“Mexicano, que tu hace aquí”, the boy yelled from twenty feet away. The question hit me like a train. For the first time in three decades the question was not framed in a way that brought me shame, guilt, and anxiety. Not waiting for an answer, he turned around and continued playing barefooted in the field. I was left to ponder what a Mexican was doing in an isolated village in this humid island nation.
I was in one of many “bateys” or work camps, where Haitian immigrants and Dominicans scratch out a living by cutting sugar cane. Conquering the humidity and heat, an average man can chop a ton a day earning enough to buy a bag of rice. To cope with the pain, some self medicate using alcohol. Many lose the battle and surrender to alcohol abuse. Weekends are a time to drink and forget their lot in life and in the process neglect their families.
The Dominican Republic has tough immigration laws and selectively enforces them. The Haitian workers have no status or identity. Their children fare no better. In 2013, a court ruling retroactively removed the nationality from thousands of them. As one of the pastors described it “even doctors lost their identity overnight”. They faced deportation to a country where they also have no citizenship. There is little hope for those that remain working in the bateys. In a way, they do not exist.
For the Christians among them, the identity problem follows them into the church. Since they have no documents, they cannot legally marry. Some choose to live with a partner and start families. Since they are not married, the church withholds baptism and the Lord’s supper from them. As they seat in the back of the building, they can watch but not partake. A reminder of their inequality in the Dominican Republic and the family of God.
“Mexicano, que tu hace aquí?”, another boy asked the following day. I was reminded of my journey in the US. The feeling of being an outsider and ashamed of my nationality. I remember a Pastor using undocumented immigrants to illustrate how satan worked. Hearing “why can’t they go to their own church”, when I suggested reaching out to Latinos. Ignoring the fact that the church was in the heart of a Latino neighborhood but none went to the church. Being an immigrant Mexican Christian in the US had been a tough journey. I thought God was punishing me because of my nationality.
So what was a Mexican doing in the sugar cane fields in the Dominican Republic? The short answer was that I was part of a team who came to train pastors who lead congregations in the bateys. I was there to talk about Gospel Saturation and Missional Communities. The long answer was that I was there to allow the Gospel to heal the broken way I saw my nationality. I am a Mexicano by God’s choice and for His glory. He wrote my story, including the chapters where I felt like an outsider in the United States. Today, He is using my nationality to open doors with Dominican, Costa Rican, Haitian, and Mexican pastors. God took me to the bateys to learn that the Gospel must happen to me before it happens through me in all areas of my life.
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