LIVING IN TWO WORLDS
As a former Yale student, I recall completing the required annual “student information” on the Yale Student Information System (SIS) webpage. Besides confirming my home address, telephone number, and emergency contacts, I was also expected to update my racial identity. This was always appalling to me, because I am a Puerto Rican woman. “Puerto Rican” is not a race, but an ethnic group.
The SIS process required that I select one racial category. This was a problem for me, because Puerto Ricans consist of three racial groups: African, Taino (Island Natives), and Spaniard. Filling out the SIS during my three years at Yale, I took turns selecting one of the three racial groups. This annual chore served to remind me how I must constantly define what it means to be a Latina in the United States of America, inside and outside the academy.
As a pastor serving in a Latino Spanish-speaking congregation, I find that it can be complicated defining our cultural, racial, and ethnic identities. This is also true with definitions of “Hispanic” or “Latino.” (Latin@ designates both Latinos and Latinas.) Though my church takes pride in being multicultural and multi-ethnic, its focus has been on its Latin American and Caribbean presence. This representation may accurately reflect the adult U.S. Latino population, the majority of whom were born in Latin America or the Caribbean, but the demographics are changing. Today, studies show that 60 percent of all American Latinos were born in the U.S. and are now English-language dominant.
This is the population who, to outsiders, may be considered “not American” and, to insiders, “too American.” This is the generation I identify with – a generation that has been forced to choose by American mainline society, home, and the church. I’ve always stood at a crossroad, trying to survive in two worlds.
For many second- and third-generation Latin@s, the subject of race, ethnicity, and culture was not considered a relevant or urgent issue until their parents’ generation moved to the United States. These notions were introduced to the second and third generations while being educated in U.S. schools. This is the generation that is taught to identify as a “Latin@” or “Hispanic” but speaks English while still communicating with their parents and abuelos in Spanish. Navigating both these worlds, one encounters rejection, a lack of belonging.
I was born and raised in New England and was given an ethnic name. Growing up, I attended public schools, where, just because of my name, many of my teachers would assume I did not speak English. When I would visit my family in the island,they would comment that I was “too American.” At church, I was very active and had a leadership role but felt limited because I spoke English.
Nevertheless, living on the margins of two worlds I take strength from the example of the many characters in the Bible who had no choice but survive in two worlds – Moses, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Jesus, and others. As a minister and educator, my hope for Latin@ in the U.S. is that they not merely survive but live fully in both worlds, embracing one’s bicultural and bilingual identities.
Can the Latino church help these new generations flourish? In a time when Latin@s are the largest growing population in the country, the Latino church has become the center of hope and new beginnings for many families. The church is where families are served while journeying through the immigration bureaucracy. The church is where firstand second-generation children and teens are reminded of their spiritual purpose and empowered in their educational endeavors. The church is where parents hear that they too have a voice in advocating for their children, and where a prophetic message of social justice is preached. These community roles have ignited the Latino church, but the church can become stagnant if it gets comfortable and resists advancing. By advancement, I mean embracing the demographic shift that is defining these second and third generations still present: The Latino church must see that it is more than an immigrant church or a church that only speaks Spanish. The new generations are seeking a place that can be a bridge connecter between the two worlds in which they live.
The Latino church must be ready to serve a multicultural, multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multilingual community: Offer a space for individuals to explore their faith in both Spanish and English, celebrate a rich history and culture, serve as a link to those who are living in two linguistic, cultural worlds.
Living in two worlds has brought meaning and purpose to my life. I have learned to embrace these two worlds as gifts that have shaped me for service. Now, as a minister called to the Latino church, my desire is to continue to celebrate the strengths and potential of a multigenerational congregation in its twenty-first century witness.
Aracelis Vazquez Haye ’12 M.Div. is assistant pastor at Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de New London, a congregation in New London, CT. She is also chaplain at Connecticut College and chaplain at Waterford Country School. For more information see aracelisvazquezhaye.com.