White Spaces – A Flour Tortilla Enchilada Story

by | Aug 18, 2023 | Immigration, Race, Spirituality

Before the Covid vaccines were available, I was blessed to live with twenty other Jesuits. It was great to live with so many people when we were not allowed to interact with anyone from outside our home. Even with so many, the isolation got to all of us after a while. We started to look for ways to distract ourselves, such as playing with English word puns during lunch.

For example, one Jesuit joked: “What do you call a nun who is lost in the woods?”… “A roamin’ Catholic”. Everyone laughed, but I did not make the connection right away. I thought he  was  referring  to a  “ruminating Catholic,” and someone had to explain the joke to me. My housemates would usually explain puns, but after a while it became tedious and boring. Most conversations were about American people, American sports, American TV shows, American humor, and so on. How could it have been otherwise in a community of mostly Americans?

My struggle is that I did not grow up in the US. I am a Mexican-American Jesuit who grew up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (across the border from El Paso, Texas) in a Mexican family. My childhood years taught me to see the world through my Mexican heritage. At age fifteen, I moved across the border to attend high school and started to learn English. As of right now, I feel comfortable speaking English, but I still struggle with English puns in a similar way a native English speaker would trying to understand Spanish puns.

After a while, I got tired of not fitting in naturally and became unable to recharge my social energy. Everywhere I looked I saw the American way of living and realized how much that culture dominated our community.  I got very  sensitive toward the white, American way of doing everything. I grew quiet, bitter, and resentful and preferred to spend time alone. Despite craving social interaction like many during Covid quarantine, I preferred being alone rather than not fitting in. 

The interesting flipside is that everyone was trying to include me in all that was going on. My community was attentive to me. Absolutely no one wanted to create an exclusively white space. When I mention white spaces, I am thinking of the humor, language, word puns, food, aesthetic preferences, music, games, sports, and topics of conversation which predominantly white Americans prefer. These spaces are often a position of privilege for most white Americans because they have never experienced being a minority due to their culture, ethnicity, language or social class. Accordingly, I did not have access to their shared heritage. After not fitting in naturally for so long, I felt suffocated by this environment. Living in isolation, we all were having a rough time. But the same spaces that were suffocating me were the same ones providing a breath of air to most others. 

There were a good number of friends who really cared for me and who listened to me for long hours. One time, after complaining for a while, I said: “I feel outside my comfort zone in every single dimension of my life”. In a loving attempt to make me see that I did have familiar “spaces” at the house, a friend said to me: “But Marco, doesn’t it make you feel at home when we eat enchiladas here at the community?”

He was right. I was not entirely out of my comfort zone in every possible dimension, but this was not the best example. I said: “Well, it would be if the enchiladas were made with corn tortillas, like real enchiladas are made in all México… but here we have to eat them with flour tortillas because that’s what white people like to eat. And this is precisely the issue… Even the things that I would enjoy and make me feel at home have turned into white spaces…” My friend murmured a little embarrassed: “but I like flour tortilla enchiladas…”

My friend was not trying to confront me. He was not even annoyed of listening for over an hour to my endless complaints. Indeed, he was trying to improve my day and help me look forward to having Mexican food later that week. But it didn’t work.

What are enchiladas supposed to be like then? My grandmother’s enchiladas contained only flat tortillas, spicy red sauce, cheese and raw onion. Those enchiladas were the best! However, even if those enchiladas were the best, those are not the enchiladas I make for myself nowadays. When I came to the United States, I encountered enchiladas that were rolled and had chicken in them. They also had a less flavorful sauce, and unfortunately sometimes were made with flour tortillas. 

Now when I make enchiladas, I adapt. I make them rolled and add chicken to them. Of course I use corn tortillas, queso fresco, and my grandmother’s recipe for the sauce. I did not have to accept all the changes, but accepting some of them made them more appealing to my American Jesuit brothers and I see it now as an improvement to my enchiladas. 

Ok, maybe you don’t feel as passionate for enchiladas as I do. Maybe you think that flour tortillas are better anyway. But, would you call a hamburger made with spam a real American hamburger? I would not. 

I felt really bad for my friend. He benefited from the white spaces without even knowing it. There was no one to blame. The majority of the house simply wanted to eat flour tortilla enchiladas. But it’s not really about flour tortilla enchiladas. Rather, it’s about how white spaces can suffocate people of color when we don’t have access to them. 

So if having enchiladas did not really help me feel better, what was helpful? A different friend shared with me his favorite food, favorite science fiction TV series, music, etc. Then he asked to enter into my brown Mexican world. He wanted to try my favorite Mexican dish, listen to my Spanish music, and watch my favorite TV shows. He allowed me to transform his white spaces into tan spaces.

Allowing your space to be changed is difficult, and the longer this change takes place the more difficult it might be. Would you be willing to eat a non-traditional Thanksgiving meal for the rest of your life? I mean with corn tortilla enchiladas, dumplings, spring rolls, chicken masala, etc.? Maybe one year that would be very exciting, but what about for the rest of your life? Would you be willing to give up on the turkey, your grandmother’s recipe for stuffing, or cranberry sauce? Even more, can you imagine modifying all aspects of your life, for the rest of your life, in a similar way? Such a change is always scary and uncomfortable, but many people of color and immigrants make such adjustments to live in white spaces everyday.  Another big challenge to this situation is that these changes cannot be demanded, but can only be offered from each one of us. 

This is what loving means: to offer a space to someone even if (and most importantly when) it requires a sacrifice. Therefore, I invite you to allow your closest friends and family to enter into your space, whatever color it is, and allow them to change it. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but it will enrich it in ways that you cannot imagine. Try it out and you will see. I did, and now my enchiladas are different. Still enchiladas, but I would say much better. Now, how can all other aspects of our life change and improve? We will have to see. 

Of course, doing this by the hand of Jesus will be much easier and fruitful. Jesus knew how difficult it was to bring people together who thought and felt different. Even the twelve apostles quarrel with each other, and Jesus dined with outcasts like Samaritans, publicans, and public sinners. Yet he knew how much everyone’s lives could be enriched if we entered into the world of others, especially the ones who did not fit in naturally. I now invite you to consider how Jesus is inviting you to enrich your world with the presence of others with this Ignatian Examen:

  • After getting in a comfortable position for a short prayer. Ask God to open my heart and mind and to show me the “spaces” that make up my life? 
  • Ask God to take a look at those spaces with me. 
  • Do I allow people to enter into my living space and make an effort to enter into theirs or am reluctant to change those spaces within me? Talk to God about the excitement or reluctance you might feel to change those intimate spaces within you.
  • Ask God to bring to your imagination how those spaces could be modified and enriched by Him and everyone who is part of your life.
  • If you feel moved to, ask God to give you the strength and inspiration needed to work towards making those spaces within you available to Him for his greater Glory. 
  • I thank God and end the prayer as I usually do.

Image from Pexels


Marco Machado, SJ

mmachadosj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Marco