Growing up, my family was what I believe most Americans would consider to be “poor.” I didn’t know it at the time, but as I got older, I began to realize that many of the things we did weren’t exactly middle class. From standing in line to get government cheese and peanut butter, to working in the migrant farm fields after school and in the summer to help out with the costs of the family’s groceries, we did things differently than most of our neighbors.
I grew up living in a farmhouse with at least eleven people and only one bathroom. With regards to material possessions, we didn’t have much, but what we did have was each other. But not only did we have each other, we also had a bunch of cousins too! My Dad was the youngest of his four brothers who all immigrated from Mexico to Utah together. My Dad had nine kids, his oldest brother had six, the next brother had eleven, and the last one had five. So just between my Dad and his three brothers, there were thirty-one kids hanging out together!
What this meant was that every birthday, baptism, holiday, and weekend BBQ was a full-blown party. Who needs expensive toys when you have eight siblings and twenty-two cousins to play with?! Needless to say, what we lacked in financial wealth, we made up for in familia and hard work.
My Dad worked in a factory that built trailers for big 18-wheelers. Every day at lunch, he would set up a giant garbage bag in the break room and all the workers would throw their soda cans in it because they knew that my Dad would recycle the cans. What they probably didn’t know is that the money from those recycled cans would add up to a couple thousand dollars over the course of the year and that my family would use that money to pay for our annual, month long summer vacation back to my parents’ hometown in Mexico.
Now, when I say, “summer vacation,” I know some people think of going to their lake house in Tahoe or beach vacations in the Caribbean, but that’s not what I’m talking about. As a child, my family’s vacation consisted of my parents, my eight siblings and I, and at least one other relative piling into a station wagon and driving 1,800 miles to the mile high mountains of Central Mexico to visit my Grandma and just as many cousins from my Mom’s side of the family.
As one of my Dad’s siblings stayed in Mexico, it turns out that I have exactly thirty-one first-cousins on my Dad’s side and exactly thirty-one first-cousins on my Mom’s side. For comparison sake, I have sixty-two first-cousins and Bonnie has five.
Though we may have been considered poor in the U.S., it always felt like we were rich when we were on vacation in Mexico. The combination of an incredibly favorable exchange rate and my Mom’s willingness to loosen her purse strings, since we were on vacation, really expanded our opportunities. Family parties every night, a hired mariachi band to celebrate a birthday, day trips to waterparks, sleepovers at our cousins’ house, and several visits to the fair always made for a memorable stay. However, it wasn’t the spending or activities that made these times so memorable, it was that even though you may live 1,800 miles away from someone, in a different country, the fact that you have the same blood running through your veins makes for an unbreakable bond and unconditional acceptance. As such, we remain close with our cousins in Mexico to this day, and my parents have continued making this annual journey for the past fifty-five years.
Needless to say, it is my family that makes my heart beat. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know how I would have survived growing up in Utah. Being a poor, Mexican, Catholic in affluent, white, Mormon Utah made it ridiculously hard to fit in. Because my family was so large and close knit, it served as a refuge I could escape to. So, you can imagine my surprise when I was speaking with a colleague one day and we realized that we were both the youngest of nine children, and he asks me: “Do you still speak with all of your siblings?”
Speak with them?!
I literally live next door to two of my older brothers. I eat lunch at my elderly parents’ house every day. We have two family reunions each year, one in the summer and one at Christmas and everyone always makes it. We have a text group that everyone chats on a couple of times a week and I’m even close with my in-laws!
“Yeah, I speak with all of them. You?”
“No, not really” he said. I haven’t seen or spoken to my oldest brother in about five or six years.”
“Wow. If it weren’t for my family, I don’t where I’d be in life.” I replied.
My family, both immediate and extended, means everything to me as I’ve never experienced as much unconditional love and acceptance as I have from them. That’s not to say we agree on everything or we never fight, but more so that we quickly and humbly apologize and forgive unconditionally. Because, you know, that whole “same blood flowing through our veins, unbreakable bond” thing.
In addition to providing a safe place for an insecure little brown kid who never felt like he fit in, my family extends that same gift to everyone, whether you are a blood relative or not. From all of our best friends in high school, to our in-laws, coworkers, and neighbors, everyone is always welcome. In my family, you don’t need an invite and you don’t have to ask if you can bring a friend with you, all you have to do is show up. There is always more than enough food and drinks to go around.
Despite having been blessed with such an amazing sense of community throughout my life, I still spent the better part of a decade during my late teens and twenties chasing after the world’s definition of success. Since I didn’t grow up with many material possessions, I guess I figured that’s what was missing from my life. So off I went in search of degrees, status, titles, and all the material wealth that was available for the taking. Though I did a decent job of getting more than my fair share of it all, what I found through this exercise was that it was never enough, and it was never going to be enough.
Enough what, you may ask? Enough to fill the hole in my heart that was left when I moved away from my family.
When I was eighteen years old, I moved from Utah to California to go to college and claim that first trophy of status. Unfortunately, having grown up in such an extraordinary familial environment, I was immediately left with an emptiness and longing for community. Luckily, I met up with the NAKs (Nu Alpha Kappa), a Latino fraternity that embodied all the familia and brotherhood that a guy could ask for. Right after graduation, I moved to Dallas with my corporate job and then to Florida eighteen months after that. Each time I moved, the same desire for community would immediately arise. Though unexpected, I was blessed with friends who eventually became family throughout my corporate years. Then, after leaving corporate, I spent two years literally traveling around the world as an international missionary where I undoubtedly found family ties at each place I landed.
Whether I was living in the U.S. or overseas, the behavior of the strong knit communities was always the same. No matter their age or affluence, there was always an abundance of laughter, friendship, and food.
Though each of these environments were drastically different, the value I found in each of these experiences was always rooted in the relationships I made. Despite the fact that relationships were never the end goal, the relationships always significantly outweighed the degree, annual revenue, or status achieved. Recognizing how blessed I have been with regards to great relationships over the years, I am left to wonder how much greater these relationships would have been if they were my primary focus, as opposed to the frivolous accolades I spent my time chasing.
Of all the many wonderful lessons that I have learned from my family, it is the importance of hospitality that I cherish the most. While it’s great being the “hostess with the most-ess”, it’s not a requirement. You don’t have to have a big house or serve fancy food to have people over. A cooler full of beer and some meat on the grill is all it takes to get a good party started. The second you send out the invitation, people will reply asking what they can bring. Tell them to bring a little something to share and before you know it your house will be full of people, eating, drinking, and enjoying each other’s company. More than anything, people are just looking for a place to gather. When you open up your home, folks will be appreciative just for inviting them over.
When Bonnie and I were working on getting our first house together in Florida, we understood that relationships were the most valuable asset in our lives. Since there is no better investment than an investment in others, we started out by surrendering it to God:
“God, we don’t necessarily need a house. Not for just us two. But, if you decide to give us the privilege of having a house, we promise that it won’t be our house. It will be your house and it will be for your people, whoever it may be that you bring to that house. We promise to have open doors and that everyone will always be welcome there.”
And so, it was.
On Sunday nights we hosted Dinner and a Movie, on Wednesdays we had guys night, and on Fridays and Saturdays everyone just showed up. It was a tiny little two-bedroom, one bath Craftsman-style house, but the doors were always open, the fire pit was always ready to go, and everyone (and their friends) were always welcome.
Over the four years we lived there, we had a handful of different friends live on our couch and as crowded and uncomfortable as it was at the time, it was an honor to have people know that they could count on us for help whenever they were in need. Even when folks showed up unannounced (as happened on very regular basis) just because they needed someone to talk to, the front door was always open, and we were always ready to listen.
Nothing beats the time we let some friends throw a Halloween party at our house while we were out of town. As casual as asking for a ride to the airport…
“So, what do you think about having a Halloween party at your house?”
“Umm, we’re actually going to be out of town for Halloween.”
“So, you won’t mind then?”
“I’m not going to be using the house that weekend. What do I care?”
Just like that, our friends threw a spook fest at our house and sent us pictures while it was going on.
Having had the opportunity to experience what it is like to hang out on fancy yachts with casual acquaintances and also hang out with the closest of friends in the most humble of homes, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that all the riches and all the luxuries in all the world is for naught if you don’t have your loved ones to share them with. Though relationships take work, sacrifice, a thick skin, and a soft heart, it is these relationships that make all of life worthwhile.
No one on their deathbed has ever said: “Please, bring me all of my possessions. I want to see them all just one more time.”
Authentic Community is Everything
For this reason, the remainder of this book is structured around the many life lessons and positive practices that I have learned from my relationships: Personal Relationships, Professional Relationships, and Spiritual Relationships. As it is in these relationships that all of life’s value is found, my hope is that through these chapters you will learn principles and practices that help you to effectively navigate life’s many obstacles, not only so you can find material riches and worldly success, but so your riches and success can empower you to build and enjoy the most fruitful relationships imaginable.
Community is Messy
Even though community is ridiculously messy, it is absolutely worth the mess. While we could all keep to ourselves and never allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we would miss out on all the joy that comes from sharing our lives with each other. Loving one another requires trusting one another, and this necessarily means acknowledging and making allowance for our imperfection.
Relationships are the end goal and love is the answer. Everything else is just a means to this end.
Posifocus Mantra #4
Community is Everything.
Do you wish you had a stronger community of loved ones around you? How can you strengthen these bonds? Have you lost touch with old friends and family members? What would it feel like to be in close contact with them again?
Choose three relationships you would like to strengthen and add them to the Contacts section of the Posifocus app. Reach out to them at least once a week and start investing in these relationships.
Go to posifocus.com and share your thoughts and experiences with the Posifocus Community! Use the hashtag #communityiseverything