Cinco de Mayo

A story about my Mormon mission, the people I met, and how it changed my life for the better.

Today is Cinco de Mayo. For all of you that struggle with Spanish, that means the 5th of May. If you would have asked me ten years ago, I probably would have said that today is Mexico’s equivalent of our 4th of July.

Ten years ago I was pretty dumb.

For those of you that don’t know, Cinco de Mayo is actually a commemoration of the Mexican Army’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla. Just google it. Everything you need to know can be found on Wikipedia.

Really, the only reason I know any of this is because of something that happened to me nine years ago that changed my life. I got called to be a missionary in the San Bernardino, California area and I was to work primarily with Hispanics.

Now to some of you that might sound a bit confusing so let’s back up for a minute.

If you saw my post on Sunday, you know that I am a Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). More than likely, you’ve seen Mormon missionaries. You know, the guys on bikes wearing ties and a white shirt, usually with black name tags? Yeah, that was me back in 2008.

Young men (and some young women) in the Mormon church, voluntarily give up two years (18 months for women) to go share the gospel with people all around the world. The prospective missionary generally fills out his or her “papers” (essentially an application) shortly before graduating from high school, and sends them to church headquarters. A number of weeks later, the prospective missionary gets a “mission call” which is a packet with a letter in it. That letter tells you where you will be spending the next couple of years.

It can literally be almost anywhere in the world. And you don’t get to choose.

So, as I said, I was called to the San Bernardino “mission”, which encompassed a number of cities in that area, along with a portion of the California desert.

I was told that I would be teaching the gospel in the Spanish language. In order to accomplish that, I stayed in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, for 9 weeks. While there, I learned about teaching, the missionary rules, and basic Spanish.

Very. Basic. Spanish.

I thought I was pretty good. But I really had no clue what was coming.

When I finished my 9 weeks, I got on a plane and flew into Ontario, California. It was there that I was greeted by my Mission President, the man selected by church leaders to preside over the 100+ missionaries in the San Bernardino mission.

We all drove to a local church building, had interviews with the Mission President, and were then introduced to our “companions.” A companion is basically just the guy that you live with, travel with, and teach with 24/7. Companionships change throughout your time as a missionary (I had well over ten) at the discretion of the Mission President.

My companion was from Utah and had six weeks left until he finished and went home. He had been around long enough to pick up Spanish pretty well and knew what he was doing. It was his job to show me the ropes.

We left the church building, grabbed dinner at a Subway, and headed to San Bernardino to teach some English lessons. We then headed to my very first appointment. It was with a Mexican family that had immigrated to the U.S. The wife was a member of our church, but the husband wasn’t. He was interested in learning more about our beliefs.

We knocked on the door and they graciously invited us to sit on their couch. As the friendly (I assume…) conversation began, just one thing went through my mind:

“I don’t know Spanish at all.”

See, when I left the Missionary Training Center, I had felt pretty good about my Spanish skills. What I failed to realize was that the teachers there were enunciating everything very clearly and speaking slowly.

That’s not how most native Spanish speakers go about speaking.

We went through the rest of the appointment mostly without incident. I think the family sort of realized that I had a hard time understanding, so they tried to speak more clearly when speaking with me. My companion did the vast majority of the teaching that evening.

After our lesson, we drove back to the apartment and decided to call it a night. I had survived day one.

Over the next few weeks and months, I studied Spanish intensely. I prayed intensely, hoping for divine help that I would be able to pick up this language. At one point I made an important decision: I was going to thrust myself into the culture.

Now, when I say “the culture”, please understand that there is no singular culture in California. Just among the Hispanic immigrant population, you have people from Mexico, Central America, and South America, all with vastly different cultures. And even if you took just the Mexican immigrants, you could find differences in culture depending on where they were from within Mexico. I mean, that should be obvious to all of us. You can’t tell me that a person from New York City is the same culturally as someone from San Antonio.

But, I decided that I was going to try and be a little less white, for lack of a better phrase. I was going to learn everything I could about the language, the food, and the countries the people came from.

It paid off.

My Spanish improved. My ability to talk and relate with people improved. My overall experience improved.

Those two years changed my life.

My life was changed spiritually, for sure. Devoting two years of your life to serving people and teaching them about Jesus has a huge impact. For me, the spiritual impact was immeasurable.

But there were other changes too. I became more confident, a better communicator, and more able to handle rejection. That last one comes naturally after knocking on every door on the street, only to have each of them slammed in your face.

My political views, especially related to immigration, did a complete 180. I heard stories, from real human beings, about crossing the desert and paying “coyotes” to help smuggle them across the border. I came to understand, at some small level, how much these people had sacrificed to come here. And I also realized that the vast majority of them only wanted to work hard and build a better life for their family.

As time went on, I fell more and more in love with the people I worked with, particularly those from Mexico. It didn’t take me long at all to realize just how “cold” we can be as Americans.

I found myself targeting mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. Partially because I wanted to speak Spanish, but mostly because I knew that the people there were a lot less likely to curse at me and slam the door in my face. They just seemed to be more humble. I lost track of how many times we were offered water or food by people that had no interest in hearing our message but wanted to help us out in some small way. It touched my heart.

Like many who are exposed to other cultures, I became less concerned about arbitrary lines that we call borders. I realized that the United States, while a great country, isn’t the center of the universe. I became more aware of the immensity of my blessings and the indescribable struggles that many in this world go through. I realized that all of God’s children, no matter where they are from, are just as important as I am.

In short, I came just a little bit closer to being a decent human being.

In May of 2010, I got on an airplane to come back home to Idaho. Since I hadn’t seen my family in two years, you can imagine the excitement I felt. But I was sad to leave my other family — all the wonderful people that I had met during my two year journey in Southern California.

As I came down the escalator of the Salt Lake City airport, I saw my family standing there. My mom was crying (as usual). We hugged. I hugged the rest of my family. We went to lunch in Salt Lake. My sister made fun of my accent that I had apparently picked up after speaking Spanish regularly for two years.

Then we headed home. It was over.

Seven years later I still find myself thinking of my experience often. I still try to speak Spanish whenever I have the opportunity. Occasionally I will listen to some music in Spanish or read in Spanish. And I keep in touch with many of the people I met in California through social media.

The lessons I learned over those two years are still with me. To me, they are priceless.

Oh, and I still find every excuse I can to eat incredibly delicious Mexican food.

Like Cinco de Mayo.