I love to dance. Specifically, I love to dance salsa and merengue. I’ve been dancing for as long as I can remember. It’s a form of self-care and healing for me, and I’ve spent many nights dancing alone in my bedroom. (It’s not as sad it sounds, I swear.)
This love of dance comes from my family. I was always my mother’s dance partner at our family parties, and from a young age, my dad instilled in me a love for salsa, exposing me to the giants of the genre like Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, and of course, my queen, Celia Cruz.
I didn’t learn all of the formal steps until this last year, actually, when I was given a brief salsa lesson in addition to instructions for a protest that I was a part of. I was participating in a "Salsa Shutdown" organized by Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant-led organization that is working for the permanent protection of undocumented people in this country. The Salsa Shutdown was a means of showing the consumer power of immigrants.
Hundreds of people walked into Primark and TJ Maxx in Downtown Crossing, packed their show floors, and danced, thereby preventing consumers from purchasing anything. We were angry. We were ready to fight. We were also scared and tense because within minutes the police showed up and urged us to leave. But we were also happy. We were laughing and having fun, dancing with each other. Some of the customers and employees danced with us, and they had a good time. More importantly, they took our flyers and signed our pledges to stand and protect immigrants in this hostile political climate.
For me this was a confirmation of a personal spiritual belief: joy is a potent form of resistance against oppression.
This is something I know intimately as a queer Latino. For all the pain we suffer, for all the trauma we carry in our bodies, marginalized people have powerful capacities for joy. You can see this in our art, in our music, in our gatherings. We cultivate this happiness because it is one of the most powerful ways to carry on and keep living.
The joy of marginalized people, unfortunately, is often a cause for suspicion or mockery. For example, Black and Brown teenagers are often viewed with contempt or fear just for walking down the street, laughing with their friends. The cultural celebrations of Latinx people are often culturally appropriated or made fun of by people in this country. We see these things happening, we notice these unspoken accusations, and yet we keep living. We keep laughing. We keep dancing, because we’ve always continued to dance.
Followers of John the Baptist ask Jesus, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” and Jesus, paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah, says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus says, tell John of the joy that is being born in people’s hearts. Look out into the world and see what new wonders God is working.
The coming of the Savior was the coming of a long-awaited end to oppression and suffering. We know all too well, though, that the same joy Jesus brought gave way to suspicion, mockery, and death on a cross.
Why is the joy of some people a cause of suspicion for others? I’ll tell you: the joy of the oppressed upsets power. It shows resilience. It shows strength. And to the powers and principalities of this world, that is terrifying. We can see this in Mary’s Magnificat.
Here is a young brown Jewish woman radically proclaiming joy and upheaval in the same breath:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant . . .
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”
For us as Christians, we read this as an anthem of praise, but for the powers that be, it is a declaration of sedition and rebellion. I read these words often, because this is the joy I want to cultivate every single day of my life as a queer, brown Christian.
I want to tap in to this joy every day because it is hard for me to be joyous right now. Maybe you also feel this way. I wake up and scroll through the news, and inevitably, there is some new political turmoil, some new tragedy, some new terrifying fact. There is also the constant racism and homophobia I deal with personally every day. Yet I know that fear and hate will not have the final word.
I know this because even after watching her own Son die on a cross, Mary saw him rise again.
If you’re having a hard time finding joy and hope these days, know that you're not alone. I urge you. Look for the moments where you’ve seen God working in the world and in your own life. Let those moments be the joy that keeps you working for a better world, bringing hope to others.
We are called to proclaim the greatness of our Lord, we are called to shout for joy. That may be hard right now, but fear will not have the last word. Keep the faith. Keep fighting. And most importantly, keep dancing.