Last week I did not post in this blog because I was attending the annual conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Phoenix, AZ. Last summer, just after Arizona had passed what many believe to be a draconian immigration law, the planning committee for the conference considered boycotting Arizona. In consultation with some of the religious and community leaders of the Mexican population in Phoenix, the committee learned that neither the hotel nor the state would be impacted significantly by a boycott, but that the immigrant poor who work in the hotels and surrounding businesses would be hurt badly. (The hotel would still have received its $60,000 cancellation fee.) Local leaders pleaded with conference planners to come to Phoenix.
Instead of a boycott, the planning committee arranged for conference attendees to participate in an “immersion day” at a community center in the barrio section of Phoenix where we learned about the complexity of the issues and about the impact of immigration law and cultural prejudice on the lives of the people.
I want to tell you about what one of the speakers, The Rev. José Valenzuela, taught us about his experience of “Nepantla.” I will also comment on its effect on community. He described his experience of growing up in an Arizona town, made up primarily of Mexican laborers retaining its Mexican culture. He was an American citizen, but his whole world was rooted in Mexican culture and identity. When his father, a Christian minister, was called to a church in the white, affluent part of Phoenix, José moved with the family into a new world. As a result of the experience, he became too “white” to be fully embraced by the Mexican Community and was still too “Mexican” to be fully accepted in white society. He experienced this new place “in the middle” as a kind of hell. In time, he learned about an Aztec word that describes the place where he found himself: Nepantla. In this middle place, this “no person’s land,” he could not find acceptance either from the Mexican or the white communities and so he fell into shame and self-blaming as a result.
Rev. Valenzuela has since learned that he cannot expect his personal validation and acceptability to come from these communities. He learned that what felt like “no place,” “hell,” a place neither fully Mexican nor white, had this name, Nepantla. The name made it a real place for him and it became possible for him to affirm his identity as the real person he had become through his bi-cultural experience.
Does his ability to affirm himself as a Mexican-American then let the people in the two constituent communities off the hook? I don’t think so. It is grossly unfair (although predictable from the perspective of fear) for either Mexican or white people to expect him to be more “like them” than is possible. Perhaps the naming of “Nepantla” can help people in each community to embrace the identity of those who participate in both. The Mexican and white communities can help transform Nepantla from hell to a real place that is a legitimate home to real people.
Hell on earth is created by arbitrary conditions and expectations that are impossible to fulfill. Heaven on earth is created by embracing people in their diversity and being willing to learn from their unique perspectives and experience. To condemn and exclude people simply on the basis of some perceived deviation from an arbitrary definition of acceptability is the embodiment of a great evil. In the short term, such evil creates hell for many people, particularly those who find themselves in Nepantla. But in the long run, the resultant destruction of the fabric of community creates hell for all of us.
It may be that all people experience some form of Nepantla: between adolescence and adulthood, between gay and straight, between sacred and secular, and between the old country and the new whenever our ancestors immigrated here, for example.
I invite us to recognize this systemic evil and by our loving acceptance of one another, however different or “mixed” we may be, put a stop to it.
This is how I see it. What do you think?
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
(The Rev. José Roberto Valenzuela is pastor of Alleluia Lutheran Church in Phoenix. He has written and lectured extensively on issues of culture and race in the Church and within the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)