This past week we had our YouthWorks training. All 250 or so summer staff hired to serve with YouthWorks throughout the United States gathered together in Minneapolis to learn together. Because YouthWorks has had a presence and relationships for many years in Puerto Rico, a number of this year’s staff are Puerto Rican. Even more are Spanish speakers. In my area of 16 staff, 3 speak fluent Spanish.
At the beginning of training I felt that if I spoke Spanish, people might think that I’m just showing off. Or maybe I would just be showing off. I have felt this in the past, the resistance to put on a show as a white American who has learned a second language. “Look at me. I speak Spanish just like you. Isn’t that nice of me?” (I have a huge suspicion that this kind of thinking exists only in my mind and I made it all up and nobody has actually ever thought that.)
In August I will celebrate seven years living in the Dominican Republic. I started learning Spanish 18 years ago. And yet I continue to (often) feel that Spanish is just something I have learned, something I can enter into, but am usually on the outside of. When people ask me where I’m from I still say, “Michigan.”
One night early last week a member of YouthWorks leadership looked me in the eyes and said, “Speak Spanish. They need to hear you speaking Spanish.” I fought back tears.
That night as I lay on the couch (the glamorous life of YouthWorks staff) falling asleep I realized that the Spanish language is not just something I have learned and that the Dominican Republic is not just a place I live. Spanish and the DR are parts of who I am. I am bilingual and I live in the Dominican Republic.
Amidst a mountain of information, last week we heard over and over again that YouthWorks (and God!) is inviting US into a ministry of service and relationship this summer. Leadership said, “We have hired YOU and we want you to bring ALL OF YOU to your communities this summer.” All of me includes Spanish and it includes the Dominican Republic. I’m not a poser or a fake when I speak Spanish. I’m not showing off when I talk about where I live, when I talk about my home. All of me incluye español.
I was talking with one of my Spanish speaking staff the other day one-on-one. He was telling me about where he’s at and what he hopes to do in the future. After a few minutes I asked, “Can we speak in Spanish?” We talked for a good ten minutes in Spanish and it was water for my thirsty soul.
Yesterday I was in Charlotte, North Carolina with a bag full of dirty laundry. I put “laundromat” into Google Maps and then followed the directions. The laundromat I ended up at was in an all Spanish plaza. I was the only non-Latino in the laundromat the entire time I was there. I got some stares, but I’m used to drawing stares for looking different, for being obviously other.
This is a side bar for straight, white people – please intentionally put yourselves in situations where you are obviously other. I am so grateful to have grown up being given the opportunity to be surrounded by people different than myself, but I also do my best to seek out opportunities to be around people different than myself so that I can learn. It’s uncomfortable at first, but that discomfort has fed my empathy for minority groups and grown my desire for real and actual justice for all.
Afterwards, I folded my laundry outside (it was a really small laundromat) next to a woman and son who were selling pastelitos. A man walked by and asked about what they were selling. They didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Spanish. I hopped in and translated. It felt good.
It was absolutely a gift from the God who made me and knows me to be in that laundromat for a couple hours, listening to Reggaeton music and smiling at babies.
Do you know who you are? Do you recognize the myriad parts and pieces that make up your person? Get to know them and then honor them, live them out and share them with the world. You are wherever you are on purpose because you have something unique to offer (and something to learn).
No me esconderé parte de mí por miedo. Voy a celebrar los años y años que he pasado aprendiendo y practicando español. ¿Qué parte de ti vas a celebrar hoy?
I will not hide part of myself from fear. I will celebrate the years and years that I have spent learning and practicing Spanish. What part of you are you going to celebrate today?