By Anika Hope Henanger, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Wedging a steaming plate of cheese quesadillas onto the crowded table, Ronaldo smiles at me – he knows my order by heart. Families shout conversations above the mariachi music. Plates and glasses clang in the kitchen. The brassy laughter of margarita drinkers fills the restaurant. Amid this confusion, Ronaldo shepherds my family to a quiet back room. We are “regulars” here, and Ronaldo’s hospitality is the reason.

Every Friday, my mom, dad and eight-year-old self would hop into a minivan and drive to Laredo’s Mexican Restaurant. In rural north Florida, this eatery is the closest thing to foreign culture one can find.Henanger-Reynoldo's restaurant-2

I recognize almost every face in the community. Many people are related. Nearly everyone is white. And few people leave the state, much less the country.

Ronaldo, however, is not from our little town. Over the years, my family has nurtured a relationship with him.

Though the restaurant is hectic, Ronaldo pauses in between bussing tables and refilling drinks. Clutching pictures from his wallet, he shows us his two young daughters who attend a local school. We hear about their straight A’s and soccer tryouts. Later, he flashes pictures of his mom and brother, who still live in Juarez, Mexico.

Yet, my family’s bond with him seems as volatile as the ocean. In moments of trust, it advances forward like a rushing wave. Then, a tide of misunderstanding or awkward tension sweeps away the progress.

Through shared trust, he and my mom chatter about Valentine’s Day plans. He invites my dad to his home for lazy Sundays of food and sports. I spend afternoons at the restaurant, reading Dr. Seuss Henanger story-Renaldo's daughterbooks with his daughters.

Within this familiarity, Ronaldo offers personal information. He reveals the stress of sending money back to his family, working another job to support his kids and having not received U.S. citizenship. In this homogeneous area of Florida, our family’s conversations with Ronaldo are my first glimpse into the life of an immigrant.

The check is now resting on the table. A pile of toothpicks signals our departure. But this is one of the nights when my well-intentioned dad veers from social sensitivity – he tries to practice Spanish with Ronaldo.

Our friend appeases him with patient, polite banter but becomes distant and formal. A shy kid at the time, I am mortified of my dad’s jumbled Spanish. Disconcerted, I sense that in our ignorance, we are treating Ronaldo more like a spectacle than a person.

He seemed accustomed to it. He didn’t peg my dad as rude. In fact, he often told us we were the “sweetest family.” In context, the friendship and mutual goodwill established a space for forgiveness. Ronaldo felt, yet actively pardoned, our errors of inexperience.

Today, after moving from Florida to three different states, traveling outside of the country and now living near the vibrant city of Chicago, I still remember that relationship. It illustrated the worth and necessity of having a genuine connection with someone far different from myself.

I, like many Americans, often tout diversity and acceptance as a badge. Yet, I have to stop and ask myself, “Is diversity evident in my daily life? Are my close friends – not just acquaintances – of a different culture or nationality? Why am I searching for deep conversations with people to soak up their perspective – not just read about them in a book?”

Ronaldo and I have not made contact in 10 years. Time and distance have made our close bond a faded memory. In moments of reflection, I cannot help but remember the gifts of empathy and forgiveness he entrusted to my family. I can only hope our interactions with Ronaldo gave him something in return.