It happened in junior high. Our class, half Hispanic and half Caucasian, one day realized that it meant something. There were suddenly differences that had never been apparent before. “So what is it? Are you Mexican or White?” And I knew immediately that I couldn’t take sides but that I would have to. My blue eyes and broken Spanish made the choice fairly obvious, but I resisted. I had grown up hearing of the strength of my grandparents and great-grandparents and great aunts and uncles. I knew how hard they worked for equality and justice, not only for themselves, but for their people. My love for them and my knowledge of the obligation I had to work hard and do them proud made it so that I could never see “the Mexicans” as other. My hard work at school wasn’t some goody two-shoes tactic that I could try to use to stay in the teachers’ good graces. It was a hard-won right that my ancestors had fought for, and I was in no way going to squander it. I spent the next six years with one foot on either side of the racial divide, never feeling that I could fully step into the groups that were forming around me.
People say that race is a construct, and I suppose it’s true. But the constructs that we create have real power, and it is undeniable that race is a construct that has shaped societies for millennia. I learned early on that in all things there is “us” and “them”, but there is no “us vs. them.” “Us vs. them” soon turns into the “us vs. us” that I experienced in junior high. There is no other possible outcome to a conflict that is obsessed with its own power. On the other hand, denial of conflict and difference also turns quickly into “us vs. us.” Until we can acknowledge good in our differences we will never be able to have unity or peace, because we will be too busy denying some part of reality — a move that requires bolstering our own limited world against assailants from the outside.
Pope Francis says that “unity prevails over conflict.” It’s a beautiful thought, because it admits first of all that conflict exists, present in every human structure and relationship. That conflict comes from the beautiful diversity of the human family. But a unity that recognizes the beauty of that diversity even amid conflict… that’s the unity that we need. I have lived both sides of too many different divides to believe that this fundamental unity is a simple thing to find. It defies easy answers and requires an ongoing investment in deepening our understanding and compassion. Are you Mexican or White? Yes, both. Are you Christian or Catholic? Yes, both. Are you pro-science or pro-faith? Yes, both. Are you pro-women’s rights or pro-life? Yes, both. Are you conservative or liberal? Yes, both. I am not ashamed of the difficulty in explaining these statements or even of the times that I have difficulty in understanding them myself. As a scientist, I struggle every day with understanding how the universe works and how different ideas and observations that may seem contradictory at first glance can be true. Why should our own lives and society be any less difficult to understand?
A unity that excludes is not true unity. A peace that silences any human voice is not true peace. And that includes my own voice. We do not need to be afraid of any voice, because each person finding her voice provides strength to each other voice that is too timid yet to be heard. Audre Lorde demonstrated it eloquently: “What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
And this is my work — to speak whatever small part God has given me. It is difficult to listen. It is difficult to speak. It is more difficult still to discern when is the right time for each. But let us not silence any of the voices that need to be heard.
Katie Garcia is a 4th generation Texan and a Catholic who is half Chicana and half white. She now lives with her husband and two little ones in the DC area, where she gets to spend her days puzzling out the mysteries of the universe as a space scientist.