Lessons In Language

Why would Mary choose to appear to Juan Diego? I suppose that the same could be asked about why God would choose Mary. Both were poor, and neither was influential. From our standards, what did they have to offer the world? And, here we are, hundreds of years later celebrating their virtues. It’s a reminder that the virtues we seek to learn often come from the most unexpected places.

Today, as we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Catholic Social Services is in the process of constructing a new site for the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center. In 2006, we established a food pantry to help the fast-growing Hispanic population living in our community. We created a place of welcome through bilingual staff and by stocking Mexican food on the shelves. Over the years, we have come to know the needs of the families we serve – needs which are often exacerbated by poverty and immigration. The new site will allow us to grow our space from a food pantry into a community center that provides more holistic support.

34563587 - beautifully decorated altar with flowers, religious objects and balloons in mexican flag colors to commemorate the apparition of our lady of guadalupe

But as we grow, we believe that only half of the beneficiaries of the Guadalupe Center will be the Hispanic community who come for emergency assistance, English classes, or legal assistance. The broader community has much to learn from them.

After I graduated from college, I had the opportunity to join a volunteer corps and serve in Chile for a few years. I didn’t speak Spanish before I moved, so I had the challenge of learning a language as an adult. It is a humbling experience. Here I was, an educated adult, and kids at the orphanage where I worked would look at me like I was stupid and correct my Spanish saying, “it is called a ball.”

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One day, I was helping with a fundraising race for the orphanage, and I tripped over something and fell in front of a group of people. Mortified, I covered my face and told everyone that I was so “embarazada.” People’s concern level went up irrationally, and within seconds everyone was swarming around me to make sure I was okay. I realized, after some confusion, that I’d told them I was so pregnant – not embarrassed. Learning a language doesn’t just require mental agility, it requires thick skin.

A few months ago, I was giving a tour of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center to a potential partner. On this day, the current center, which is the size of a three car garage, was particularly chaotic. People were coming for food in the back, there was an English class in the front room, and volunteers were watching the students’ children everywhere else.

In the middle of the chaos was Erica, taking the English class. Her youngest was fussy and wanted mom, so she took the baby on her lap and proceeded to engage in the class. I couldn’t believe her concentration, but I recognized her desire to crack the language code.  I understood how being a part of the conversation was more important than looking silly. And, I wanted to be a part of her success.

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But my desire isn’t completely altruistic. One of the coolest things about learning another language is the insight that it gives you into another community’s values. Take for example these two Spanish words, sobremesa and mija. Sobremesa literally means above the table, and it is the time you spend after dinner in conversation. We used to spend hours in “sobremesa” listening to what was going on in each other’s lives, sharing our joys and sorrows, and reflecting on politics, religion, and current events. Sobremesa was a way of showing your guests that they belong. They never overstay their welcome; they can see you for who you are – dirty dishes and all.

Mija is short for “mi hija” or my daughter, and that is what everyone would call me, a young foreigner away from my home. When my parents came to visit, my friend’s dad learned four English words to say to my dad, “She is my daughter.” That was his way of telling my dad that he didn’t have to worry, that he would look out for me.

The values of hospitality and family permeate the Hispanic culture, so it is not a surprise that they manifest in their language. In Chile, I would have dinner three times a night because everyone wanted me to stop by. I was given the one mug that wasn’t chipped. I had a family sleep on the floor in order to offer me the bed, and there was no convincing them to do otherwise.

Consider the English words: step, half, second, and in-law that we use to describe family relationships. The precise nature of the words downplays the spirit of belonging at the heart of family life and hospitality.

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You don’t need to go to Chile to see these values; they permeate the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center too. These are values that I want to be surrounded by and better at. It can be unexpected that you would see these values of hospitality and family, coming from a place where people turn to have their basic needs met. It would seem that when you are working to have your needs met, that you may not be as generous with others, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. And, it is Our Lady of Guadalupe who reminds us that the virtues that we seek to learn often come from the most unexpected places.

Today, on this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we ask for eyes to see the virtues that we seek to learn, even in the unexpected places.

~ Rachel Lustig, President and CEO

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