This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Complex Identities

This piece was originally published in the November issue of The Mennonite magazine, focusing on the theme, Transitions from Different Angles. Read more original articles or subscribe today

After spending two years in one place, I get antsy for something different. Having lived in at least seven different cities, six different states/provinces and three different countries over the past 12 years, transitions in areas such as home, school, language, church, culture and even family have become part of life, and adjusting to different settings is now second nature.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve only ever lived in North America, but moving to a different place is not the hard part about transitioning for me. The difficult part is finding my new role, my new identity as a person or as part of a group in a new place.

Growing up in Mexico, I was privileged to be surrounded by individuals from my own family who could provide for me. Most people in my family are university educated and can speak at least two languages. My parents were able to pay for private school for part of my education and sponsored trips to many different places. We didn’t have basic needs that couldn’t be met. I was in a certain socioeconomic class. My identity was shaped by the understanding that my family was privileged to a certain extent and that our role was to help others whenever possible.

When I entered university in the United States, however, my situation was different. I relied heavily on grants and scholarships to attend school. I had to work to cover the rest of the costs of school and living, but the overall costs were still more than what I could put together (the legal work permission I received limited me to half-time work at minimum wage). It was then that my identity of being in the privileged group that must help others transformed into being part of the needy group that receives that help. I received much financial help from individuals and church conferences, which allowed me to continue my studies. Now I was in a different socioeconomic class.

As I kept moving from place to place in the United States, I also realized that my identity and privilege had changed in other ways. Specifically, I had become part of a minority, one that wasn’t all that appreciated in many contexts.

Because of colorism in Mexico, my lighter skin had spared me the grief of being discriminated against and had allowed me a level of privilege in that context. Although I don’t think I’ve been in a situation where someone has posed a threat to my well-being because of my heritage, I can confidently say that in the United States I do not hold the same privilege derived from colorism as I did in Mexico. In the United States, I am a brown person and part of a group that, for many, is an unwanted one. Racial tensions, immigration discussions and even international trade and relations topics in the United States uncovered a spectrum of identity anxieties for me that have been difficult to deal with. Am I an outsider or part of the “in group”? Am I privileged or needy? Am I a minority or part of the larger group? And how is my faith affected by all these questions?

Through all these transitions, I’ve come to understand and accept that in some contexts I will be the most privileged person in the group. I may be the person who needs to give of my means and time to help others or stand in solidarity with them and listen to their stories. In other settings, I may have to humbly ask for  assistance and support and be the one needing to receive the help that is offered. On both sides of the spectrum, I need to listen, give, ask and receive. This adds complexity to my identity, since I need to be able to adapt to a different role, depending on the circumstances.

This fits with my understanding that faith is action, which may look different, depending on the context.

In Jesus, we have an example of the complexity of identities. He asked others for food and a place to rest (Luke 19:1-10), and he also received invitations to be hosted (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus allowed a woman to anoint his feet (Luke 7:36-50), but also served his disciples by washing their feet (John 13:1-5). Jesus healed many and restored them to society, and he used his power to benefit others, even when it required him to turn over tables in the face of corruption and injustice (Matthew 21:12-13).

My call, therefore, as a follower of Jesus is tied to many different actions. I imagine there will be more times in my life where I’ll be on the receiving end, and I must learn to accept that role with joy and thankfulness. I can also see myself transitioning into a different context, where I need to do the giving.

For almost two years, I’ve been living in Canada, another transition in my life that has taught me many things. In Canada, I no longer feel like one of the unwanted minorities. Because I am a full-time student and work part-time, there isn’t much money to go around, but there always seems to be plenty.

And there is another complexity to living in this place: Here I am part of a larger settler group and, even as an immigrant minority woman, I benefit from systems that have been put in place by the same government that has oppressed First Nations and Aboriginal people native to this land.

Again, this adds complexity to my identity. In this situation, I often don’t know the best way to engage my faith and take action.

My current prayer for myself and all who are transitioning to a context where they will be faced with new complexities to their identities is that we may receive with openness the guidance of the Spirit. Where is the Spirit guiding me to take action? How is this transition shaping my identity and thereby changing the action(s) I take because of my faith? How is Jesus’ example applicable to my life here and now?

Andrea De Avila is associate pastor at Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.



This piece was originally published in the November issue of The Mennonite magazine, focusing on the theme, Transitions from Different Angles. Read more original articles or subscribe today

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