Where Do We Come From?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Where - do - we - come - from? 
Mystery. Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.
Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Singing the Journey, Hymn #1003

The first line of the Brian Tate hymn in our turquoise Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Journey, is taken from the title of a late nineteenth century painting by artist Paul Gaugin. These questions are common to the human experience, and often religion is used to answer them. As I've journeyed through seminary, one of the most important lessons is or knowing one's "social location." By knowing where I come from, I will continue to know why I must speak out in the face of injustice. So what does this mean for my ministry?

Where do I come from?
 I was born in Phoenix, Arizona to a Mexican American mother and an Irish/Scandinavian American father. My paternal grandfather was thrilled to see his first grandchild with her eyes open. According to my mother, he compared his own children to kittens at birth. "They didn't open their eyes for weeks!" My maternal grandfather had passed away the year before. According to my grandmother, the full head of black hair that I was born with would have thrilled him. I was the first of the sixteen grandchildren born at that time who was dark like him. 


Bob and Sandie(Olga) McGregor      Jennie(Juana) and Paul(Porfirio) Huerta

What am I?
As I grew up, the differences that my grandparents and step-parents focused on helped me become aware of the difference in how people were treated. One by one, racism became real, as did sexism, classism, and homophobia and religious intolerance. My adult social location is that of a queer, working class, Unitarian Universalist, feminist/mujerist multicultural woman. As I found myself other in each category, I could not help but see the injustices perpetrated by those who were the dominant culture. I had that ministry moment of clarity when I realized that those in power identified with the punishing God, the oppressed identified with the suffering Jesus. The politics around those caught in the increasingly unraveling social net is theological.

Where am I going?
Upon realizing that injustices are built into the system of this country by those who make the laws, I saw that politicians have been influenced by a form of Calvinist punitive theology. Self-righteous Christian politicians and media personalities blame the poor, the sick, the hungry, the underemployed, the imprisoned for their circumstances. The current election cycle has only served to escalate the hate. The common good is no longer a priority in politics, and what was once considered liberal has been dragged to the center right of the political spectrum just in my lifetime.

I have a passion for our seven Unitarian Universalist principles. As a person who grew up Catholic, the poor and the oppressed are never far from my heart. As a critical thinker, I search for stories beyond the distractions of the mainstream media. As a person who lives on the margins, I am responsible for providing a rational voice on the religious left. As I begin to blog regularly to Both/And, I hope it will reflect my "free and responsible search for truth and meaning," for life is a "riddle and a mystery."

How does your social location inform your own spirituality?

Ah, So That’s Where They Are

I am a person with a border consciousness. Reading Gloria Anzaldua was liberating for there was a word beyond mestiza to describe me. I have a European American surname, which makes a huge difference in life. I see the injustices, yet often being mistaken for being white, I regularly find myself in awkward situations.

The latest went something like this:

After a philosophy class that has students from my school and the graduate school that is across the street, a fellow student asked,

"Can I be sarcastic?"


"So this is where all the white guys are."

I looked at her blankly.

"In our other classes there have only been about three. So this is where they’ve been hiding."

"Uh yeah. I guess they are more interested in philosophy."

The first thoughts through my head were: “The faculty?” “The administration?” We were near the dean’s office.

Oddly, I was happy to see a fellow Latino in class and happy to see more diversity in this class. I had not noticed the white men in the room, because I am primed to look for other women and other people of color. After ruminating a bit, I think that maybe she was looking at a larger pool of datable men…

Identity on the Margins

This year I met numerous fascinating people at General Assembly. In fact, I spent a larger proportion of time talking to others. I am an officer in DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), and volunteered to be at the table for some time each day in the exhibition hall. I roomed with a woman I met at a DRUUMM event several years ago, and we were able to deepen a friendship that has continued to grow as we see each other each GA, since we live on opposite coasts. The DRUUM folks have been like family, and I love them.

A life changing meeting was with a Chicana sociologist from San Diego. She told me of her work, and how she applies sociological methods to different questions. She modeled how to ask questions in dialogue with someone, as she greeted people at the DRUUMM table. For negative self dialogue, she told me to tap into my inner grandmother. Her participation in the Chicano/a movement in California inspired me to claim the identity Chicana. Depending on the grandparent, I am third or fourth generation Mexican American. My grandmother was born in Arizona before it became a state. Latina and hispanic never felt right, but when I was much younger Chicana was "too political." Claiming "person of color identity" is a political act. I am in solidarity with the struggles of all people who are marginalized due to their culture or skin color.

The word Chicana is distinctly Mexican. Years ago in an undergrad philosophy class, there was a reading about Tucson, and the author wrote that she did not want to send her children to public school because of all of the "Mexican children." I did not question anything but the racist tone of the article, because that was my lived experience. My classmates were other Mexican American students. Numerous students in the philosophy class, from countries like Guatamala or El Salvador,  spoke out against the assumption that the kids were "Mexican." Up until this point, I was thrilled about the diversity in Los Angeles, but I learned that Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans are on the bottom of the social hierarchy in California not only by race (a social construct), but by culture as well. I still love the amazing diversity of Los Angeles, but took too many years since for me to claim Chicana.

As we go into next years justice oriented General Assembly in Arizona, I will go with less reticence. I have been boycotting the state with its racist politics, even though my family lives there. At GA I learned that by going in at the invitation of indigenous groups, we UUs will strive to make more of an impact than simply taking our money our money elsewhere. The folks from DRUUMM are taking a particular chance to be arrested. I will stand in solidarity with them, the "Mexicans" I grew up with, and the others who are targeted by the policies.

Tibet... Again.

First there was the post on Making Chutney, talking about the feudal and oppressive governance in pre-communist occupied Tibet.  I was very happy to see a UU presenting the other perspective and recognizing an "anti-Chinese" sentiment in the Western response. But during the discussion within the comments, I became a little uncomfortable.  Understanding that Tibet was a theocracy ruled by the lamas should not then automatically become, "Tibetans are better off now under the communists."  That runs the danger of us not responding to oppression that continues to exist.

Second, a member of A/PIC posted a link to a YouTube video that gave the Chinese side of the story.  In the discussion that followed, someone brought up the very real possibility that some UUs will probably try to present this as an Action of Immediate Witness (AIW).  The idea of a UU statement that mirrors Hollywood, the Western media, and your standard, white "free-Tibet" protesters turns my stomach.  I'm not sure that I could stay a UU if that happened. 

I am still wrestling with how to respond to this.  Every time I argue with someone who makes the claim, "the Chinese are torturing Tibetan nuns!!" I run the risk of sounding like I condone these acts of oppression or am arguing for complacency.  I do not and am not. 

So what is it that I am reacting against? 

1. People romanticizing Tibet as a completely peaceful land of smiling Buddhist monks.  I dislike it when China is romanticized too - it's just offensive.  They're not seeing people as real people.

2. The Western media and some people presenting the violence as the evil, cruel Chinese who just like to torture Tibetans for the fun of it versus the peaceful loving Tibetans.  Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese think that Tibet is part of China. The brutality displayed by the communist govt towards the Tibetans does not come from ethnic hatred mainly, but rather a) a brutality levied against anyone that it perceives as a threat, even Han, and b) ethnocentric paternalism and disregard for the value of Tibetan culture.

3. I can't help but think that many people (not all) are using what is a very legitimate concern in order to justify expression of their latent anti-Chinese bias.

Otoh, I don't want my need to defend China to convince anyone not to act for Tibet.  What disturbed me about the conversation in the comment area of Making Chutney is that, once it was acknowledged that Tibet used to be a feudal theocracy, the sentimant seemed to swing to the opposite extreme.  Tibetans=bad, therefore Chinese=good.  I honestly don't like that any more than Chinese=bad, Tibetans=good.  Surely we are able to grasp a more complex view of the situation.  Whether it's the Mongolians, or the Han, or the British, or the Tibetan aristocracy, the bottom line is that the Tibetan people have never been free. A well-crafted, informed, fair, and ultimately firm AIW bearing witness to the suffering in Tibet (and indeed the rest of China) would be completely appropriate.

Speaking of Buddhism...

All this talk of perpetually peaceful Tibetan monks standing nobly in the face of the evil Chinese reminds me of a related pet peeve I have with respect to how many (not all) Westerners approach things Asian.

When the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life came out with its report on religion in the U.S. a couple of months ago, one notable yet unsurprising finding was that, unlike Hinduism and Islam, most people who identify as Buddhist are home-grown (mostly white) converts, not (Asian) immigrants.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Buddhism is a proselytizing faith; it is open and welcoming to converts - spreading from its native India, throughout Asia, and now the rest of the world.

Nor is there anything wrong with the fact that Buddhism in the West tends to be different than Buddhism in the East.  Everywhere it's spread, Buddhism has been influenced by the local beliefs/cultures.  When it came to China, it blended with Taoism and formed Ch'an, which the Japanese call Zen.  It also blended with other aspects of Chinese culture to form other schools of Buddhism.  When it made it to Tibet, it blended with the native Bun religion and formed Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism.   So when Buddhism came to the West and was embraced mainly by white intellectuals, it's not surprising that Western Buddhism tends to minimize any reference to what many consider "supernaturalism."  And since belief in deity is not necessary for nirvana, it is completely compatible with non-theist positions.

What *does* bother me is the frequency with which I am told by white Buddhist converts that "Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion."  Or that "Buddhism is completely rational and devoid of 'supernaturalism,' unlike Christianity." And I'm like, "Really... because I have relatives who are life-long Buddhists, I've been exposed to it since I was a little kid, and from what I've seen their Buddhism is every bit as much a religion as Christianity, complete with the so-called supernaturalism."

And then these people actually have the nerve to argue about this.  "You don't understand," they say.  "Those gods aren't really gods; they're just projections of the mind."  To which I point out to them passages from the Pali scriptures, the oldest known Buddhist scriptures, thought to be the closest to the Buddha's actual life and teachings, and lo and behold, there are devas (gods) mentioned in the stories. (I strongly suspect that most of these Western converts have read precious little of the original scriptures, given that the Buddhism section of most book stores consists of modern writing about Buddhism.) Even still they persist, "Well, you obviously can't take those stories literally."

It is true that one need not take the scriptures literally.  It's perfectly legitimate to interpret Brahma's conversation with the Buddha as allegorical, symbolic.  But what I want to know is, if you can do that with Buddhist scripture, why can't you do that with Christian scripture?  Why do you insist on taking the bible literally and in the process reject it while you feel free to interpret the scriptures of another culture in whatever way you please?  And what makes you think you then have the authority to say that your interpretation is correct, suggesting that those Buddhists who actually do believe in a real Kwan Yin or rebirth (for example) are somehow backwards?

Conversion to Buddhism is all very well.  Interpreting Buddhism in ways to which you can relate is all very well.  But when white converts feel they can "cut and paste" Buddhism but not Christianity, or when they think they can dismiss other interpretations of Buddhism as inferior to their own, that is not "conversion."  It is colonialization of someone else's religious culture - taking it and using it for their own purposes.  Chalk this up as another example of the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural MISappropriation.

More on China and Tibet

A friend of mine, commenting on my "Love Letter to My Ancestors' Country," says he can't help but feel that China's claim on Tibet is still part of "political hegemony, after military take-over."  Ultimately, I agree.   My beef is when Americans decry the "invasion" by China of Tibet in 1950 and they don't know the history of the region.  There is also a part of me that feels Tibet is part of China because that is how I was raised, and part of me that thinks Tibetan independence would weaken both China and Tibet (just look at what happened to the former Soviet republics) but ultimately I believe a people cannot be ruled by force, no matter how far back it goes. Of course, this raises interesting questions about Hawaii and other indigenous peoples in the U.S., and the morality of the Civil War.

I am thinking about Tibet once again as I type on my laptop in the Denver airport, because of an argument with my parents this morning, my last morning in Cali. In response to the Olympic flame coming through San Francisco and the extraordinary measures taken to avoid the protesters, we started talking about Tibet while we sat in the McDonald's for breakfast. My parents' take on this is that China is 100% correct, even though they hate the communist government as much as anyone does. When their native country is under attack it's amazing how loyal they become to the government there. I guess that's human nature. I was careful to let my parents know that I did not agree with most American protesters. But just because the Americans are wrong that doesn't mean that the Chinese are right. When I pointed out China's human rights record and the cultural destruction in Tibet, they still accused me of being too American in my views, which is ironic given how "foreign" I've been feeling since these latest rounds of protest and violence have flared up again. But I guess I am American in my views - holding fast to the ideals I was taught to embrace.  I ultimately do believe in freedom from oppression, whether from European/American imperialist oppression or Chinese imperialist oppression.

My father makes the comparison between the Han Chinese relationship with Tibet and the American relationship with Hawaii. I think this is a fair comparison, tho it puts him at a disadvantage since Hawaii was taken over less than 50 years ago, whereas Tibet was taken by the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. But the reason why I think it's a fair comparison is because of the attitude that my parents hold towards Tibetans. They kept saying things that are very similar to what I've heard from many whites in the U.S. with regards to Native Americans and even blacks. "The government is just trying to modernize a backwards people." "They don't know what's best for them." "They don't want to work." It's paternalistic. imperialist. The lack of respect for a people's autonomy, their right to make choices for themselves, even if the choices are different than what we would make, is the cause of the cultural genocide going on in Tibet right now. From the Han government's point of view, why would one want to preserve a "backwards" culture? They are doing the Tibetans a "favor" by forcing them to modernize. And my parents fall in line with this kind of thinking. I tried to point out the irony of this - that this is precisely the kind of thinking that justified the European carving up of China in the 19th century, something my parents still resent.

I have realized recently, that I have to come to terms with the fact that while in this country I feel marginalized, in the country of my ancestors, it's my people who are the oppressors. And it's difficult to deal with European/Euro-American moral indignance over Tibet when the vast majority of them have not owned up to the harm their own countries have caused, and continue to cause. But I have to remember what's important here, and that is freedom from oppression for everyone.

It seems the only public person I agree with here is his holiness the Dalai Lama, a voice of reason, the middle way between the extremes of the protesters and the "Chinese" stance. The Dalai Lama does not call for independence, but rather autonomy. He is saddened by the violence in Tibet, but firm in saying that Tibetan culture is being destroyed by the communist government. He supports China's right to host the games and also the protesters' right to protest.  (Tho I must add that I don't think protesters have the right to try to extinguish the flame.) Once again, I wish that followers would actually listen to the person that they claim to follow.

I do not know why the Dalai Lama does not call for independence. Whether it's because he feels such a demand would only lead to violence from the communist government and therefore he is compromising. Or whether he, like me, feels that there is greater strength in unity instead of multiple smaller countries. Of course, for there to be true unity and not oppression, the voice of the Tibetan people must be heard and represented.

Ching Ming and King - part I

Today was Ching Ming, or Grave-Sweeping Day - the day one pays homage to one's ancestors by tending to their graves (hence the sweeping) and making offerings.   I am back in California this week for Ching Ming, to attend to the graves of my paternal grandparents.  Or rather, to watch my father attend so that I will know what to do when it someday falls to me.

It's early April and the California hills are still green as we drive the hour or so distance to Oakmont Memorial Park.  We pass hillsides littered with wildflowers, mainly California poppies.  Poppies are associated with sleep and death but these bright orange sunshiney blossoms seem like anything but.  I make a mental note that I want to plant some in my front yard.

With my father as guide, we easily find my grandparents - RueyFu and ShouYing - despite the numbingly uniform appearance of all the graves.   The memorial park has done a good job of maintenance so I make only a perfunctory pass at weeding, guiltily pulling up the tiny wildflowers, wondering why we humans insist on uniform lawns of bladed grass.  My father sets out the offerings.  Dumplings and fruit.  Libations.  For my grandfather, Chinese liquor and a salty snack to go with it.  For my grandmother, because she was diabetic, diet 7-up.  Both get tea, of course.  As my father pours the liquid offerings onto the ground I think about how many cultures do the same thing.  Then, the obligatory kowtows - first my father, followed by my brother and myself.  Three times, heads to the ground.

Having fulfilled our duty to my grandparents, we pay a visit to my uncle nearby.  Uncle Roger died of lung cancer, the same as grandad.   My father does not kowtow to his younger brother, but I get the impression that I should.  I sneak in a quick bow, under the incredulous watch of my mother.

Driving back towards home, I see more golden poppies.  Then suddenly... a hillside absolutely covered in small white crosses.  At first I think it's another, very crowded cemetery.  But just as I'm realizing what it probably is, I see the sign.  4012.   Paying homage to Americans, family, who have died in the Iraq war seems like an appropriate thing to do on Ching Ming.  It occurs to me that ancestors need not be blood relatives... and I am reminded once again that today is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King

To be continued...

Counter-culture Revisited

The confluence of an email from the A/PIC listserve and a conversation with Taquiena have me thinking about this topic again.

Someone on the A/PIC listserve writes to ask "Why are UUs so white?" (especially given that we promote racial equality) and invites our responses.

I started off with my standard response: Read Rosemary Bray McNatt's essay in Soul Work, where she points out the difference between saying that we are welcoming and actually being welcoming, which includes the willingness to be changed by those whom you invite in. She talks about how UU culture is for the most part white culture, and people of color are invited to join as long as they can deal with that.

But then I thought I needed to let this sit and marinate for a while. Other thoughts were in the back of my mind that had yet to gel. Something Taquiena said this evening reminded me of one of those thoughts, which I've touched on before. Speaking in very general terms of course, I have the impression that a lot of white UUs join UU in order to "be different" whereas that's not the case with UUs of color, I don't think. And I think it might explain several trends.

For one, I think this might be part of the reason why PoC UUs seem to be more "evangelical" than white UUs (not to say that there aren't exceptions on all sides). I suspect that for a lot of white UUs (certainly not all), they would be perfectly happy to believe that "UU isn't for everyone." Translation: it's a religion for the elite - for those who are cool enough to be "counter-culture." Whereas for PoCs, it's like "Hey look at this wonderful thing I've found. It helps me; maybe it can help you too.

As I said in the previous post:

I come to UU to be part of something greater, to have the power to make the world better, not just to be "different." I can be different all on my own.

And this speaks to another difference I've noticed. It seems to me that there are two different populations within UU (only two you ask?) - true liberals, who are attracted to our social justice work within the prophetic tradition, and libertarians, who are attracted to the non-conformist aspect of UU and are upset by our social witness. I'll bet money that you won't find many "libertarian" UUs of color.

For UUs of color and for our white allies, the social justice component of UU is essential, not just a hobby or a nice idea. If UUs in their mostly white congregations really want more racial/ethnic diversity, they also have to show that their commitment to racial/cultural equality is real.

Cultural (Mis)Appropriation

One of the many topics that came up at meals and breaks during the Now is the Time" conference was cultural misappropriation. It is of course a concern amongst UUs who are trying to be sensitive to multiculturalism, especially after what I call the "Zulu hula" fiasco at General Assembly in St. Louis (2006). During a plenary session, several women got up on stage and led us in a sing-a-long/dance. Plenary sessions are long and convention centers often overly air-conditioned, so getting up and moving is not a bad idea. The problem is that it was white women encouraging us to use a Zulu freedom dance as an exercise routine.

What was amazing to me in the aftermath of that uproar (for indeed it did cause a polite but passionate uproar) was that many white UUs had no idea what the offense was. I heard people say they thought that as long as the history of the dance was explained beforehand (which it was), then it was alright to use it. From my perspective, it depends on how one uses it. Is it done with respect for the context in which it was created or is it being colonized? And by that I mean taken from the original owners and "repackaged " for our enjoyment. The latter is cultural misappropriation.

I am usually careful to say misappropriation, because imo, cultural appropriation is a fact of life in a multicultural society. This woman of Chinese descent living in the U.S. eats pizza and tacos and collard greens and creme brulee. And people from all over the world, of all ethnicities, listen to and perform hip hop music. Cultural appropriation is a foregone conclusion. And it's not a bad thing. It's what naturally happens when different cultures interact and someone sees value in someone else's cultural expressions. Real value - ie, sees meaning. Not commercial value, nor cultural "collecting."

Which brings me to an experience immediately after the conference. I had arranged with my family for them to meet me in the town of Mountain View for dinner before I flew back to DC. My father had selected a restaurant on Castro Street, a pleasant small street lined with shops and eateries, mostly but not entirely Chinese-owned. Arriving there before them, I strolled the street, going into various shops. Repeatedly in these Chinese owned shops, I saw the influence of living in the U.S. In the Chinese grocery store there were tortillas and the obligatory Cafe du Monde coffee. (For some reason, Chinese grocery stores in the U.S. always carry Cafe du Monde coffee from New Orleans.) In a couple of the shops, green Irish decorations sat next to Chinese tsotchkes, in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day. Christian paraphernalia mingled with statues of Kwan Yin, all in cramped little aisles packed to the brim with merchandise. Chaotic and wonderful.  And in an Italian gelateria the flavors included green tea, red bean, and ginger. Fusion cuisine at its finest.

On the same street, however, was a New Age store, with what looked like aging white boomers behind the counter. Next to self-help books, crystals and "Angel" trinkets were Celtic runes, African incense, Hindu and Buddhist deities, Taoist feng shui items, Native American fetishes and ritual items... all sanitized into an easily digestible mediocrity. I'm not fond of New Age stores in the first place but the stark contrast made it even more unpleasant.

I've been thinking about what it is that makes the New Age store different from the other shops on the street. They were all selling stuff in order to make a living, so that wasn't it. It's the difference, I think, between living with your neighbors and playing tourist.


Come, come, whoever you are

Caught a red-eye from Cali to DC so I was unable to share with you yesterday the wonderful experience of Sunday worship at the First Unitarian Church of San Jose.

First of all, the architecture is stunning. Located downtown, across the street from a city park, surrounded important looking buildings, I notice once again how prominent and prestigious our old churches tend to be. An large adobe building with a round sanctuary and beautiful stained-glass, even on the ceiling. It speaks to the Hispanic heritage of San Jose. Behind the pulpit, the main alcove was decorated with a large vase of flowers, a partially blanketed globe that was turned to center on Latin America, and various decorations painted and lacquered in the Latin style, including a cross. I took pictures. Will upload them when I have the time.

Secondly, we went to the 9:30 am service, which is entirely in Spanish. The hymns were in Spanish. We sang Spirit of Life and Come, come, whoever you are. There is something so powerful about singing these songs in particular in other languages. (I've decided I am going to translate "Come, come whoever" you are into Chinese.) And the choir sang some lovely songs that were clearly written in Spanish, not translations. One in particular spoke of how whenever people help each other, there is God walking with them. (I am going to ask John if we can sing it at All Souls.)

Senior minister, Nancy Palmer Jones, who gave an impressive homily on Saturday, welcomed the conference participants to her church and then introduced the preacher for that Sunday - Roberto Padilla. And Dr. Padilla preached a sermon that politely kicked our butts. Addressing head on the issue of privilege, he talked about his own experiences with it coming from a family of means in Mexico, and how his initial foray into social justice in a rural community was flawed as he feared the very people whom he trying to help. Only by interacting with the people in contexts outside of his medical clinic - actually living with them, did he get over the fear and learn to work in partnership. By addressing the issue of privilege from his own experience, he challenged us in a non-confrontational way to get over our own fear and guilt, and to use the power that has been given to us.

[Note: I've since posted Dr. Padilla's sermon in both English and Spanish. Many thanks for his generosity.]

Listening to the sermon in both Spanish in one ear and the simultaneous English translation in the other ear was an odd experience, as Rev Jones warned us it would be. I know ridiculously little Spanish, but I could tell that the translator was excellent. And I was amazed by the commitment of this congregation to this effort, for it was a great deal of effort to buy dozens of wireless headsets and to arrange for an interpreter each week.

Moreover, I was impressed to learn that it didn't end at Sunday service, which by itself would be mostly symbolic. The church was also committed financially to offering Spanish classes for us Gringos (do I count as a Gringo?) and ESL classes and citizenship classes for Latin immigrants in the area. This was a comprehensive, long-term commitment to the Latin community in the area. The First Unitarian Church of San Jose clearly takes seriously the words of the song, "Come, come, whoever you are."


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative