16 Nov 2020
“There’s Beauty in Difference”
By Julia St. Clair
As Milagros (Milly) Beltran prepared for her first CYM Meetings, she became excited to see members of her Salesian Family. “The biggest thing I looked forward to was sharing time with people I saw during the Leadership Retreat in March. One of them was Victoria (Vicky) Weekley, who was my former student,” she said.
These were also the last members of the Salesian Family that Beltran saw in person before the pandemic. “The Holy Spirit does His work, and we need to keep going,” she proclaimed when dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Like many schools, Immaculata-La Salle High School in Miami, FL—where Beltran serves as Director of Campus Ministry and Senior Class Moderator—decided to transition to remote learning. This helped Beltran acclimate to CYM Meetings.
Throughout the course of three days, Beltran heard personal and passionate testimonials of how members of the Salesian Family were directly affected by racism. “The first reactions I had to hearing these stories were anger and embarrassment,” she recalled. “This is who we are? This is what we do? We need to recognize people for who they are—who God has made them to be—not what they look like. When we’re embarrassed, we’re more cognizant of wanting to create change.”
This also made Beltran reflect on her own upbringing. “I learned the ‘importance’ of having ‘good’ hair versus ‘bad’ hair and that light skin has divisiveness from an early age,” she began. “My parents were both medical professionals from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic who gave a lot to us.” At the time, this meant a personal, cultural cost. “They hired tutors to teach us how to speak ‘proper’ English with no accents. We had to ‘melt’ into the community.”
These “justifications” appeared again years later in 2002 when Beltran worked in a Haitian community. “The kids asked me, ‘Are you mixed,’” she remembered. “I said yes—I’m half Puerto Rican from my mom and half Dominican through my dad. And they’d respond, ‘You look like us, but you’re too white.’”
Much of it went back to the “importance” of hair and skin tone. “As silly as it seems, hair is part of our cultural dynamic and such a big deal growing up,” she uttered. “We identify culture because of our hair.”
While these “ideals” have sadly remained, the youth in Miami have given Beltran awareness and hope that change is on the horizon. “Miami is predominantly Hispanic and has kids from the Caribbean—Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba—and some from South America,” she explained. “Latin people have indigenous blood with African and European influences. And kids in Miami want you to know there’s beauty in difference.”
With this in mind, Beltran has recommended a course of action to initiate change. “One of the things I’m blessed with is the ability to allow different people to partake in the conversation,” she offered. “This is something I can open up further with an invitation for us to all sit down. There’s more than one voice and one story, and we have to give dignity to each one. We can discuss reflection after discord to allow us to come up with an action plan with topical and realistic goals.”
She also stressed the importance of how our youth can develop their awareness and consciences. “To help the young people, we have to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes,” she pleaded. “Yet if they do, we show them to apologize and be humble. Either way, we all have a voice—use it. Say ‘this is wrong.’”
Last, Beltran offered up the importance of faith and hope in our world. “Our faith provides us with a foundation of hope and reminds us that we can—and will—overcome,” she beamed. “My faith has helped me remain hopeful, and hope will prevail.”