After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, we have returned to our series honoring Hispanic/Latinx Heritage month – and this new post is truly a curious one. Written by Rev. Mauricio Vieira, a naturalized US-citizen from Brazil serving in rural Illinois, it is a poignant reflection on how being a “white-passing” Latino immigrant has been problematic. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Peace, sisters, and brothers, be with you from our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. How should I describe my journey as a Latino ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Four words come to mind: post-adolescence identity crisis.
Allow me to explain.
It all began in the year 2000. My wife Ana and I were somewhat fresh living in the United States and working as life sciences scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One day someone working for the census bureau stops by, and Ana answers the door. There was a mistake with our census information. We had marked white. Ana looks at the inside of her forearms and all the veins visible through her ashen skin, gives the person a very puzzled look, and asks flat out, what do you mean?
The unfazed person then answered, “Sorry, you are not American.”
See, in spite of being born and raised in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Ana and I are white as white comes. We are designated as white in our birth-land. Without relying on the precision of DNA tests, Ana is 100% Portuguese. I am more or less 70% Portuguese, 15% Italian, and 15% French – pure Caucasian blood unless proven otherwise by modern science. Therefore, without thinking, Ana just went with the motions and checked the box that said, white. I confess that the fact that someone had come back in an official capacity to knock on our door to correct the “mistake” gave me pause. I went on to learn much more from that point on.
As a consequence of my pure whiteness, I can claim to myself the colonizer heritage mentioned by Nicole Garcia in this blog. Our ancestors, the Portuguese, did pretty much the same stuff that was done in the rest of the Americas, plus one small devilish detail. We invented the concept of go to Africa, kidnap people, and ship them as cattle to a foreign land to live lives of slavery – the British took over the business later. This is a heritage that is not oblivious to me, nor my wife, nor my two sons. Ana and I, we own it, and since the time we were college students, each one of us on their own path, and then together, have worked and stood against the prevailing racial injustices that happen in Brazil.
Contrary to North American perception, Brazil is a very racist country, and I have benefited from its systems of racism. That privilege allowed me to come to the United States legally, to be offered a job, to become a permanent resident, and then, later on, a citizen.
Nonetheless, like most Latinos, due to the excessive number of vowels in my name, which can be typical of Latin-derived names, combined with my place of birth, I was introduced to stereotyping very early. A lot of it can be dissipated in the science field. Flagship State University towns and work environments tend to be melting pots, including biology labs. Therefore, one’s accent and culture does not necessarily carry the same weigh in the power structure because this is what is important: can you generate data and get funding? If one can, ethnicity does not matter as much. Even so, there were moments when, despite my qualifications and expertise, I lived the typical Latino experience in America, that is, almost always misinterpreted, often distrusted, seldom heard.
However, nothing had yet prepared me for the reality of the North American relationship systems outside the science “bubble.”
Seminary for me was brutal. I checked most of the handicap boxes, a second career, full-time, commuter, husband of a wife with a full-time job, father of two kids in elementary school, international student. My perceived privilege – and physical strength – was shattered by mid-October during the fall semester of my first year. I made it, but I have scars.
I get it now what took me some time to figure out. In white North American Anglo-Saxon systems, solidarity and respect are earned, especially if you are perceived as a person of color – now you can see where this is getting twisted. I come from a system where there is an expectation of solidarity and respect out of the gate – at least if one is Caucasian – which is lost if you prove otherwise over time. Therefore, when it came to the “real” world outside labs and conference rooms, acceptance was upside down to me, as it was paper styles. In life sciences, the conclusions are the last paragraphs. It took me a “D” to figure out that in human sciences the conclusion comes first. The seminary professor for whom I actually wrote that commented that it was upside down.
But I digress.
So, there I was. On the one hand, male, Caucasian and privileged for some, and therefore steward of powers that now I know I have, but that I never claimed or wanted. On the other, Latino, foreigner, heavy accent, perceived as a person of color for others – even if one can still see the veins on my arms – and therefore almost always misinterpreted, often distrusted, seldom heard. It was a mess.
Who was I supposed to be in God’s beloved creation!?
I know it sounds dramatic, but I have many mundane and shocking examples to share. However, since I am mindful of the number of words suggested to me by my friend Francisco Herrera, I will mention only three.
There was this day in CPE small groups that a colleague told me out of the blue that she did not know what it was, but my presence alone was stressful to her. I wonder if she got confused by a big Caucasian male who acts like a Latino. Then there was the day when we were on a candidacy retreat, and I had volunteered to set up the worship space, only to hear a fellow person of color tell another that he was sticking around “to make sure our international student (yours truly) knew what he was doing.” By the way, that was after one of the internship supervisors in the retreat approached the organizer and offered to set up the worship space in my place, only to hear that I was the one assigned to do it.
Now comes the cherry on top.
Once I was attending one of the classes on Science and Religion and it happened that the speaker was presenting something about my country of birth, out of a website, that I knew to be, let’s say, scientifically incorrect. The speaker had no idea that sitting in the audience was not only a life scientist with a doctorate but also a native of the same country. Credentials enough, right? Nope, comments dismissed, even after the such were presented. Apparently, I did not know enough about my own country.
One can’t make this up!
I can certainly say, however, that not everything in this crazy and awesome life of serving Christ through God’s people has been annoying our upsetting for this Latino pastor and preacher. I have met classmates, teachers, colleagues, and parishioners who have made this journey absolutely a blessing. The support of my home congregation of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, IL. My friends from St. Andrew Lutheran Church and Campus Center, who welcomed my services during my time in Ministry In Context. My supervisor and the people of Grace Lutheran Church in Champaign, IL, who taught me more than I deserved during my internship, especially my beloved confirmation class. My candidacy committee, who accompanied and prayed for me along the way. Those from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Cullom, IL, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Chatsworth, IL, who have embraced me as their proclaimer, teacher, and pastor. I don’t have space to name all of you. But, you know who you are I would not have done without you; and I continue to do it for you. I love you all.
So, here is my message to you, fellow Latinos who may be pursuing ministry, or to anyone who is not cookie cutter and feels like always having to justify why you are in such path…
By the way, it is a minimized version of the crude and lousy sermon that I preached on the before mentioned candidacy retreat. It goes like this. When one goes into my country to buy salt, one will find only one kind, which is cooking salt. It can be either coarse or finely ground but cooking salt, nonetheless. In this country, there are a variety of salts, sometimes on the same shelf. There is water softening salt, salt to melt ice, rock salt, salt for ice cream machines. Besides the ordinary cooking salt, there is Kosher salt, sea salt, garlic salt, onion salt, celery salt, and Himalayan pink salt.
So remember, you too were called to be the salt of the earth. Figure it out what kind of salt God has made out of you, for this time and this place, and never, ever, let anyone take your saltiness away.
“[The God who abundantly poured grace upon you] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).
Pastor Mauricio Vieira was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and became an American Citizen. He is a former life scientist with a Ph.D. in Cell Biology by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He obtained his Master of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Home is currently in Cullom, IL, with his wife Ana, sons Logan and Dominick – all culprits in this ministry – and puppies Gus and Molly. He is currently the called Pastor to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cullom, IL and St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chatsworth, IL.