A couple of months ago someone asked me what culture I identified with. It may seem like an odd question, but it made sense to me. You see, I’ve been working with Spanish speakers for my whole priesthood (38 years). I’ve been a missionary priest even though I’ve been working in Chicago the whole time. My family has noticed some things that are different about me after all these years, and I’ve been doing some thinking on the question lately.
Most of my closest friends are like me in this. They aren’t strictly “Americans” or “Mexicans,” or “Polish” or whatever other kind of national label you might use. They’re somehow in between. Maybe it’s been life experiences, maybe it’s been living outside the country, maybe it’s been lots of time thinking. Whatever the reason, we’re BI-cultural!
So, what culture do I identify with more, Mexican or American? One way to answer the question might be to ask “Where do I feel more comfortable?” Am I more at home hanging around with Americans, or Mexicans? The answer is that I prefer the company of Mexicans. Or, to be more precise, I prefer the company of Mexican Americans. There are lots of reasons for this… who else would shout across the living room to their wife in the kitchen, “Gordita, traigame una fria?” (Little fatty, bring me a cold beer?) An American wife would probably throw it at her husband! Or maybe a wife talking to her husband, “Guero, ve a ver si los ninos llegaron de la escuela.” (Whitey, go and see if the kids are home from school.) These people don’t take themselves nearly as seriously as 2022 Americans. They have a way of being in their own bodies that I find charming! Of course, American culture wasn’t always this way. My longest friendship is with my buddy Spike, who got the nickname from one of his uncles who noted that he had a big head and a skinny body and gave him the name. It’s another name for a 16-penny framing nail.
You might know this already, but once a person leaves Mexico and comes to America, they’re no longer Mexican. At least in the sense of being 100% Mexican. They go back home to their town or city after a few years, and the people in the town tell them, “You’re not from here anymore.” This has always been the case with immigrants. The Irish would leave their town and go to America. They’d return, and the people in the town would call them “Yanks.” Somehow they were different.
After these years, I’m more comfortable in the company of people who are not “monocultural.” There are lots of people like that… who have the ability to stand outside of American culture and see it from the outside, so to speak. We can see what’s good in the culture, and we can see what needs to be corrected. If you’ve lived outside the US for a while, you have a bit of this ability. If you’ve been outside of the country for a longer time, you have more of this ability. It stands to reason. And if you’ve been outside Western culture you have an even broader view of the human condition.
So, what about being “bi-cultural?” On the good side, I can see things that are great about American culture, and I can see things that are great about Mexican culture. I can also see things that need to be corrected in American culture, and I can see things that need to be corrected in Mexican culture. On the more difficult side of the experience, I’m not really at home in American culture… and I’m not at home in Mexican culture either. Somehow, the experience of expanding my view of who I am and where I fit in had made me homeless. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, this feeling of homelessness. I don’t belong. As they say in Spanish, “ni pez, ni pescado.” (it’s an idiomatic expression that doesn’t translate very well, it refers to a fish that’s not in the net, and also not swimming in the water)
How might this connect to our faith? It’s an easy connection, as far as I can tell. From the very beginning, the Christian church lived as outsiders. They weren’t pagans (like the Romans and Greeks all around them), and they weren’t Jews either. They could see the good things in Roman culture, and the good things in Jewish culture. They could also see the defects in both cultures. And they could offer corrections to the cultures.
The same thing is true today. We Catholics are outsiders. We can’t be “good Americans,” in the sense that we support everything our country does. We have a different set of operating principles. What did St. Paul say, “we are citizens of heaven.” What did St. Augustine say, there is a “city of man,” and a “city of God.” We are homeless here. “We pay taxes, we fight in wars, we clean our homes and streets, and the government rounds us up and feeds us to the lions.” (I’m paraphrasing here!) We Catholics are outsiders. May the grace of God empower us bi-cultural people to open the doors of salvation to the world!