I knew that the moment we walked out the door to leave at the end of the party they would all start talking about us. When you’re an outsider, you know it’ll happen. Most of the time we avoid even putting ourselves in those kinds of positions because, let’s face it, no one wants to be the outsider. No one wants to be the one who doesn’t fit, or doesn’t understand, or has no clue what’s going on around him or her. I don’t know really anyone who looks forward to those moments. Awkward is… well….awkward.
It doesn’t feel good to know you don’t fit in. And no matter how heart felt, an invitation doesn’t always amount to a warm fuzzy feeling of inclusion.
I didn’t have to tell you that. You already knew it. Chances are you’ve felt it. And after you feel it, you make sure that you don’t put yourself in a position to feel it again.
Lupe started working for us about 3 years ago. I know it’s a privilege to have someone come clean our house, but when we broke down priorities several years ago and realized that this one area stressed us both beyond belief, we made the decision to have someone come every other week. A friend told me about Lupe without ever realizing that I had been praying for several years to have a native Spanish speaker in my life.
My college degree is in Spanish, and without practicing, I was losing an ability to communicate that had once come easy to me.
It was probably the first time she came that we discovered that my Spanish was way better than her English. That’s how it started.
And over the past few years I’ve deciphered documents for her from her kids’ school, spoken to a doctor on the phone to describe ailments, and laughed with her about what we now call the “Massacre de Guadalupe” (the time she swept up all of my boys’ Legos into a giant pile.) She said since I’m the only person she works for that speaks Spanish, our house is her favorite to clean. We like to visit when she is here.
After seeing someone for several hours every other week for 3 years, if you’re paying attention and treating people like people instead of like workers, you’ll find that whatever the reason it all started, where you’ll end is in friendship.
But this friendship…it’s mine and hers…and to someone looking from the outside in, maybe it’s a little outside of the expected. I mean, on some things, we are worlds apart. I live in an upper middle class white suburban neighborhood, she lives in a crowded Hispanic trailer park. I have a college education, she barely finished high school in Mexico. My family speaks English, and hers mostly Spanish. Gosh…we are both such stereotypes.
But seriously…who cares? And when has any person ever wanted to be characterized as a stereotype? I want to be known as a person…not a blanket generalization. Lupe does too.
She’s a mom with 3 boys who are close in age to mine. She has been married to the same man for more than a dozen years and he makes her crazy, just like she makes him crazy. Her feelings are hurt when people are unkind or snobbish or dishonest. She loves her family and friends and wants the very best for the people in her life. Despite the outside differences, the truth is that there’s a whole lot more that makes us the same.
A few weeks ago I asked her to teach me how to make authentic hot salsa. We stood in the kitchen charring tomatoes and slicing onion while she told my son when to press the “chop” button on the blender and showed me how to get the chiles just the right color when I sauté them. And we laughed and talked about life, and then she invited us to come to her son’s birthday party that weekend. She said she was making posolé, a traditional Mexican soup, and that we should come.
I’ve invited her family to a few things at our house before, and while every single time I hold out hope that maybe they’ll come, they never have.
I get it. I totally get it.
“We’d love to come.” I told her in Spanish. “Let me check with my husband to make sure he hadn’t planned anything, and I’ll text you tomorrow for sure.”
If there’s anything I’ve learned about building bridges to cross divides, it’s that sometimes those bridges won’t ever get built unless I’m willing to put in the sweat equity to make it happen.
I want to tell you that when we went, there wasn’t a single second of awkward and that we were instantly treated as family by all of her friends. I want to tell you that they taught us how to salsa and we danced the night away under pinatas and twinkly lights in a big backyard talking and laughing and feeling more at home there than if we had stayed at home. I wish I could say that the Holy Spirit showed up with the gift of tongues and my husband and kids could magically speak Spanish and all of her guests could speak English.
But I can’t.
I speak Spanish but my brain can’t keep up with the cacophony of 30 different voices at a party. So instead I awkwardly engaged one patient person at a time and translated for my husband as we went. Our life experiences were so vastly different that I struggled to find common interest among these kind strangers who seemed to at least tolerate our presence. “Oh wow…I didn’t expect to see you here” said Laura, another of the ladies that cleans with Lupe, to me in Spanish. I could hear a few people ask “Who are the gringos? Why are they here?” We were certainly welcomed and people made definite effort to engage us, and we did the same, but man was the gap wide.
The posolé was delicious. The people around us taught us how to put lettuce and radish and lime in it. They showed us that if we spread the crema on the tostada and then dipped it into the broth, it would taste better. They told us about their jobs and children, and we fumbled through conversation that felt uncomfortable the whole time because we were just all trying so darn hard. And a few times we chuckled and made jokes, and the moment that her son smashed his younger brother’s face into the birthday cake, the room lit up with laughter. We talked to the people around us as much as we could, but we were totally the odd ones in the room.
We weren’t the first ones to leave. The kids were all having a great time and whenever Lupe and I got to chat, it was easy. But she was the hostess and there were lots of people vying for her attention. We stayed til someone else broke the news that they had to head out first. She insisted I bring home some posolé.
Today when she was at my house she volunteered to me that as soon as we left everyone started talking about us. We laughed about my husband being at least a foot taller than everyone there and how awkward we were in a room where we could only understand bits and pieces. And then what she told me is the very reason that we went and the very reason we will go again and again. It’s the very reason I want to encourage you to step into a space with a person who is different from you and build a relationship. The reason is because it matters. It matters that we learn from people with different life experience.
It matters that we cross social, and racial, and economic boundaries to stop seeing the divisions and start seeing the people.
Lupe told me that her friends were amazed we came. In fact she talked so long about how shocked they were that I knew even more today than I knew a couple of weeks ago:
It’s so much easier to talk about bridging gaps than it is to actually do it. She makes way for me in her spaces though, and I make a way for her in mine. And when we wear a path back and forth between our two worlds, I’m sure that eventually those present divisions will become part of the very things we value most about one another.
Engaging the awkward, out of place, not-knowing-what-to-say moments where we step across our own discomfort and into love…those are the things that make a life.
Today Lupe invited us to another party. We will be out of town for that one, but it’s ok…there will be others. Of that I’m certain.