This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Annie Wells is a 3rd year MDiv student at CST. Once a newspaper photographer, she is now studying to become a chaplain. To see her work from the banana plantations in Nicaragua use this link and click on the picture of bananas next to the text entitled “Pesticides.”http://www.anniewellsphotography.com/content.html?page=2
I have been learning to speak Spanish for years. Sometimes Spanish speakers can understand me. Sometimes I don’t come close to saying what I mean to say. Sometimes when I’m trying to speak Spanish I cannot remember one word in Spanish or English. But I remember clearly the woman who inspired me to learn and for her I will keep trying until I die.
I was a newspaper photographer working in Sonoma County, CA – the wine country north of San Francisco. I was assigned to photograph an elderly Mexican woman for a story about inadequate farmworker housing. At the time I knew two Spanish words: ‘hola’ and ‘adios.’ The reporter, a fluent speaker, could not be there with me, but he assured me that our subject knew a photographer was coming and understood what the story was about. Yet it was a matter of principle for me to be able to explain to her who I was and why I was taking her picture. However, the woman and I could not make any sense of what the other was saying.
She was welcoming and didn’t seem worried about my presence; but did she know what it meant to have her picture in the paper? This was in the late 1980s and it was unlikely that immigration would come after her, but I was concerned about that and also about her landlord’s reaction. While I felt compelled to do my job and make a picture of this woman in her house with a leaking roof and no heat, I felt conflicted because I could not know what she thought about my concerns. I did my job, but it felt morally wrong. It was one of the first times I felt, to the bone, the power I wielded as a white representative of the press. I signed up for Spanish One at the local Jr. College and began a journey that I thought would be much different than it has been.
I thought learning Spanish would be a little like riding a bike. I would work diligently and one day I’d be speaking like I’d known the language my entire life. That hasn’t happened. What I didn’t expect was the world that would open up to me for trying. I had not known warmth, generosity, and fun like I have come to know with Latinos in this country and other Latin American countries where I have traveled. I have also come to know my white privilege in ways I would not have known otherwise.
In the late 1990s I moved to Los Angeles and worked on the LA Times’s “Latino Initiative.” The idea was that a group of Latino editors, mostly Latino writers, and me (I was the only assigned photographer) would work on stories that brought issues in the Latino community to light. As in many newsrooms, white men set the agenda and the paper was making an effort to correct that. Nevertheless, for a year or two, I was frequently the only white person in the weekly meeting and for the first time in my life I heard the intimate views of people outside of the dominant culture. I had not realized their fury at, and the depth of their struggle against, white supremacy. As well, on some local assignments and those that took me to Latin American countries, I might be the only white person, not only in sight, but the only one for miles. That was new for me too. Yes, at times I was very uncomfortable, ashamed of U.S. colonialism, (especially in the banana plantations of Nicaragua), and ashamed of my blindness to cultures other than my own. I also received warm hospitality from many people of Latino cultures so unlike my own white, east-coast, Anglo Saxon, protestant traditions which were more reserved and exclusive.
One time I was traveling by myself in the state of Michocan, Mexico looking for families of male farm workers who were in the U.S. I was in a small village and went to a home where I was told a particular male farm worker’s family lived. Two women came to the door. They did not know who the man was, but they invited me in to talk about their husbands who were working in the U.S. At 9:00 in the morning they offered me a beer. They had no bottled water and no one drank tap water. Even though I never, ever drank alcohol while I was working, I also knew how rude it was to turn down such hospitality. So we drank beer and ate fried pork rinds together for an hour or two. Before I left they showed me the humble room where I would sleep when I returned some day to visit with my husband and which turkey they would pluck for the molé they would make for our dinner. Would my husband and I have shown the same hospitality to a stranger from Mexico who showed up at our door asking for someone we didn’t know? Not then, but I would now.
I’m divorced, no longer a newspaper photographer, and now studying to become a hospital chaplain. I’ve grown in the twenty-plus years since I met the Mexican woman I couldn’t speak with. She was the seed. I have known grass-roots women like those of whom Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz speaks in “En La Lucha, In The Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology.” They have inspired me and infused me, not with hubris, but with humility. Now there is a woman from Guatemala in the parish where I serve. She’s 96, has a sharp mind, but no teeth. I cannot understand most of what she says and she has a hard time understanding me. We have a deep affection for each other, though. Every Sunday we hold each other, look into one another’s eyes, and laugh with joy. We don’t need words.
Categories: Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue