Finding oneself while being there for others

I am 27 years old and I am a mother of two boys, Aiden and Evan. Aiden just turned 5 years old and Evan will be 4 years old in a couple months. I currently attend a university and plan to graduate this year with a major in Computer Science and a minor in Business Administration. It has been a real challenge for me to attend college because of my immigration and economic status, but my persistence has allowed me to make it this far.

I remember my family going to church on Sundays and getting together every weekend when I was a child. As time passed, we became distant from the Church and less active in our faith. We stopped going to Mass and I was left with questions; that is why I joined Ministry en lo Cotidiano (in the everyday), as an opportunity to ask those questions and, perhaps, discover the answers. Ministry en lo Cotidiano (MLC) is a leadership development and faith formation program for undergraduate students at Dominican University interested in experiencing faith-based service in the Hispanic community in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

One of my first theological reflections brought up the question who am I? That was an intriguing question, because it is not my name or adjectives that describe me, but it is much deeper than that. Even more, in order to know who I am, I was inclined to first answer the question, where am I from?

I always had a hard time answering this, because I was brought to the United States when I was 2 years old and have lived 25 years here. Since then, I have not had the opportunity to return to my native country. Every time people asked me where I am from, I went through a ritual. I would answer, “I am from Mexico,” but then their next question was, “What part?” If I answered D.F., then they would keep asking more detailed questions that I could not answer. Other times, conversations led to an awkward feeling when they talked about food or traditions from Mexico. When I was not able to follow through their conversations it made me doubt whether I was Mexican. If I said, “I’m American,” then I would be questioned because I do not look American, and I am not even sure what American looks like. So where am I from and who am I?

In our theological reflection we read an article by Roberto Goizueta, where he says, “I was not and could never be either: instead, I was both, I was in between.” His words spoke to me. All these years, I struggled to find myself and fit on either side. As I got older, I became distant from my Latina identity. Even more, I had not realized or reflected on what it meant to be Latina. I had become alienated from my parents’ culture, religion, and traditions because being Latina in the United States created barriers for me. At least, that is what I thought. I also began to think it was only my parents’ culture and not mine.

Through the community that I found in MLC, my idea of what it means to be a Latina has expanded and caused me to take ownership over my own identity. More importantly, I have discovered that who I am is not set in stone but instead what I make myself to be and how I allow others to touch my life. I have come up with the conclusion that each encounter cultivates our self. MLC became my community, where I listened to my peers; sharing stories with them and hearing their perspectives helped me to clear my thoughts and allowed me to better explain myself.

I also had the privilege to work at Catholic Charities, one of the largest private, not-for-profit social service agencies in the Midwest. They assist over one million persons without regard to religious, ethnic, or economic background, offering services that range from food pantries to mental health counseling affordable housing, senior services, and everything in between. It was a place that made me feel at home. I didn’t feel different or judged; I belonged.

When assisting with the food pantry, I was fortunate to meet people who were really struggling. Once I met a lady who came with her son. He was about 3 years old, and every time I saw him, I remembered my son Evan.She came for food pantry a couple of times. The last time I saw her come in, she was one of the last customers we saw for the day. She must have had a tough day because she told us about her husbands’ diagnosis of cancer. People like her give me strength because, even though she is feeling hurt and maybe helpless, she is getting up day after day to provide for her family. Meeting people who were encountering different barriers empowered me to see my life from a different perspective.

Another profound moment in theological reflection was when we were introduced to the term “accompaniment.” One of my favorite quotes from Roberto Goizueta says that to accompany is: “To relate to another as a person, I must ‘fuse’ with him or her… as whole human beings.” When assisting at Catholic Charities that is exactly what I did. Visitors and I were on the same level; we were human beings. Race and economic status did not exist. Their visits were about more than the food. We shared la lucha, our struggles, or what the day had brought us. I accompanied them by listening and giving them a little relief from worrying about the food they would put on their table for a couple of weeks. The connection I had with people was very powerful, particularly the other Latinos. I had never appreciated being a Latina and hard worker so much. I can say that I know what it’s like because I live the struggle with them every day. Of course, we have different struggles but we are all walking hand in hand.

My volunteer service and accompaniment at Catholic Charities sparked my own reflection about those that served and walked with me all these years. I realized I have parents who sacrificed their home, their culture, and family so that they could provide a better life for me. I now understand that my parents had accompanied me and made me stand out; their sacrifice is now the foundation of my aspirations. I want to make my parents and family proud of my accomplishments in this country.

I am a woman, a Latina, and I am undocumented; these things give me strength. When I fall, I stand right up to fight again. As Ada María Isasi-Díaz once wrote: “La vida es lucha” (Life is struggle). I do not have all the answers to my questions yet, but my faith journey has marked a new beginning. I now clearly see a community of people who walk with me and I hope that I can be present for them. Isn’t that what accompaniment is?