Very early one Sunday morning in June of 2013, thirty-four year old Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino was walking with two friends through a Los Angeles suburb looking for his brother’s stolen bicycle. The bike had been taken the day before, and they had reported the theft to the police. As the friends were walking down the street, a police unit, responding to the report, pulled up near them and the officer ordered them to put their hands in the air. Ricardo tried to intervene on behalf of his friends. Shortly thereafter two more police units arrived, and three officers stepped out of the vehicles with their guns drawn, yelling at the men to put their hands up in the air.
Ricardo stepped forward and tried to explain to the policemen that there was a mistake and they were actually looking for the bike as well. The officers yelled at Ricardo to put his hands back up in their air, which he did. However, when Ricardo took off his baseball cap and tried again to explain to the officers who he was and what he and his friends were doing, the officers opened fire on the men, killing Ricardo and injuring one of his friends. A review of the video shows that none of the friends posed any threats or made any aggressive movements.
And, why? Why did the police shoot men who were clearly unarmed? Why did they assume that these men were bike thieves, rather than the victims of theft? Why did the first officer even feel the need to stop these men, telling them to put their hands up, and even calling in backup, before ever considering what they had to say? It’s difficult to avoid the idea that all of this happened largely because these men were clearly Mexican-Americans. Now, we don’t know all of the details, so it’s very possible that this had nothing to do with race. But, remember, these were not teenage gangbangers. These were men in their early thirties. And, quite honestly, had these been three white men walking down the suburban street in the early hours of the morning, I struggle to imagine that the police officers would have bothered to stop them, much less shoot them.
I don’t say this to start a flurry of accusations or create more division between whites and Latinos. I say this because I want us to have a concrete example of what I’m going to talk about – namely, the significance that El Viernes Santo (Good Friday) carries for Chicanos.
While a good number of Mexican-Americans may still attend a Good Friday mass or worship service, much of how Latinos celebrate this day throughout Latin America, and even the U.S., is through a series of reenactments, such as the Way of the Cross, the siete parablas (the seven last words of Jesus from the cross), and the pésame a la Virgen (“condolences of the Virgin”). Rather than sit in a church building and simply listen to the passion narrative articulated to them, Chicanos act it out. As strange as it may sound, remembering the events of Good Friday – our Lord’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion – through physical action, rather than quiet reflection, is more natural for the Mexican-American people.
To “academic” theologians and liturgists this may seem a folkloric, nostalgic, emotional, childish expression of religion; they would not call it real liturgy. But for a people for whom sudden arrest, speedy trial, trumped-up charges, circumstantial evidence, quick verdict, and immediate sentencing are a way of life – as is true for the millions of poor and oppressed throughout Latin America and in the U.S.A. – this ritual reenactment of the way of Jesus is the supreme liturgy. It is the celebration of their creed. It is not academic theorization; it is life.
Mary’s role in the crucifixion of her Son is relived by millions of women in Latin America – grandmothers, mothers, wives, girlfriends. They stand by silently as injustice, violence, is done to their loved ones. They are silent not because they are afraid or because they agree with the civil authorities, but because they do not even understand the language. They are silent because they know, through their collective experience with other women who have gone through similar experiences, that they are powerless against the authorities: “Pues no sé, Padrecito, se lo llevaron las autoridades … no hay nada que se pueda hacer” (“I don’t know, the authorities took him away, Padre … there’s nothing to be done”). They are silent not only because they do not have the money to hire a lawyer, but because they probably do not even know about the existence of lawyers. They are silent because if they said something reprisals might be taken against other members of the family.
Thousands of persons watch their loved ones be taken away, accused of some crime, condemned, and sentenced by the “justice of the powerful” – and all they can do is stand silently by them to the very end. I have myself met many such men and women in the jails of San Antonio. They do not even know why they are there. Some just happened to be standing by when a crime was committed. Their family has no money for bail. They do not know their way around. All they could do was pray and patiently wait and hope that something would be worked out.1
As a well-educated, well-connected, middle-class man, I admit that I do not share many of the same struggles as some of my Chicano brothers and sisters. I’m half-white (mom) and half-Mexican (dad), and I tend to look more like my mother, so I can’t even relate to the racial profiling that many experience. People actually tend to assume I’m Italian.
Nevertheless, I’ve experienced my fair share of racial prejudices. I’ve had people assume things about me because of my Hispanic heritage. And I’ve been pigeonholed into certain categories because of my last name. Even if I hadn’t, I believe that all people have the capacity to relate to those that are misunderstood, unfairly accused, prejudicially judged, and dubiously sentenced.
And that is exactly what we commemorate today. Much like John T. Williams or Samuel DuBose,2 our Lord found himself brutally rushed from a quiet and harmless existence into the executioner’s hands through a speedy act of blatant injustice. And it is in the nightmare of Good Friday that we find hope. Not merely in the promise of Easter morning (that will come in due time). But in the knowledge that we serve a Lord that is able to relate not only to our temptations and weaknesses (Heb 4:15), but also to the plight of those victims who have experienced brutal injustice beneath the foot of civil authorities and systemic prejudices.3
Good Friday is a day of tragedy, this is true. But it is also a day of intimate and even painful solidarity, and there is hope and comfort in that.
Remember this as you worship and reflect on today. And God bless!
1: Virgilio P. Elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American (Orbis Books, 2005), 42.
2: Other names that ought to be mentioned are Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Erich Harris, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Ervin Edwards, Thaddeus McCarroll, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Kathryn Johnston, Ramarley Graham, Johnathan Ferrell, and Akai Gurley.
3: For more on the history of anti-Latino violence in the United States, see the brief interview from NPR, The History of Anti-Mexican Violence and Lynching, as well as the book, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928, by Dr. William D. Carrigan.