Sandra Salvador, UNT
Hi friends, I’m Sandra and I was first involved at UNT FOCUS and now I’m one of the apprentices at UTD and Richland. I’m a first-generation American, so I’m going to be sharing my experience being Hispanic. Before sharing my personal experience, I have to share about my parents background.
My parents both immigrated to the states under different circumstances. My father was born in El Salvador in 1962 in a very low-income family. In 6th grade my dad dropped out of school because he was expected to start providing for his parents and siblings. The 80’s for El Salvador were a time of communism and civil war. This civil war lasted over 12 years and over 75,000 civilians were killed. With help of distant cousins my dad was able to gain refugee status and legally immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, fortunately for my dad through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 he became a legal resident and soon after obtained U.S. Citizenship.
In 1989 while visiting Mexico he met my mom. A year later after two attempts, she came to the states illegally, they were married soon after her arrival. She was an illegal citizen for three years before becoming a legal permanent resident.
I was born in 1991, my experience growing up in an immigrant home compared to others could be considered a success. Both of my parents were here legally, they owned a house, my dad was a business owner, my mom worked full-time at a dry cleaner because she wanted to and not because she needed to.
I chose to start with this because in my experience compared to other children of immigrant parents it wasn’t a very common thing having both parents here as legal citizens, that impacted my experience growing up. Before I dive into some stories and personal experiences I don’t want you think that I speak for all first-generation Americans or that I know everything about the Hispanic household. I know that there are other Hispanics in the room with a different experience from my own. This is my story. I encourage you to hear more than mine.
I was born and raised in Fort Worth in a Spanish-only household. Spanish was my first language and I don’t remember being introduced to English until the age of 4. I remember my dad knowing some English but my mom didn’t know any so I never learned until I was in school. I don’t remember having much difficulty picking up the language because what I do remember is that I soon became my mom’s translator. If we ever ate out, I had to order. If we were lost, I had to go up to strangers to ask for directions and then hopefully translate those directions correctly to my mom.
Around third grade I decided I hated Spanish, there were always tasks involved and I honestly was embarrassed that my mom was here legally and didn’t know how to speak English. This was also the year I decided that at home I was only going to respond in English as a “favor to my mom”, I was really just being a brat. During this time my aunt lived with us and this was behavior she wasn’t going to tolerate. She had a conversation with me and shared how not only did I hurt her feelings but also my mother’s because I choose to speak to them in a language they barely understood. I felt terrible and guilty for putting them through this so around 5th and 6th grade I started reading in Spanish, I learned grammar and words that my parents didn’t even know. Some of my favorite readings were about Che Guevara and other South American politics. I learned how to read, write, speak and even think in both languages!
Like many teens, middle school for me was difficult. In a small scale I was dealing with identity issues about my race and how to identify myself. Being Hispanic started to become a burden, I was called ‘Mexican’ or ‘wetback’ and the fact that I was actually American didn’t matter. But on the other side of the coin if I stood up against these things too strongly I would upset my friends that were actually Hispanic and illegal immigrants. I thought the fact that I was born in America and that I lived in America didn’t matter to anyone including my parents. At home we were the epitome of the Hispanic home: we ate rice and beans with every meal, watched telenovelas, played soccer and brought home the center-pieces after weddings or quinceaneras(that last one only Hispanics will understand).
I was caught between the demands of keeping the Hispanic culture while also trying to juggle a different identity that allowed me to feel confident outside of my home. So instead of choosing one identity I learned how to take on both. At home or in certain settings, I’m Hispanic, spanish-speaking , submissive, official translator called Morena (which is a word to describe my tanned skin and my actual nickname at home). The other identity speaks English, likes American music, has dinner at 6pm and not at 9, likes indie movies, and enjoys American sports like hockey and baseball. All of this has created insecurities and I will share more later on how those have manifested themselves in my life in ways that are still affecting me today.
My years in middle school and in high school were surrounded by the black and Hispanic community. In my graduating class of 500, less than ten were anything other than black or Hispanic. By my high school years I started embracing the home I grew up in and even started to notice how my Hispanic parents were different from the other Hispanic parents. The Hispanic household tends to be pretty strict. Rules and regulations in a household tend to vary based on gender, parents are more conservative with what they let girls do. My parents would be considered more liberal in their thinking and way of raising my brother and me. At 15, as a girl, I was allowed to have a job, I could use my money to buy what I liked, I didn’t have a set curfew. These were all things that made their parenting more liberal than other parents. But even if their rules were a little loose compared to others, I definitely understood that they were in charge and I wouldn’t have dared to test to their authority.
Getting to college was not an easy process, I didn’t have parents who knew about SAT scores or that could help through the school’s application process or parents that could tell me about the college experience. If it wasn’t for the help my high school teachers provided I wouldn’t have gone through with applying. I got accepted to UNT and moved 40 miles north to Denton. Adjusting to college and the city was not easy, like I mentioned before I grew up around blacks and Hispanics, I was comfortable around them and felt like myself around them. It was during this time more than ever I suddenly became more aware of my race and my culture. I knew I had always been a minority but now I actually and regularly felt like one. The first semester I didn’t really make a lot of friends, I was social and definitely met people but never really connected with them. So for an entire fall semester come Friday I would head home to hangout with my family and my high school friends.
It was in the Spring semester I met Brianna Worsham and even though I was not a Christian I got plugged into FOCUS. That first semester in the ministry I had to make a decision about whether I was going to build community at UNT or fill that void by going home. I chose FOCUS.
FOCUS did provide me with a community of friends but my feelings of isolation were going to be a burden I would just have to deal with it. That first year in the ministry I studied the Bible, made friends and gave my life to Christ. This was a big deal because my world had consisted of trying to find identities that made me comfortable, but in Christ I found an eternal identity, one that is not based on race, how “American” I came off, or people’s perceptions of me.
Christ offers us a new identity one that is much better than those the world gives us. But holding on to the identity Christ gives us can become a difficult task when you are part of two different cultural systems. I still have a hard time figuring out what it means to be a Christian outside of the English-American culture I learned it in.
This community introduced me to Christianity but it also introduced me to the English-American version of it. My parents or the books I chose to read growing up didn’t teach me about Jesus, His death and resurrection. I decided to make this huge life change that my parents quickly noticed but I didn’t know the proper wording in Spanish to tell them about it. For example, the words campus ministry, there isn’t a good way to translate them. My Christian identity was rooted in my American identity so sharing this with my family became a difficult task because of a cultural and language barrier. This has caused conflict between my parents and me, they don’t understand what I do exactly and why I invest so much of my time in ministry. This is still something that I’m struggling with. My family is important to me and figuring out how to integrate these two parts of my life is something I will probably be working on for the rest of my life.
And you might think it would automatically be easier on the Christian community side of things, but that also comes with its own set of challenges. There have been times that in this community I feel somewhat like the token Hispanic. I come from a different background, I look different, I know two languages and this can get in the way in how I value myself and how I think others see me. I know our community has a vision for growing in diversity and although I know that I don’t have my role on staff to necessarily meet the goal within our ministry, it’s hard not to think otherwise. I can start to believe that because I am a minority, I’m valued in this community and that’s why I’m asked to continue being a part of it.
I’m also very aware that for a lot of my close friends, I’m their only Hispanic friend. And when you’re the only Hispanic in a group, if there’s a Hispanic joke available, predictably so, I’m going to be the butt of that joke. There isn’t any resentment or repressed feelings from those jokes being made. I decided it just wasn’t worth confronting that and that I was going to learn to be okay with the jokes. For the many years I have been part of this community, leading core, living with girls from the community and investing in it I was rarely asked to share about my race. I instead learned how to think and talk like the white majority to better understand it and to function well in our community.
I’m not sharing these things as an “airing of grievances.” I love this community. It has blessed me so much. It is BECAUSE I love this community that I am up here sharing these things. Because I am invested in it and I want us to grow more and more in how we represent the kingdom here on earth.
So my message to everyone in this room is that in order to become a truly diverse community we must not see people as tokens but be people who care to learn about everyone’s backgrounds especially the minorities. These past few years the topic of race has been the headline of our news and the fact that we are addressing it today is a big deal and we must treat it like one. For centuries the Christian church has lead our society in key issues.
I believe Christians can have a huge impact in racial reconciliation and it starts by having the uncomfortable racial conversations; by seeing the people behind the issues. By recognizing that there is such a thing as racial privilege, we learn how to empathize with the minorities in our community. What better way to love our neighbor than to try to understand their background before they came into our lives. But our job doesn’t just stop at understanding our social constructs, we must value all that God has made, and our challenge is that the kingdom is not going to look like our world and that’s why it’s imperative our communities don’t look like our American systems. Instead of focusing on “why don’t you think like me?” we should be people that are learning to ask “God how should I think about this?”. This can do a lot of good for the Kingdom of God. It’s difficult being a minority. Our American culture has failed us but we don’t need our Christian culture to do the same.
I also want to take this opportunity to specifically address the Hispanics in the room. If you feel like you’re not well represented in this community or if you’re not understood, speak up. I’m not saying argue or put people down. But I think your role in this community is being a voice for the Hispanics that are not here yet. Share your experiences to your friends, with humility and grace teach them when they’re being culturally insensitive.
Building a diverse community is our responsibility. In order for there to be change in our communities, we’re going to have to talk about it. It is going to be hard. It will be emotionally draining. It will be repetitive. But that is going to be good for people to hear. We can’t focus on ourselves and how tired we are of it, we have to persevere. Don’t be unwilling to talk about hard things. It might not be fun but God has placed you in this community at this time and place to take part in His reforming work. We should be so excited about getting to take part in this! We must be people that work hard so our community doesn’t look like the world, because our hope is in Jesus and our hope is that He is making everything new!