By Ang Li for Columbia Journalism School
Bending his knees and hunching his back, Ricardo Rivera was in black from head to toe, wrote down “Christ” on the blackboard and explained to his students the word puzzle they are going to play in the afterschool religion class.
“Iglecia (which means church in English),” one student shouted out his answer for letter I. “Yeah, you can do it in Spanish, too. Perfecto,” Rivera said.
It was the third week of classes, many parents didn’t know him yet, but the children adored him, many would run toward him and then Rivera would pull them into his arms.
Rodrigo Barberan, 11, goes to a public school near the Church of St. Helena and comes to the religion class every Wednesday. He thinks Rivera has a lot of patience, “If somebody does something funny, normal teacher would scream at them, but he stays calm.” The 11-year-old finds Rivera’s classes a lot of fun, “On the first day, he started making jokes about how he lived in a forest and how scary it was, I can’t wait for every Wednesday.”
When the class was over, Rivera followed the children and headed downstairs to greet the parents. Standing among the children, the six feet five Rivera looked like Gulliver in Lilliput. Barberan’s mother, stood in a circle with him and other parents, talking in Spanish and laughing, “My son says he learns a lot from Brother Ricardo.”
But Barberan is not the only one learning, so does Rivera. “I’m a teacher, but I’m also learning from [the students],” referred to the new word “bird-watching” he learned in English from the children. “Just watch birds, that’s it? Isn’t that kind of boring?” He laughed, with his 32 teeth revealing.
Barberan’s mother added, “He speaks Spanish with parents, it’s more comfortable to communicate in your own language when you don’t know how to say some words.”
The number of Hispanic seminarians has been on the rise in the past two decades. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, while the total population of seminarians has basically remained the same during the same time, one in seven (14 percent) is Hispanic or Latino, compared to 11 percent in 1993. Meanwhile, the white shrank by 6 percent.
Rev. Enrique Salvo, the director of vocations at Archdiocese of New York, is in charge of recruiting people who aspire to be priests. He said there is definitely an increase of Hispanics and Latinos in seminaries in New York, they make up 30% of the student body. Hispanic/Latino is becoming the second largest ethnicity group. “Hispanics are the highest growing demographics in churches, the future priest mirrors that change.” CARA reported in 2010 that more than 70% of the U.S. Catholics’ growth is due to the country’s Hispanics and Latino.
The church Rivera serves is in Castle Hill in the Southeast Bronx, a neighborhood dominated by Hispanic and Latino population. “It’s very good to have the opportunity to speak both languages and help both communities. He brings a lot of joy to the community, you can see how much people like him,” Rev. Nelson Henao said. He is the Rivera’s master at the church and he believes Rivera understands the Spanish-speaking community better because they share the same culture.
To Margie Torres-Lugo, the song leader of Spanish choir at Church of St. Helena, Rivera has been “extremely helpful.” “He can tell who speaks English and who speaks Spanish, it’s a good trait in him,” Torres-Lugo, a Puerto Rican who speaks limited Spanish, said.
She recalled Rivera stayed for 12 hours straight serving the Community Day event and that he painted a portrait of St. Helena to give parishioners a surprise. “We had a raffle at the party, the first prize was supposed to be a TV, but no one wanted the TV, they all wanted the painting.”
Rev. Henao thinks Rivera is a good candidate for religious life, “He is a good-looking guy, he’s a guy many girls would like to have as a boyfriend, but he’s very focused on his vocation.”
However, his path toward priesthood hasn’t always been smooth, and his talents in painting, along with singing and modeling conflicted him. Back in college days, Rivera majored in Fine Arts while being active on his school’s choir, art exhibitions and water polo team. He was a tenor in operas and sang with well-known singers at Latin Billboard Awards.
“When I went to college, it was like I wanted to follow [Jesus], but I didn’t want to follow him just now, I had so many things I wanted to do,” Rivera sat in a Tommy Hilfiger’s denim jacket, with sunglasses hanging in front of his Ralph Lauren’s sweatshirt, recalling the struggles he once had.
In the senior year, when Rivera was thinking about entering a seminary more seriously, a chance to model at New York Fashion Week challenged his decision again. He was shopping in a mall in Puerto Rico when a man from a local model agency came up to him and proposed a casting opportunity. The judges made the offer to him right after his runway debut. Rivera recalled, “Oh my God, that was so hard. I was like again? I didn’t know what to do.”
“I was very in the world, but I felt I lost myself. Who was Ricardo? At that time, Ricardo was everywhere.” To find his true identity, Rivera joined the Piarists, where the priests take on roles of teaching children and youth. But he never stopped painting or singing, even during the years in Miami, where he experienced one of the biggest failures of his life.
“The first semester was the worst.” he recalled, “I came to another country and studied philosophy in English, it was my second language and I failed so many tests.” He had to write his essays first in Spanish and then translate it, it was crazy, double amount of work.”
Nonetheless, he thinks the failure helped him to be more spiritual, he would take extra time praying and drew the face of Christ in a sketchbook, sometimes just cry or laugh. “Jesus was the one with me all the time, I could have never [finished my degree] by myself.”
Another challenge for Rivera was the lack of music in the seminary in Miami. “In the philosophy, who sings?” The choir only rehearsed songs for masses, so he always sang by himself.
He is a huge fan of pop music; favorite singers include Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Bruno Mars and Calvin Harris. “Justin Bieber, ah, kind of, maybe some songs, like ‘what do you mean’.” He sang the line out. When Rivera saw Jennifer Hudson performing on the stage at Madison Square Garden for pope’s visit, he was thrilled, “If pope is a ten, she’s definitely a nine,” describing the level of his excitement.
He sighed talking about missing Beyonce’s concert in Central Park in September. He said as a seminarian he had less freedom going to concerts or events, but more freedom being himself, so he turned to the Internet and watched the videos from there. Watching and laughing at funny videos on Facebook with his fellow seminarians is his newest entertainment.
In a recent live Catholic music concert, which the seminarians had the permission to go, Rivera stood at the back of the venue alongside his friends, with his hands clapping and one foot tapping on the floor to the beat. He imitated the electric guitar player from time to time and showed off Disco dance moves with his friends, jumping up and down to the music.
Vinod Angadathu George, a seminarian from India, resides in the same church with Rivera. “He is always enjoying, very happy and talkative,” George laughed.
Despite he still need three more years to finish theology and become a priest, Rivera has a vision for himself once he graduate from the seminary, “I see myself as a very different priest, with all the talents I have, I can use my paintings to explain the gospel to people, sing in Spanish and English in my own masses, teach art and religion.”
With possibilities to be assigned to a church where people don’t speak Spanish or English, he said he was confident he could do it by learning a third language and doing masses in that language to fit the need of the community. He believes if he introduces himself to their culture, does things they do, eats the food that they eat, the parishioners will see him as part of the community.
“That’s one thing Pope Francis tells us, Jesus doesn’t have a preference for a certain culture.” He thinks of Pope Francis, the first Hispanic pope, as his example, “He’s incredible. The Hispanic people we are very passionate about things, the pope is like that and I want to be like him, humble, helpful and close to the people.”