When I try to remember my very first life memory, I recall seeing my mother sitting on a stool crying her eyes out. “¿Por qué Dios mío? ¿Por qué? – Why my God? Why?” I must have been about three or four years old. As I looked around the bare room that served as both living and bedroom, I noticed the cause of her anguish. It appeared to me as if the ceiling and walls were moving. It was an eerie spectacle. As I focused closer at what was causing this phenomenon, it became obvious that the ceiling wasn’t moving; but rather the hundreds, if not thousands of roaches crawling along the ceiling created this false illusion. There were so many roaches that it seamed as if the ceiling was an ocean whose waves lapped upon the bordering walls. Although quite young, this image was seared into my consciousness, and probably will be the last thing I recollect when I lay on my deathbed as an old man.
Just as First World conditions exist among the elite in the Third World, Third World conditions exist in the First World in the form of barrios (as well as black ghettos and American Indian reservations). Later in life, I would discover that in the early 60s, we were living in Third World conditions on the east side of New York City, around 53rd Street, an area close to Hell’s Kitchen (way before it became a trendy neighborhood). Back then, these were rat- and roach-infested tenement buildings dating to the early 20th century. There was only one bathroom per tenement floor to be shared by all of the floor’s inhabitants. The conditions were so unsanitary that it was safer to relieve myself in an old cracker tin can than to use the floor bathroom. Our neighbors were pimps, prostitutes, and drug addicts being replaced by Hispanic families who, for whatever reason, found themselves in this cold arctic city, far from the tropical climates of our homelands.
All day long, my mother worked like a dog to clean the apartment. She was expecting guests that evening and regardless of our poverty, wanted everything to look as decent as possible. However, when she stepped into the living room, all she saw, in spite of her efforts, were these vermin creatures, taunting her, as if to say that no matter how hard she tried, she would always be a dirty, poor Latina. Growing up in poverty induced great shame. Even as I attended college, and was a successful young businessman, I still felt shame concerning my humble beginnings, shame for being Hispanic. I lacked the social capital that comes with economic privilege that would lead me to feel at ease at public gatherings. Even as a full professor, as my colleagues name the Ivy League schools from which they received their academic degrees, it is somewhat embarrassing that my degree comes from a community college, because that is all I was able to afford; and even then, had to work full-time to put myself through school, taking seven years to complete a four year degree. In matters not how many books I might write or academic degrees I might obtain, shaking off the imposter syndrome rooted in a life that has known more want than I’m willing to admit, continues to contribute to the colonization of my mind.
Those who are poor usually reflect upon their economic conditions with shame. And yet, Jesús accepted poverty so that all who are economically disenfranchised could be rich. Through Jesús enjoyed the riches of Heaven, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we, through his poverty might become rich (2 Co. 8:9). Jesús could have been born to the rich house of Caesar; instead, Jesús was born into, lived and died in poverty. Like a barn animal, on that first Christmas night, María was forced to give birth amid unsanitary and homeless conditions.
Throughout his ministry Jesús lived in privation. He reminds us that: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heavens have nests, but the Son of humans has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58). As a homeless man, he was able to celebrate his last supper due to the generosity of strangers (Lk. 22:17-13). He wandered without money in his purse (Mt. 17:22-27; Lk. 20:20-26), relying on the charity of others (Lk. 8:1-3). As he was hanging from a tree, his only earthy possessions, his clothes and undergarment, were rationed out, through the casting of lots, to the executioners (Jn. 20:24). Totally naked, with nothing left to call his own, Jesús died. Because Jesús chose solidarity with the poor, I have a God who understands not just my privation, but the poverty of all who are excluded from the earth’s abundance. The miracle of the incarnation is not that God became human; rather, God became poor. The radicalness of Jesús’ poverty is that he chooses to side with the poor, giving the Gospel message a political and economic edge. My childhood poverty ceases to be a thing of shame due to something defective within me, my family, or my ethnicity. I can begin to understand our poverty not as the failure of my parents, but as a product of a society designed to privilege one group over others. While not attempting to romanticize poverty (there is nothing romantic about not having enough food to eat), I can better deal with my disturbing memories (or present realities) because Jesús’ poverty has enriched me, making me richer than those who live in luxury.
Adapted from an upcoming book The Politics of Jésus to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in the summer of 2015.