Of course I am here to learn Spanish in the best way possible, I believe – several hours each day in class – so far my classes are one on one (I may have a classmate soon) -- living with a family that speaks Spanish, and negotiating life in a strange city where it seems no one speaks English at all. It is sink or swim, and since I cannot swim, I am immersed.
But I am learning a lot more than irregular verbs. This is a psycho-spiritual experience and a socio-political eye-opener. The content of all of that is barely beginning to be revealed. So far I can say it changes my dreams. I rarely remember my dreams at home, but here I am dreaming a lot, suenos extranjos, strange dreams with camels and chimpanzees. Something is up deep in my psyche.
On a more conscious level, it is a different experience to hear the word “foreigner” applied to oneself. At home we are citizens. Abroad we are, in our eyes, tourists or pilgrims. But to those around us, we are foreigners, sojourners. The identity of the “foreigner” is at the heart of Jewish spirituality and ethics. “Give shelter to the foreigner for remember you were once foreigners in Egypt.” It actually goes back further to Abram who was sent to wander “in a land you do not know.” As Christians, we inherit that identity. We are citizens of the Heavenly City, not the Worldly City (St. Augustine) “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through.” Those words caution us against attachment to or identification with worldly pursuits or undue anxiety about worldly problems. But they also remind us that we are never to claim a land as ours so as to say to another, “you are a foreigner while I belong here and (more insidiously) here belongs to me.” Our true rootlessness, our sojournerhood, is so easy to forget in a place where we have a paper that evidences our “right,” our “claim” to land, where we have a driver’s license, and a voter registration card – all to “identify” us and identify us with the place. But when one is called a “foreigner,” it changes the way we look at the sojourner in our midst when we are at that place where “we belong.”
It is hard to be in a different culture, where you cannot assume anything, where nothing can be done by habit, but every step must be thought out so as not to offend or cause some debacle. It is hard to have to struggle to remember even the few words one knows in order to accomplish the simplest exchange like the purchase of a bagel. It is hard to use currency in which the numbers are way out of line with the values in the currency one knows. That is what it is like for the immigrant in the United States. Do they do right or do they do wrong to come to Nevada for work? All I can say is that they do not do it lightly.
Most of our immigrants face larger challenges than these. Most come, not from the northern states, but from far to the South, near Guatemala. It is not an easy walk or a short one. They know that many die in the Arizona desert. Do they do right or wrong? I can only say it is not a choice that they make lightly.
Again, I am receiving remarkable hospitality here. I say this as one who has lived nearly two decades in the cultural capital of the Old South, where hospitality is a matter of pride celebrated in Southern Living Magazine. But the South offers no welcome, no “mi casa es su casa” comparable to the warm hearted caring of the people here in Morelia.
A little about the city: Morelia has been here since the 16th Century. Antiquity and Spanish elegance define the city, patently in the Center City square, but subtly even at the corner Farmacia. It is not a skyscraper city, but it is a huge college town. There are multiple institutions of higher learning including graduate schools in law, medicine, architecture, accounting, etc. There are 100,000 students in Morelia. Like students in the United States, their challenge is employment. They will soon have degrees to prepare them for jobs that do not exist in the present economy.
However, I met an interesting man this morning at the coffee shop. Although from Morelia, he is either an American citizen or permanent resident alien. One way or another, he has a home in Sacramento and the legal right to work and pay taxes in California. But here he is. He came to Mexico from the United States to find work.