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Courage, Compassion, and Aloha

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity of having an amazing conversation with a woman by the name of Raquel (last name not included for privacy). Initially we had planned on discussing Hawaiian history in Utah and how zoning laws impact minority groups. We also planned on discussing history in Utah prior to pioneers, as Indigenous people were thriving there long before Mormon settlement. However, our discussion quickly turned to more personal matters. When we were talking, Raquel shared some of her journey as a non-Mormon Polynesian identifying woman who grew up in Utah. And she shared some of her experiences in trying to understand her Mormon friends of color and her efforts to be more accepting. Last, we finished up by talking about colonialism and identity.

(Below the text begins a few minutes into our conversation.)

Raquel: “I am in Utah now; I’ve been here since I was 8. I consider myself a Utahn, so I am a non-Mormon Utahn, which is what I normally introduce myself as. People almost always assume I am LDS, and I tell them no, I am part of the 20%. Were here.  Went to school at Weber state, got my master’s degree at the University of Utah.”

Sarah: “What has your experience been like being an Indigenous non-Mormon living in Utah?”

Raquel: “There are two experiences, there is the experiences I have with white Mormons, and the experience I have with non-white Mormons. With white Mormons my experience is probably fairly similar to yours. They wanted to know where I was from and what ward I was in. Once they find out I was not Mormon they would either try to convert me or they would shut me out. Once they would establish there was no conversion that was going to happen it was superficial. I would say growing up I didn’t have a lot of friends. Non-LDS people here have a tendency of finding each other and sticking to one another. I can think all the way back to elementary school, I knew who the non-Mormon kids were and those were my friends by default, because the Mormons just were not going to be my friends, that’s just how it was. It gets different if they are not white, now we are both kind of experiencing what it is to be a person of color, which is a serious minority here in Utah. So, there is almost like this wanting to be together, but there is also this barrier of not being able to understand each other, and that prevailed for most of my life. We would hang out in class, but not hang outside of school. Outside of school I didn’t want to share my space with them, and they didn’t want to share their space with me. So, it was like we were suffering together but apart is the best way I can explain. And that went pretty much until I was 24.

At 24 I did this internship out in Arizona. The only other girl with me was a Mexican, 1st generation Mormon, which kind of forced me to decide whether or not this was a friendship I was going to pursue, which that had never happened before. I always defaulted to, we are not going to be friends, we will be co-workers at best. And spending that summer with her really challenged me in deciding what kind of connections I wanted and what I was willing to overlook. And I also really wanted to understand her and all the people I grew up with, with their Black or Hispanic identity, and why we could never mesh. I just wanted to finally understand what it is, why we can’t connect no matter how hard I tried, and now why I would even bother to try. Because there are basic differences between us.”

Sarah: “There is something, some kind of trauma from being in a bubble that doesn’t quite accept you.”

Raquel: “Definitely. Now I have a lot of former Mormon friends, current Mormon friends, and I am proud of saying they are my friends. Because before I was very standoffish towards them.”

Sarah: “That was probably the result of being rejected, like self-protection.”

Raquel: “Ya, so I was like, well I can do it too. So, most of my life and I moved only within non-Mormon circles in Utah. I could go months without talking to a Mormon member, because of how effective I was at it. I was like, this is what I am going to do, and there is nothing that is going to break this pattern. My two LDS friends were not active, and now are active. So, it has been interesting for me to experience them becoming more spiritual. We are good enough friends with years of friendship, it took a long time for me to call them friends, that I can tell them, ‘You are not actually going to think that way, are you?’ It has been good seeing their rationales and where they are coming from, and why they have gone back.

One friend lost her mother, and she wants to be with her mother in the afterlife. So, she is trying to make things right so that she can see her mother in the afterlife. To me that is really cruel. Who are these people to say she wouldn’t be with her mother? So, it has been a lot of tongue biting on my end. But if it makes her happy it makes her happy. The other friend went back when she became pregnant, because she too wanted the eternal family, even though she had all the same negative experiences I did in regard to race here in Utah, for her it was the only religion she knows. So, it was the only way she was going to restore or keep her family together.”

Sarah: “That is one of the things where I like making space for Mormons, or any religion, because you never know what emotionally an individual is going through. If that is what helps them process, it is less about fact to me and more about just where they feel comfortable processing.”

Raquel: “Yep. Absolutely. I get it to some point. I grew up Catholic. So, I know the history, the racism, the killing, the sexism, the child sexual abuse. Those weren’t things I was ever sheltered from in my family. So, I get it, I get why people can’t leave, especially if it was how you were raised. Here in Utah Mormonism is in everything, so it would be hard to tell someone who is comfortable with it to leave it all. I don’t hold it against them. Grief does some crazy things to people, and so does family.”

Sarah: “Some of why I keep speaking out is because it is one thing to state beliefs about God, it is one thing to state beliefs about what they think is going to happen in the next life, those to me are beliefs. But then they get wrapped up in factual history of Native Americans and that is not about beliefs, now they are messing with history, and it is inaccurate, it is racist, and it is manifest destiny. Retract it, apologize, and move on.”

Raquel: “Absolutely, you can’t be traveling in this lie. It’s mind blowing. I didn’t know what they (Mormons) taught growing up. I didn’t know that this was the kind of stuff that my friends of color that were LDS were suffering through. I didn’t get it. Why there was such a strong rejection towards Latin culture. Not so much with Pacific Islanders, there is still a pretty good embrace of it. I didn’t understand all this growing up though. I didn’t understand that there was a hierarchy with minorities either within the church. White people at the top, brown – depending on what culture varies in the middle, and then Black people were at the bottom. For me it was confusing. So, I am a quarter Black, a quarter Hispanic, I am a quarter Polynesian, and I am a quarter Puerto Rican. I was very blessed that my family never made me choose, I never had to choose; I was all of them. I can cook all the foods, I am fluent in Spanish, I dance Salsa, I dance Hula. I never had to choose; it was more whatever we wanted to be. And because of that my siblings and I identify differently. My brother identifies Black because that is all he is ever seen as. My sister is Latina, and I identify Polynesian. The racial hierarchy confused me, because I would be embraced when I said I was Hawaiian, but once I said I was a quarter Black it was over. They would tell me, ‘Oh, well, you are mostly Hawaiian.’ And I was like, ‘No, I am a quarter Black. Just as much.’ It still happens now when people at work ask what my ethnicity is, everyone wants to grab onto Hawaiian. No one ever wants to say I am Black except for Black people.”

Sarah: “I can relate. I am half Tsimshian and half Irish. But I was always seen as ethnic or other, though people couldn’t always place me. Once they knew I was Native American that is all they saw. My experience was and is Indigenous. Plus, I really connected and was accepted by that side of my family, it was home to me, which really solidified my identity. It was more like my Tsimshian family claimed me. As a member of course I was also told I was Lamanite. Interestingly, depending on the time of the year I was treated differently too. During the summer I get really dark, and by the end of winter I get light. The darker I got, there were noticeable changes in the interactions I had at church.”

Raquel: “When I first stumbled across the word Lamanite and researched it, that they came from Jerusalem, I was like no. I had already gone through my own awakening, cultural and background research with my lineage, and I knew it was wrong. I started looking for literature and bumped into the podcast Mormon Stories. I stayed to the end and when he talked about your website, I went and checked it out. This was at the time when one of my friends who is a member, and there was this low self-esteem I couldn’t put my finger on, and I just wanted to understand her. I love my friend, and so I started trying to understand her experience. Some of the things you said really resonated with the experiences I had with her. She didn’t want to talk about her Mexican heritage, and she would get embarrassed when she would get darker than me. She would say, ‘I’m not black, I don’t know why I am darker than you.’ I just couldn’t understand. I thought maybe she just hadn’t found herself yet, but it was so intertwined with her religion.”

Sarah: “It is intense. And then you add patriarchy to that, and women of color then have a slightly different experience than the men of color. All of that can add to self-doubt.”

(Raquel and I continued talking about life, experiences, and friends. Then we started talking about history and manifest destiny. Below is part of that conversation.)

Raquel: “For a while I thought, well, it is everywhere (colonization). So, I thought that it was supposed to have happened. And I felt that way until I was about 13 years old. Then I went to jr. high, and I met a lot of other non-Mormons. They just happened to also be brown, and they were very proud of their cultures. They challenged me about where I was from, and it wasn’t just brushed off like it usually was with the Mormons. Meeting these new friends made me start wanting to understand why I wasn’t accepted, and why me and my siblings were ostracized for being dark. Most of the Polynesians in Utah were Mormon, and they only wanted to make me feel bad. But what I didn’t understand at the time was that they were being rejected by people too.

My siblings and I are so close. A lot of times we were our only friends. I never went to a birthday party in elementary school, I was just not invited or included. It was the same for my sister. For my brother it was a little different, because he was a male, and he was athletic. But for my sister and I we were always going to be last picked. So, I was like, you know what, I can reject you just as bad. And I pretty much lived that way from about 14 years old to 24 years old. And then having a friend in my internship kind of made me challenge myself about who I was. I knew what it was to be isolated, but I never wanted to make someone else feel like that. Once I realized I was doing it subconsciously, I just kind of had to face the music. I had to ask myself why I didn’t like her, was it just because she was Mormon? Isn’t that a little bit discriminatory? And I was like ya, a little bit. Because I liked everything else about her.”

Sarah: “It also comes down to how they act. You can tell when someone is going to reject you for not being Mormon, or when they are going to love you regardless. You have to figure it out, and also protect yourself. I don’t fault you for not being willing to put yourself out there when you were young.”

Raquel: “Ya, sometimes it is the total rejection. And for me it was looking inward and realizing I wasn’t who I wanted to be, and just having to break habits. Fear for me was, I don’t know if you have experienced this, but you are almost used as an excuse to be racist. People would say, oh, I am friends with Raquel, and this was to prove that they were open minded and not a racist. Or someone saying their brother married a brown girl, so their family wasn’t racist. But they didn’t understand why that doesn’t work. I just didn’t want to be used as an excuse to prove they weren’t racist.”

(Our conversation continued on that topic for a bit, not going to include all of it in this post. However, I would like to add that using a spouse, friend, or family members brown or black body to prove you are not a racist is an unacceptable way to prove one isn’t racist. Please do not use their bodies for proof, use personal actions and don’t be afraid to educate yourself. Even though I experienced racism, I too have had to deconstruct and learn so much myself. When we know better, we do better.)

Sarah: “How did you feel about your ancestry being replaced with Lamanite identity?”

Raquel: “Mixed bag, I didn’t grow up with this knowledge. I didn’t find out until I was probably 24 going on 25. It was kind of like a succor punch. I was so surprised, then I was very angry, and I felt a little violated. Because by then I had already constructed my own identity away from European Christian values. And finding out there was this other narrative of who I am was disappointing. Especially since I was already struggling with if I wanted to have Mormon friends, and finding out this information made me not want to share anything about myself.

It’s almost like the reverse of the noble savage, it takes away the complexity and humanity that our ancestors had. In this case I’m the noble savage which makes us super nice and incapable of fighting and one with nature, and this is why we lost, because we were these weaklings, which is this general narrative that a lot of Christians like to paint, that we just didn’t have a chance, which is not true, we fought like hell. The Lamanite identity paints the reverse (of the noble savage) right. You were wrong, and you had all these terrible characteristics about you, and because of this all your blessings were taken away.

So, it oversimplifies who we were historically. We were good and bad, we had complicated histories. We were capable of being conquerors, capable of being weak, capable of creating beautiful things while at the same time doing terrible things. Because we are human, and our history isn’t any different than European, or African, or Asian, and I think a lot of people really want to make natives mystical. Either the big, dark shadow looming to ruin your life, or this pure entity that needs to be protected, but it’s gone extinct because it is almost too pure.

It (Lamanite identity) definitely is a tool of colonialism. The Romans did very similar things with the Irish and the Scottish when they first came to the British Isles and the Welsh. They spun a story on how they also were descendants from those areas, and also had a rightful claim for it, so therefore there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.

And being Catholic, being very aware of how manifest destiny has played out. And the worship to people like Columbus, Amerigo, and etc. I know that these false narratives of Native peoples make it more palatable, it makes it easier for people to come to terms that their ancestors directly contributed a genocide of people, to ethnocide, to religious oppression, sexual oppression, and this was willingly done for the sake of being more powerful. Very little to do with Christ, very little to do with God, but it is used and twisted in whatever way is needed.

It doesn’t matter what your doctrine may say, though in this case in kind of does. Or it doesn’t matter what you think you believe in. Power, money, and land is going to win out above and kind of religious piety. Mormonism is still very much in a state of colonialism. They are still trying to colonize. You are not really going to help someone if you have already determined they are cursed or less than before they were even born simply on the way they look. That is not spreading any kind of love I am aware of. You very much already have a second agenda, and that is to subjugate them and put them under you. And a success story for imperial behavior and colonialism is to have your oppressed subjects believe that they are where they are at because they deserve it.

It will be interesting to how many people will still fall into it, or if we have learned from our past – that outsiders come in to tell you who are so they can steal your land, steal your culture, then appropriate it and make it sound as if it was always theirs to begin with. And it is a scary thought especially in the Polynesian community where things that were sacred to us, things that we practiced, are now being shared, but not shared in the sense of increasing community, but shared in the sense that it now belongs to them. Somehow it is not ours anymore and you see that a lot in Hawaii. It can be kind of painful.

It can be in a sense that, they use the Aloha spirit against us. Aloha is not just hello or I love you, an acknowledgment of life, but when we try to uprise or push back the question is, ‘Where is your aloha spirit? I thought you guys were a loving people.’ And that once again takes away our humanity and our ability to think for ourselves. Because now we are painted into this holy otherworldly spirit being incapable of fighting.”

We went on to talk for a few more minutes, but I want to end here. This is so similar to the good Lamanite vs bad Lamanite experience within the church. Raquel’s wisdom and words will stay with me.

I want to thank Raquel for her vulnerability, courage, and compassion. And last, I want to thank her for sharing her childhood experience, her love for her Mormon friends, and her awakening with wanting to challenge herself in her interactions.

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