Acompañamiento: A Walk Toward Dignity for All
Footage includes a theological discussion of the often deadly journey many immigrants travel in order to get into the U.S. Following this powerful video, I asked the audience to ponder a question: what would make you leave everything and everyone you know and love, risk everything you are, to get to another country? People offered familiar answers – escaping domestic or political violence, seeking employment in order to support one’s family, finding better health care for a sick child or better educational opportunities.
Threat of the “Other”
A gentleman in the room raised an objection, com- plaining about how much “free stuff” immigrants receive after entering this country without the proper documentation. Interestingly, no one had mentioned the word “free.” Not one person had said that immigrant access to better resources in this country should be free. This person was operating on an approach to “the other,” the non-citizen, from a perspective of scarcity of resources and threat to his own security rather than from a perspective of abundance, mutual care, and Christian imagination.
How do we move from fear to neighborliness in our national debates and daily lives? How can we faithfully engage the command of love of neighbor in light of our public policies, including the debate and practices around immigration? There is much we can learn from recent theologies birthed out of human pain, sweat and hope – the emergence of Latino/a and mujerista theologies, which offer criteria to help churches bridge this terrifying gap in the way we perceive the immigrant and transform a national discourse on immigration reform notable for its lack of imagination and a failure to transcend a threat mentality.
Latino/a and mujerista1 theologies invite the faithful struggling with this and other social issues in the public square to consider how our faith demands a walking with, an acompañamiento, that leads us to make or advocate for policy decisions from the perspective of the everyday experience of the other. A new empathy for actual life in the borderlands and a grasp of mestizaje – a basic element of Latino/a and mujerista theologies – can awaken our awareness to the truth that a migrant identity, in fact, embodies the human condition shared by all – especially Christians sojourning between the already and the not yet of Christian hope.
Grounded in the preferential option for the poor, Latino/a theologies take their cue from lo cotidiano, the “dailiness” or daily struggle of life. Lo cotidiano regards life as a combination of both the extraordinary (births, marriages, death, love) and the ordinary (seeking daily nourishment, a conversation around a kitchen table, the visit of a friend, the struggle to pay the heating bill). In lo cotidiano we find revealed to us human desire, hope, longing, suffering, oppres- sion, joy, celebration, faith. It is the place where the divine comes to our encounter, the only place where divine reality is truly in touch with us as creatures, in the messiness of life. For mujerista theologies, lo cotidiano is especially identified with the particular sufferings and joys of the daily lives of Latinas in the U.S, who are often doubly or triply oppressed by the fact that they are women, eking out an existence, sometimes in hard manual labor, and particularly vulnerable if they are other-documented.
Central to being attentive to lo cotidiano is the need for an accurate read on that daily reality, with clear data about the conditions that dictate the life of the poor, the life of women, the life of children, the elderly, natives, the environment. Lo cotidiano acknowledges that the social sciences as well as the witness of personal experiences have much to contribute to the theological enterprise. Hope is perennially the stuff of grand theories of liberation and salvation. But in lo cotidiano hope becomes a more real and concrete expression of liberation – a concrete act of friendship and hospitality, the prospect of a life lived with dignity and without violence, public acknowledgment and celebration that each culture counts as a blessed contribution to the human family.2
Shared Humanity, Vulnerability
We are familiar with the accompaniment that takes place during wakes or when a loved one is experiencing particular hardship. Acompañamiento suggests a richer meaning that opens the door to faith trans- formation or conversion. It means both a walking with and a bearing with the poor – whoever these may be, near or far, their struggles for a life with dignidad, dignity. Acompañamiento entails a double recognition, first, that our neighbor’s humanity is under threat because of injustice and suffering, and, second, that the dignity of all (poor and non-poor) must be upheld. A practice of acompañamiento does not differentiate between legal status or gender, geographical proximity or nationality. It practices solidarity that goes beyond financial contributions, extending to friendship, praying and worshipping together, sharing a meal, lobbying together for more humane policies, becoming a sanctuary church. This practice can include taking on some of the vulnerability of those who face physical and political risk. At the heart of acompañamiento is the understand- ing that life lived in mutual relationships of care is necessary to uphold the dignity of all. For Latino/a and mujerista theologies, dignidad challenges any atomistic or individualistic understanding of the person or human rights. As a human family we are people living in community, community defined beyond the legal limits of borders, political identities, or religious practices.3
Giving further urgency to these theologies is the concept of mestizaje, a term of remembrance and a call to political awareness and engagement. For a number of us, we do not have to travel too far into the past to discover how mestizaje operated in the production of our own humanity. My own family line traces back to a woman forcibly brought to the Caribbean from Africa only four generations ago. Derived from the word for the mix of cultures, races, and ethnicities that engender the Latino or Hispanic, mestizaje is used often as both a reminder of our past histories of violence, conquista, slavery, and oppression, as well as the celebration of the resilience and diversity of the Latino people. Though some have historically tried to blur or overlook the personal stories of mestizaje, I consider its recovery essential to a full understanding of our humanity. In my case, I’ve chosen to honor this by naming one of my daughters Petra, a name that in most Spanish- speaking Caribbean circles is associated with the African legacy of our ethnicity, slavery, and servitude.
Like lo cotidiano, mestizaje presses us to reflect honestly on our shared histories with other groups sometimes considered radically other, leading to the understanding that in fact all of us share a complex mix of characteristics – some by choice, others by force – that should ground us in a common and shared destiny. Through mestizaje, Latino/a and mujerista theologies examine both the “never again” of the kind of violent conquest that originated the Latino people – that tendency of empires to extend their military power and economic reach as far as possible without concern for native peoples or imported slave labor – as well as the celebration that the human spirit borne of such violence carries with- in the seed of peace and the flower of justice. Most importantly, mestizaje can be applied to everyone’s sojourner identity – our shared migrant condition on earth, our universal quest for life.
Combined with the social teaching of our religious traditions and the best of civil society, the insights of Latino/a and mujerista theologies invite us to look at particularly hard questions from the practical perspectives of lo cotidiano, acompañamiento, dignidad, and mestizaje. When we come to understand our humanity as intimately tied to the quest for life of all people on the move, especially the migrant, our own unsustainable practices of consumption, discrimination, and participation in a culture of hate dominated by perspectives of scarcity and threat, come into stark relief. It is here that the tools offered by Latino/a and mujerista theologies provide rich resources to churches. They encourage taking stock of one’s human condition in light of the suffering of others, to consider social transformation and policy decisions that were not considered possible prior to encountering these ideas, to over- come the inhuman determinism that resigns us to accept the brokenness of the human family as an accident of birth.
Regarding the stalemate and struggle of our current immigration debate, we may differ greatly on the best strategies to protect our borders and up- hold national identity, yet surely we can agree that the daily suffering and dying on the border – either in desert crossings, attacks by drug gangs, violation of women’s dignidad – need to be addressed by people of faith. Once we subscribe to a practice of acompañamiento, that “illegal” who crosses the border and who so many perceive as trying to take advantage of the public services of our country now becomes a real human being, someone whose journey and quest for life that everyone shares. At this point of contact, mutual care, solidarity, shared destiny – mestizaje – I cannot but look at immigration reform and other public policies from a perspective of abundance, imagination, and hope.
Vulnerability is part of all our lives. In the end, we must face the fact that our own daily reality – our lo cotidiano – also includes threat and scarcity. We lose our jobs, we have mediocre health insurance, our schools are overextended and underfunded. And yet the Christian message challenges us to look at the existential threats and vulnerabilities that mark our existence with the imagination and hope characteristic of Jesus Christ. I believe that the insights of Latino/a and mujerista theology challenge us to shift how we view the shared vulnerability of the human family, shift the kaleidoscopic lens through which we come to understand daily experience and truth-telling, so that we are propelled to an imaginative approach to our most vexing questions of life in community, life with dignidad, lived in acompañamiento.
M.T. Dávila is a Roman Catholic laywoman in Malden, MA, where she is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. She teaches on issues of race and immigration, class, consumerism, and the environment, the ethics of the use of force, and the social teaching of the Christian churches.
The body of work commonly known as mujerista includes many Latina thinkers that approach theological and ethical questions from the perspective of the experience of Latina women. While privileging justice and the option for the poor, Mujerista theology tries to perceive reality from a particular experience of suffering and hope, lucha (or struggle) and joy in life. Ada María Isasi-Díaz coined the term in her Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Orbis, 1999). However, many Latina thinkers also use the mujerista label to describe their approach to doing theology grounded in the concrete experiences of suffering and joy of the Latino people, especially of women.
Ada María Isasi Díaz and Roberto Goizueta, among other Latino/a scholars, develop the theological impact of lo cotidiano in their work. See Ada María Isasi Díaz, En la Lucha/In the Struggle: Hispanic Women’s Liberation Theology (Fortress, 1999); and Roberto Goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Orbis, 1999).
Two volumes that develop the relational dimensions of Latino/a anthropology include Miguel Díaz, On Being Human: U.S. Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives (Orbis, 2001); Michelle González, Created in God’s Image: An Introduction to Feminist Theological Anthropology (Orbis, 2007).