Maintaining ties to faith, family, community and culture

An interview for Hispanic Heritage Month


In observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed in the United States from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 each year, The Catholic Missourian has been conducting interviews to shed light on the experience of being Hispanic, Catholic and American.

“Hispanic” generally refers to people who came from Central or South America or the Caribbean, or whose ancestors did so, and who speak Spanish as a first or main language.

Their collective heritage spans numerous nationalities, cultures, dialects and places of origin, encompassing roughly two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere.

Aurora Guillen eventually stopped crying every day.

The then-9-year-old, her brother and her mother had moved from the small, rural town in Guanajuato, Mexico, to an isolated locale in Utah, USA.

It meant that she and her parents could be together all year.

It also meant being separated from the gloriously close-knit extended family she enjoyed in the place she still calls “home.”

“All my family was there — my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

Her father had been living and working in the United States for most of every year since he was 16.

“That was tough!” Mrs. Guillen recalled. “He did that for the first 12 years of my parents’ marriage.”

“Father Miguel,” the pastor of his parish in Utah, was also an immigration lawyer and helped Mrs. Guillen’s father apply for U.S. citizenship.

Later on, he also helped process Mrs. Guillen’s, her brother’s and her mother’s immigration paperwork and eventually helped them apply for U.S. citizenship.

“So I got to come here through the big door,” Mrs. Guillen noted.

Family ties

Back in Guanajuato, everyday life revolved around the Catholic church near Mrs. Guillen’s parents’ house in the middle of town.

Most of the people there are small-scale farmers, subsisting on the crops they grow each season.

Mrs. Guillen’s maternal grandfather served as a sacristan, maintenance supervisor and event organizer for the parish throughout the week.

Her mother helped out in every way she could.

Upon moving to Utah, the only Catholics Mrs. Guillen knew were fellow immigrants from Mexico — most of whom had ties to her hometown — who worked in the nearby food-processing plant where her parents worked.

“Probably 95 percent of the Hispanic population worked in that plant,” she noted.

The Diocese of Salt Lake City takes in the entire state of Utah. Each Sunday, a priest on mission from Colombia in South America would drive two hours from his rectory to offer Mass in the tiny Mission of St. Jude.

“It was standing-room only,” Mrs. Guillen recalled. “It was great to be with people who understood what I believe and believed it, too.”

Mostly isolated from the rest of the Church during the rest of the week, the people of the St. Jude Mission were determined to maintain their community and live out their Catholic faith.

Although Mrs. Guillen’s daily bursts of tears eventually subsided, she continued longing for her hometown’s intense communal life and Catholic-inspired rituals and traditions.

“Being Mexican Catholic is a culture in and of itself,” she noted. “Our culture and our faith — you can’t have one without the other. Our faith is part of our everyday life and culture.”

Memories of rituals such as serenading the Blessed Mother in the middle of the night on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to accompanying the Holy Family on their quest for lodging in the days leading up to Christmas, to the elaborate reenactment of the Stations of the Cross through the streets of town on Good Friday still animate her spirit.

Safe passage

Mrs. Guillen’s father never wanted her to lose touch with her roots. Nearly every year, the family would make a 38-hour pilgrimage by car back to their hometown for Christmas.

“Going back every year and remembering who I am and where I come from — that helped me a great deal,” she said. “I feel like I have a good sense of who I am. I don’t feel like I’ve lost my identity.”

They would stop at church and pray for a safe journey, and at whatever time they arrived, they would stop at church to give thanks.

Through relatives in Central Missouri, Mrs. Guillen’s parents found out about good job opportunities and the lower cost of living here.

They moved to Jefferson City when Mrs. Guillen was 17.

“Moving here was a big change for me because of our religion,” she noted. “You see so much more Catholicism here. I loved it and I still love it.”

It brought her back into contact with larger Catholic congregations and public celebrations of her faith and heritage.

She and her family began attending the early-afternoon Mass in Spanish in St. Peter Church.

In her 20s, she noticed a young man who usually sat alone at Mass. A few years later, a mutual friend formally introduced them.

As it turned out, Hector Guillen had familial ties to Aurora’s hometown but hadn’t been back there since he was a child.

They got married on Sept. 4, 2010.

In due time, Mrs. Guillen led her husband back to their hometown to reconnect.

They arrived in the middle of the night on Dec. 11, stopped at the gate outside the church to give thanks, and went to a relative’s house to sleep for a few hours.

They awoke at 3:30 a.m. to the clamor of fireworks, brass bands, hymns and cheers.

The people were celebrating Las Mañanitas — the serenading of the Blessed Mother in the early hours of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The couple wound up joining the procession as it passed Mrs. Guillen’s family home near the church.

Blessed by God

As a mother, Mrs. Guillen now views matters of faith and cultural identity through the lens of her daughters, ages 5 and 2-and-a-half.

She wants them to be confident and grateful to God for all He has done and continues to do for them.

She wants them to be aware always of His boundless love, generosity and mercy.

“I want them to know that God is with us every step of our lives,” she said. “I want them always to look at this beautiful world that He created for us, and to know that He is walking beside them every step of the way, even when things get rough.

“I want them to always remember that if they have God and they have faith, they’re going to be all right, no matter what,” she said.

Although fluent in English, Mrs. Guillen and her husband take their children to the Mass in Spanish in St. Peter Church.

They enjoy worshiping God with their children in the language of their extended family.

“I wouldn’t dare avoid speaking Spanish in front of my kids,” said Mrs. Guillen. “For one thing, how are they going to have a meaningful relationship with their grandparents if they can’t communicate with them?”

Mrs. Guillen, who now serves on the staff of El Puente Hispanic Ministry in Jefferson City and California, feels strongly about forging strong ties to her parish and the larger community.

“This is our community,” she said. “This is where we’re raising our family, where our girls are growing up.”

Knowing that her immigrant experience has been different from and in some ways less difficult than many others, she asks for prayers “for our immigrant brothers and sisters who come here while fleeing from poverty and violence, who are searching for a better life for their children.”

She noted that due to language and cultural barriers, costs and inordinate delays, “coming here the proper way is nearly impossible” for many people.

“And many people give up so much — ties to family, to what is familiar to them — just to come here,” she said. “You don’t make those kinds of sacrifices for nothing.”