Lay missioners' reflections on racism - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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This year, Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ Anti-Racism Task Force has recommitted to deepening our struggle against racism both internally, within Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and externally, in the U.S. and in the regions where we serve.

As part of that process, members of the task force reflected on these questions:

  • How do you see racism where you currently serve?
  • What are some of the conscious steps you have to take daily to navigate the power differential in your ministry and work?
  • How do these realities look similar to or different from the realities in the U.S.?

Here are some of their reflections:


How do you see racism where you currently serve?

Abby Belt, Haiti

In terms of conflicts among Haitians, in place of racism, there is more a prevalent problem of colorism as well as discrimination and prejudice based on country. There is an ideology, which some support, that suggests light-skin Haitians are better for their lighter skin. I cannot go to a boutique or side shop without seeing soap and lotion that claims to “lighten and whiten” the skin. There’s a definite prejudice against people from the Dominican Republic, which is mutual. I have witnessed expats take advantage of the elitism their blan status affords. “Blan” is the word for “white” which is also used for “foreigners.”

It comes in various forms, like jumping ahead of people at banks, to being helped first at various institutions simply because one is white, to more severe things like receiving aid first only because one is white. If we’re not careful, it is easy to feed into these cycles of institutionalized privilege and internal racism. We have to check ourselves daily to make sure that we do not feed the damage but work against it. Sometimes it means taking an uncomfortable and absolutely necessary look inward to make sure we do not let internalized prejudice, born of our origin home and its history of deeply rooted racism, fester.


Loyce Veryser, Tanzania

In Tanzania, over 98 percent of the population is African and just 2 percent are other races, including Asians and whites. We don’t really experience racism in the way it’s seen in developed countries, maybe because our population is so homogeneous. We do, however, experience some bias in our society especially in terms of tribes and religions.

Actually Tanzania has been seen as a model of different peoples living in harmony. While in neighboring countries in Africa there has been violent conflict between people of different tribes and religions, we have lived in peace together. The peace of our society is often attributed to the efforts of our first president after independence, Julius Nyerere. Nyerere established certain norms, so that people of one tribe would live and work in other areas of the country and mix with other people so we would understand each other. Intermarriage between tribes has become common so when children are of mixed tribes they can’t fight each other. We also have the common language of Swahili which is based in Indigenous roots but binds us together more than a foreign language, like English, would.


Larry Parr, El Salvador

Racism in El Salvador — like in many Latin American countries — is rooted in the Spanish conquest and colonialism of the Indigenous people. This consisted of 500 years of oppression and violence against Indigenous culture, thought, practices and identity, while promoting a European-centric society.  This led to the massacre of 1932, where the military killed an estimated 25,000 people in three days in the name of progress. They put down a peasant rebellion and targeted anyone with Indigenous features or clothes as a threat to the progress of society and basically wiped out the Indigenous culture and languages of El Salvador. They connected being Indigenous with being a communist and against the prosperity and modernization of the country. After this, most people denied being Indigenous and abandoned their culture and heritage out of fear of being targeted.

Today, only around 1 percent of Salvadorans identify as Indigenous and, besides a few communities, the languages are almost extinct. This has led to a crisis of identity in El Salvador, where people have lost their Indigenous roots and culture and European Western ideas and culture are valued above the traditional values.

This history of racism and massacres has produced a culture of violence and oppression against the poor that is still seen today. This includes the 12-year civil war from 1980-1992, during which, in the small rural town of El Mozote, around 800 civilians, mostly children, were massacred. The country is still traumatized by this history of violence and as a result is constantly among the top countries for homicides every year and the practices of military and police violence continue to target young people from marginalized communities. It has created a system of inequality for the poor. The country has yet to heal from a long history of persecution and violence that stems from the conquest of the Indigenous people.

It is both their culture and the color of their skin that make some groups a target. During the massacre of 1932, people were targeted that had Indigenous facial features and looked more like Indigenous than European descent. People that look more Indigenous are discriminated against, and people refer to darker skin as “negros.” Not Black Salvadoran but dark Indigenous skin is referred to that as well. The white, Spanish descendants have had all the political and social power for years. Eighty-five percent of the country identify as “mestizo,” mixed Indigenous and European, and it is more desirable to be more European than Indigenous.

As for Afro-Salvadorans, this is also a very complicated history. On the census, they identify as Black race. This is only 0.13 percent of the country. This is very different from other Central and Latin American countries that have an Afro-Latino population. This has led to the myth and narrative that El Salvador did not have slaves or Africans like the other Latin American countries. This is what most Salvadorans believe. This myth has been proven to be false by historians. El Salvador had many African slaves and Afro-Latino communities during the colonial period. Like in other parts of Latin America, the African descendants mixed with Indigenous and Europeans.

In the 1800s El Salvador gained its independence from Spain, led by white Europeans that were born in the Americas. They did not want the Indigenous and African cultures to have a place in this new society, so they focused on the mixed-race identity of all Salvadorans while erasing the Afro-Salvadoran culture. The people became absorbed into the mestizo identity and Indigenous and afro descendants were part of a process of hominization and making all Salvadorans feel white or at least mixed race. It made native and African people invisible and erased all the different diverse groups of people and races in the country.

In 1933, the government passed an immigration act that prevented Black, Chinese, gypsies and Turks from entering the country. This law was made by General Martinez, the same person who killed the 25,000 natives in 1932. He wanted to make the country whiter and deny the existence of other races. This law lasted until 1959, basically making it illegal to be a minority. This is the reason that only 1 percent of the country identify as native and 0.13 percent as Afro-Salvadoran and 97 percent as white or mixed. On DNA tests, most Salvadorans have 1 to 10 percent African DNA, but the myth of there never being Afro-Salvadorans continues to be believed.

As part of my master’s studies for my Latin American theology degree here in El Salvador, we did a research project on Afro-Latinos in El Salvador. We interviewed about 15 Afro-Latinos from other countries who live in El Salvador. Most of them reported feeling discriminated against for the color of their skin.


Flávio José Rocha, Brazil

Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888. Slaves and their descendants did not receive compensation for centuries of labor exploitation and all the different kind of cruelties perpetrated against them. The result is that although 60 percent of the population is afro-descendant, that is not reflected in heir presence in most of the areas of power in the Brazilian society. The number of Black professors, medical doctors, judges, etc.  is not even near the number of white people who occupy those spaces.

In politics, it is even worse. And the reality in the Catholic Church is not different, as there are very few Black bishops. The situation for the Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners like Candomblé is very serious right now as they suffer a lot of discrimination; in many cities in Brazil, they are having their places of worships destroyed by racist groups and individuals.


Heidi Cerneka

I work with an amazing team of people who are mostly from the El Paso area and are mostly Latino, which is very cool and constantly keeps the team (and me) attentive to appropriate behavior, language etc.

It is kind of hard to define racism in a community that is predominantly Latino and proud. Is it the woman who cut my hair today, who is of Hispanic background but does not speak Spanish well and gets mad at a man here in El Paso that tells her that she should speak Spanish and she retorts, “You’re in my country. You should speak my language”?

Is it the immigration judges that are racist in their decisions, particularly against people from the northern triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (not to mention Mexico)? The Walmart shooting, which specifically targeted “Mexicans” or “brown people”? The fact that at the border and at immigration checkpoints, I practically get waved through because of my skin color, whereas other people are asked for ID or asked, “What are you doing in my country?” whether they are citizens, noncitizens here on a visa or otherwise.

I think there is a real mix here – in terms of racial and cultural bias. I was on a panel with a guy from here who does policy work (and is great at it) and he says that 80 percent of El Pasoans are Mexican-American, and 25% were born in another country (presumably Mexico). So I would say there is definitely explicit bias on the part of some people, although not most people, from what I see.


What are some of the conscious steps you have to take daily to navigate the power differential in your ministry and work?


Flávio José Rocha, Brazil

In Brazil, one is often judged by one’s skin color and hair. One of my ministries deals with this issue. Working with Theater of the Oppressed with different groups, I promote plays that address racism and discrimination, especially institutional racism. The idea is not to lecture or preach but rather to open a space for debate and talk about how racism affects all of us.


Larry Parr, El Salvador

For me the most important thing is to remember that God is present in every culture. The euro-centric, western culture is not the only way to perceive the world, and it is important to learn the different ways that the people in our ministries look at the world. Our ways are not better than theirs, and it is important to walk beside them on the journey and not just try to fix their problems. I am always reminded that I am a guest in their culture and after 12 years I still learn new things daily.  Mission is about walking together as equals in the search for God’s justice and the kingdom of God. It is important to respect all different cultures and find the presence of God in those common values and experiences.


Heidi Cerneka

At my work, I try to listen a lot — since our executive director is Latina, as is my direct supervising attorney. But it’s really the staff that raises questions of race and racial awareness, and constantly reminds all of us to be paying attention. So I look to learn from them, and to also be very aware that this is not my community — not by ethnicity nor by geography, so I am careful to state opinions.

I work hard to speak Spanish, so that I am talking to clients or neighbors or people in the street in their first language.

And I feel like I’m constantly aware of the power differential. Besides race, I’m also an attorney, which gives me power. So I police myself about when and where I use that power, while also trying to wield it for good.


Loyce Veryser, Tanzania

I can’t say I have to take any conscious steps on a daily basis to navigate racial bias or power differential in Tanzania. Maybe being a mixed race family, our children are sometimes seen as foreigners here and sometimes someone will make a comment about my being married to a white man, which can seem to come out of jealousy or something.


Abby Belt, Haiti

For me, it comes down to never being the most important player in the task. To elaborate, at school, I work my projects side-by-side with the teachers. Everyone has equal input and say. Mèt Leny, our school director/principal, usually has the final say as he is our leader. The teachers and I marry what we bring to the table. The teachers bring many valuable years of experience teaching, living, and learning in Haiti. I bring a solid foundation in formation as an educator with activities and lesson structures proven to be effective. We keep the well-being and success of our kids at the forefront, and with that, we stay focused and respect the import of one another’s tasks.

At Mercy Beyond Borders (MBB), it is really easy, I’m the background worker. I work in data analytics to track and promote the amazing accomplishments of our scholars. We’re a team-style organization, and I am happy to be a supporting player, helping where I’m needed. I defer to my Haitian and U.S. colleagues in my role, and again, our focus is the all-around success of our scholars.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of always making sure my kids know that I have the utmost respect for my colleagues. I try to model behavior. When the teachers talk, I listen. I support them in observations by getting the class to quiet down, or answer questions. When problems do occur, I defer to the teachers or Mèt Leny, because they have the final say in their classrooms. Across the board, at the school and MBB, we model respect for one another and the virtues unique to each person.


How do these realities look similar to or different from the realities in the U.S.?

Larry Parr, El Salvador

El Salvador is socially, economically and politically connected to the reality the United States. The United States helped to train and fund the military during the civil war. Over 75,000 people were killed in the war, and many more lost their homes to the violence. This led to thousands of refugees going to the United States in search of a better life.

Many Salvadorans went to Los Angeles to escape the violence that was being supported by the U.S. government. However they ended up living in marginalized communities in LA, where they faced gang and police violence. Coming from a place of violence, many young refugees joined or started their own gangs and became a part of the gang culture. Many of these gang members were eventually deported back to El Salvador, and they brought with them U.S. gang culture, to a country that was just starting to recover from a violent civil war. Advised by U.S. military and police, the Salvadoran government cracked down on poor communities, looking for gang members. This led to more and more violence as the police and military would target any young person from a marginalized community.

The U.S. continues to provide police and military training to the Salvadoran police. The U.S. has exported the same police tactics that are being protested in the U.S. to El Salvador. This has led to a lot of police brutality and killings by the police. Many of the young people I work with have been stopped, harassed and beaten by the police just for being a young person from a poor community. The police learned these tactics from the United States.


Flávio José Rocha, Brazil

The main difference is that in Brazil for many years there was this idea that we didn´t have racism as we were supposedly able to integrate the different races that form the nation (Indigenous People, white Europeans and Africans). In more recent decades, the new generation of Black people has taken the lead, showing that this is a lie and it is very clear that Brazil has tremendous racism and violence against Black people. There are some laws on the books from the 90s that give a certain number of slots to Black and Indigenous people in federal jobs and public universities. The census in Brazil also offers individuals to identify to what race they belong, but it is not obligatory.


Loyce Veryser, Tanzania

It is so different here from in the U.S. When a white person walks down the road, people will start calling out “mzungu,” which simply means “white person.” I know it can be a bit annoying, but it’s usually meant in a non-threatening way and can even be sometimes be an expression of respect.


Heidi Cerneka

What is different here in El Paso/Ciudad Juárez from the rest of the U.S. is only the fact that El Paso is supposedly 80 percent Latino. I have a coworker who really never felt racism directly aimed at her until she went away to college, because she had always been with bilingual, mostly Latino or mixed groups. And so I think she holds her power differently because she was older when someone tried to tell her that she didn’t have a right to it!


Abby Belt, Haiti

In the U.S., I am a certified English Language Arts teacher for grades 5-12. A basic similarity to what I work with daily in Haiti, is encouraging my students to see the immense treasure in being who they are and where they come from. As educators, we have a responsibility to uplift our kids and empower them to take pride in themselves. Beyond any retention of grammar or who wrote what novel, breaking down walls with my students so that we can see one another as human beings, and therefore automatically deserving respect and dignity, is the most important task I have.

The realities are much harsher concerning racism in the U.S. In Haiti, I don’t fear that my students will be profiled in stores, driving motorcycles, or simply running in a neighborhood. In the States, I fully expect to lose sleep at night worrying about some students’ safety and others’ courage to stand up for what is right. In Haiti, it is not racism and its abysmal consequences that have me checking on my kids’ safety.

In both places, I am driven to make sure my students know that I believe in them, that they are good, and loved, and so important in this world. In all places, our beloved brothers and sisters deserve to know and hear praise for their melanin, for its exquisite beauty and strong heritage. In all places, we need to collectively work to refuse melanin as justification for hate and murder. In all places, people of color need to be celebrated for their beauty, their culture, and their sacredness as humans. In the simplest terms, we can all work toward better ways to sew love into this world and support one another.

See also Maryknoll Lay Missioners Anti-Racism Statement, July 2020

Maryknoll Lay Missioners
Compelled by faith to engage with people across cultures and ethnicities, Maryknoll lay missioners live, love and work with communities on the margins to promote active nonviolence and healing.