By Father Greg Steckel
I was putting up signs and getting ready to sell tickets for the great tacos, duros, papusas, elotes, agua fresca and flan to be sold at St. Joseph’s Parish annual Latino Festival in West Liberty when a gentleman interrupted me. He asked, “What are you celebrating?” I was surprised by the question and unable to answer. I couldn’t think, at that time, of a response that was appropriate.
It turns out it was a great question! What I should have said is something like, “We can’t help celebrating a lively presence in our parish and in our community. The people themselves have come to us from other countries ‘south of the border’ or have been given, by their ancestors, a vibrant culture that must be continually lived in order for it to be preserved.
Those connected by the Spanish language convey a view of how everyone is connected, and how all in the community must support one another and bear each other’s burdens. They come together often for baptisms, weddings, quinceneras, funerals and presentations which celebrate family life and lifelong commitments. They need to experience the sheer joy of being who they are and how they identify themselves as Latino Americans, whether, they are from Central America, Mexico or Puerto Rico. Moreover, they need to open the celebration up to any who are interested so that they, too, can experience the sheer joy of a community knit together by love and concern for one another.
These Latino Americans are part of a proud tradition of people who identify as a culture, a raza and a part of a Native American cultural reality that transcends time and place. They must celebrate in song and dance who God made them to be.
They must play loud drums, right here in the middle of the street, in downtown West Liberty. Their hearts beat faster as they are mesmerized by the dance of the matachinas whose “one, two, three, one two, three” footwork connects them, bodily, back many generations to the dance seen and heard throughout the land of the Aztecs.
They must see children moving in long white dresses with tambourines to the rhythm of Folklorico dance and sacred music. Inside their hearts is a recognition that this is so much like the dances observed 1,000 years ago when youngsters danced for their elders, reassuring them that the traditions handed down would be performed forever.
They can’t help but celebrate family life, despite the challenges and adversity, troubles and tragedy that can occur in the lives of their families that try so hard to stick together. There is something about who God made them to be, so that as a family and a community they can overcome anything in life as long as they remember and celebrate who they are.
There has to be the great traditional foods that connect them to generations past who enjoyed the same kind of simple ingredients combined in a way that says, “We are much better together than we are individually.”
There has to be the sound of young children laughing and enjoying themselves playing games and all winning prizes. We have to crown both our princesses. (No one even seemed to notice that we had two winners of the contest to see whose family could sell the most tamales after Mass a few weeks ago.)
It took many days to find the words for my longwinded answer to the simple question, “What are you celebrating?” because of the difficulty of putting into words what is so implicit about everyday life. There is a natural tendency not to appear proud of something that has been given to one as a member of a community of people.
I bet the guy who asked the question was glad I hadn’t found the words to express why we must celebrate. He was more interested in buying some tickets so that he could get in on the first tacos coming off the grill.
(Fr. Steckel is pastor of St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty.)