German shepherd theology

In Ana Menéndez’ book ‘’In Cuba I was a German Shepherd,’’ Máximo, a Cuban immigrant, tells a joke about Juanito the dog to his friends. Juanito is a little frazzled mutt who, after landing in Miami from Cuba as part of a boat of migrants, encounters a beautiful poodle female.

Juanito approaches her, speaking in Spanish of course. The fancy purebred reacts by telling Juanito that he is only a poor, small, insignificant mutt and goads him to speak English.

Juanito might be small and of mixed breed, but he is also proud. The mangy dog retorts: “Here in America I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd.’’

The German shepherd metaphor applies not only to dogs, but also to the millions of immigrants and refugees that come to the U.S. Many come to the U.S. from the Global South, escaping untenable situations brought about by wars, dictatorships, political upheaval or the plain greed of multinational corporations.

To say you were a “German shepherd” in your country of origin may refer to the fact that there you may have had a certain level of control or sway over your life despite the external circumstances. That includes being who you are within the context of your own culture.

A standard definition of culture goes as follows: Culture is understood as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful.

Given the history of oppression and discrimination in the U.S., those immigrating from the non-white and non-English-speaking Global South are forced to “melt” into the white, Eurocentric society with the risk of losing what makes them unique and perfect in the eyes of God through a process of self-colonization and forced assimilation.

In his book “Embracing Hopelessness,” my friend and theologian Miguel De La Torre writes: ‘’Fernando Ortiz, an early twentieth-century Cuban ethnographer, coined the term ‘transculturation’ to describe the historical process of identity fraught, as it was, with conquest and resistance. … Transculturation involves the loss or uprooting of the previous culture as it feeds the reproduction of the new phenomena.’’

While great strides have taken place in the U.S., systemic and institutional racism still reigns wide and strongly. We still have ways to go to develop a truly intercultural society where all the cultures, languages, ethnicities and religions are not just tolerated, but also accepted and affirmed.

For Christians, the question has been answered already by the life and witness of Jesus Christ. The church actually began as an intercultural community. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made sure that everyone present understood the words of Peter in their own language.

If everyone had been made to understand only one language, then the hegemony of those in power would be justified. People coming into the church would have had to conform to the patterns of the dominant class. People coming into a certain country would have to forfeit their heritage and become something else.

It is now our duty, as descendants of those in Jerusalem to whom God spoke in their own languages, to make sure that the church and the society we live in also accept, affirm, celebrate and learn from other cultures. We must advocate and fight for the rights of everyone, no matter who they are, whom they love, what gender they are or what their race is, so that we all can be German shepherds in God’s kin-dom.

Antonio (Tony) Aja is an honorably retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Orlando, Florida. He is moderator of the Hispanic/Latinx National Presbyterian Caucus at adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.