I met the Pastores at Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor two days after we landed. To my surprise the church was a room, a room, inside The Hyatt a few blocks from our house. Was I the only one appalled by its lack of holiness? Did Mami wave her estrato like a flag of entitlement and walk out? She hugged and kissed and called this lady hermana and that señor hermano like this was totally her salsa and I was exaggerating. Painful to watch. Mami sensing my discomfort mentioned a youth group, people my age learning about Dios. Clearly this was all a mistake.
When we got there three fat women in matching navy suits ran to greet us, introducing themselves as Ujieres, mi niña, Dios te bendiga. A low cemented arch with three palm trees to each side where a sign for the South Florida Beauty Convention hanged on the side. And then: the room that pretended to be a church. Talk about being colonized by the wrong people, the wise Spanish understood it took Gothic fear to believe and follow Dios. For starters the churches in Bogotá were old, like centuries old, gothic, tall with vitrales, and colossal images of the Virgen de la Caridad, Virgen de Chiquinquirá, Virgen del Carmen, bleeding tears on the baby, the backdrop of the altar a nailed Jesús de Nazareth face contorted—did I mention homeboy also bled?—showing you he died for you, sinner. During the weekly school mass whenever I searched for spiritual or moral guidance the image of the bleeding, good-looking bearded son of God shook me into my senses: stop fake-kissing your Salserín posters Francisca, he died for you. And although my religious skepticism started at the age of 11 when I began falling asleep during mass, stealing my tías’ cigarettes and rubbing myself on the edge of the bed, the imposing thorn crown bleeding for all of us had created a fear so deep I found myself praying unconsciously after each said sin.
But enough of the past already. Mami always says you gotta look into the futuro, el pasado está enterrado, we sold it, buried it and bought new flowery bedspreads at Walmart instead. And now Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo awaited with its baby blue walls, four rows of folding chairs and a passageway in the middle. A mustard yellow carpet that resembled Mami’s favorite blouse which tied in a perfect silk bow and hadn’t been worn since her farewell party at the insurance company. Bibles secured in armpits. Everyone blessing their hermano, declaring in the name of Jesús, gloria a Dios for Sutanito’s new job at Seven-Eleven, and beware of Satanás when your children curse at you.
Women kneeled at the center. Others painfully hummed songs as a young man began drumming beats, their faces obviously demanding attention because as everyone could clearly decipher from the tightness of their fists, the hermanas suffered.
They couldn’t be serious, but they were.
I remember the awkward embarrassment, an urge to tell everyone to please turn it down a notch. Amazed at the lack of shame in blasting Christian rock and singing to it while people watched—normal gringos peeked from time to time, entertained by the free Spanish spectacle happening right at their hotel. People are watching you, I wanted to say. But at that moment all they cared about was proving to each other who was Jesús’ #1 Fan, and to be honest it was a tough call. So instead of snapping I actually yearned for the mournful, silent quality of Catholic mass. The Ave Marías, the bells, the Latin phrases nobody understands, all of us girls in uniform passing notes during the evangelio. The imposing holiness of the priest, his robe—the Pastor wore black pants and a dark blue shirt that made him look more waiter than godly.
Mami explained the Christian logic of such circo to me later: you can praise el Señor anywhere, because He is everywhere and He is watching you, sinner. It’s about a direct relationship with Jesús and Dios, no intermediaries, no fake images to praise. What about La Virgen? Na-ha, no Virgen. Dios mío. Fifteen years lighting candles to the Virgen, waiting anxiously for rosaries to end, fifteen years with a Virgencita around my neck that protected me of all mal since my baptism. And now, suddenly, the Virgen and I faded into the background.
Mami introduced me to the Pastora inside an arch of blue balloons framing the stage. A sign—lead singer works at Kinko’s— covered half of the end wall with a rainbow reading ARCOIRIS DE AMOR. On the left two huge speakers. Big party speakers because this was a party para alabar a Cristo. A Jesús party. Someone whispered to me: Jesucristoooo.
La verga, I told Mami.
Grosera. Okey, here don’t be grosera.
Half of the people were thick women with hair done in highlights, fake red nails, kissing each other’s cheeks with tired eyes while some mumbled things in English with an air of superiority. Clarita! Como ha aprendido inglés, mire a la gringa. Children wailed, chanted. One of them colored a dove black, the bird breaking the lightning sky. Why black Marcelita? Aren’t you Jesús’ little princess? It should be baby blue. It should be white. Holy spirit is pure mi amor, a ver. Young girls in white sheer gowns shook tambourines, held hands, eyes shut letting out a siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh to the heavens. Above, the heavens, three colossal ceiling fans going whoosh whoosh whoosh and at the back table a man alone in headphones. I asked Mami and Mami asked tía Milagros and tía Milagros responded that it is the Biblical Translation Center, for the gringos. This is a real time translation Spanish to English with headphones. Oooooooh. See how good? Even the gringos come here. Tía Milagros pointed to a giant white man with tiny spectacles seated in the first row wearing headphones hunched over a bible. Mami was super excited about the church’s inclusivity. Of course Mami couldn’t stand the gamines outside of Catholic mass asking for money or Lucia’s close friend a moreno from Barranquilla, of course not. But gringos, she’s been super excited about. I pitied the yanqui man a little. Why in the world would a gringo come to this church? Don’t they have their own?
People jumped to touch me, asked all kinds of questions. Lady in yellow dress and with enormous cleavage (Marcela, later barred from stealing the diezmo), Mamita are you Myriam’s daughter? Xiomara mira, this is Myriam’s daughter. No way, you don’t look anything like her! I held you when you were this big.
This is exciting, I thought, very exciting. Is it different from what you had in mind? Is it different from The Promised Life? Is it different from the yellow-haired blue-eyed heaven of boys and girls in Saved by the Bell wanting to be your friends? Cachaco, please, I wouldn’t have conjured up this place in my head in a million gazillion years (and I grew up in Bogotá during the 90s).
You come with me to the youth group, nena.
Mami sat in the first row, next to the bald Pastor and his terrible mustache while Xiomara with her gelled curls escorted me to the room next door.
Xiomara’s infomercial voice made the walk a sort of limbo, stuck inside a television screen. Down the hallway men in shirts, gelled hair, smiling out of some sort of obligation, handing me their sweaty palms. Free embraces that I never asked for. Lots of arms around me chanting in unison Dios te bendiga! Dios te bendiga! Dios te bendiga! But I thought, I’ll meet some people there, right? I couldn’t imagine young people going there out of mere will and a light sense of hope let me breathe deeply one last time. And there taped in gold on top of a rainbow read: Jóvenes en Cristo.
Here’s a little something for you, mi reina: All these colombianos migrate out of their país de mierda to the Land of Freedom, in this case Miami, to better themselves, to flee the “violence” or whatever, seek peace, or, really, to brag they’re living in the freaking U.S of A and hello credit card, and hello cell phone and car I can’t afford, and hello hanging out in a room at the Hyatt with the same motherfuckers you ran from. Like, they couldn’t have done that in Bogotá? Barranquilla? Or Valledupar? My second reaction to the room-church was a terrible disappointment. This. Is. It? Whaaa? More on that later.
Now, what I saw behind that door had been inconceivable before (cachaco, Bogotá in the 90s, remember). Never in my life would I have thought young people could be… so… soulless. Depressed? Yes. Hijosdeputa? Yes. Killers? Yes. I’d been robbed by young boys on the streets before, kids barely over 5 years old sniffing boxer, sleeping next to their knives. Junkies? Yes—Catholic school for them daughters of coqueros. But a state of mind robbed completely of humanness, fifteen-year olds humming like a machine, and brought to life through the stupid repetition of prayer: hijos de Dios.
Inside everyone around the circle lifted their hands in a let’s-slap-some-high-fives gesture. Disgusting, I thought. I didn’t want to touch everyone’s hands but Wilson the youth leader, who we’ll call Young Mulatongo, grabbed me by the elbow and skipped around the circle holding out my arm. Are these people blind? I’m punk. I’m an artist. I fight bitches on the street. Once in the middle of la 82 I spat on this girl for calling me a chirri (I did run right after. But still).
But where could I run? The condescending smiles. Two girls in matching shiny flip-flops held tambourines fake smiling and only barely touching my hand with their fingertips. Okay mi vida do it for your mother who worked her costeña butt off to get that visa and who is ecstatic to be in this church (no one could shut her up about it months before we moved here), and if you just behave today maybe later she’ll forget all about it and you’ll be able to stay at the townhouse and think of ways of not killing yourself yet. Cool.
The Young Mulatongo shook his finger in front of me.
Eeee-cume niña, hellooo. We’re down by three people tonight we need to increment our Sacred Outreach Efforts.
Some of them yawned. Others swayed their arms to the baby blue ceiling. Everyone was instructed to bring a friend and share their Life Changing Testimony. Then in came a young morena from Barranquilla in one of those sheer white gowns, waving off the Young Mulatongo but flirting with him, passing out pamphlets with light exploding from grey clouds.
Okey, pelaos, this is how it’s going down. I want all you lazy disque followers of Jesús to get that culo moving or else we’re buried, me están oyendo? Tonight go home and think of that friend, that lonely ugly child with the Metallica shirt next to you in English math Spanish government class that is in desperate need of saving. You know the kind. Yes? And you bring that ugly, godless child next week and here we will strip him of that shirt and he will smell of pachouli and we’ll deal with Dios and he will be one of his soldiers are we all full cleaaaaar pelaos?
They all went wild, cheering, throwing pillows in the air, bibles flew. Girl is a preacher. This girl has my attention. And just like that, that ugly Barranquillera and her authority, and her pimples demanding with no respect whatsoever that we—that I—do exactly as she said.