Week Three of La Mesa: Speedbumps

Week Three of La Mesa de Conversacion had arrived, and I was excited after two great weeks prior as I waited for people to show up. With each previous meeting, “regulars” had arrived later and later while newbies arrived on-time or early. This rendered the time slot from 6-6:20 an awkward introductory period, during which I generally made conversation with newcomers and assured them that others would (probably!) be there soon.

By 6:15 this week, only a handful of people were present: myself, my ever-supportive parents, the rec center liaison Jane, and Marisol, our translator. I was abundantly grateful when two new ladies from the community arrived: Lane, a woman I had known since elementary school, and another community member I recognized by face, Judith.

Soon after, Marisol’s mom arrived with her daughter and terrible news: another regular family couldn’t make it because of the tragic and violent death of a family member back in Mexico. With this news came the realization that as undocumented migrants, the Perez family couldn’t safely return home to Mexico to attend a funeral or support their family. Denied a pilgrimage of grief I tend to take for granted, they were isolated in their loss.

In their home, the Perezes dealt with day one of a tragedy all too common in the modern Mexican narrative. At the Rec Center, we served up fajitas and I introduced the week’s topic, family. I had thought this topic would elicit some good dialogue; instead, reality proved to be fickle.

In this case, I’d underestimated one of the newcomers’ understanding of the group. Most newbies are drawn to Mesa by friends who have attended or informational flyers that explain the group in detail, but apparently Judith had followed Lane to the event with only the vaguest idea of what it entailed. When I began handing out the conversation-starter worksheets that had been so successful the week before, I explained that they were for facilitating learning and teaching both Spanish and English. “Well, I already speak Spanish,” she replied, seemingly irritated. “I don’t want to teach it, though. It’s easy.”

We worked in pairs for ten minutes or so before reconvening, using the same technique as before of introducing one’s partner to the group. After, we began the large discussion. I had just posed the first question (“what did people do for father’s day?”) when Judith interjected, “I’m just curious what you’re doing here.”

Taken aback (and finally clued into the fact that she really was critically confused about the group), I tried to concisely give her my elevator speech. My dad added a comment about how important it is to bring together the anglo and “hispanic communities.”

AAAAAAND the floodgates had been opened. Judith launched into a tirade about his non-PC use of the word “hispanic,” and our conversation was derailed, headed in a sharply different direction and led by Judith. Suddenly, we were discussing the racism she had experienced growing up in a latino community in California and issues of discrimination worldwide. This conversational tangent was not wholly unwelcome; in fact, Marisol’s mom spoke up about race dynamics she had witnessed in our community and it seemed we might find common ground again. But when someone began speaking of solutions, Judith quickly shut them down: “Good luck changing anything.”

Two hours later, our conversation was over and everyone helped clean up and rearrange tables. Folks filed out, and I was filled with disappointment and the sense that I could have done things better. Throughout the project, I’ve tended towards “behind-the-scenes” leadership, partly because age dynamics make taking complete control of the room awkward. Yet in some cases, I’m realizing, it’s necessary to step forward and rebalance a conversation that’s being dominated by one person and their ideas.

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