Knowing Who We Are

I remember the day I first met Angelica.  She waltzed into the Kindergarten classroom in a floaty pink party dress like a fairy princess.  Her mass of blue-black curls framed her face when she giggled and her whole face alit, eyes squished upward.  Her pictures were as crayon-colorful as the stories that accompanied them.  If you took a poll in her kindergarten class most children would identify Angelica as their best friend.

That first memory of Angelica is so different than my image of her on the day she joined our family as my foster daughter.  She arrived with a plastic bag crammed with cast-offs from the school clothing bank. Her choppy hair was a violating reminder that “she told” on her perpetrator.  Angelica came bewildered and exhausted and off-center.

We offered her respite, the safety of routine, and the time to grow her hair and replenish her collection of pink, frilly dresses. With time she began to breath more easily.

Family dinnertime was new to her.  She loved to light the chalice and help choose the reading each night. At first, Angelica was hesitant and silent during our Family Dinner Questions: What did you learn today? A question chosen randomly from a jar full of cards (taken from the Ungame.) And what/whom are you thankful for? Over time she came to clap her hands in delighted anticipation.

One night the question from the jar “What is your favorite meal from your ethnic heritage?” provoked a quizzical look from Angelica. “What is ethnic heritage?”  My husband tried to explain the term by asking more questions.  We knew that Angelica’s mother was from an area Indian tribe with French ancestry and her father is Mexican. Finally, Angelica moved her gaze to the floor, “My daddy calls us Beaners.”  The oxygen was sucked out of the room.  Finally we took a collective sigh.  Beaners. The derogatory term for Mexicans. Clearly Angelica got the message that her heritage was a thing of shame.  My partner asked, “What does that mean to you?”  Angelica shrugged her shoulders and asked to be excused from the dinner table.

I prayed on it and let my dreams take over.

The next morning as I helped Angelica get ready for school.  I took her by the shoulders and steered her toward the mirror.  I picked up a brush and began working on Angelica’s imaginary mane of long curly hair.  I smiled to her beautiful face in the mirror.  She bashfully looked back at my reflection.  Do you know whom I see?  I see Angelica Marie Esperanza LaClaire Guerrero.  You are Nisqually, Hawaiian, French and Mexican.  She is a strong young woman in a long line of strong, wise women. You are a creative, a dancer, an artist, a writer, and a reader.  I like many things about you.  I’ll name three right now.  I like the bright colors you use in your drawings.  I like your clear voice when you read me books. I like how curious you are about the spider building her web on the front porch. What do you like about yourself, Angelica?…”  She covered her smile with her hand. I could almost see her thought: “My foster mother has lost her mind.”

This became our daily ritual. As we got ready for school I would brush out her short crop of hair as if it were the curls thickly framing her face in my mind’s eye.  Angelica began mouthing the words with me.  “I see Angelica Marie Esperanza LaClaire Guerrero.  She is Nisqually, French, Hawaiian, and Mexican. She is a strong young woman in a long line of strong, wise women. She is a dancer, an artist, a writer, and a reader.  I like many things about you.  I’ll name three things right now. I like the outfit you picked out for school today.  I like how you picked up your toys last night. And I have to tell you that your smile melts my heart.  Would you add anything, Angelica?”  She grinned and added, “I didn’t get scared last night getting up to go to the bathroom.” Our eyes locked in the mirror and we got lost in each other’s smiles.

We participated in this ritual for weeks. Angelica began offering more things that she liked about herself.  She began asking what it meant to be Niqually, French, Hawaiian, and Mexican.  We encouraged her to ask her aunties family stories when she visited and she would come back to our home shattering away about her family history.  Mexican friends of ours stepped in to share their family rituals and recipes. We noticed that Angelica went through a physical growth spurt as well and was standing taller.

She was the kind of girl who was gregarious with people she knew but held back with strangers. I began taking her to the neighborhood playground.  At first I would play with her.  Then I would sit nearby and watch closely.  But I finally got to a place where Angelica would go play without holding on to my hand and I would sit and read a book.

One day while Angelica was swinging on the swings a girl stomped over to her.  The girls’ a body language caught my attention and I looked up to watch. She had her hands on her hips and her mouth was screwed up in a sneer. The girl said something to Angelica. Angelica said something back and continued sitting on the swing.  The other girl pointed at Angelica and threw words while bobbing her head for emphasis.  Angelica stood up, hands on hips, and said something back.  The girl looked surprised, shrugged, and walked away.

Angelica continued playing on the swings, and when no other children came to play she came back to me.

“Angelica, what happened with that girl?”

“Oh. That girl called me a bitch.  But I told her she was mistaken.  I am Angelica Marie Esperanza LaClaire Guerrero.  I am Nisqually, French, Hawaiian, Mexican-American, a strong young woman in a long line of strong, wise woman… I asked her who she was but I guess she didn’t know.”

Religious Education is in the stories we tell that hold us and mold us.  When you look in the mirror, what is the story or affirmation that you tell youself?

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