Last week I had the opportunity to observe an evening reflection session at DOOR. There were 40 youth and adults in the room. The session was led by Mari the local board chair and a Latina. I have known her for a little over 16 years during which she has led reflection sessions for visiting groups. Mari likes to talk about stereotypes, specifically the labels folks have about Latino, Latina and Hispanic people. It had been quite a while, over a decade, since I had observed one of these sessions.
Mari started the evening by assuring the group that this was going to be a safe space. She encouraged them to be brutally honest and opened a space for them to ask any questions, both appropriate and inappropriate, they might have. At this point my interest was grabbed. What was going to be said?
The next step was to divide the group into teams of 3-4 people. She handed out large sheets of paper and markers. The assignment was to write down all the words and phrases that came to mind when they thought of Hispanic, Latino or Latina. For 10 minutes there was a buzz in the room as everyone began to contribute ideas and the sheets of paper filled with words. I could hardly wait for the reporting back to begin.
Then it began. Some of the words were positive – family values, good food, salsa (both dip and dance), and passionate. Other words were more neutral – brown hair, short and Spanish speaking. Then there were the references to famous people – Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, George Lopez, and Selena. In the midst of all of this there were a lot of words and phrases that could be described as hurtful- illegal, lazy, wet-back, and the list could go on, but I am choosing to stop.
Throughout the entire time Mari listened, received what people said and never reacted negatively. My interest shifted from interested to wonderment. This wasn’t the first time Mari had led this session. I do not think she could count how many times she has led groups through this exercise over the past 16 years. Allowing them to express their stereotypes and then gently letting them know that Hispanic, Latino and Latina people are humans created in the very image of God.
Last week I was reminded that sometimes I ask staff, board members and volunteers to do some very difficult things. Helping people to see beyond their privilege, gender, race and economic status is a calling, a difficult calling. I am so thankful for people like Mari who find the strength to help people like me understand the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God.