The first time I ever read anything by an immigrant Latinx writer was in college. I was in a non-fiction creative writing class where we read Hunger of Memory: the Education of Richard Rodriguez, a memoir of Rodriguez’ own educational journey as a child of Mexican immigrants in Northern California. I was twenty-one at the time and inspired…in all the wrong ways.
As I understood it, Rodriguez talked about the immigrant experience as one that necessitated assimilation, and that assimilation was very costly because it required alienation from your past, your family, and your culture of origin.
And that’s just the steep cover charge we immigrants have to pay to enter the club of higher education, middle class America, and upward social mobility.
The book is beautifully written and contains very poetic (and a bit pedantic) prose. LBut the central idea of assimilate or live in failure outside of mainstream culture was ultimately what stayed with me and influenced my own identity formation as well as my teaching philosophy with black and brown students.
My job, I told myself, is to help my students assimilate into the mainstream in order to be successful. I recognized, as Rodriguez did, that there would be losses for them in this venture and that was not fair, but it is what success required. We just play the cards we are dealt. End of story.
In my fifth year of teaching, we received new textbooks, and I found myself annoyed at the exclusion of the classics in favor of “diverse authors.” All that meant to me was having to rewrite lesson plans that I had spent years perfecting and giving up treasured stories and novels in favor of more contemporary ones in order to appease some politically correct school board member.
The fact that my minority students and I were not represented in the old curriculum never seemed to dawn on me as problematic. There’s no room or value for representation when assimilation is the goal.
One day I was preparing a lesson on a poem by a Puerto Rican writer named Martín Espada. The poem “Tony Went to the Bodega but He Didn’t Buy Anything” is about a disadvantaged Puerto Rican boy who lives in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in New York City and eventually leaves the neighborhood for law school in Boston. There, he curses the cold spring and misses the smells and people of his old neighborhood. The poem describes the loneliness and and sense of alienation he experiences in his new environment:
So Tony walked without a map through the city,
a landscape of hostile condominiums
and the darkness of white faces,
He arrives at a bodega, a small grocery store, where he goes in but does not buy anything. He just hangs out, content to be around people who are brown like him and speak Spanish. When he finishes law school, he decides to open his law practice above the bodega among his own people, whom he will serve with his professional skills.
I remember sitting in my classroom by myself, and I just started crying–I found that poem so poignant and hopeful. I had never considered the possibility of another way–of being an American without losing my cultural and ethnic identity.
Strangely, this idea had never even presented itself as a possibility in the church. We talked so much about our identity in Christ and yet all our leaders, authors, and theologians were white men. Never in that space was I even given the framework for considering my own experience as different and in need of processing.
While I still believe that Rodriguez’ book has value because it is his story, the way that I internalized his views was very harmful to me as I was striving to form my identity as an immigrant woman of color. It also deeply affected me as a teacher of color.
It was the message I inflicted on my black and brown students, and I now regret the way I harmed them by telling them in direct and indirect ways that success meant giving up their ethnic and cultural identities, too.
I am no longer a teacher, but I often speak and write about biblical justice and immigration. Often in this context, I hear people say that immigrants do not assimilate. As a good advocate, I’m supposed to say, “Yes, they do!” and prove to them that this is a myth.
I am supposed to help mostly white Christians forget that most first generation immigrants struggle with American culture and the English language and do not assimilate. Instead, I am supposed reassure them that immigrants do indeed assimilate, learn English, and integrate into mainstream culture within a couple of generations.
That message makes me uncomfortable not because it is not true, but because it is supposed to alleviate any fears white Christians might have about a diverse society where their position as power brokers of society may be threatened. It is like saying, “White Christians, please do not fear immigrants because they, too, will submit to white supremacy and blend into it as best as they can, even with their non-white skin.”
I refuse to communicate that message because it is not my job to appease privileged white Christians at the expense of the dignity of immigrants; nor is it my job to absolve anyone of their Christian responsibility to welcome the immigrant because they are nostalgic for a bygone era of Leave It to Beaver, before the Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave Feminism.
And I do not want to communicate this message because I know what it is like to live with the self-hatred of internalized racism and beliefs about the cultural superiority of white America, and I recognize the damage that did to my sense of self.
In truth, I am still recovering. I wish I could say that my journey toward a healthier sense of self had started in the church, but it didn’t. In the church, I was told there was a value for “diversity”–later I discovered that this actually meant that they valued seeing black and brown faces in the congregation, but they did not welcome the leadership of black and brown people as teachers and decision-makers.
In essence, they also wanted my assimilation into their way of being. It was OK to be brown as long as I talked and behaved like the majority white congregation and knew my place.
It is among Christians of color who actively resist white supremacy and embrace the Jesus who loved and accepted people as they were that I have begun to love my true self.
It is those friends and that Jesus who are continually teaching me to affirm that I am not just a child of God but a Latina immigrant child of God, a Guatemalan-American child of God. Jesus does not ask me to assimilate but to be fully myself.