One of the first principles of the Christian Life that I learned when I was a teen was that as a Christian I was to live in a state of transition. One of the wisdom figures from my faith community in northern California, Maria Cristina, would teach us that as Christians we are walking over a bridge. We may give thanks for the bridge, we may even take care of the bridge, but we may never build a home on the bridge, for we are Caminantes (sojourners), she would say.
For Maria Cristina, as well as for many U.S. Christian Latin@s*, her identity as a Christian goes back to the first letter of Peter: “…it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy.’ Now if you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one’s works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” (1:16-19) A Christian is to live a life of detachment and fear of God, as a stranger to the world, as a Caminante, as one in transition.
“We’re almost home!”
The imagery was way too easy for me to understand. The Golden Gate Bridge is about 20 miles from my former church. I walked and drove across it many times. One of the few things that I remember when I first arrived in California in the late 80’s, in the middle of the night, are the bridge’s light posts. I was sleeping in the camper of a truck when my mother’s happiness woke me up. “We are almost home!” she joyfully announced. I looked up while trying to get the sleep out of my eyes. Through the sunroof I could see the bright-yellow lights that illuminate the road on the bridge. The lights made the immensity of the red towers of the bridge less intimidating, and they gave me a great sense of comfort since I knew that they indicated that we were finally arriving home.
The Spirituality of a Caminante
The journey of the displaced people, whether it is from the war-devastated lands of the Tigris and Euphrates River, the clandestine boats from Haiti, Morocco, Cuba, or the lands of Central and South America, requires great flexibility and adaptation, — in other words, conversion. Our Judeo-Christian Tradition can clearly speak of this process, for it begins with transition from chaotic waters to an ordered creation, from Ur to the lands of Canaan, and, it continues, from this world to God’s Reign. This process of conversion, however, is not as simple as it sounds, especially when it has to happen in the minds and hearts of people.
As a youth-leader in a migrant church I met people who had devastating journeys from their hometowns to the cities of California. For example, Jose, a 22-year-old, legally blind Nicaraguan became separated from his cousins and went through Mexico all by himself. Carolina, a young, lesbian woman from El Salvador was deserted by her group and spent three days wandering in the Arizona Desert. Both Jose and Carolina would talk about the endless hours of desperation not knowing if they were going to live or die. During those life-threatening situations, they could only cry out to God. Carolina recalls crying herself to sleep reciting the words from the Nican mopohua — the narrative of the apparitions of Our Lady of the Tepeyac to Juan Diego — Acaso no estoy Yo aqui que soy tu Madre? (Am I not here, I, who am your mother?). Jose wept bitterly because his hunger did not allow him to recall the words of the Our Father as he walked in the night.
Once they arrived at their new “home,” the challenges did not stop. Jose was not able to find a job that could accommodate his physical challenge. Carolina could not return to be with her father and brother when they died. Despite their situation, both Jose and Carolina were very active in the life of our parish. Jose’s favorite line, in anything we did as a group, was ¡Dios Proveerá! (God will provide). Whenever Carolina shared her story, she would always say, ¡No hay nada imposible para Dios! (There is nothing impossible for God). Despite their struggles they were so hopeful and full of life. Their journey had taught them how to rely on God. Their conversion consisted in not allowing the environment to dictate who they were in the eyes of God. They became Caminantes, for they took nothing for granted and everything became a gift, even the struggles.
The current, but not new, anti-immigrant rhetoric in our news and in our legislation process has made Maria Cristina’s teachings more relevant for U.S Latinos and Latinas. It is hard to create a sense of belonging or to call a place “home” in the midst of antagonism. Your parents are labeled as “criminal” and you an “anchor-baby” which is the epithet used by some news companies to talk about U.S.-born children from parents without legal status. What is more, these infamous labels are confirmed as your neighborhood is raided and Immigration Services (ICE) preys on your parents.
For Latin@s, the effect of these threats goes beyond a single person and into the greater community, for racial profiling has been the main method for narrowing the targets by our government officials. Phenomena such as “The Mexican Repatriation Act” (1929-1937) or “Operation Wetback” (1954), which consisted of aggressive police and immigration sweeps of Mexican-American neighborhoods, random stops and ID checks of “Mexican-looking” people, are part of the experience of U.S. Latinos. Unfortunately, these repressive episodes continue to appear in current revamping of legislations as is the infamous Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g) Immigration and Nationality Act. 287 (g) has granted men like Sheriff Joe Arpio of Maricopa County, Arizona the power to rid his county of immigrants, by making pretextual arrests that are then used to forcefully deport people.
Reclaim one’s roots
What, therefore, is a group of people to do when forced to live under such a level of intimidation? The only life-giving solution is to reclaim one’s roots as a Caminante. Detachment from the world (or better yet the worldly, that which is not life-giving) is necessary for one to be able to thrive as a human person, for it is easier and much more devastating to collapse into despair. The rate of school dropouts, violence in our neighborhoods, addiction, and arrests can attest to the hopelessness and helplessness that have taken root in our communities. It has been through these harsh realities that I have been able to understand what Maria Cristina meant by Caminante. The ultimate objective of a Caminante is not the destination, but how one lives out the journey.
My faith community’s struggle as low-wage, working-class and as second-class citizens in their country of origin and in the U.S. speaks of their resistance against despair. In all these years of oppression they have not become accustomed to being oppressed. They live in resistance, as Caminantes, in the midst of these imminent threats. The God of life has called them to a life of “radical trust.” Their sparkling clean, small apartments, their compassion for those who suffer, and their ability to live with joy has become their manifesto against the corruption, racism and ignorance imposed on them. The challenge, therefore, is to walk in this “radical trust”: that God always provides and that there is nothing impossible for God, and, ultimately, that God calls us to life.
This procession from one place to the other is impregnated in the experience of U.S. Christian Latinos and Latinas. We are the people of the journey. We are Caminantes! Our purpose is not to arrive, which will happen in its own time and form, but to walk in the dignity given to us by our God. The bright-yellow lights of the Golden Gate Bridge, for that reason, no longer give me comfort as they indicate my arrival home. Rather, they remind me that, just as Jose and Carolina, I am to be a light that provides hope and life to the journey of others as I embrace my identity as a Caminante.