Introducing Myself to Me: Starting a Journey of Identity

Photo by Davide Foti on Unsplash

I have often felt like a stranger in my own skin.

Nearly two years ago, I explained that I was raised in white culture and identified primarily with my Welsh heritage and American nationality. I am also light-skinned to the point that many consider me white, often discounting my “Latino-ness” as an accident of ancestry with no power to shape my identity.

Years ago I met a recent immigrant from Mexico and introduced myself by name. He spoke to me in Spanish and when it became clear that I couldn’t understand him, he stammered to a stop. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Pity tinged with scorn.

Weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend who called me the “whitest Mexican he had ever met.” It was meant as a joke and I chuckled along. But it stung.

On some levels I think I’ve bought into this narrative. Sure, my name is distinctively Mexican and my history is found as much south of the border as it is across the Atlantic. But I’ve often felt out of place, a white man wrapped in brown skin.

This, of course, is nonsense. I am Latino. It is an objective truth.

Yet, as a Christian who is born again must learn what it means to live as a Christian, I am in the strange situation of having to learn what it means to live as a Mexican-American.

It’s a steep hill to climb. I don’t know Spanish, the heart language of my father and family. Although I grew up at the border, I was taught almost nothing about Mexican or Latino history. Anytime the subject was broached in school, white Americans were the protagonists and Mexicans were the “other guys.” Mexican culture is foreign to me.

I am virtually ignorant of half of who I’ve been from birth. But I refuse to remain in ignorance.

I refuse because that’s my personality. I hate not knowing things and am especially frustrated because I am hobbled by self-ignorance. There are parts of me that I don’t know.

Beyond the frustration, though, is a holy angst. We should know ourselves because we are lovingly created.

I recently read the following words in a worship service:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my souls knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

God intricately wove me together. He formed every bit of me and knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. And he used the DNA of a white Welsh woman and a Latino Mexican man. These nationalities/ethnicities are how I look, what I love, and who I am.

God did all of this on purpose.

So I want to know myself not from some humanistic impulse to worship humankind, but from a sacred desire to better know what my God has done and, therefore, who my God is. As Calvin said to begin the Institutes,

Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

With this in mind I have been on a journey, of sorts, into myself.

On this journey I’m using the tools that God has given me. One tool is my own experience. I have seen, first-hand, the injustices and trials Mexican-Americans face in the United States. I have watched my father navigate White America and give up a part of himself in the process. I have listened to the stories of people who look an awful lot like me as they have struggled, suffered, and overcome.

I am also a seminary-trained exegete of Scripture. I can understand theology. I am a lover of history and a believer in justice and mercy. I have had opportunities that many Latinos haven’t. I have privilege and have been gifted with the burden to use that privilege for the sake of my fellow kinsmen.

So what will this journey look like? I don’t know. I do know that it started in the most natural place, at least for me. It started with a question about theology: what is the distinct theological contribution of Latin America? What have my people brought to the theological table?

This question has lead me to Liberation Theology, the most important Latin American theological system of the 20th century.

I haven’t done a ton of study yet, only some. And I’ve found some disagreement with what I’ve read. But I’ve also found emphases and insights missed or neglected by many American Reformed theologians, pastors, and leaders.

My thoughts are still developing and I have a lot of work to do, but I wonder if Liberation Theology can speak to Reformed Theology in a way that enhances the latter and makes it better equipped to answer the questions and problems of our country and the world.

All journeys have a starting point. I am Latino by birth and I am Reformed by conviction. I am a cultural dissonance.

Maybe some won’t understand this, but the dissonance means whatever I learn from Liberation Theology will be interrogated by my Reformed commitment. This also means that my ethnicity and the struggles of Latino peoples will ask hard questions of the Reformed tradition.

As the Reformed tradition is a largely white theological expression, it will modulate as more and more people of color adopt its tenets. This can be seen as a threat or as a living out of sempre reformanda. I aim for the latter and I hope that shines through.

I don’t have any ambitious goals. As I encounter Latino theologians and explore theological concepts, I’ll share them with you. In fact, I hope to introduce you to one important theologian next week.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

4 thoughts on “Introducing Myself to Me: Starting a Journey of Identity

  • August 25, 2017 at 7:08 am

    Appreciate you sharing your story!

    • August 31, 2017 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks Josh!

  • August 25, 2017 at 11:00 am

    As a Reformed Mexicana, this resonates with me. I am also reading and gleaning from Liberation Theology and oftentimes find myself bristling at its premise and how it works itself out in an overtly activism stance. I am also still learning.

    • August 31, 2017 at 8:32 pm

      Thanks Ariel. You’re right, there are certainly problems. I’m learning a lot too. But I think LT’s emphasis of systemic sin, its emphasis on activism that germinates from within the local church, and its emphasis on speaking truth to power can be an important reminder for Reformed folks. I’m sure some would say that LT’s problems outweigh its positive attributes to the point of rendering them inert, but I think there’s a lot there that we need to listen to.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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