A typical conversation along the southern border moves fluidly from Spanish to English, and then back to Spanish again, inserting the word or the phrase that best suits the moment. This is a gift, as there are some things that just do not do well in translation.
I have never, for instance, found a good English equivalent for convivencia, a term which I understand captures the exquisite sense of a deeply hospitable way of being.Those who have shared bread, drink, or kindness with someone different than them has known how such an experience enriches life (the stories in Jennifer Harbury’s Bridge of Courage captures the heart and soul of this experience).
Convivencia is at the heart of the border Christmas celebrations—even in our resource-stretched communities, entire city blocks are lit up as families string lights along their rooflines and in the trees that grace their yards, consciously or not, recalling the star that stood stock-still over the famous Bethlehem inn.
Sometimes convivencia can be a pile of hay and a place out of the cold wind.
This past Friday, families across the Rio Grande Valley here in south Texas began a series of celebrations known as “las posadas”, a ritualized party repeated for the nine days before Christmas. “Posada” means “inn” or “guest room” and recalls the Holy Family’s search for hospitality on that first Christmas. Typically, two children are dressed up as Mary and Joseph, and, accompanied by a crowd of cheery folks, knock on the host families’ front door. In stylized song verses, the young families’ request for a place to stay is rejected, including threats to beat the couple if they continue to pester the homeowners’ peace and quiet.
In the end, the hosts realize that they had been engaging in a bit of racial profiling, and, as a matter of fact, were not dealing with regular old poor people, but with the Queen of Heaven. Then, of course, the doors to the home are thrown open, and the young couple, followed by neighbors and friends, line up for hot chocolate and tamales, and fill the house with song and laughter. O sea, a bit of convivencia.
On this Friday past, I celebrated my first night of posadas in Colonia Muñiz, an unincorporated community in Hidalgo County. ARISE, a legacy community-based organization, had organized this posada. ARISE leaders saw it as a way of reassuring the community that while the threats from Washington and Austin to immigrant communities are real enough, the families in the local neighborhoods would not be abandoned. To the contrary, solidarity had now acquired a new urgency.
Many of the ninety-odd participants that night had already had first-hand experience that these were not idle threats. The State of Texas has spent more than $800 million to send State Troopers to our region to “secure the border.” In practice, this has meant unrelenting harassment. The state troopers have created a five-fold increase in traffic stops without tickets being issued–fishing expeditions that have made poor people realize that they are being targeted. The presence of border patrol agents parked at the entrances to the communities do not make the neighborhood feel safer. To the contrary, the residents knew that if the intention was to make families feel safer, that there would be, as a matter of natural law, far more agents parked outside the neighborhoods of the very wealthy, and next to none in the neighborhoods of the poor.
I mentioned that observation to one woman, and she told me, “They come after us because we are poor and brown,” and then she chortled, “Just like Joseph and Mary!”
Speakers at the posada reminded the crowd that this racial profiling by federal and state police in our border communities did not take place in any other regions in the USA, that it was something that could and should be changed. But for that kind of change to take place, everyone had to step up and be strong for the community. “A letter to your congressional representative, a phone call to an elected official, your presence at a community meeting—it all matters now. We are in this together; together we will live this out.” O sea, convivencia.
Amongst the seventy or so people that showed up for the posada, there was no royalty, political or otherwise, and neither was anyone there claiming divine status. But there was joy and energy, and that sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves that, down here, we call convivencia.