I was born in Philadelphia, but Montebello is my spiritual home. [1] I’ve lived in other places too, but East L.A. is where I learned to navigate cultural space and to learn the language of belonging.

For non-native English speakers, there are words in the heart-language for which English has no substitute.

There are certain feelings and concepts, that are irreplaceable even for me, as a second-generation Konglish speaking son of America. [2]

I learned the meaning of mijo with my soul long before I cognitively learned that mi hijo means “my son.” I was 현식 at home and mijo everywhere else. And to me, they were synonymous, in a way that my English name could never be.

As part of my inheritance, I’ve learned to cherish these words. More and more, I am learning these words are also my future.

Last week, I added one more to my list.

Describing the working conditions of migrant workers in the early twentieth century, Ronald Takaki notes the special place of that the barrio. [3] Though considered squalid and undignified, these humble communities provided an oasis for the weary men and women who sought a better life in El Norte.

In the barrio, asistencia was the practice of providing food and shelter to migrants out of one’s own experience of need. Families would house newly arrived workers, connecting them to job opportunities, and filling their hungry bellies with the soul food of their homeland without the expectation of immediate payment. Everyone in the barrio knew what it was like to have nothing in a strange land. Everyone in the barrio knew what it was like to be neglected, unfairly compensated, and spat upon.

The asistencia of the barrio was their claim to each other.

I was sitting on my couch, reading these words, hungry and dreaming of tamales and menudo when a knock came at my door. My neighbor was standing at my doorstep, holding a pot of pozole (pictured above). I did not ask for it. Rather, it was given when it was needed.

It was the Hebrew manna from heaven. It was my asistencia.

There is a passage of Scripture that’s quoted often—“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” For the empowered, this is a beautiful song. But there are many moments, like the ones that have filled my recent days that I have not quite felt the power of that promise.

In those moments I think about the asistencia of my Korean mother who never let me leave home empty-handed, insisting that I take the bags of fruit and clothing that I didn’t ask for, but were always prepared for me. I think of the asistencia of my Mexican neighbor and his pozole. I think of the gift of lemons from my Vietnamese co-worker from her tree. I think of the asistencia of my very Middle-Eastern Jesus who gave me himself before time itself began.

And as it goes, my mind is taken to another Scripture, where, after an encounter with Jesus, it was said of a woman—she loved much, for she was forgiven much.

Our true capacity to be generous begins not out of our abundance, but in our experience of need. When we receive, our imagination for what can be given is expanded.

No act of generosity is too small when it extends the language of belonging to another and no greater gift than the gift of being seen.

Give freely.

[1] If you’ve ever asked me where I’m from and pressed me for details beyond “the LA area,” chances are that my answer was “Pasadena.” Not only is it more recognizable on account of the Rose Parade, but given the choice between Montebello and Pasadena, I’ve found that the latter actually elicits smiles. But that’s another story for another day.

[2] 답답하다 is one.

[3] Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror.