When I am in San Antonio, I often feel like an "Observer" from the TV show Fringe. I am not walking around in a black suit and hat, but I get spotted pretty quickly as not really being from here anymore.
Folks stop me, talk to me with curiosity, not like when a taxi driver in the N.E. asks: "Where are you from?" Which is shorthand for I can't figure out where someone who looks like you comes from. This is when a paisano knows you are a member of the tribe, but sees something different about you. They know you have a good story to tell and they want to hear it. They want to know what's so special about living "en el Norte."
It happened today at San Fernando Cathedral as I got to Mass at the stroke of 12 noon and found a packed church, almost nowhere to sit. I spotted a seat up front next to one of the many faithful viejitas. She must have been in her mid-80s, she was immaculately put together, nails done, big rock on her finger, lipstick (modest shade), hair coifed, colorful scarf covering her head. My viejita was by herself, she had a cane with a silver ornamental handle and she steadied herself by sitting next to a pillar and using it to help raise and seat herself.
I began to offer her my help to stand and sit during Mass, I spoke to her in Spanish, but she answered me in English: "thank you," she said. She was probably Tejana born, but she wanted me to know that just because she spoke Spanish, didn't mean she didn't also speak English. From the corner of her eye she must have assessed that I was probably an anglicized paisano -- you don't easily fool viejitas.
It was hard not to hear the Mass through her voice. She knew every prayer and warbled all the songs along with the choir, she raised both arms throughout the Mass to receive every ounce of the Holy Spirit. My viejita was in full prayer and communion with the Lord; I was grateful to be in her presence.
As I helped her stand and sit as directed by the Celebrant, I could feel that soft and lose wrinkly skin on her arm; it felt silky and holy. My viejita would ever so softly utter "Ah-men" and "que lindo" during the priest's homily--the priest, who was from India, spoke perfect Spanish; he was more one of them, than I was anymore. I basked in the kindness and courtesy I was constantly shown. A lady behind me pointed to a better seat on the other side of the Church, but I was happy sitting next to my viejita. An usher came over to offer me his handshake during the peace salutation, as did a 10-year old altar girl. Here no one feared the stranger, the stranger was welcomed by young and old.
The choir was set up directly opposite where I was sitting and I could hear and see their passion, their commitment to the music. The church was filled with children, newborns, infants, toddlers, teens, young adults. It was a multi-generational gathering that was for everyone present. I saw so many young children walk with their families to communion with their arms crossed over their chests, signaling to the priest that they had not yet received First Eucharist.
Mass quickly came to a close, the Mass officiants' processed out the main entrance leaving us alone with the choir's final song: "Las Mañanitas." I said "adios" to my viejita and she said "goodbye" to me. I left reminded of my identity and proud of the world I come from.