What Latino Immigrants Have Taught Me About My Citizenship

God is correcting the bias and condescension that I used to show my "alien" neighbors.

text and photos by Todd Svanoe 

Kids in shopping cart by Todd SvanoeSoon after my family moved to an inner-city South Minneapolis neighborhood in July 2000, I saw a grocery cart full of Latino kids disappear down our alley, motored by a stocky, impish-looking teenager. To an urban photojournalist this was tantalizing, so I bolted up the stairs to grab my camera.

But as a white, middle-class parent, my first thoughts betrayed a bias: "Okay, so here are our children's new neighbors—poor, out-of-control latchkey kids, unashamed to play with stolen property. Don't they know any better? Is this teenager holding those kids hostage?"

One year later, we knew not only this Latino teen's name and face but more importantly his story. Manny's mother was "somewhere" in prison, and his father was probably deported. He lived with his grandmother and mowed our lawn to pay for his school notebooks.

Then it dawned on me that Manny didn't have a YMCA membership or sports equipment like my kids have. He entertained his younger cousins in the grocery cart the best he knew how. The cart was not "stolen" property so much as a poor family's means of transporting heavy groceries, a tool that doubled as a toy.

A number of encounters with the Latinos in my community have made me aware of God's intention to correct the biased and condescending grid through which I had previously viewed my neighbors as "aliens."

Joy. The first encounter was with Latino men who play their hearts out in South Minneapolis soccer fields and parks, having the times of their lives, invariably wearing joy-filled smiles.

This stands in contrast to the often serious and intense demeanor of the inner-city teenage basketball players I coach who seem to get re-infected weekly with the "winning-is-everything" disease so typical of American sports. My observation of Latinos has provided a reminder of how to "play."

Relationships. The second challenge I've received is from Latino business persons in my neighborhood whose values may be instructive for our uptight "time-is-money" culture.

This is best illustrated by a story told me by a Brazilian missionary friend of mine. Maria made her living by delivering fruit by bicycle each day to customers along a circular route. An American visitor suggested that it would be more efficient and profitable if she built a centrally located fruit stand so that customers came to her. Her response: "But then I wouldn't get to visit with all the families and friends along the way."

With all the books today about the lost soul of business, perhaps it is time to borrow a leaf from Maria's manual: The "customer is first" is not just a consumer appeasement strategy. It's a way of life for those who have learned that we "work to live, not live to work."

After telling me that 80 percent of the 255 Latino businesses in our neighborhood are barely making it, Monica Romero of the Minneapolis Latino Economic Development Center said, "That's not negative or positive, because they want to be there for other reasons. Business is not just a source of income. It's how they define their identity, relationship, and belonging in the community. It's how they share their lives."

Spontaneous compassion. A few handymen from our church started a home cleaning/repair outreach called Hands and Feet in our neighborhood. As our neighbors became increasingly Latino, we invited a Latino pastor to lunch to discuss a partnership. Knowing he was passionate about reaching his people, we were shocked when he refused.

Thinking he saw it as an imposition on his time, we explained how well organized this Saturday event was and that we only offered the service once every two months.

But he asked, "What do you do the other 59 days? Just call us any time and we will be there."

His answer caught us right between the eyes. Having so organized our social programs to fit our schedules and satisfy our service quotas, we hardly realized how little we were doing. How many needs of our neighbors did we pass by on a day-to-day basis?

The same pastor, later that year, led a men's retreat I attended. He had fasted and prayed for four days that week in preparation. For doing so, many of us looked at him as an "alien" indeed, but were we the ones most foreign to God's purposes?

Manny's Gift

As our friend Manny ate at our table and played with our kids, we became one link in his safety net of relationships. But to us, Manny became much more.

One day the doorbell rang. It was Manny, looking both proud and sad. A youth worker in our community had invited young Manny to be in his wedding party, and with the wedding due to begin in one hour, Manny had nothing to wear. "Do you have a suit I could borrow?" he asked sheepishly.

Kids in pool by Todd SvanoePicture this short, pudgy teenager next to my tall beanpole frame. He probably had me by 50 pounds. I said, "Manny, you know I'd like to help, but I don't see how you could fit into any of my clothes."

Something about this challenge seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of gospel stories, so with a childlike obedience, knowing there was no time to shop, I walked with him to my closet. We found a short-sleeved shirt that he could barely button, but on Manny my loosest slacks were ruffled and dragging. Just then, a contractor, who was working on our house, appeared with duct tape, "hemming" the extra slack up inside.

Manny pointed to my best tie—that part was easy—but then to my best suit coat. My first thought was, "Absentminded teenager. He'll take it off and leave it. I'll never see it again."

But he insisted. "Please!" And now Jesus' words about the "cloak" were ringing in my ears.

I will never in my life forget Manny's beaming face as he walked off to church, reveling in the moment, hands disappearing within the sleeves of that gold-buttoned blazer.

Manny and his fellow Latinos gave us more than we ever gave them, by bringing joy and spontaneity to our routine-driven, over-scheduled lives—by openly sharing their needs in a culture suffocating with self-sufficiency, but most of all, by reminding us that we are all aliens whose citizenship in heaven and on earth is pure gift.

Todd Svanoe is a freelance journalist, promotional copywriter, and urban ministry consultant living in South Minneapolis.

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