We had a wonderful celebration for our eldest granddaughter’s First Communion. It proved to be an equally wonderful peek into the culture of Mexican Americans, whom we are being told are people to fear and who place our nation at risk.
Our granddaughter is adopted and is of Mexican descent, so her mother wanted her to attend a church that has an Hispanic membership. Although it was not our first opportunity to participate in a Mass in a Hispanic community, it had been fifteen years since the last such visit.
On this special Sunday, being part of that parish community, even for one Mass, was an unforgettable experience. Just walking into the church, one could sense a joyous atmosphere. The music was beautiful, worshippers clapped to its rhythm and participated in the liturgy with joy and enthusiasm; all in Spanish. It was the people who were special however and the love for family and friends filled the sanctuary as if it was a living, breathing thing.
The boys and girls dressed for their First Communion in beautiful white dresses and black suits were seated at the end of each pew, with their families to their right. As family members entered, even some who arrived late, they made their way to their family’s communicant to greet him or her with hugs, kisses, and beaming, sparkling smiles. They were grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins and they embraced each other with the same joy with which they worshipped. During the sign of peace, which is a part of the Catholic Mass, people greeted us from well beyond the pews to our front and back, stretching out with smiles and hands to shake.
We were transported back to the memories of a Catholic Mass in a small Argentine community fifteen years earlier. On that occasion, our white faces branded us as visitors. As we entered that church, just before the Mass was scheduled to commence, we were greeted with warm smiles and not once did we feel like intruders to be viewed with suspicion or mistrust. During the sign of peace, parishioners came from every direction, not just with smiles and handshakes, but with hugs and kisses on both of our cheeks. It was a remarkably warm, welcoming, and humbling experience; one we will never forget.
As we sat in our daughter and granddaughter’s little Hispanic Catholic Church in Camden, New Jersey—one of the nation’s poorest and reputedly most dangerous communities—we were surrounded by warm, caring people. There was no way to tell whether they were American citizens from birth, or registered or illegal aliens, nor did it matter, but it was clear that they were people who cherished their families and the American dream. Like so many of our own ancestors, they came here to escape tyranny and persecution and in search of work so they could provide for their families, which are paramount in their lives and culture.
While those who work or attend school strive to learn English they also cling to their culture and language of birth, not wanting their children to lose their identity as a people. Often, they are harassed when speaking Spanish to one another in public. It is ironic that multi-generational Americans, particularly of European descent—a people who make little effort to become bi-lingual—are so quick to criticize their Latin-American neighbors.
Even though many reside in communities rife with crime and violence, the overwhelming majority of these men, women, and children are not violent and are neither drug dealers nor rapists. They are hard-working people who cherish their freedom and opportunities and they live their lives with joy and generosity, never taking the American dream for granted. They pose no threat to the safety and well-being of our nation, in fact, they do just the opposite. They add to the richness of our diverse society and are neighbors whom we should be proud to welcome into our communities.