I moved to El Paso, Texas, about a week ago to start an internship at two churches, a requirement for graduation from San Francisco Theological Seminary but also a fulfillment of a dream of mine to return to the Southwest and minister to bilingual/multicultural populations. So far I am not disappointed. Nearly every conversation I have had here, no matter which part of town I am in, has happened in English and Spanish. I am serving two tiny Presbyterian churches, one English-speaking and one mostly Spanish-speaking. And I am living in an apartment building where the manager doesn’t speak English and where most of the tenants seem to be recent immigrants.
Which brings me to the conversation that has been most thought-provoking for me in the past two weeks. It happened with my 9-year-old neighbor, who has adopted me as his amiga. His father is gringo and is attempting to move his wife and other children to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez across the border. For the moment my friend is not in school, so he has a lot of time on his hands and waits for me to arrive home from work so we can play board games or ride our bikes to the library. Oh, and he doesn’t speak English.
So here is the conversation, translated:
Him: “How long have you been a gringa?”
Me: “What do you mean how long? For my whole life. I was born a gringa, I will die a gringa. I can’t change.”
“Yes, you can change.”
“How could I change? I can’t become morena (brown-skinned).”
“Well gringos have jobs, they have money, they have lots of things, they don’t rob you. Morenos don’t work, they are poor.”
“Some gringos are poor. Some morenos are rich.”
“Yes, some morenos have become gringos. Haven’t you ever seen morenos-gringos?”
This is from a kid my dad paid $10 to help tote up three flights of stairs the contents of my 14-foot UHaul trailer, all that stuff for one person and a cat, when the kid and his father and sister live in the same size apartment without a single chair to sit on. (They now possess one of mine that I confess actually did not fit into my tiny new living room. I burn with shame as I type this.)
The thing about this conversation is that I have no good response. I have witnessed morenos-gringos, and I have watched in two short weeks as people in both churches where I work distinguish themselves with logical gymnastics from recent immigrants and attempt to fit in to a whiter and whiter world. I was advised, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, to look for an apartment north of Interstate 10 because those neighborhoods closer to the border were more dangerous, less desirable, more slummy. One north-of-10 apartment manager, who was trying to sell me on her own place, advised me and dad to drive through neighborhoods at 10 p.m. and imagine whether I would feel safe, and whether my dad would feel I was safe, coming home from work late at night.
My dad and I marveled at this advice as we drove through a neighborhood surrounding one of my churches, the Spanish-speaking one. We saw grandmas gardening in yards, brightly painted and cared-for houses, cars parked on streets, kids walking home from schools. I didn’t feel unsafe, and my danger radar usually pretty accurate. The only substantive difference, really, between this neighborhood and one north of I-10 was that we heard a lot of Spanish being spoken and saw a lot of moreno faces. It’s possible that the crime rate is different here than it is in points north, but when it’s all said and done, El Paso claims to be one of the safest cities in the country, though that claim is questionable.
So when we get down to it, what is really the difference between gringos and morenos and how we meet the world? And can we change, as my 9-year-old friend says we can? This week I have also turned to Luke 16:19-30, the lectionary Gospel reading for next week. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a tough one to consider for two tiny churches, neither of which is rolling in dough, and neither of which has members who are rolling in dough. Where is the grace here, as the rich man, after death, begs Abraham to give him comfort when he didn’t bother to see poor Lazarus in life? This is a message directed at the rich, not at the poor, or in the parlance of my friend, at gringos, not morenos.
Or is it? Where is our hope in this world? Where do we long to be? Did Lazarus in life possibly long to be at the table of the rich man, with no longer a care for the material needs of the world, able to become blind to the poor? My young neighbor friend seems to think so, as he defines people in categories of those who will steal to get ahead or are too lazy to work, and those who are not criminal, who want to work, and who may be poor materially but are not poor in spirit. This is a far more complex distinction than one of skin color. But it is not complex enough. We cannot divide people so simply into the categories of the parable. It is fiction meant to illustrate a truth; it isn’t mestizo like real life. None of us is all moreno or all gringo. None of us is all the rich man or all Lazarus.
Perhaps the key word in this story is comfort. We gringos might tell ourselves that we see the poor, that we give to causes, that we understand injustice. But how far are we willing to go? Are we willing to move into a neighborhood full of people who are different from us and learn that different doesn’t mean dangerous? Are we willing to give up certain comforts, such as the proximity of a full grocery store, and the absence of roaches and mice, in order to learn how to live in solidarity? Are we willing to turn away from ourselves and towards Christ, and realize that Christ is, in fact, Lazarus, or a 9-year-old who lives across the hall?