Roberto Rios was the first in his Latino family to “set foot on American soil,” as he described it. Roberto was embarking on a college career at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee. The son of a Church of Christ minister, Roberto spent the majority of his 23 years involved in the church in his hometown of Lima, Peru. A move to America away from all his family was not going to change his Hispanic heritage. When Roberto graduated two years later with a degree in computer information systems, he quickly secured a job in computer networking in Arizona. After marrying his bride Jeana, he moved his family back to Lima where their first child was born. “We really wanted our child to be born in Peru,” said Roberto who anticipated returning to the States.
Roberto’s brother had made the move to America and resided in Chattanooga. Still living in Lima, Roberto made a short visit to Tennessee and discovered that a Church of Christ was looking for a Spanish-speaking minister. Almost immediately, Roberto helped them end their search, as it was the answer to his own. “I am in constant search for God’s will in my life,” Roberto confessed. “It was my dream to work for the church.”
Yet by accepting such a position, Roberto jumped into the reality facing Chattanooga’s Latino community that he describes as “very sad, a mess.” When asked what he thought was the biggest struggle within the Latino population, Roberto immediately answered: loneliness. “When they come here, when they cross the desert, they pray,” he said, referring to the camino many immigrants take into the U.S. “However, the Hispanics in America gets caught up in work, work, work, and sometimes they get blinded by what’s really important.” He talked about the men who leave their families to come to the States in pursuit of a better life for their families back home. “Once they’re here, they get pleasures that they could never have back home, and in trying to give their families what they think they need, they quickly and painfully realize it’s not pleasure they need.” It’s each other.
With a congregation of about 25 to 30 attendees, Roberto tries to give his members what he can in such a situation. “As their minister, I cannot give them their paperwork or even help speed along the process, but I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter what happens on the outside because God is always with you.” “Accept that God is in control, and as His child, you are ok.”
Roberto said that in his almost three years as minister, only one family has been there since the beginning. “The Hispanic community is such a transitional culture,” Roberto said. As a moth to an open flame, this community is drawn to wherever there is work. Therefore, Roberto knows he must meet his neighbors, his members, where they are, even if after three weeks they are never seen in his church again.
“Meeting them as they are” also requires an acknowledgement of difference within the community itself. “Just because you speak Spanish does not mean you are from the same culture or same country,” he explained. Just because your skin is brown does not mean you are from Mexico or even Latin America, and does not mean your tables are set with the same foods. “We [Peruvians] don’t even know what tortillas are!” he laughed.
By Laurie Cook Stevens
The Mission of La Paz is to empower and engage Chattanooga’s Latino population through advocacy, education and inclusion.
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