommate doesn't like hiking and they assume it's because she's Black. You start to see patterns when your friend is denied a driver's license and a college education because of his immigration status. It startles you when you realize you haven't had to learn about or protest this because you are White. Our society usually caters to you with you having to do anything.
Amidst these daunting, depressing thoughts and realizations, I have found strength in my YAV community, my church, and the Tucson activist circles. The Sunday after the Charleston shooting, my pastor, Rev. Bart Smith of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, compared the gigantic monster of racism to Goliath from the story of David and Goliath. We are David and we must be brave, patient, and purposeful as we throw little stones at the beast's head. As Bart held up a small river rock, he reminded us that the monster of racism is not only external, it also resides in the deep, dark cavities of our heart. We must work to cleanse ourselves of our own prejudices as well as working in community.
Recently, I listened to President Obama's eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the pastors of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. It gave me much hope, clarity, and peace. I strongly recommend listening to his wise words. I'd like to reflect of some of things he said.
"Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of AME Church. As our brothers and sisters in the AME Church, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation but the life and community in which our congregation resides.”
I deeply respect the AME Church for the longstanding commitment to fight for justice for all people. During my YAV year, I have had the opportunity to worship in churches like Southside Presbyterian Church and St. Mark's Presbyterian Church who try to live out the gospel every day of the week, not just on Sunday morning. They live out their faith by providing sanctuary for migrants, putting water out in the desert, visiting migrants in detention, and advocating for humane policies.
"We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history, but he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.
God has different ideas.
He didn’t know he was being used by God.
Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.
The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. [Video below] He couldn’t imagine that."
When I learned about the shooting, the first thing I thought was, "Why? Why would God let this happen this to His people?" Although I do not believe that Dylan Roof's actions were part of a divine plan or necessary for people to come together, I do believe God works in mysterious ways. I was blown away when I heard the victim's families forgiving Roof, just days after he had murdered their loved ones. God's grace and love are boundless and impossible to predict or define.
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.... By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
This has helped me understand my name, Grace, as an action. We can embody God's grace through racial reconciliation, by loving our neighbors, advocating for our neighbors and fighting for a Kingdom-like world alongside our neighbors.
Below are some questions I am still pondering. If you have any ideas or answers please let me know.
Why would God create a world where such horrible things happen?
How can we forgive people while still holding them accountable for their hurtful actions?
How can I, as an ally, express God's grace?
This happened one year ago. June 1st, 2014….a day that will go down in infamy. Well, to me it will. For many other Facebook countless friends of mine, they will also have (or have had) a similar day. However, this is not the reality for millions upon billions more people around the world. On my news feed, I am not a minority. In the world’s population, I am a minority. I have been to college. It’s one of the things I admitted more feebly and timidly this past week when I was in Mexico teaching English. (I was subbing for the week while my fellow YAV, James was on the Migrant Trail walk. This is a 75-mile walk done in order to simulate – even the slightest bit – the trek that millions of migrants have taken across the Sonoran desert).
As I sat with my host father after dinner one night, he asked me what I had studied in college. I told him Adolescent Education and Adolescent English and that I was trying to decide this year and discern further if teaching is the career I wish to pursue. I told him that I had experienced how education seemed to be more respected in other countries besides America. Therefore – I also told him – it is not as respected and as a paid-well job in the United States as other jobs (i.e. optometrist, pediatrician, lawyer, etc). These are the complaints I have often heard from my teaching mentors and other family friends back home (New England society) and therefore, find myself repeating these same truths that I have found consistent with my own experience.
Next, my host father asked me how much I would make as a teacher in this new teaching job. (I am staying in Tucson after my YAV year and teaching at a local high school). I told him but I was afraid to admit a number that would be a little more than his wage. When he told me that he made $50 a week. My jaw dropped. “But you have this huge home!” I stated immediately, trying to find something to cover up my inaccurate, naive, and privileged comment about how teaching jobs don’t pay as well as other careers in the States. Well, this might be “true” in America but that would be “rolling in the dough” here in Mexico. Mi padre went on to explain more about how he had built this house and how he did all the foundation, cement, tiling, plumbing, roofing. All of it. Todo. My eyes kind of glazed over as I stayed fixated on his previous comment. But it didn’t even make sense. His house’s appearance did not match his income. How can someone who looks so happy and his house that seems to have so much come from an income that is so low? But that is the reality in Mexico, he told me.
Our conversation died down for the evening. I retreated to my departamento – the apartment off the side that the family rents out to bring in more income. They had let me stay in this whole room to myself. I felt selfish when I realized they could have rented it out this week to someone else other than me. I wish that they had so I would not be monopolizing the space. This reality check came after this conversation – when they moved the previous tenant’s furniture out of the room – so they could make space for me. I mean, that was not the only reason. She was moving out anyways. But they could have used that room. Instead, they wanted me to have it. Their hospitality was unreal. An American would never do that! I wish I was not occupying the room. I wish a paying tenant was there.
All this talk of recognizing one’s privilege – that is often found throughout the YAV year – has been summed up in two occasions:
1) My college graduation. See picture of myself and my three best friends above. Here is the Facebook status I wrote upon the 1st year anniversary of my college graduation:
2) A flashback to my high school opinion’s:
When I was in high school, I used to say to my family and friends, “I love airports! You see all sorts of people in airports! People from all walks of life!”
“Yes, you do,” my present self would reply. “However, you see ‘all sorts of people’ who can afford an airplane ticket of $250 and above. You see ‘all sorts of people’ who can all afford expensive designer or at least luggage that looks presentable. There are not going to be people here who are food-insecure. There are not going to be people here who are homeless. Yet surprisingly, they may be a man who is an orphan because his two parents died in the war.”
I am privileged. I am white. I am from a middle/upper-class family who has access to higher education. Of course I’m going to be walking through the airport….However, millions of people do not even know what the inside of a plane or a lecture hall look like.
I guess there are a few things my professors left out of the syllabus…