Some of my Best Friends are Visionaries

My first love was a Mexican named Primitivo.  We met between our languages, and had to read each other’s minds to communicate well.  It was a great lesson in love.  I didn’t have my vocabulary to represent how terribly, deeply, incredibly smart I was, and so I was revealed in my true identity: as an insecure post-teen in need of friends and assurance, someone who hid behind the guise of smartness but who doubted that anyone could really love her. Primi did.

I was teaching literacy in Mexico in 1978, and returned to Utah after the summer was over.  The last day I spent  with Primi, his forehead was feverish.  His father had died of tuberculosis the year before, so I realized that the fever could be a serious thing.  I didn’t care.  I kissed him goodbye passionately and cried as I boarded the plane.

A year later, I got married to someone else—a Gringo lawyer.  With no further details, I’ll say only that it was a hellish marriage, and I ended if after four years.  Sometime during that marriage, my mother gave me the last letter Primi had written me.  I don’t know if she had hidden it out of fear I’d marry Primi, but I suspect so.  It was unopened.

I had written to tell him I was engaged, and his letter said (in Spanish) that he knew I would marry someone else.  He was in the hospital.  Yes, the tuberculosis had hit him.  As he was praying whether or not he could make me happy, “un hombre luminoso” came to him.  I’m leaving the words as they were written.  They mean “a luminous man.”  The light suggested something divine.  The hombre luminoso directed Primi to a vision.  He saw me walking on a path with someone else.  Then he saw himself walking the same path with “una morenita.”  A brown woman, not a Gringa.  He mentioned that she was extremely “hermosa.”

I wrote back, but my letter was returned.  I never heard from him again.

When I got his letter, my marriage was failing.  I wished I could ask him, “What did he look like, the man I was with?”  I have a feeling the exact features would not have been discernable.  The one thing Primi noticed was that the man was not him.  And Primi’s wife—did he see her in detail?  Again, I suspect he only identified that she was “una morenita,” and that the two of them were on a path together.

He told his vision to an old man on the hospital bed beside him, who said, “Yes, I have had visions too.  Don’t tell anyone.  They won’t believe you and they’ll think you’re crazy.”

This is a sweet episode in my life.  I have Primi’s letter in my wedding album (the one where I’m with Bruce).  I have a fantasy that someday, I’ll see Primi in a temple and we’ll embrace as old friends.  We’re both in our fifties now, and I suspect he has grandchildren like I do.

As the Hispanic cultural celebration took the stage at the LDS conference center, I was aware of how deeply I love my Latino friends, and how much I wanted them to celebrate their cultures.  I was simultaneously aware of some of the publicity suggesting that the gala would tell about the “great white god.”  I don’t know if those old legends were presented or not.  Photos I’ve seen of the celebration showed familiar cultural scenes from countries I love.  But I’ve been concerned for some time that the idea of a “great white god” could imply common Mormon folklore: that dark skinned people will get white as they get more righteous.  I have a black friend, Gene Orr, who asked a sister missionary in 1968 about the idea of a curse on blacks.  She said he wouldn’t need to worry about it; as he abandoned his sins, his skin would reflect his purity and become white.

Oh dear.  Gene’s response was simply to laugh at her. He joined the church anyway.

I have another friend with a visionary mother.  The mother was white.  (Please give me a better word!)  The father was black. (Ditto.)  As the mother lay dying, she said, “Who are those black people?”  Nobody else could see anyone. Her husband told her, “I think those are my ancestors, my family, getting ready to welcome you.”

Yes, they were spirits, and they appeared as black people–and certainly as hombres y mujeres luminosos.  Why should I doubt it?

One reason I doubted myself when I met Primi was because of my red hair.  My classmates had told me that it was the number one reason why I could never fit in with them.  I’ve heard my redheaded son say, “I think if I stay in the sun long enough, I’ll be blond by August.”  My redheaded daughter has dyed her hair dark brown. Someone told my son, “Girls don’t like redheaded guys.”  Thank you, World.  Surely every child needs to know why they’re unacceptable.

And how about insecurities among blacks? Darius Gray had a girlfriend who disappeared during a river tubing trip.  Everyone started looking for her, calling her name. An hour passed. It finally became clear that Darius’s girlfriend might have drowned.  He kept looking, frantically yelling her name.  Finally a quiet voice called, “Darius?” There she was, hiding in some bushes.  “What are you doing?” he demanded.  “My wig fell off,” she said.  “I can’t stand anyone to see me without my wig.”  He didn’t let his fury show, but wrapped her—head and all—in a blanket.  The idea that her blackness would show in her hair was so distressing to her that she had let the others believe she had drowned.

How important is it that images of deity reflect ALL people?  How important is it that all of us can look at a picture of Christ and feel invited by one who includes us not only in his heart but in his image?  How important is the color of Christ? I believe He is “un hombre luminoso.”  But no se debe confundir alguien luminoso con alguien simplemente blanco.  (You can translate that yourselves.)

Pastor Cecil Murray says in Twice Tested by Fire, his recently published memoir: “The Afro hairdo and African garb were outward expressions of an inner awareness of a new day in which African Americans demanded that black was to be regarded as nothing less than beautiful.”

Let the Church say Amen.  And Hallelujah!

Comments

  1. While participating in clean-the-chapel day recently, I noticed that almost all of the representations of Christ on the walls show him with blond hair. A few show him with dark hair, but still light-complected. One picture could pass for vaguely Middle Eastern.

    About half the people in my ward are African or African-American, and we share the building with a Spanish branch. Since we already have clearly-historically-inaccurate pictures of a Swedish Christ, I think it would be wonderful to have pictures of a black Christ, a Hispanic Christ, and so on.

    Out of curiosity, even if my bishop were in agreement with me, would he be allowed to redecorate the meeting house?

  2. elizarsnow says:

    Beautiful. Made me think of this piece that aired on This American Life recently: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/475/send-a-message?act=3#play.

  3. Christopher says:

    Thanks for this, Margaret. Beautiful and important reflections.

  4. Now we’re calling ourselves Gringos? When for the love of God will the self-hatred end on this blog?

  5. I have never met anyone who thinks Gringo is a term of self hatred, and I’ve lived in Mexican border states my entire life. Call myself and my relatives Gringos all the time. Our Hispanic neighbors use it freely too. It’s a handy term, and it’s definitely not pejorative.

  6. that’s just not true-look it up on Wikipedia.

  7. Definition of GRINGO

    often disparaging
    : a foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin; broadly : a non-Hispanic person

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gringo

  8. noun pl. gringos

    in Latin America, a foreigner, esp. an American or Englishman: hostile and contemptuous term

    http://www.yourdictionary.com/gringos

    etc.

  9. Sister X, your source says the word “is not necessarily a bad word. It is slang but is derogatory only in its use and context.” Trying to read self-loathing into the context of this post is, well, bizarre.

  10. Umm, no it isn’t. I think we should eschew words with pejorative meanings, regarless of the race or ethnicity targeted thereby. YMMV.

  11. SX, your opinion of the word reflects only your experience with it. My experience, that of my friends and relatives, and that of the people in the metro areas where we all live in the southwest is different. We’re part of the folks who don’t hate ourselves, don’t hate our neighbors, don’t hate folks with different skin either. We’re a pretty easy going bunch, but we do reserve the right to define our own words.

    Margaret, your story was inspiring, and nutritious food for thought. And I read all the Spanish passages easily. I found them beautiful.

  12. Didn’t you peeps censor the guy who used kaffir even though it’s in the Koran, bc some take it to be pejorative? Now all the people who, like Merriam-Webster, take gringo to be offensive are thrown under the bus? Where is the justice?

  13. Sister X, stop it! You accused me of hating my “whiteness” in a previous post. Please go read your Shelby Stelle and stop posting on BCC until you have something worth saying. The post is not about the term “Gringo.” You are threadjacking. Eight comments out of the twelve posted are by you or referring to your threadjack. FYI, some Mexicans refer to “norteamericanos,” but GRINGO is not derogatory. I have also been affectionately called a “gringita.” Mostly, I am called by my first name, or I am called “Hermana.” I’ve spent five + years living in Latin American countries, and my Spanish is as fluent as your English. Do you really think you know this better than I do?

  14. Mostimportantly says:

    Peeps?! Small and smooshy I may be, but to use this pejorative term to compare us all to sugar coated easter marshmallow treats is uncalled for. And out of season.

  15. OK my last comment on this thread. Yes, I have been sexually harassed in Latin America, and that involved being called a gringa in a very threatening and derogatory way. If you are going to censor people for usinf some terms that some people use as ok but others use offensively, p,ease be consistent. I think my posts above show that I am not alone in viewing gringo/a as disparaging, but if you don’t want to offer justice (= treating like cases alike) as I said I am done here.

  16. Thank you, Sister X. I am sorry that anyone is sexually harrassed anywhere. I hope you heal.
    Mostimportantly: :) Good one.

  17. Shelby Steele writes about “white guilt”. I found his first book interesting but when I pondered what he was really suggesting, I disagreed. Pastor Murray says in his book: “How should all fair people deal with race baiting? The obvious answer is, ‘Don’t take the bairt, stay off the hook, don’t go along with the fishing expedition.’ But not doing a bad thing isn’t the same as being willing to do a good thing. We’re called to do more. This observation provokes an all too human response: Why me? Why should I get involved? because fairness to others is an outgrowth of faithfulness to your ideals” (118).
    I attended a 12-program tonight to support a friend. I saw there “un hombre luminoso”–who had been an addict for thirty-five years. He has come to himself and is radiant, converted to the atonement of Christ. I could see the light of Christ in his countenance. It’s not whiteness, it’s glory and grace.
    (P.S. Sorry my links don’t work. I’m not good at this yet.)

  18. I am a recent European convert to LDS. I do not really follow why Sister X is being dismissed. Don’t we feel equally the pain of all people? So maybe avoid all bad words? And my English dictionary tells me Gringo can be a bad word. How should I know which bad words are ok and which not? Is this just an American thing?

  19. Your writing is such a treat, Margaret. I feel such a lift from the words “un hombre luminoso” and find the imagery inspiring, and the familiar-though-foreign language carries these beautiful subtleties that one must be almost bi-lingual to understand. (Luckily I am sort of bi-lingual.) I don’t know what to say about people perceiving a word to be bad that I don’t experience as bad, except to say, your dictionaries and wikipedias don’t reflect some very important living realities of language. You could read Margaret’s original post with an open heart to help you learn about good words. And don’t place too much trust in your dictionary to tell you about live language used by large populations.

  20. Richard, perhaps it is, but I have never heard it used that way. But I (along with most other Americans) don’t live in a place where it would be. Margaret, beautiful as usual.. A good friend, Chinese and female, posits that Chinese church members face this problem…so end up marrying said redheads..

  21. Here in California, most of us gringos use the term ourselves to differentiate ourselves from the now-majority Hispanic population. And most of us use it in a rather self-effacing manner– like when we smile at our clumsy Spanglish. It really is more of an affectionate term. I have seen many Hombres y mujeres luminoso. They are frequently amongst my patient population, and though we can’t always communicate, their luz frequently shines brilliantly for me. I love being amongst these brothers and sisters of mine, they help me feel the spirit of Christ. And feed me awesome tamales! ;)

  22. Gringo: “When you call me that, smile.”

  23. I know a visionary who communes with many people who have died on a regular basis. I think that we are -required- to be visionary if we are going to fulfill our destiny as sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents. If this life is an education, then the Ph.D. program is fulfilled with direct interaction with the Master. Then there is life after the Ph.D.

    Margaret, a wonderful post. Thanks for being so open. I was so fortunate to have been able to reunite with my Primitiva.

  24. One more thing, my Primitiva had the most beautiful Red Hair. I never tired of looking at her.

  25. excuse my poor english. but my parents always told me when people,are using a bad term for you, this is going to lead to killing. this is the russian history. my dictionary english also says this gringo word is a bad one. you americans feel so safe from that? now i am thinking more like my parents and less like the mssionaires i spent time with. don’t be so naive.

  26. Sister X,
    Do not expect consistency here.
    This is a liberal haven, consistency is neither extolled, nor tolerated.

  27. However, Margaret, this was a good and thought provoking post.

  28. Elouise Bell says:

    Margaret, I knew that centuries ago Europeans associated red hair with the Dark Forces, but we know now that such attitudes were pure envy, even worse than the current old saw about “dumb blondes.” I had no idea that people TODAY had ANY negative ideas about red hair!

    If my files were in better order (i.e., non-chaotic),
    I would inflict upon you my essay about Redheads. In a word, I’m irrationally transfixed wherever I am lucky enough to see a redhead. I have many stories about such fortunate occasions, but I won’t bother BCC with them now. Maybe later. ;-)

    For now, just one. A cherished friend, a student in a creative writing class decades past, became a grandfather for the first time three years ago last month (October 29th). This man and his family are very dear to me (and a great blessing to the Church, among other things). I rejoiced when this baby girl was born. And after a short while, I received pictures of her. I looked at these pictures and began to weep the happiest of tears, saying more than once to all who would listen, “They didn’t TELL me she was a redhead!” I was delirious with joy. As I type these words, a picture of this wondrous child has the central spot on my computer desk shelf.

    Now I understand, querida hermana, that your essay has to do with negative bias against people on the basis of color and associations therewith. But I just want to make sure of one thing: Is it okay to be wildly biased in FAVOR of some parts of the rainbow of humanity? Is it kosher for me to let my heart leap up when I behold a redhead along the way, to be grateful for the redheads that Heaven has from time to time placed in my path to delight my spirit?
    I promise that I do not make any color-linked assumptions about redheads, any more than I do about sunflowers.

  29. Well, since the conversation did get sucessfully sidetracked, let me address the power of words themselves. Cultures decide on taboo words, and what may be taboo in one culture will not be in another. Now let me make it relevant to what I actually wrote. Many of not most have interpreted “white” as referring to skin color in the Book of Mormon. In some cases, it does. But if we allow for nuances, it becomes clear that “white” might also describe something else. I think Primi could have said, “un hombre blanco, lleno de luz”–“a white man, full of light.” He would not have been referring to complexion. But because we use the terms “white”, “black” and even “red” to refer to racial characteristics, and because America is so wealthy and powerful, we send images of “white” people via television and film which depict fashion, hairstyle, and skin. Generally, the images show Caucasians. They certainly did in the sixties, and magazines like Ebony would advertise skin bleach, hair straightener, wigs, etc. The “Black is Beautiful” campaign was needed, because black women especially were falling for the idea that beauty meant something other than what their genes had provided. I find the story of Darius’s girlfriend terribly sad. The fact that I had my first experience with “falling in love” with a young man whose language I was still learning and who couldn’t speak mine at all, was important. I couldn’t rely on my words to convey my identity, and so we went to a level where I was stripped of the various masks I had always used with others–which had kept me distant and protected. I wanted to be valued but thought my value could only be communicated by a lofty vocabulary. I suspected that without something extra (like show-off words), I would be simply an ugly, unapplealing redhead.
    It sometimes surprises students to learn that their professors are very human. That’s one great thing about BCC (which is not a liberal haven but a gathering place to talk). Jacob Baker, for example, wrote heartwrenching, candid reports of his personal struggles when his twins were born. I doubt his students knew that about him. Tracy wrote the hard details of her life as she went through a divorce. She chose her words carefully and even poetically to convey what it was like, and succeeded.
    Because I was with my friend at the twelve-step meeting last night, I did not know that the conversation I had started had been reduced to a discussion of the word “gringo” with various dictionaries being compared. I would have stopped it immediately. The words I heard at the twelve-step were worth that risk, however. Each person, some who had been to prison, several who had lost their families, talked about their need for the atonement. My friend has said, “Most people go to church so they won’t go to Hell. Addicts go because they’re already in Hell.” There’s no testimony meeting like one in which those testifying truly hunger and thirst after righteousness. Words of testimony matter. For those who didn’t notice, I was talking about a very personal episode in my life. I was even bearing testimony of my belief in visions and in what those visions might suggest. It makes me sad that events which remain sacred to me got pushed to the side for a discussion of semantics.

  30. Dear Elouise–you posted while I was writing my long reply. I am always thrilled to see redheaded babies, because I know that we are slowly becoming extinct. Most of us ten hate being redheads while we’re growing up, but learn to love it in our older years. We can say simply, “I’m a redhead,” when someone is trying to pick us out of a crowd.
    Thank you, thank you for loving us and for your wild and beautiful words!

  31. Snyderman says:

    Margaret (29): “Cultures decide on taboo words, and what may be taboo in one culture will not be in another.”

    An example: In the U.S., the word “bugger” is one of the tamest words that exists. It’s an almost comical way of expressing slight frustration. In England, however, that word is one of the worst swear words there is (according to my English mission companion, at least).

    In other words, in the BCC culture, “gringo” is not a “swear word,” so to speak. “Kaffir” is. If you don’t like it, I feel like the only response is, “Tough.” That’s the way things have panned out.

    (Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone with that discussion. If I did or any moderators are worried I might, or if any are just hoping to stop the threadjack, please feel free to delete/edit it as you deem necessary.)

    Back to the actual topic of the OP, however, all I have to say is, “Thank you.” I really enjoy your discussions of race within the context of the Church. Being your typical more upper middle-class “white” boy, these are things that don’t occur to me. So I’m grateful that those they do occur to share them.

  32. Interestingly, Snyderman, I thought of that very example, because Orson Scott Card used that word freely in some of his books rather than the “F” word. I learned later that it was deeply offensive in England. I wonder if he realized that, or if he knew that his sales would go international. And thank you for returning to the OP in your final paragraph. I got quite surprised by where this discussion went, so I appreciate all who are bringing it back to where it really should have gone.

  33. Sharee Hughes says:

    Margaret, your hair is gorgeous. We have three redheads in my ward (actually four if you count one little girl) and a couple of women who sometimes dye their hair red (I have myself a time or two in the past, but now I just leave it its natural white).

    I lived in Hawaii for eight years and found the diversity and acceptance of various ethnic groups to be wonderful. When I attended my college reunion on Maui a couple of years ago, one man said to me that he really liked Hawaii because no one cared what color your skin was or what shape your eyes were. He was racially kind of a Heinz 57 himself. White people are called ‘haoles’ in Hawaii, but it isn’t a derogatory term. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could just live together without hate, no matter what we looked like on the outside? After all, it’s the inside that matters.

  34. Note that ANY word can be derogatory according to tone. Even our own names can sound like swear words if they’re pronounced accusingly or condescendingly. So it’s not just the words but the feelings behind them. I can imagine the Savior restoring a name (double meaning intended) by empowering it with His grace. “You are [insert your name], and you are loved.” So many children hear their names connected with swearwords and anger. If a name is said lovingly, it can be life changing. A person who has learned to dislike one of their features like hair color or skin tone could surely be taught to love it if images of it showed something divine. Imagine the Savior stroking a black child’s face and saying, “You are beautiful.” Could that child ever forget how Christ described him or her? We train ourselves to see beauty or ugliness in others. Surely our obligation is to find ways of communicating what Christ would say.

  35. J. Stapley says:

    This is a lovely post, with much to relate to. Thanks.

  36. Rodney Ross says:

    Margaret, having met you several times, your red hair is very attractive, but attractiveness is not nearly your greatest asset. To write a touching love story as you have is a wonderful talent and your works display your deep spirituality. As far as the “gringo” term, I use it often to describe myself to my Hispanic neighbors and it most always brings a laugh and increased simpatico. When I asked for a name, I use “Gordo, ” which aptly describes me and, again, brings humor and instant warmth to a relationship. I realize others may have negative life experiences which would bring differing connotations to these words. Keep up the great work. You are a favorite with my wife and me.

  37. Yes, Rodney, as you and I know “Gordo” or “Gorda” can be a term of endearment. I’ve heard Hispanic husbands and wives refer to each other as “mi gorda” or “mi gordo.” We de piel mas blanca get offended easily when we’re treated to that type of endearment. But I have certainly been called “la gorda.” More often, “la peliroja.”

  38. I, for one, love red-headed men (and cliched though it sounds, my dearest friend is a peliroja tambien :).

    That aside, thanks for this- I always enjoy your posts. I’ve never felt very comfortable with Mormonism’s (read: Del Parson’s) visual depictions of the Savior. Are we so shallow/so insecure that we can’t relate to a Christ who looks differently than we do?

  39. Nina, your comment has been deleted because it was inappropriate. The term “loser” is always pejorative and insulting. Several of us at BCC love Russia. Several of us have been missionaries in Russia. My father was a mission president there and in the Baltic states. If you want to announce your political/anti-religious moves, find a site where that would be appropriate. This isn’t the one.

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