My 6-year-old son came home after school and unexpectedly asked my wife and me: “What am I?” The question caught us off guard. “What do you mean,” we replied. He said, “Am I Mexican? Are people who speak Spanish Mexican?”
We explained that he and his sister are “estadounidenses,” the demonym in Spanish for people born in the United States. In other words, they are American. We also explained that people with Mexican roots who live in the United States are also known as Latinos or Hispanics.
Likewise, people born or with roots in other parts of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, like in my case, born in Colombia, and my wife, born in Guatemala, are Hispanic. We have lived most of our lives in this country. We are committed to its best values and contribute with the best of who we are. We are also “estadounidenses.”
Staring as if something was still bothering him, he asked, “Why are Mexicans taking over the country?” Then he added, “Are we taking over the country?”
I asked, “Where did you hear that”? He said, “My friends say that Mexicans are taking over the country. They said that America is for white people. They heard it on television.” Then he concluded, “My arms are white. Are we white?”
Our hearts sank. A deep sense of sadness engulfed me. Should not these 6-year-olds be engaged in play and imagining amazing worlds full of hope? Should they wrestle with these questions at such a tender age?
If you are Hispanic in the United States, the conversation about race and ethnicity is personal, complex and rather confusing. Talk about race in our society is frequently framed within a “white-black” paradigm. Yet Hispanics know that it is more than that.
“Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnicity. There are Hispanics who are white, black and indigenous. Many embody a mix of these.
Hispanics are caught up in a conundrum of racial categories that often lead to misunderstandings about identity and sometimes to exclusion and prejudice — even in our own faith communities. This goes without mentioning language and culture.
This is too much for a 6-year-old. Frankly, it is too much for anyone, young or adult. Yet this is the context where young Catholics are growing up. Remember that about 60 percent of Catholics younger than 18 are Hispanic.
My children attend one of the best Catholic schools in Boston, a place that intentionally strives to welcome a diverse student body and thrives in cultivating an environment of inclusion and respect. Still, the conversation about race that our son brought home is a reminder that we cannot be naive.
Children are profoundly influenced by their surroundings and by what they hear from adults on matters related to race. They watch television and social media. They see how our national leaders behave, what they say and what they fail to say.
My wife and I are not the only Hispanic parents having these conversations at home. We may have access to some tools to address issues of race with our children, but many Hispanic Catholic parents do not. Many are afraid and confused. Many fear for their most precious treasures, their children. They need guidance and accompaniment.
This is a time for all Catholics in the country, starting with our bishops, universities, elementary and secondary schools, dioceses, parishes, catechetical programs and ministerial organizations, among others, to step up to the plate firmly and lead frank conversations about race and racism. We must do this for the sake of a healthy society, the vibrancy of our faith communities and our children.