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When death gives life meaning

| Monday, January 19, 2015

Most students can attest that the final semester of senior year has brought the inevitable questions of identity and has brought the future pounding at the front door. Whether you’re ready to answer it or not, the door bursts open, and you find yourself frantically racing toward employment, service, graduate school or some concrete opportunity that can get family and friends off your back about what you’re doing with your life. In this first week back at Notre Dame I ran out this metaphorical door toward service applications and the GRE, slamming straight into a brick wall when my mother called to tell me my madrina (godmother), Marthy, passed away this past Wednesday. As the blood drained from my face and my body fell numb into the chilling snow, the importance of my post-graduate plans and senior year took a pause while the whole “meaning of life” conversation poured out through my tears.

Maria “Marthy” Zarate emigrated from Mexico to California with my maternal grandmother and with no family of her own, found a home with my grandmother to help raise her six children, including my mom. In an environment where safety, food and comfort were scarce, Marthy grounded my mother in love and later moved in with my parents to help raise their children. Singing her favorite songs in Spanish over steaming pots of rice and beans from the kitchen, tightly braiding my hair while watching her novelas and pacing back and forth under the glow of my night light while praying the rosary, Marthy became a formative part of my identity — although I have only realized it in retrospect. Speaking only Spanish, while my sisters and I spoke English, we often made up words and used Spanglish to navigate our lives together. My parents escaped poverty and built a life of opportunity for us because Marthy, along with many other individuals, demonstrated selfless love while they worked tiresome hours to put food on the table and keep a roof over our head. As we grew older and our finances more stable, Marthy moved in with my cousin, Michelle, to help raise her daughter and thus, the cycle continued.

I loved Marthy with all my heart, and I ache knowing she will not be there when I return home in May. Marthy played an important role in sculpting the road that brought me to Notre Dame, but reflections of her life and death continue to illuminate the direction that path will lead me after I graduate as well.

As a student of the Fighting Irish, I committed to a university where “the aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” In the wake of Marthy’s death, I call on my experiences and the lessons I have learned as an undergraduate to discern how I might fulfill this mission.

It is easy to dream of someday changing the world, or waiting for the moment you are financially and socially secure enough to begin giving yourself to a world in deep need of your gifts and talents. But, as death has taught me, there is never a better time to start creating the future we would like to see than this present moment. We cannot wait for our diplomas to begin the conversation on human dignity and development. We cannot leave this responsibility for someone else to care about. Every day, millions of people die from preventable and curable diseases. Women are forced into sex slavery and families are torn apart by immigration, war and political debates. States criminalize homelessness, and children grow up in unstable, broken households.

Human development occurs in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago and in the poverty of rural Uganda. The key for effective and sustainable development lies in our individual revelation and pursuit for restoring and protecting human dignity across personal, economic and social lines of development. The conversation must begin now while you discern how your education will mold your future and the future you will impact. On Jan. 28, 2015, through the Kellogg Institute, a couple of students and I invite you to understand the intersections of human dignity and development as they pertains to a variety of academic disciplines. Whether you have your post-graduate plans figured out or are a freshman looking to give life to your coursework, seek out opportunities to grow in human solidarity and give of yourself so that others may develop and flourish in ways they might have never imagined. If Marthy taught me anything, it is that selfless love for the dignity of others promotes true development — who I’ve become today is proof enough.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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