“I DIDN'T KNOW YOU WERE MEXICAN?” “Oh, your dad is from Puerto Rico?”
These are probably the most common replies I received throughout my childhood, when someone found out my last name. At one point, exhausted of explanations, I started to reply in the affirmative to whatever Latin American country was chosen.
However, the response to my name has changed in the last 10 years or so. Now when I tell someone my father is from Costa Rica, the most common reply is about a vacation they took with their family, or that they know someone who plans to retire there. Pura vida.
However, this small Central American country did not represent a paradise for my father as a child. His childhood was rough. When my father was around 8 years old, one year shy of my oldest son’s age, he was dropped off at a stranger’s home. He worked for this family for almost a decade, a few of his relatives visiting on rare occasions. There is no nostalgia in the messy details of his recollection.
By his own estimate, God has since blessed him: He is now father, foreman, pastor, and, recently, grandfather. The U.S. was a refuge, a place of opportunity, for the man with a fifth-grade education who grew to read St. Augustine for pleasure and instruction after dinner. I grew up in that man’s shadow.
The hardships he experienced as a child were denied his two sons: We had a happy childhood. I learned to accept my mundane, middle-class biography, realizing my script would not contain the dramatic details of my father’s life. My Christian conversion story produces a yawn in even the most-sympathetic listener. My “rebellious” teen years—a manufactured mistreatment molded by myself—paled in comparison to the real struggles that my father went through.
One of my favorite pictures of my father when he was younger is a photo of him with his abuela (grandmother). I never met her. Out of the few black-and-white photos of my dad that we have, this is the only one I can recall that he is smiling. He decided to take the Jimenez name because of his abuela. He eventually left Costa Rica in the late 1960s; after his abuela died, nothing tied him to the country.
In the U.S., he heard the command to “take up and read” to discover that the New Testament was like no other book. After the New Testament, he returned to St. Augustine, but read him with different eyes. He discarded numerous religious and philosophy books that left his soul empty. But not St. Augustine.
When Augustine was a young man, he was hounded by his mother, Monica, to become a Christian. She followed him everywhere. Augustine wrote about this narrative in his Confessions, describing how Monica and her God finally won him over. There wasn’t a Monica in my father’s life who sought him out. However, like Augustine, my father heard a voice telling him to read the New Testament, and it won him over.
Augustine’s opening line to his Confessions, about the restless heart only finding its rest with God, is my father’s life motto. He’s a searcher. Somewhere in Costa Rica, the boy did not let his own lack stop him from the search of the big questions of human existence. Instead of blaming God for years of mistreatment, he turned to Christ as his hero. Augustine’s God gave his life meaning.
Signs of Babel
I remember once hearing a message left on the answering machine at our church. A woman called, looking for Calvary Chapel down the street, yet was given our number presumably because our church also had the name Calvary in it. My dad called me into the office to hear a frustrated woman aggressively scream, “Learn English!”
This was her reaction after hearing my dad’s 15-second recorded message. In response, my dad gave me a reassuring smile, communicating to me that this was just some silly, misguided woman.
There is a certain cruelty and contempt in that command to “Speak English” directed at a stranger on the other side of the phone recording. Would she respond the same way if the pastor with the accent actually picked up the phone? I imagine only kindness if she heard my Americanized voice, with no traces of an accent. I am more disturbed by the fact that she was calling a church. Was she someone who regularly attended church services? Theologians dream of unity among the Christian churches across the world, but language separates. The signs of Babel are evident every Sunday morning.
The mestizo one
I think we remember Augustine because he wrote a story. It is the best type of nonfiction: narrative that reads like fiction. He relies on memory to tell his tale, famously making stealing fruit sound like a capital crime. His honesty is refreshing. Augustine teaches us that the narratives of our lives have theological ramifications. Theology is biography and vice versa.
Recently, the eminent Latino theologian and historian Justo González wrote The Mestizo Augustine. The book details the basic biographical information of Augustine’s life and his voluminous works and examines him under the lens of his mixed (mestizo) identity. González’s book is important to me because it made me see Augustine as a part of my family, like one of my uncles who lived next door. It took a Latino theologian and historian to see the mestizo in Augustine’s story and, by extension, the history of Christianity.
Now, when I teach history or theology, I point out that there are books worth reading by people outside of Europe, people with last names like González (or Jimenez). The evidence of my father’s love of God (and of Augustine) is his worn-out copy of Augustine’s Confessions, barely held together by tape. This is all the evidence I need that books matter. I have several of my father’s theology books on my bookshelf, and one day they will be handed over to my sons. They will know the story of Augustine, the mestizo one.