Today marks two weeks since my arrival in the United States after my study abroad experience in Barcelona, Spain. I am back in North Newton and have been welcomed by family and friends with inquiries about the time I spent away. Their faces, filled with anticipation about the stories I will share and the wisdom I have brought, illuminate at the very mention of Barcelona and I have come to realize how much I am glad to see these people. Because of them, I know now that my value as a person is a reflection of the love and care I have received from others along the way. I am, in a sense, what people have made of me and am more than willing to embrace Bethel as my place and its community as my people. As many of you know my hometown is in Mexico in a city called Xalapa in the state of Veracruz. It is a city of 500, 000 people, known as “the city of flowers,” and it is full of the colors, smells and tastes typical of a green city an hour away from the coast. When I first arrived at Bethel I had doubts about my decision to move to the United States and feared that others would misinterpret my Mexican culture. I grew up with Mexican and American traditions, you see: a hybrid that would always make me feel like I was caught between two worlds, lost between two spaces. I felt pressured to claim a single identity in order to belong, and sadly at times, pretended to be someone I was not. My world was turning and I feared that at Bethel I would never find a place in the heart of its people. Studying abroad in Barcelona brought back similar feelings of displacement.
Although I had been removed from my environment before, I had never been completely detached from family and friends and I soon found myself lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces. As happens in nearly all major cities, people in Barcelona relate to one another through a series of family, work and proximity relationships, which sometimes takes years to consolidate. Lacking the latter, I struggled as an outsider to form bonds with the Barcelonans and suffered at the beginning from the withdrawal of the warmth of human contact. Coming from a Latin American culture and having lived in a small town like North Newton made it hard for me to adjust to the city ways of a metropolis like Barcelona where people forget to smile to one another and avoid the helpless stranger. Once, during my first week in Spain, I was at the subway on my way to school when a toddler unexpectedly got a hold of my index finger. I stared down at the smiling toddler and until tears started rolling down my eyes did I admit to myself that I had been desperate for human recognition.
The human mind works in unexpected ways and my newly found desire to win myself a place in the heart of the Barcelonan people freed me from the fear of failing to do so. I looked back at my time at Bethel and realized that I had never before questioned the value of offering my friendship to those around me, that I had never before considered myself unworthy of receiving love and attention. What had changed since my departure from Bethel? Why had I let myself believe that a city of millions was not interested in my value as an individual? I have been asked to evaluate my study abroad experience by several residents of North Newton. I have been asked to pinpoint every emotion, share every impression and write down every adventure from my semester abroad: I cannot. A city cannot be described in a few words because words can only begin to emulate the essence of the human condition.
I could never communicate how grateful I am to have reached a broader understanding about myself and my surroundings and how appreciative I am towards the Bethel community who loved me first and got to know me second. I could never stress how meaningful it was to have lived through the humbling feeling of not speaking the Catalan language, of finding myself lost in translation and not sharing a culture. Life in Barcelona taught me I can connect with those with no apparent relationship to my person and whose lifestyle I can only begin to comprehend. I carried a successful life outside of the familiar and my sense of accomplishment is a feeling not even the loudest of voices can undermine or suffocate. I am proud to have exposed myself to the unknown because along with the people I met and the stories I brought, the company I kept and the wisdom I sought, I managed to achieve what not even time can make fade: I captured the heart of Barcelona by capturing the hearts of its people.