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Guest commentary: A tale of 2 cultures connected by tragedy
Local churchs shared grief after Newtown horror was eye-opening experience, uniquely American
A view of the hills overlooking Guanajuato, Mexico. - photo by Sidney O. Smith III

“We’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about who are terrific people, they’re terrific people ...” — President-elect Donald Trump, “60 Minutes” interview, Nov. 13, 2016

When President Trump said those words about the terrific people from south of the Rio Grande, I found myself staying in a working-class neighborhood in the hills overlooking Guanajuato, Mexico.

Guanajuato is a city of approximately 172,000 people in north central Mexico. Surrounded by hills, it has historic plazas, winding streets and narrow alleys, all saturated in bright colors. It is considered the heart of Mexican culture as home to the 1820 revolution and birthplace of muralist Diego Rivera, who married artist Frida Kahlo.

While I mulled over the president’s comment about “terrific people,” I was sitting at a patio atop an apartment building with a grand view of Guanajuato. A memory broke into my consciousness so abruptly and so pronounced I decided to share it. It perhaps makes the point I hope President Trump was making.

This memory was so powerful it took my thoughts away from the view of Guanajuato and instead took me to recollections of an event in Gainesville, located in a congressional district known as the “reddest East of the Mississippi.” It sent me back to December 2012, when an enormous tragedy occurred in the United States — the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a 20-year-old murdered 26 people, including 20 children ages 6 and 7.

The massacre pierced the heart of all Americans from all regions and points on the political spectrum. It was a shared grief that plunged our nation into a collective mind-splitting despair. If you are of the American spirit and the American dream, you felt the pain.

I was in Gainesville at the time and found out Monsignor Jaime Barona of St. Michael Catholic Church announced he would have a memorial prayer service for the murdered children. The memorial service was to take place late Sunday afternoon following the massacre.

Though I was not active in any church, and for reasons at the time I could not quite articulate, I felt an urge to attend the memorial service. Perhaps I thought it would help me process the senselessness of the tragedy. I suppose it also was part out of curiosity and in part to observe the service.

Now, all these years later, when I found myself in Guanajuato, I came to realize how deeply the service impacted me. Now, all these years later, I understand why.

The church was packed when I entered, and I sat in one of the back pews. I looked around and immediately noticed two things.

First, Monsignor Barona had found photos of the children, perhaps class photos. He enlarged them and lined them in front of the altar. Photos of these smiling children brought the heartbreak to the forefront.

Above the altar, as you will find in all Catholic churches, was a crucifix. The one at St. Michael is quite large, so there was Christ hanging on the cross, looking down on the pain of a horrendous tragedy.

Second — and this is the crux of the memory — when I looked around at the people attending the service, at least 70 percent, maybe more, were Hispanic, and I am guessing the vast majority were immigrants from Mexico.

I found myself in a scene I now see as particularly American: a church full of immigrants grieving and praying for other Americans. And it is important to note the vast majority of the murdered children were not Hispanic.

The impact of what was essentially an immigrant-led service does not stop there. As I was later to find out, Monsignor Barona was born in Colombia but as a young man grew up in Montreal, as his parents were in the diplomatic corps. His mother was from France and his father from Spain (and he speaks three languages). So an immigrant led other immigrants in prayer over murdered American children.

I found Monsignor Barona’s background particularly poignant because, as I have discovered, he constantly stresses to the immigrant community the beauty of Gainesville and of the United States and how grateful we should all be. And he emphasizes to the immigrant community the importance of learning English and the importance of the U.S. flag (which I noticed was on display to the left of the altar). You do not read about this kind of leadership in the mainstream media, left or right.

During the service, it suddenly dawned on me that I was observing not only a religious service but also something closely akin to an essentially American experience. Stretching back to the beginning of our nation, when immigrants from England poured on these shores for many of the same reasons that led those from south of the Rio Grande to El Norte, immigrants have sought to become part of the American way of life.

As an example of this experience, the critically-acclaimed 2013 film about Polish immigrants arriving at Staten Island, N.Y., in the early 20th century, appropriately titled “The Immigrant,” tells another version of this ongoing national experiment. It is one constantly unfolding on our shores and giving our nation a unique energy. (And it is worth noting a studio executive quashed the film in the U.S. market, at least according to Wiki, because he disagreed with an ending one can only call redemptive. Tells you something about Hollywood).

When I write about this service at St. Michael, I do not want you to think I am unaware of problems facing the United States as well as Latin America. Drug cartels that exist to satiate a $60 billion a year addiction to illegal narcotics in the U.S. pose a threat to those both south and north of the Rio Grande. The drug cartels spawn violence on par with that committed by jihadists of the Islamic State, but more chaotic. Make no mistake, there are killing fields where cartel members have kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent men, women  and children in Mexico and Latin America.

The odds are increasing that the power of the cartels may hurl Mexico into a failed state, leaving more innocent people trapped in their horror. There is a probability a member of a drug gang or one of the Mexican cartels lives fairly close to you.

I recommend the work of foreign correspondent Ioan Grillo if you want a deeper understanding of the danger posed by drug cartels. Perhaps visit his website, In my opinion, you can trust his work in a time when those of the mainstream media have lost all credibility, and deservedly so.

But when I think of the killing fields in Mexico and Latin America, I also think of these immigrants at St. Michael praying for murdered American children and clearly showing they are part of the American spirit and part of the American dream. They felt the American pain as deeply as anyone and therefore they are what President Trump refers to as “terrific people.”

That was the memory that came to my mind while watching the sun set over beautiful Guanajuato.

Sidney O. Smith III is a Gainesville native who recently traveled to Mexico to learn more about its culture.