By Nickie Valdez, Dignity/San Antonio
Growing up, I remember going to Church with my grandmother (“abuelita”) and having to sit in the back pews at San Fernando Cathedral, as a person of color. I also remember some of my aunts saying that they could not be members of the Daughters of Mary because that organization was for young ladies of prominent families in the community, not us. Real or perceived, I’m not sure, but that is how they felt. Aside from the sacraments, the Church did not reach out to us as a Latino community. In other words, as a Latina Catholic, I always felt like a minority within a minority.
I must have been around twelve or thirteen when I first confessed my feelings about girls. The priest, one of the nice ones of the times, told me to pray hard that those feelings go away. He said a nice young lady does not feel those things, and gave me my penance. I don’t think I ever confessed those feelings again, but I do remember for a long time after that breaking out into a cold sweat at communion time. In my family and culture, though, there was no “not going to church.” Growing up in San Antonio and being Mexican American meant you were Catholic; as such you fulfilled your obligation of going to Mass Sundays and on holy days of obligation. We went to catechism and worked toward our confirmation. By this time, I had a better feeling about myself, even though I didn’t quite understand it. I felt that in my heart I was a good person, and I didn’t understand how I could be so “bad” that I would not be worthy of God.
Sometime after my confirmation and my coming out, I became more distant from the Church. I think my grandmother had something to do with my separation from the Church. I remember admonishing her about something she did. Father said that something that we did as part of our Mexican cultural spiritual tradition was wrong. She told me in response, “El padrecito doesn’t know everything that our people have done since before he was born.” The tone of her voice in the answer, told me that there were certain traditions that we held on to that not even the church could make us change. At first, the experience was confusing and felt very condemning, but then I began to question the authority of the Church and it made me aware there were other “ways.” I am grateful to my grandmother, because it is then that I subconsciously learned that even as religious and church going as we were, the Church did not control who or what we did as a people. In retrospect, the lesson I learned from my grandmother was to be valuable and help me to reconcile being different.
For years after coming out, I quit going to Mass, but missed everything about my religion: the ritual, spirituality, formal organized prayer, social justice, etc. So when I met other people that felt like I did, we decided to start gathering for prayer, reading scripture, and holding discussions on our reading. Since I felt I could go to Mass but I could not receive communion because of who I was, this was the next best thing. When my aunt asked me if I was going to church, I could answer, yes, and it was not a complete lie! Inside of me, my Latino culture and religious upbringing said I was living in sin and had an impure heart, therefore forbidding me from receiving the Eucharist. I could hear my grandmother and my aunt saying, ”Dios te va a castigar!” (God will punish you). Something I heard every time I did something really bad. Here again, I felt like a minority within a minority.
Our little group continued to meet in homes until an Incarnate Word Sister offered us space in the Catholic Student Center at a local college. For us this felt like the Church acknowledging us, saying to us we were okay. That did not last long; when the Archbishop found out we were meeting there, he had Sister ask us to leave. When he left San Antonio and the new Latino Archbishop was installed, he was more compassionate. He gave a priest permission to allow us to meet at the Newman Center at another college. During this time, we had heard of Dignity in San Diego, a ministry founded by a priest for gays, and we decided to work to form a chapter. I began to feel more comfortable participating in all the aspects of the Church, and Mass. Then we were offered space in a Catholic Church for our gatherings. Now I was feeling like “We Were In!” and the feelings of being wrong dissipated. I was feeling better about myself.
As a community, we became a place where the LGBT Latino community could share their faith journey. Then, the Archbishop retired, and after 35 years of working to heal, our community was once again rejected, abandoned, and deemed unworthy. Our wounds of oppressions and discrimination were reopened, once again making me feel like a minority within a minority.
I don’t know how other GLBT Catholics, including young Latinas/os reconcile being GLBT and Catholic, but for me being Latina has made a big difference in how I learned to handle being “other,” rejected, and a “not good enough Catholic”. It is the lesson I learned from my abuelita, to separate out what is valuable to your heart and good for your soul, from the negative and oppressive parts of any institution, so that you can work to heal and become who you are meant to be.
Even though Dignity has been a wonderful place for me, I continue to struggle with being a minority within a minority: as a person of color, as a lesbian, and as a woman. Issues such as immigration, reproductive rights, equal rights, and full inclusion of women in the Catholic Church are met with objection and considered peripheral to the larger Dignity community. But if I am a whole and holy person, all of these issues touch my body and affect my spiritual well-being, and are very important to me. I struggle with reconciling that issues of great importance to me are not shared with the whole of the Dignity community.
So, THANK YOU, Abuelita, for your wonderful lesson…I continue to work to transform my Church and my community, instead of going away! Si se prude!