Ni de aquí, ni de allá: Connecting with immigrant young people
Photo by Lilian Pereir
Growing up in Miami, Florida—a city made up primarily of immigrants—carried a particular kind of weight. As a Cuban American, I felt the deep longing for a land not my own—the same way Israel longed for their land within and during their own seasons of displacement.
This can be seen most vividly through the psalmist’s words of anguish in Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” While in exile, the Israelites longed for their land: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
Like the Israelites’ longing for Jerusalem, the longing for Cuba has shaped the collective identity of my community, particularly those of us who have been displaced. As such, we are a people perpetually in exile—a truth that informed my world even as a young person.
My grandfather fled Cuba one night after rumors that he would be arrested for speaking against Fidel Castro’s regime. The Castro Revolution in 1959 caused a swell of political uncertainty and economic hardship, forcing thousands to leave the island with only a few belongings. Many, including my family, arrived in the US with the hopes of one day returning to their homes. That day never came for the majority of them. Decades later, their longing for their island still remains.
I was raised in a Catholic home, and my grandmother often told stories of God’s people in movement: like the story of Israel headed out of Egypt to the Promised Land, or Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Mary’s story was her favorite, and it soon became mine. The narrative of a young woman on the move, pregnant, in search of safety, offered a source of comfort and solidarity—the fear and uncertainty she must have felt for herself and her family felt familiar to me.
As a symbol, Mary became even more personal as I began serving as a youth leader and engaging with other young people shaped by similar notions of exile and displacement. One evening after sharing about Mary’s story of migration at a Protestant youth camp, a young girl whose family had immigrated from Venezuela approached me and shared her struggle of feeling ni de aquí, ni de allá (“neither from here nor from there”)—a sentiment commonly felt by many immigrant or second-generation people who feel stuck between two worlds.
“Where do I find God in that?” she asked.
Because of how strongly both Mary’s and my student’s story had resonated with my own, I was able to remind her of what spoke volumes to me: that Mary’s story is what gave birth (literally) to the reality of Emmanuel—God with us. The truth is that even within exile, God is close, present, intimate, with us in the in-between. Like the way Jesus was with Mary in her womb while on their journey.
Living in the United States means that we will continuously cross paths with those who are intimately acquainted with movement—it’s the backbone of our country and what makes it so unique, vibrant, and diverse. Migration is what gives flavor to our nation. It gives us new melodies and beats to dance to.
However, the songs of our migrant neighbors are often silenced, particularly by those in power. Many who arrive to this country because of desperate circumstances are dehumanized, stripped of their dignity, and referred to as “illegal” whether their actual status in the legal immigration system is “documented,” “undocumented,” or somewhere in between.
Echoing my Venezuelan student, I asked then and keep asking now, “Where do we find God in that?”—what does God have to say about people who are in movement? The notion of immigration is not only deeply personal, but also something I must consistently wrestle with both in action and reflection as a Christian living in the United States of America.
Migrant stories and the conversation on race
When we talk about race, the stories of migrants and immigrants often get lost in the middle space, the in-between. The concerns of immigrants and migrants exist between two worlds, oftentimes because the realities are complicated and multi-layered. But the important thing to note is: immigration isn’t just about ethnicity.
In order to have holistic conversations about race, we need to include migrant stories because they push us past either/or thinking and invite us to see the whole story, some of which exists in the in-between.
In his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Willie Jennings argues that when we talk about body and soul, we cannot do so without talking about earth and land. Jennings reminds us that from the beginning of creation, human beings were commissioned to watch over the earth, take care of it, and receive nourishment from it. The connection among God’s creation—land, animals, and humans—in the narrative is beautiful, divine, “very good.”
This human connection to the land and to its life thereof isn’t just something we see in the Creation narrative, but something that continues to play out across time and across communities. In fact, much of Israel’s story is deeply rooted in land—their displacement from it and their longing to be restored in it.
Throughout history, coming across a people also meant coming across the land they were connected to and the animals that were a part of their family. It’s a divine sense of “creaturely entanglement,” Jennings explains. “We’ve always lived in an enmeshed world where our lives are intertwined and continuously interweaving.”
Paul affirms this connection in Romans 8 when he personifies creation as sharing in the decay that characterizes this present age. Like humans, creation is groaning to be set free. As we lament for a better reality, so do the mountains.
When talking about race, Jennings recognizes that what colonization essentially did was rip peoples from their land and each other. What was once a holistic identity, one that mirrored the goodness of creation, now became a distorted identity.
This is why when we talk about God’s kingdom of justice, equity, or liberation—even and especially in regard to race—we must also talk about the realities of migration, movement and land.
Migration and the Bible
Reading through the narratives of Scripture, we find that God is not silent on the subject of immigration. Instead, God gives strict instructions on how immigrants should be treated and protected. As a daughter of Cuban American immigrants aware of the unique struggles my family has faced, learning about God’s heart concerning immigration has transformed how I view myself and my community as children and image-bearers of the Divine.
In many ways, the Bible was written by, for, and about migrants, immigrants, and refugees, with countless references to the movement of God’s people.
For example, in the Old Testament we learn that God requires through the law that immigrants be treated just like those native to the land (Leviticus 19:33-34). Prophets delivered God’s message to the people that they must not mistreat, oppress, or exploit the refugee in their midst (Jeremiah 22:3). Additionally, the Bible’s stories are full of narratives of immigrants or “foreigners” including Ruth, Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, and the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus (Matthew 15:21-28).
Ultimately, migrant stories are God’s stories, and because so much of the Bible is rooted in land displacement, it’s important we listen to immigrant voices—even and especially the voices of immigrant youth—if we want to better know and understand the heart of God.
I was able to share this reality with my Venezuelan student the night she approached me with her question, wondering where God is found in the narratives of those in the in-between space. I was also able to remind her that Mary’s story is what gave birth (literally) to the reality of Emmanuel—God with us.
The truth is that even within exile, God is close, present, intimate, with us in the in-between similar to the way Jesus was with Mary in her womb while on their journey.
We need to talk about race and migration
Research shows that immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for 88% of US population growth through 2065. This means that stories about migration should be at the forefront of our conversations if we want to disciple youth responsibly in a world shaped by movement.
Because of the nuances and complexities that make up these conversations, knowing where to start can be difficult. That’s why we’ve developed Talking about Race with Teenagers: A Youth Leader’s Guide for Exploring Race, Culture, Immigration, and Power. This resource is designed to help answer questions, give historical background, and help shape language to better serve our youth—particularly those whose narratives are lost or overlooked. Perhaps in this way we as leaders can be more equipped to connect with immigrant youth who feel the pangs of being ni de aquí, ni de allá.
Lead a diverse generation in faithful and caring discussions about race.
This easy-to-use guide is the perfect handbook for any leader who needs a starting point to talk about race, culture, immigration, and power with today’s young people.
 Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 75.
Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.