When I speak about growing up with my family, I often refer to being raised in a “Catholic ghetto.” I use the term not to imply any economic deprivation. That was not the case. Rather, my siblings and I were brought up in an intensely Catholic environment, the likes of which are hard to imagine today.
From the perspective of a young boy, I assumed there were two kinds of people in the world: Catholics and non-Catholics. As a family we only associated with Catholics: parishioners from the parish, families from the parish school and a large, extended family which was all Catholic. We knew some of our neighbors. We tended to know the Catholic neighbors better.
My parents were very directive about our identity. We were proud of being Mexican and Catholic. Regarding the former, one of my parents’ regrets in rearing us was their failure to teach us all Spanish. (One other brother and I are the only two of the seven children who learned the language.) This was not from a lack of trying. I remember many quiet meals when my mother insisted that we only speak Spanish at the table. I think my father preferred the silence.
My parents had almost complete control of the media in the house. There was one television and one stereo that played records and had a radio. When we were older, a transistor radio had the status that an iPhone has today, especially during the World Series. Radio at that time was mostly AM. (A little Southern California trivia: During recess or after school, we would listen to the Charlie Tuna, the Real Don Steele, and Humble Harve on KHJ, “Boss Radio.” Today the station is the Catholic radio station in Los Angeles.)
All of this created an environment where my parents had a veto over most of what was heard or watched in the house. Sunday evenings, if we were not visiting relatives, was spent watching television: bullfights from Tijuana, The Lawrence Welk Show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and the Wonderful World of Disney.
Playground conversation was the avenue for other influences: talk about different styles of clothes, Rock and Roll, new hair styles, and vocabulary: “groovy,” “cool,” “so rad,” “so boss.” etc., including words not fit for this periodical. Upon returning home, much of these influences had to be left at the door. Not that there was much of a distinction between school and home. There was actually much rhythm and rhyme between the two, especially with regards to the habitual practice of the faith. My parents were still the primary arbiters for styles, haircuts, music and language in the home. With the changing times they would show some aesthetic flexibility, but their role regarding how “cool” we were going to be was unquestionable. We all survived the shifting cultural fashions more or less.
Now, as I have watched my siblings take on their roles of parents, uncles, aunts and godparents for my nieces and nephews, I did not envy the social environmental challenges they faced which are much more formidable than those our own parents had to navigate. The exponential exposure to media and messages is way beyond what we could have imagined in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That the younger generation of my family is still largely practicing the faith is something for which I sincerely admire my siblings. Together with their spouses, they each tried to provide what our parents provided to us, a Catholic family environment. It was not quite the insular, cocoon experience we knew growing up. That was just not possible.
As I consider what was constant and consistent over two generations of the family, I’m convinced it had more to do with what we were provided than a matter of how we were protected. Most of our social and religious activities were with the family and the parish community. In many ways the social activities overlapped with the religious. My parents seldom spoke explicitly about the faith, but my siblings and I had no doubt they were religious people.
I do not recall my father expounding on the Third Commandment, “Keep holy the Lord’s Day.” In fact, my brothers and I regularly tried to make the case that chores in the house or the yard done on Sunday were not in keeping with the Third Commandment. My father did not see it that way. Yet we were always together as a family on that day. Sunday breakfast and Sunday dinner were almost as obligatory as Sunday Mass.
The other house rule on Sunday: We listened to my father’s music. He would bring out old 76 rpm records to play Los Panchos, Eydie Gormé and others. He never took a liking to Rock and Roll but when the rock singer, Linda Ronstadt, produced a Spanish-speaking record entitled Canciones de mi Padre (“Songs of My Father”), that became the default soundtrack for Sunday.
Besides the Sunday meals, we had dinner together every night. There were many other routines and daily rituals that my parents fostered in our home, but the daily evening meal was probably the most influential family moment during the time my siblings and I were growing up under the care of Oscar and Gloria Soto.
Before the time of text messages, emails, Facebook and other social media apps, the regular family meal was the daily tether that kept us connected to one another. Even when we were going through the non-talkative phases of adolescence, my mother’s telepathic skills could read a face, translate a shrug and decipher the silent code.
The Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, cited Psalm 128, “Your children are like young olive plants around your table.” He elaborated on the text saying:
"A family’s living space could turn into a domestic church, a setting for the Eucharist, the presence of Christ seated at its table. We can never forget the image found in the Book of Revelation, where the Lord says: 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me' (Rev 3:20). Here we see a home filled with the presence of God, common prayer and every blessing. This is the meaning of the conclusion of Psalm 128, which we cited above: 'Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion!'” (Ps 128:4-5). (AL n.14-15).
As we reflect on creating a safer environment for our children both in the church as well as the home, let us be more mindful of what we provide them through Christ our Lord.