My ethnic identity journey has been one of joy, tears, and trust. Joy in knowing that in the Lord’s good and perfect sovereignty He chose for me to be a person of Mexican descent. Tears as I enter into the painful parts of embracing my culture– from feeling “less Mexican” because I am not a fluent Spanish speaker, to being left speechless after someone said something derogatory about Latinos. Trusting that the Lord is using this journey for my good and His glory. Before I enter more into my ethnic identity journey, let me first share a little more of who I am.
I am a third generation Mexican American who grew up in South Texas, doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, and didn’t really realize I was Hispanic until I moved out of South Texas. That last statement may be a little hard to believe, but honestly — when the majority of people around you look like you, it’s a lot harder to recognize that you have a culture. The Lord has graciously used my time working with Destino to help me recognize and embrace my ethnic identity.
Though I would mark the summer of 2010 as the beginning of my ethnic identity journey I can see ways the Lord was moving in my heart to move forward in the journey and to truly embrace all of who He created me to be. In February of 2009, a staff member of our organization called me up to see if I would be interested in joining a new team in Dallas — one that would reach ethnic minority students at different schools in the city. I felt the Lord leading me in that direction, so I took a step of faith and obedience and saw the Lord provide the financial support needed to go.
The thought never crossed my mind that ministry would look different than what I experienced as a student in CRU. I can confidently say that I am not the same person I was when I first started working in Destino. My experience working with Destino and my ethnic identity journey are so intertwined, which is probably good because it reminds me that my ethnic identity journey isn’t just an isolated event, but really does impact so many areas of my life.
As I have walked on this ethnic identity journey I have learned a couple things along the way:
1) My ethnic identity journey is a process.
In the summer of 2010 I spent some time in the Arab world with a group of Latinos. It was the first time I had spend such an extended period of time with that many Latinos, other than my family. I felt right at home. I understood the indirect communication that I heard and could relate to experiences students had with feeling lonely when they were the only Hispanic in their classes, etc.
It also felt so natural to talk with the Arabs I met. They insisted on feeding us and made sure you had enough to eat. They also gave hugs and would kiss your cheek when they first saw you and when you were about to leave. There was also no such thing about a “group hello or good-bye– you said bye to everyone individually. All of these things felt like I was back at my grandmas house with my family or back in South Texas.
After this trip, it was the first time that I loved being a Latina.
I didn’t hate being Latina before, but up until this trip didn’t feel like my ethnicity was valued or significant. When you don’t see many Latinos in position of power in society, it’s easier to believe lies that your culture and ethnicity isn’t really that significant.
In the way that I’m wired I really value closure. I enjoy finding solutions to problems and according to strengths finders, 2 of my top strengths are “developer” and “restorative”- both of which are essentially seeing the potential in situations and working to bring them to completion. So, with my new found love for my ethnicity, I wanted to embrace being Latina. I started with the most logical thing to do — watch Selena and go buy some Spanish music to put on my iPod. I also needed to learn how to salsa dance and speak spanish fluently ASAP. The problem with wanting to see all these things happen was that for 23 years of my life I didn’t listen to Spanish music, or practice my Spanish, and had only danced Salsa a couple times.
Another problem with wanting to do these things, is that I was looking to these things to make me Latina. If only I spoke Spanish all the time, THEN I would be Latina and embrace my ethnic identity, or if I was only the best salsa dancer, THEN I would be Latina and embrace my ethnic identity. But, if I looked in the mirror I could see that I already was Latina! Also, when I did try speaking Spanish more or Salsa dancing and the reality that I was still a beginner in both of these areas was staring at me straight in the face, it was hard for me to know who I was, because I had looked to these things to find my identity. I’ve learned that there isn’t going to be a point where I have all of my ethnic identity journey figured out. It’s not as simple as just learning Spanish, or just doing this or that. It’s a lifelong process of running to Jesus as he walks with me through this journey. All of who I am is found in Him and in Him I have been made complete.
2) It’s OKAY to walk through the pain.
It’s easier to not walk through the painful and hard parts in your life. Like I mentioned before you don’t see a lot of Latinos in position in power, so it’s easy for me to believe the lie that I couldn’t dream big, because my dreams probably wouldn’t come true. I also walked through pain when others around me would point out the obvious — “you don’t speak Spanish?!” it made me feel shameful for not knowing the language of mi gente (my people). Another painful thing to walk through was thinking that it was wrong to embrace my ethnic identity. There has been growth in each of these areas and I can acknowledge the lies that I am believe and run to Jesus and rest in knowing that all of who I am is found in Him and in Him I have been made complete.
3) I’m not alone in this journey.
The Lord has met me where I’m at, has provided friends to walk through this journey, and has used me to walk people of different ethnicities through their ethnic identity journey. I’m sure that especially with the growing population of Latinos in America, there are many others who are thinking/will be thinking about their ethnic identity. I’m thankful that in the midst of the unknown, the pain, and the joy all of who I am is found in Him and in Him I have been made complete.
John Piper has a book called Don’t Waste Your Life, which challenges us to make much of Him in every part of our life. I don’t want to waste my life — or my ethnicity!
Melissa Silva is a graduate of the University of Texas, and has served on staff with Destino in Texas, L.A., and in the Mediterranean.
photo courtesy: digitizedchaos