Trials teach immigrant family to lean on each other

| Bridget Ryder for The Catholic Spirit | July 14, 2015 | 0 Comments
From left, Maria, Jimena, Mariana, Santiago, Josue and Patricio Pena play a game in the living room of their home in south Minneapolis. They belong to Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in south Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

From left, Maria, Jimena, Mariana, Santiago, Josue and Patricio Pena play a game in the living room of their home in south Minneapolis. They belong to Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in south Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When Patricio Peña and Enriqueta Alfaro came to the United States 16 years ago, they didn’t expect to find a new home, a new family and a new vocation in the Church.

“We only planned to stay for two years,” Peña said, “but God had other plans. Now, he won’t let us go back.”

Through their 15 years of service and ministry to other Latinos in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Peña and Alfaro have raised not only their own family of four children — Jimena, 13, Jose, 11, Mariana, 9, and Santiago, 4, — but also a wider family in the Church.

Estela Villagrán Manancero, director of Latino ministry for the archdiocese, said in Hispanic culture, family includes not only parents, children and grandchildren, but also aunts, uncles and cousins. When Latinos immigrate to the United States, they often lose the support of this network, but many find a new family in the Church. She has known Peña and Alfaro for more than 15 years and sees them as leaders in building the church community, both by their example and their service. Peña and Alfaro are parishioners of Sagrado Corazón de Jesus in Minneapolis.

Manancero points to the married couple’s years of leading marriage retreats and Peña’s involvement in Latino ministry at the diocesan level, where he has long been part of the Latino Ministry leadership team. A graduate of the archdiocese’s Pastoral Leadership Institute, he also teaches in the program.

“He so loving. He takes it very seriously, always volunteering his time and his talent for the well-being of the community,” Manancero said of Peña’s qualities as a teacher.

Peña is also part of the first Latino cohort for the Certificate in Lay Ministry offered through the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Manancero said it is the first program in the country to offer the program in Spanish with Latino professors.

Peña’s latest role as coordinator of Latino ministry at Assumption in Richfield, a part-time position he does in addition to his day job, is his first paid position in the Church.

Though Peña has a more visible role, he doesn’t think of his service as volunteer work or a job; rather, he sees it as part of family life.

“We realized that we are part of people’s lives. This is something my spouse and I live together,” he said.

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A new family

Peña and Alfaro found a new family in the Church through the same experience of immigration as many other Latinos. Shortly after their wedding in 1996, the couple left San Elias, a small town in Guanajuato, Mexico, and came to United States with a plan: stay for two years, save enough money to build a home back in Mexico, and then return across the Rio Grande to settle down. They went first to Atlanta, but things didn’t work out as they had hoped. After a few difficult years, they came to Minneapolis.

In the Twin Cities, Peña, trained as an accountant in Mexico, found work in the construction industry and learned carpentry. As they settled in, the couple also realized that Rene, Peña’s younger brother by several years who was living with them, had become involved with a cultish sect. In hindsight, Peña realizes that his brother fell in with dangerous people because he, too, was looking for a supportive community. Fortunately, Peña and Alfaro had already joined St. Stephen in Minneapolis. Peña remembered hearing about a Cursillo retreat offered through the parish and decided to sign up.

“I went on this retreat to pray for him, that he would realize what he was doing. It was tremendous because it was I who encountered the Lord on this retreat. It completely changed my life,” Peña said.

The retreat left him not only confident that his brother would one day return to the Church, but also hungry to grow in his faith. Lead by Peña’s eagerness, the couple joined a charismatic prayer group, where they met Manancero. Peña took any opportunity to learn and serve. Soon, Church activities and outreach to other families filled their free time.

“Before we had the children, we were visiting families every day,” Peña said. “We went through a crisis as [a] couple. Before, it was tranquil; we went to Mass and then had the rest of the day to ourselves. Now, one was running really fast without noticing that you have a partner.”

Despite their shared faith, it strained their marriage. Before the retreat, Alfaro had been the one who insisted they go to Sunday Mass. She also participated in monthly adoration and served as a eucharistic minister. Peña’s pastor advised him to slow down and run at a pace that Alfaro could keep up with. Working in harmony with his spouse, he found he had a greater capacity for ministry.

“She is my palanque,” Peña said, using the Spanish for “lever.” With Alfaro’s support, Peña said he’s able to lift up others through ministry. He also recognizes that Alfaro plays her own important role — she’s gentle and listens to others.

“People want to tell her their problems, and this helps them get harmful feelings out of their hearts,” he said.

Marriage, ministry and vocation

Serving in the Church also strengthened their own marriage. Within their first months in Minneapolis, the couple was asked to help with the marriage preparation at the parish. Though they were already living it, teaching about marriage became a catalyst for improving their own relationship.

“Our marriage class in Mexico was one hour. We didn’t know anything about marriage,” Peña said. “When we learned that God had to be the center of our life and our marriage, that changes how you live. God is a family, too.”

They also grew from putting into practice their talk on how a person’s experience in their own family can influence their marriage.

“Our family has to be a new start. We have to let go of the past and start a new life with the Lord,” Peña said.

Peña and Alfaro talked with each other about their family experiences growing up. Alfaro missed her father’s presence since he worked in the United States to support his family. When she was 12, her mother died, forcing her and her siblings to be split among relatives. Peña, too, lacked a father figure in his home; his mother supported the family. Discussing their upbringing helped the couple to understand one another.

“I didn’t know my wife until I got married,” Peña said.

Communication also helped them begin on a fresh page with each other and their own children.

“We have to teach our children new things,” Peña said. “It was a process, but I think our past affects us much less now.”

Part of a family

Economic challenges, another common concern for Latino families, according to Manancero, tested the strength of their family. In 2010, at the height of the financial crisis, Peña was laid off. The closest place he could find work was Denver.

“It was a very difficult thing,” he said of leaving his family for long periods until he found a steady job again in the Twin Cities in 2013. “As immigrants we know what it means to leave family. But I never imagined leaving my immediate family here in this country.”

Nevertheless, they felt God’s grace and a stronger love that came out of the pain of absence.

“Santiago came from this separation. He was like a gift in our crisis,” Peña said of their youngest son.

They also felt the support of the church community during those hard years. They realized how well they had built both their own family and their extended family.

“When crisis comes, you see the strength of your family,” Peña said.

When his children are older, Peña hopes to enter the diaconate. Most of Alfaro’s time is devoted to raising their four children, though she and Peña are still a team for the Church.

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