Being mestizo can be difficult. If you’re unaware, a mestizo is a Hispanic/Latino of mixed cultures and ethnicities. To use myself as an example, I’m Puerto Rican, African American, and white. Mestizo comprises many groups and sub-groups of Hispanic-Americans “living in the hyphen.” These are U.S.-born, English-dominant Latinos who are “ni de aquí ni de allá,” that is, neither from here nor from there. In Rev. Sánchez’s words, mestizos “are neither here nor there, and in both places at the same time, and thus serve as mediators between both cultures while defying rigid categorization by either culture” (228).
As a mestizo, I am neither fully Puerto Rican, nor fully African American, nor fully white, yet I live in all cultures at the same time. When you look at me, although what you’ll see is a brown-skinned Latino, what I am is Puerto Rican, African American, and white at the same time. One aspect that makes life difficult as a mestizo is not knowing the culture to which you belong. Should I live like a Puerto Rican? A black man? A white man? I’m brown-skinned, so clearly I must live like a person of colour, right? Okay, what does that mean? It took me three decades to figure out what it means to be mestizo. I’ll get to that a little later.
When People Assume They Know Who You Are Based on Your Skin Colour
What also makes life difficult as a mestizo is what everyone else expects you to be. To this day—whether the person is black, white, or Hispanic—many people expect me to live a certain way, talk a certain way, and dress a certain way, or even be from another country that’s not the U.S. For 30 years I lived my life not knowing my identity, so imagine still living life every day coming across people who expect you to live, talk, and think a certain way based on the colour of your skin. This is not Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that we be judged by the content of our character rather than the colour of our skin.
Virtually every white, Hispanic, and black person I come across expect me to talk like I’m Hispanic or black. People of all skin colours will ask me, “Why don’t you dress like you’re black,” or “Why do you talk like you’re white?” As if I’m some enigmatic anomaly, they question the very way I am. In case you’re curious, I don’t “dress like I’m black” (whatever that looks like) because I simply like the clothes I like. I love flannel, wearing boots, a cowboy hat, video game t-shirts, and a belt so my underwear doesn’t protrude from my pants. Get over it. And I “talk like I’m white” because, after moving into the white suburbs, my white teachers couldn’t understood this little Puerto Rican boy with his strange accent who just came straight out of the hood.
What’s even more offensive is when people—and they’re always white people—who assume I’m not from the United States because of my skin colour. They’ll ask me, “So where are you from originally?” And sometimes, when I tell them I’m originally from Michigan, they’ll follow up with, “When did you come to the States?” When I clarify I was born and raised in Michigan, they’ll ask, “When did your parents come to the States?” Then when I tell them my parents were also born and raised in Michigan and Indiana, they’ll ask me when my grandparents came to the States. Again, I have to explain to them that my grandparents are originally from Michigan too. (Except for my mom’s biological father, who’s from Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory and doesn’t matter anyway.)
99% of the time, when people look at me, they assume they know everything they need to know about me. They create this fantastical caricature of me in their head as soon as they see me. They see the brown skin, the dark brown eyes, and the curly hair and think, “He must have some sort of accent. Why does he dress that way? Why doesn’t he act like the blacks/Hispanics I see on TV? He must be an immigrant. Why doesn’t he speak Spanish?” Sadly, such stupid assumptions are beginning to happen to white people too with a new evil called critical race theory. CRT tells lies about whites and people of colour to extend nothing but the kingdom of the devil.
In each of these experiences, for many Hispanics and blacks, I’m not Hispanic or black enough to be considered a black man or Latino. So, I’m tossed into the margins. For some whites, because I’m brown, just toss me into the margins with the rest of them anyway because that’s where we “belong.”
And to make matters even worse, because I’m brown-skinned, I must also think a certain way politically. I don’t identify with any political party, but politically, I consider myself to be quite conservative. When liberals find out (and they’re always white liberals), they ask me how I could “be for the party of racism” even though I never say I support a specific conservative party. And they will go even further and say that I’ve been “brainwashed” by the Right. Okay, sure, continue your baseless ad hominem attacks when your logic fails you. On the other end of the spectrum, because the Left sets up the façade that they’re “the party for the minority,” some conservatives will unfortunately group me with the Left and their unchristian beliefs, such as abortion. (The Right have their own unchristian beliefs too, such as a complete lack of compassion and relief efforts for illegal immigrants. For some of them, helping these people become legal citizens and bringing their families back together is unthinkable for some evil reason.)
What It Means to be Mestizo
I don’t have an answer to how people might alter their mental biases when they look at me. Perhaps there is no answer because I can’t control what people think. All I can do is control what I think, but once again, I’ll save that for later as well. For now, I will share what it means for me to be mestizo—to be a U.S.-born Hispanic simultaneously living in multiple cultures.
Honestly, I’m still figuring it out, as I’ve only recently discovered my mestizo identity. For example, I’m learning Spanish through Duo Lingo (when I’m not being lazy and procrastinating). This is thanks largely to my mentors at Concordia Seminary, Rev. Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez and Dr. Mark Kempff. Yet I think the video game community has helped with this as well.
I won’t go into the details here, but I had my first unfortunate run-in with racism early in life. I was only 5-years-old. Later on, the gaming community would be the first place for me where I didn’t have to think about my skin colour. You see, in the gaming community, they simply don’t care. It’s not that they’re colour blind, which is just as bad as racism; it’s simply that gaming is for everyone. For whatever reason, to this day, the gaming community is one of few places where people don’t have expectations of me to speak and behave a certain way according to the colour of my skin. Yes, even more than the church, sadly enough. In fact, the church is where I experience these racial expectations the most.
What does gaming have to do with being mestizo? To quote my friend and mentor again, mestizos “are neither here nor there, and in both places at the same time, and thus serve as mediators between both cultures while defying rigid categorization by either culture.” The gaming culture is the first place where I was allowed to live in both Hispanic-American places at the same time without rigid categorisation. There, for the first time, I was allowed to “talk like I’m white” and be paradoxically Hispanic and African American without being questioned or judged about it. Without even realising it, the gaming culture is where I learnt to be authentically mestizo.
A Baptised Mestizo
Being mestizo is complex and beautiful. More important than being Puerto Rican, African American, and white is that I am a baptised child of God. This is the core identity of every Christian regardless of skin colour, race, gender, and social status. Just like me as an individual, the church herself is mestizaje—that is, a mixing. The term you might’ve heard is that the church is “multiethnic.” But I prefer the term mestizaje because of what it entails. More narrowly, mestizaje means specifically a mixing of European with indigenous cultures during the Spanish Empire (1492-1976). A broader definition would be what the word itself implies: a mixing.
Mestizaje is not a “melting pot”; it’s not an amalgamated mess of cultures. Rather, it is el espíritu de bienvenida—”the spirit of welcome” with a hospitable nature. This latter sense of mestizaje is characteristic of the church. As I said, the church herself is mestizaje. Mestizos like me are a small group of Gentiles who have been grafted into Israel (Romans 11:11-24). In Baptism, I became part of the one Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Here, my identity is not lost. Rather, I am made whole by virtue of what God has done in my Baptism, mainly, being adopted as His beloved child (Ephesians 1:3-14). Because Christ designed the church not to be colour blind, neither is Christ, our Lord and God, colour blind; for He sees all that I am and has taken me in, washing my sins away and making me whole in His perfect righteousness.
Earlier, I said I’ve experienced racial expectations the most in the church, but I’ve also experienced incredible welcoming and hospitality despite my skin colour in the church, especially as a pastor. Before they called me to be their pastor, my congregation knew I was brown-skinned; they had a picture of me. But that didn’t stop them, thanks be to God. With open arms, they accepted me and my wife with el espíritu de bienvenida. The welcoming of their new pastor has been an incredibly humbling and loving experience, and their hospitality has gone unmatched by anyone else I’ve ever met.
My flock gets it. Though some of them may not be able to articulate it theologically, they get the spirit of welcome I’m talking about. They get what it means to be Gentiles grafted into Israel through the Body of Christ in Baptism. They get what it means for the church to be mestizaje. This could be because of the campus ministry I’m largely in charge of that does work with international students. Yet it primarily has to do with the Holy Spirit doing His work in God’s people—that we may make disciples of all nations, according to Christ’s command, by baptising them into Christ’s Body and teaching them what He has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20).
Sánchez, Leopoldo A. “Hispanic Is Not What You Think: Reimagining Hispanic Identity, Implications for an Increasingly Global Church.” Concordia Journal 42, no 3 (Summer 2016): 223-235.