It took me a while to actually sit down and write about this.
Even tough I’m serving at a “national site”, I’m definitely serving in a different country. I’m speaking another language. And, a huge part of my experience here has been embracing my identity as a Puerto Rican, but on the other hand, realizing that I’m a “hispanic with benefits”.
As part of our community days, my roommate Suyeon and I went to Krome Detention Center in Homestead, Florida.
Suyeon described perfectly in her blog what the visit was about so I’ll share it here:
”Krome Detention center or Krome Service Processing Center is one of the many immigration detention centers in the United States where people who have violated the immigration law are held. They are not serving time for a crime. Many of them are detained, waiting for a removal process or court hearings, purely for “administrative purposes” we were told. We were background checked and went through security procedures. After we entered, an officer gave a brief presentation about what they do and what we will be seeing. Then, we toured the facility. There are 600 beds that are filled with detainees for some sort of conflict with immigration law.”
My visit reminded me when we had tours at the newsroom I used to work at. Journalism students would go through the whole building while we worked.
Somebody would say: “So this is the audiovisual area… and this is Michelle…” and then I would explain what I was working on.
However, what I heard being “the visitor” at the detention center was something like: “So this is the room where they wait for a hearing… or for their lawyer…”, “…this is the room where they see their families through a glass…”, “…they wear color-coded uniforms depending on their violation level…”. At the same time I was listening to this, I would see them looking through the glass.
In that moment I realized that this was nothing compared to the journalism students tours. I felt uncomfortable and if I was in their shoes, I’m sure I would feel humiliated.
After the “tour” we got to a room and met some of the detainees. We were split into small groups depending on the language spoken. Of course, I was in one of the 4 groups of people that only spoke Spanish - which was the majority in the room.
It was difficult to hear their stories and not feel anger and frustration. In my position, I could speak their language, relate to their culture, to their traditions but I couldn’t do the same with their immigration struggles.
"I signed a paper and I don’t know what it said because I don’t speak English. They just told me to sign it and I did." Things like this made me feel miserable, mad and upset… all at the same time.
I thought I’d already realized this but it was not until that moment that I understood the privilege of speaking English and having that “permission” to be here.
I thought I already knew what it felt like to not feel like a part of this place. I’ve encountered racism… and have been a victim of lack of awareness. But this was way beyond.
I consider myself an immigrant in this country, but, because of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, I may not count as one. Daily I find myself relating with those whose first language is Spanish but the challenge comes when I face the differences caused by my citizenship.
This was an experience, along with many other experiences I’ve had here in Miami, that have not made me say: “Oh! I’m grateful of what I have” but have challenged me to relate with those who suffer and struggle.
Like we see in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” When I see this, it’s difficult for me to rejoice.
I would never have imagined in 2008, when I went to the PCUSA General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate (YAD), that I would be going back in 2014 as a YAV (Young Adult Volunteer).
My perspective was so different then. I was living in San Juan and just graduated from college. This time around, I went after living and serving in Miami for about 10 months.
There were many significant moments that made me feel grateful for all the experiences and opportunities that God has given me throughout these past months. Other moments were definitely challenging.
It was meaningful to attend the YAADs evening meetings and remember my experience as a YAD, but also hear some of the songs I learned and sang at the Young Adult Volunteer program orientation in August when I was starting this unplanned but blessed journey. Certainly, it was a reminder that I was where I was supposed to be.
It was interesting to see GA from a different perspective. After experiencing simple living for the past months, even fancy hotel rooms bothered me a little bit, but experiencing the Church in a whole new way and being supported by friends and family while I was there was a true blessing.
I had the opportunity to lead a reflection question and prayer with TJ Piccolo, currently serving in Nashville, where we asked the commissioners: "What is something small you’ve done for someone that meant more to them than you thought it would? Or what small act of kindness did you experience that meant more for you than the other person thought it would?
Although it was challenging to me to do this in English, it was great to share a little bit of my experience while being supported by other YAV’s and YAVA’s (YAV Alum).
Also, something called my attention while I was being commissioned on behalf of the YAVs 2013-2014. Every Presbytery delegates were asked to stand after they introduced every missionary. To see the Presbiterio de San Juan delegates standing up after my name was called was a beautiful reminder of the church back home that has been walking with me.
Living in the US has made me more aware of my identity as a Puerto Rican, aware of what it means to be a minority, and made me realize the position of privilege I have because of that tiny little detail in my passport that specifies my citizenship.
That makes me have this “I’m part of, but I’m not” feeling.
It was after having the opportunity to speak at the plenary, that I heard that somebody asked to refer one issue about Puerto Rico to the International Issues Committee, without knowing that Puerto Rico’s Synod and Presbyteries are part of the PCUSA.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend GA and realized how my mind set has been challenged and transformed since I was at GA in 2008.
I found myself noticing injustices where I didn’t noticed them before, and felt in peace with issues that were really bothering me.
And… last but not least, I took my GoPro with me.
"How do you survive?"
A friend asked me that common question when I said I was working as a volunteer… with no salary… for a whole year.
For me, this is a new thing. Before coming to Miami, I had a full time job and that means: a full time salary. Money was not a concern for me. But now, I’m very aware of how much money I spend.
It wasn’t until I went to Puerto Rico for New Year’s, when I went to one of my favorite restaurants, that I realized how much I used to spend in food. When I got the ticket I was like “how much?!”
It was the very same thing I used to order always.
Even last weekend, I went to a expo and I realized how many workshops and music presentations I missed because I had to pay extra.
Now I’m more aware of the parking fares, on how I can get cups of water for free instead of paying $2 for a water bottle. I think whether is cheaper to go in public transportation or use the car before going to a place. I’ve learn how to get all the stuff I need for a trip in a backpack to avoid paying for luggage at the airports.
I’ve learn to “survive” with a very limited amount of money and, let me tell you something, everything is OK, I’m not starving… I’m not dying.
This experience has taught me to prioritize things. Well, I’m still learning. I’ve learned it is possible to live with a super limited budget, beyond what I thought it was “limited”.
I may not go everywhere I want to, I may not eat at every place I would like to, but I’m not lacking anything essential.
Great weekend with Miami, New Orleans, Nashville and Atlanta YAVs!
So we finally moved. It was a whole process but we are finally settled.
We spent 3 weeks staying at different houses (including our site coordinator’s house) until we got a new apartment.
Although it was frustrating to not have a house, I found myself “houseless” but not homeless.
I saw God’s love and care in every detail while I stayed at José Manuel and Vilmarie’s apartment.
José Manuel is the pastor of the First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami but he happens to be the former pastor of the church I’m a member of, back home in San Juan. And Vilmarie… well, I know her since I was little because we grew up in the very same church. I know those two very well and when I needed a place to stay, I didn’t hesitate to call them and ask if I could stay for a couple of days… that later became 3 weeks.
I knew I was going to be ok while staying with them, but while the days passed by, I started to feel like… should I go somewhere else? or am I abusing their generosity?
I knew I was there temporarily, but I didn’t know for how long. And that was challenging. I really felt I was invading their space, even though we have a very close relationship.
I’m so grateful for that home. I had great conversations with José and Vilmarie about church, bible, and even theology. We also had great time watching SNL videos and hanging out at IKEA.
It was such a refreshing time for me, full of luxuries like cable, Netflix, Wi-fi, room just for me and, last but not least, washer/dryer machine. Whoa! (How perception changes with all this “living simply” thing, right?)
I know they didn’t do all of this to be featured in a blog, but I really felt God through their support and care.
This is where I reaffirm that being part of a church and having that extended family available for me has been a true blessing.
And now… this is my view on my way to the bus stop
Venezuelans in front of Freedom Tower in Miami couple days ago