On Saturday afternoons, my son Michael does volunteer work at a hospital in Brick, NJ, an area that was hit badly by Hurricane Sandy. This past Saturday, my son asked if we could eat supper in Brick, after he was done at the hospital, and he asked if we could have Mexican food. It just so happens that we always pass a small Mexican restaurant in Brick, called Mexico Lindo.
The place looked a little rough around the edges, but we went in anyway. We were greeted by a vivacious woman told me that they were having a surprise birthday party for her daughter's 24th birthday. In Spanish, she told an elderly woman with a small child who were seated at a particular table to move to another so that we could be seated there. It turns out the woman was her mother. I felt awful that we were usurping them, and I apologized.
My son and I were the only paying customers. The others were there for the party--the birthday girl hadn't arrived yet, and family and friends kept arriving in advance of the surprise. There were balloons all over, and several of the guys were drinking Coronas. The girls were all talking, smiling, and clearly enjoying the warmth of familiar company.
No one seemed to mind that my son and I were present. The menu was a mystery of things Mexican, most of which neither my son nor I had never heard of before. The salsa sauce that came with the freebie taco chips sang and danced with joyous flavor. I know what fresh cilantro tastes like because we grow it in our backyard-- and this was fresher than any that I had ever tasted. The chile itself, or whatever, was awesomely flavorful. It only served to stoke our appetite in anticipation of what was to come, and we were not disappointed. From the menu, we picked at random, huaraches for an appetizer, a chimichanga, and taquitos. Overall, the appetizer and main dishes were a memorable eating experience. My son and I were both struck by how good the re-fried beans were. My son loved the red rice.
Look--I know it was a birthday party--but as I looked and listened and absorbed the atmosphere, I could not but see and hear that these people--in this town that is just beginning to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy--were all happy and joyous.
And I'm thinking that these people are probably all Catholics, like myself. And I know intellectually--because we study this stuff in the Communion and Liberation Movement and in C.S. Lewis, etc.--that Christians are supposed to be joyous. But most Catholics that I know (of Irish/German/Italian/Polish extraction) including myself, are more often miserable creatures. At the birthday party, it dawned on me that this is what Christian joy looks like.
These Mexican-American Catholics have something important to teach us repressed Irish-American Catholics. After I went home, I thought to myself, if this is what Mexican culture looks like, then sign me up.