It was a sad October day. It was a day that will be forever seared in my memory. It was the death of an infant. It was the first burial of an indigneous Mayan in our community. It was a day when everything made sense to me, that clarified and cemented my purpose in my community at this time. It was a day that made my journey even clearer. It was the day that I understood the importance of everything that I had lived through prior to this day.
A solemn mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The procession to Calvary Cemetery on State Route 39. The white tent. The rows of chairs. The freshly dug hole. The tiny casket. The mother, barely able to stand, silently suffering the loss of her first-born child. The father standing stoically beside his wife. The grieving neighbors and relatives. The priest. The two men who had dug the grave standing a short distance away waiting to close the grave back up.
We stood in shock and grief, barely comprehending the words of comfort spoken by the priest. When the last words of comfort were spoken, the priest moved slowly away from the grave to allow the family to approach one last time. The parents and the family stood still as if frozen in place, staring into the grave.
The gravediggers patiently waited for the family to leave the cemetery so that they could finish their solemn duties. But the family did not leave the grave side. They were not ready to leave the side of the infant that they had known only for a few short weeks.
A 'cultural broker'
The situation became awkward. The priest approached me and asked me to encourage the family to leave. It was at that moment when I realized what my purpose was on that day. My role was that of a “cultural broker.” I had information about Latino funeral practices and I needed to share that information now.
Americans and Latinos have different expectations at the end of a funeral. In the United States the family leaves the gravesite and attends a luncheon prepared by the caring hands of the ladies at the church. At this point, after the family members are no longer there, the men in charge of the cemetery’s upkeep put the dirt into the grave covering the casket. After smoothing out the dirt, they place the flower arrangements on top.
Latino families linger at the graveside. Their business here is not finished. It is their custom to be vigilant beside the grave until the last shovel full of dirt has been carefully patted down and the flowers arranged on top of the fresh mound of dirt. Then and only then does the family leave the cemetery.
How did I know this pertinent information?
I had just returned from Mexico in August where my family (by marriage) had laid my sister-in-law Orfa to rest. In a way, the day of her funeral was a beautiful day. She had lost her battle with cancer and was now at peace. Everyone who loved her was there to say good-bye to her.
A Mexican funeral
First, the family assembled in a large chapel at the cemetery. Then we proceeded to the gravesite. As we stood at the graveside, we held on to each other and comforted each other. It was actually the first interment service that I had attended even though I had lived 11 years in Mexico. It was my daughter's very first experience at the death of a close relative. We were all together, which made it more bearable. The family had hired a trio of musicians that played Orfa’s favorite hymns and songs. The beautiful music opened the floodgates of our tears. We cried openly and freely. There were words of reminiscing, soft laughter through the tears.
We stepped up to the open grave and threw flowers on top of the casket. We took a step backwards and the groundskeepers stepped forward. We watched in silence as they shoveled the dirt back into the grave. After the last wreath of flowers was placed on top of the grave, we all clapped for a full minute and then gathered together for a family picture in front of the grave. Only after seeing that our loved one was tucked safely away under the blanket of earth did the family feel that we could leave this holy ground.
These memories came rushing back as I stood with the family in Calvary Cemetery. I realized why the family was not leaving. I shared this valuable information with the priest, who was grateful to learn about this, especially since this funeral was our first cross-cultural experience. He quietly instructed the groundskeepers to go about their business, which they did quietly and respectfully. When the mother was satisfied that her beloved infant son was at rest and would not be disturbed, she allowed herself to be accompanied to the car. We all left.
The past as prelude
My own personal experience in a foreign country had prepared me to help others who found themselves grieving in a foreign country. In that one moment at the cemetery in Dover, the purpose of my life’s journey became clear to me. Everything I had lived prior to this brought me to this moment. I am so grateful for all the experiences I have lived through because it has allowed me to be an encouragement and a comfort to others.
So what has my journey looked like?
My story begins as so many stories do — I was born and raised in Dover, Ohio. Nothing remarkable about my childhood. Stay-at-home mom, working dad, two brothers, one sister, an inside dog, an outdoor cat, a pony. Survived pneumonia when I was a year old. Was a bookworm and took piano lessons. Was the eighth grade spelling champion. Loved French and Spanish classes in high school. Had a lead role in the high school musical my senior year. Had a part-time job. Had only traveled to Canada with my family as a child. Led a pretty predictable (and safe) life.
After high school, I followed my older brother to The Ohio State University and my world opened up. The naive girl from Dover with no travel experience and very little exposure to cultural diversity began meeting people from all over the state, the country and the world. As an usher at Mershon Auditorium, I attended many cultural programs. I can say I really enjoyed studying and learning new things. My anthropology class was so exciting. My freshman year, I went to every football game in the “Horseshoe” and even to the Rose Bowl. That was an adventure! My first airplane ride and my first view of the ocean! After my freshman year, I usually sold my football tickets to other students and I went to the library on Saturday afternoons. Even with all the opportunities in Columbus, I rarely had the courage to venture off-campus. Little did I realize that one of my biggest adventures was just around the corner.
I began my master’s program in Spanish but I lacked fluency in the language and familiarity with the culture, which kept me from really understanding the literature I was reading. Against my parents’ wishes, I enrolled in a summer program at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in 1976. I found myself living in a boarding house and navigating public transportation to get to and from school. I was enchanted by the new culture that surrounded me. I loved the sunny mild climate, the wonderful fresh fruit and, of course, the people. They were so friendly and helpful (except for a few men who couldn’t resist whistling at the brown-haired “gringa” wearing bell bottoms and clogs). Very soon after I arrived in Mexico City, we girls at the boarding house got invited to a party. You guessed it. I met a boy and over the course of the summer we fell in love (although my mom claims I fell in love with the culture, not him). I returned to OSU to finish the final year of my master’s degree. During that year, constant letters were sent back and forth between Mexico City and Columbus. I earned my diploma in the spring and began looking for jobs. I guess I didn’t look too hard (or I was too picky).
I turned down one job — travel around the state interpreting in meetings over labor disputes. If you recall, I had led a pretty sheltered life, so driving around the state as a young single woman did not seem like a safe thing for me to do. Besides, being in a room with people arguing in two languages was not all that attractive. I decided against that.
Love, marriage, baby
So, after graduation, I moved back to my parents’ house in Dover. Shortly after that, I packed my suitcase and headed to Mexico City to see what would happen. A lot happened. I ended up staying for 11 years. I rented a room in a boarding house and taught English. After three years, I married my “novio” Jairo. I taught English at a prestigious bilingual high school until our daughter Rebeca was born. The years I stayed home with her were filled with singing, knitting, reading, cooking, and cleaning.
When Rebeca entered pre-school, I became restless not knowing exactly where to pour my energy. As an American female who had worked since I was 14 years old, my self-worth had been tied to my success as a student and later as a teacher. But my husband felt that my most important job was to raise our daughter and take care of our home. I insisted that I could do both. I went back to teaching only to discover that I couldn’t manage working outside the home and taking care of my family. Besides that, there was an underlying cultural difference that I didn’t fully understand until it was too late. My husband felt that when other people saw that I was working they assumed that he was not a good provider. I knew that wasn’t true but, in the end, that difficulty proved to be insurmountable for us. I felt I was losing myself and so I decided to leave.
My daughter Rebeca and I returned to Dover in 1988. During our first years here, I had to buy tortillas in a package at the supermarket and make my own tacos at home. In order to keep holiday traditions alive for my daughter, I had to bake my own Day of the Dead bread on Nov. 1 and my own King’s Bread (you know, the one with a tiny plastic Baby Jesus in it) on Jan. 6. We celebrated our own Candlemas on Feb. 2. I had to dig out my hymnal and accompany myself on the piano while singing my favorite songs in Spanish.
In 1988, very few people in Tuscarawas County spoke Spanish. Even so, recognizing that my language ability could be useful, I gave my contact information to the State Highway Patrol and Union Hospital in case there was ever a need for an interpreter. For the first couple of years, I was rarely called. Around 1994, my phone started ringing off the hook. The number of immigrants coming from Guatemala to Tuscarawas County was steadily growing and they needed help. They needed a liaison, an advocate, a cultural broker. So did the agencies and organizations that were trying to help them make their way here in this country. That was me!
By day I was a Spanish teacher at Dover High School and by night I was a mom and an advocate for the new immigrants to the area. It was a balancing act to be sure, one which my daughter might claim was unbalanced at times (most of the time). I knew firsthand what it was like to be a foreigner in a foreign land and how much I had appreciated the helping hand that people had extended to me when I needed it. I couldn’t ignore the calls for help.
Loving, laughing, crying
The 11 years that I lived in Mexico had prepared me for a life of service in my own backyard. When I left my Mexican family, I was in a lot of pain. I felt such sadness and such disillusion at my own failure to preserve my marriage. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the Ramirez family who took me under their loving wings. They patiently corrected me while I learned the nuances of the language. They lovingly guided me through the social norms of their society so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. They bravely got in the car when I first started driving in the largest city in the world. We loved, laughed and cried together.
Just as my middle class Mexican relatives had taught me about their language and culture, the indigenous Mayan immigrants have taught me so much about theirs. I have heard and read about the horrific acts of genocide that took place in their recent history. I have a clear understanding of the life of poverty in their villages and the constant threat of gang violence. I try to imagine what I would do if I lived in a country where there is no opportunity for a better life. Would I risk life and limb to travel 3,000 miles to come to the “land of opportunity”? I have come to understand their struggles and to appreciate their determination.
We have laughed and cried together. We have shared many moments of joy together: births, first communions, birthdays (and the special “quinceanera” party when a girl turns 15), weddings, church foundations and anniversaries, independence day festivities, holiday celebrations (including “posadas”). We have proudly watched their children win handwriting contests, shine on the soccer field and on the wrestling mat, and walk across the stage to get their diploma.
We comfort each other
We have also comforted each other in times of strife and sorrow: illness, depression, funerals, discrimination, harrassment, job insecurity, immigration hearings, ICE raids, and political uncertainty.
Over the years, I have not only developed close relationships with my Latino brothers and sisters, but also with many other members of our community with whom I work closely in order to serve the Hispanic community here in Dover and New Phila. When working with such groups as Hispanic Ministries of Tuscarawas County, Miguate, Camp Imagine If, and ONE, I am grateful to have met so many kind and knowledgeable people who are dedicated to supporting our immigrant neighbors here in Tuscarawas County. I feel humbled and privileged to work with them toward our goal: to empower the Latinos so that they can attain the “American Dream” that they have sacrificed so much for.
My immigrant neighbors left their villages out of necessity and made the long dangerous journey to the United States in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. But the truth is that because they are here, I have a better life. I have more color, more flavor, more faith and more friends. Thanks to them, I can now visit the “tienditas” in the area to buy fresh tortillas, clothing, and specialty spices. I can enjoy their food at restaurants and taco trucks. I can buy authentic breads, including the special holiday breads and “tres leches” cake. I can attend a church service in Spanish.
Had I not spent 11 years immersed in the Latino culture, I would not be the person I am today. My entire life — personal and professional — was shaped by those years I spent in Mexico City. I would not have met so many talented and caring people if I had not made this personal journey.
And yet, my journey is only MY journey. Every person has a journey that has brought them to this place and time. Who knows where this journey will take us or where it will end? I suppose we just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other (hopefully our best foot) and see where the road takes us. I am grateful that my path has taken me to so many interesting places and has introduced me to so many wonderful people. I hope that my future experiences give me as much satisfaction as my journey so far.
Sherrel Rieger's story, "The Gift of Welcoming: Paying it Forward," was the first-place winner in the adult division of the writing contest sponsored by the Tuscarawas County Writers Guild as part of the 2021 One Book, One Community project of the Tuscarawas County Literacy Coalition. Other winning entries are posted online at: One Book, One Community — Tuscarawas County Literacy Coalition (tuscliteracy.org).
This article originally appeared on The Times-Reporter: Helping Guatemalan immigrants gives Dover woman satisfaction