Sabrina Reyes-Peters

Roots and Liminality

Take one look at me, and there's nothing unique that jumps out. I look like any typical white person with Anglo-Saxon ancestry; pale skin, freckles, blue-ish eyes, and wavy hair that doesn't know if it wants to be blonde, brown, reddish, or all three. I speak with a California accent, because I was born there. My mother was born there, too.

Mothers usually play significant roles in their childrens' lives. They birth them, feed them, and provide nurturing and comfort. In my case, my mother was my primary caregiver and my brothers and I were all homeschooled. My life has been predominantly influenced by Anglo-Saxon values, by virtue of my location, and my mother. But that's not all I am.

All my life I understood, at least intellectually, that my father was Puerto Rican, and that made me half Puerto Rican. It surprised mostly everyone I told: a pale, blonde haired kid? Puerto Rican? Nah, you couldn't possibly. I looked at a picture of mi bisabuelo, my great-grandfather, and found comfort in the fact that he, born and raised puertorriqueño, had reddish hair, blue eyes, and light skin. At least that's what mi abuela told me; the black and white photo just told me he wasn't dark.

The only distinctly Puerto Rican things I remember as a child were the language, the food, and the music. The language was my native tongue, and all I spoke as a small child at home, until I became cognizant of those around me speaking Californian English. After that I barely spoke any Spanish. I guess my parents could have continued to speak Spanish with me and my brother and insist on the language, but they didn't; not sure why. My two youngest brothers only know English. The food spoke of special occasions: pasteles, arroz con habichuelas, arroz con pollo we always had around Christmas, when Titi Mary was alive and we would go to her house. When mis abuel@s visited, and mi abuela commandeered the kitchen, we could always expect the same dishes, but I never got tired of them. Mi abuela also taught me my first salsa steps, near the kitchen.

Besides the language, the food and music, along with very occasional visits to Puerto Rico, I don't think I knew what being Puerto Rican meant, and having the white privilege that I do allowed me to take it for granted. One day, several years ago, I was offered one of those genealogy DNA tests for free, and decided, why the heck not? The results were hardly a surprise, and of course there wasn't a guarantee of accuracy, but I was fascinated all the same and shared it with anyone who had the patience. A couple years later, my parents were persuaded to take the same test, and it was then that I could see how my ancestry was predicted both paternally, and maternally. Maternally, I was predominantly predicated to have inherited mostly Anglo-Saxon heritage; no surprise there. Paternally, it was more varied: Spanish, African, indigenous (presumably Taino). I began to wonder what it meant, besides the fact that censuses and surveys make things difficult: I am white (some would say white presenting or white passing, but what's the real difference?) but also Hispanic, which isn't under the "white" (non-Hispanic) category. So I check "other", or "two or more", or "mixed"; sometimes I end up checking "Hispanic/Latin American" if that's the only option.

There is a family legend that says one of our African ancestors who had been kidnapped from his home and put on a slave ship escaped, jumping into the ocean and swimming away, ending up on the island of Puerto Rico where he settled. Even if the story is embellished, it is still a poignant reminder that more than one group of my ancestors were oppressed and colonized. For the past few years, on so-called Columbus Day, I've read articles on indigenous Puerto Ricans and learned the kind of treatment they suffered under Columbus and his ilk. I went from there to read about Puerto Rican history in the 20th century and, well, Puerto Ricans still suffer. Not a whole lot has changed; the island has just been passed from one colonizer to another after the explorers/conquistadores helped themselves to her people and resources.

As I became more cognizant of the anti-Black and anti-Brown sentiment in this country, and began to explore theology outside of what I was predominantly taught in the classroom, I realized that I occupy an awkward space, an in-between space. Yes, I must account for the colonizers' blood that runs through my veins, but to ignore my Puerto Rican heritage is to also do violence to those ancestors, or as Kat Armas puts it in delightful Spanglish used throughout her book Abuelita Faith: mis antepasados. Reading Abuelita Faith was the experience of reading a theology that was meant for me, someone living in a liminal space, because it was written by someone in a liminal space (if any of you reading this listen to my podcast, you might remember a conversation with Kat in which this liminality is alluded to).

In Abuelita Faith, Kat, a gifted Latina exegete, theologian, and writer, talks about uncovering the past and her past, what she calls "research grief" that she experienced and that is very real as we deal with learning what happened between the colonizer and the colonized, the subordinate and the dominant, the oppressors and the oppressed. What happened and what happens is not merely a mental learning exercise; it affects our bodies.

As someone who's inhabited mostly white spaces and whose dominating cultural influences were Anglo-Saxon, it's important to acknowledge the non-dominating culture and heritage, as well, regardless of personal connection. Whiteness is not all there is. This begins a process of decolonization, which Kat models well in the journey she recounts for us in Abuelita Faith, which is her own journey of learning to converse with and welcome her heritage, instead of clinging to the dominant values of (white) Evangelicalism. The most prominent theologians in my education have been white men with the privilege to devote themselves to theologizing and educating above all else, but theology isn't just a cerebral exercise. As Ashley Wilcox notes in her forthcoming book, The Women's Lectionary, "God's word is embodied, and it is through bodies that God's word is fulfilled." She is referencing the Lukan narrative of Mary and Elizabeth here, but we could argue that theology, or God-talk, or God's word, is a bodied activity. So it should matter how our theology is worked out in real life, and we should acknowledge that theology is in and reflects lived experience. That means we can and should honor our abuelas, madres y co-madres, madrinas, hermanas as theologians.

Kat then presents Abuelita Faith in the different themes, pieces of wisdom and life she learned from her abuela: sobreviviendo, protesta y persistence, sabiduría, telling la verdad, abuelita theology, cosiendo and creating, bailando, desesperación, la lucha, exile, and mujeres of exodus. The chapters cover those themes in a recounting of Kat's time spent with her abuela, Kat's own lived experience, the experience of other Latinas in la lucha (the struggle), and thoughtfully exploring different women named in the scriptures along the theme, in a decolonized lens. We admire the persistence, wisdom, resolve, cleverness, and resourcefulness in all these women, along with recognizing the struggles that birthed or further molded these qualities.

One of my favorite passages in Abuelita Faith was in the chapter about desesperación, which included thoughts on hospitality, since food and hospitality is very important in the Latine culture. Kat describes her abuela's kitchen, and I was immediately taken back to memories with my own abuela in the kitchen (she would assign me to crushing garlic with a mortar and pestle), and at the table:

At Abuela's house, preparing dinner usually began right after breakfast. The aroma would linger for hours as Abuela chopped and seasoned -- always without a recipe. She would invite me to join her, guiding my hand in slicing onion and filling the pot of water to the perfect volume. Together we'd stare out the kitchen window at her mango and aguacate trees while arroz (rice) simmered in the pot for what seemed like days. Those hours in the kitchen with Abuela are part of what shaped me; they're the essence of abuelita theology.

Kat then goes on to write about how her abuela always set her own table, and connects it to a popular saying about including marginalized folks at the table for diversity's sake:

I love that Abuela set her own tables. La mesa was hers, and we were all guests. Marginalized people, especially Black, Indigenous, and other women of color, have been setting their own tables -- physical and spiritual -- since the beginning. Our abuelas and madrinas have been theologizing, leading us spiritually, and teaching us how to do the same. This is why I don't particularly agree with the saying "We need to make space at the table for people on the margins." People on the margins have their own tables.[..] An abuelita faith calls for the dominant culture to leave its own tables and join the marginalized at theirs.

<insert mind blown emoji here>

If anyone is curious about mujerista theology, this is a great example of what that could look like, in a conversational tone that is perfect for an introduction. Kat details her influences at the beginning of the book and quotes Ada María Isasi-Díaz at length. One of the principles of mujerista theology is lo cotidiano, the everyday or the daily, which is where life happens and theology happens, and where much of theology is overlooked, perhaps because Latinas are often relegated to the mundane activities that keep life moving for everyone else. Kat helps us to look at Biblical figures that were perhaps overlooked because of their status, and the small amount of space their stories occupied in the narratives. But just because their stories don't take up that much space, doesn't mean we cannot learn from them. We should learn from them.

I learned a lot through reading Abuelita Faith; it was icing on the cake that I could connect my heritage with Kat's and feel understood. This book is a gift, and I hope you take it and learn, so we can talk about it together, as theology is meant to be done bodily, in community, as abuelitas do and we should, too.