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Spring 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 1 · pp. 52–56 

Marriage: A Path That Is Made by Walking [Vignettes of a transcultural marriage]

Hugo Zorrilla and Norma Zorrilla

“Now tell me, where did you two meet?” “How did you happen to get together?” These and similar questions we have been answering throughout our twenty-four years of married life. Every time we come to the United States questions like these usually come up in informal meetings. What is interesting to us is that this concern to know how a Colombian and a “gringa” came to marry is more of a concern in the USA than in other parts of the world. Why is this? Of course, it could be simply curiosity, but we believe that basically behind this concern to know the origins of our walk as lovers also carries with it somewhat of a racial connotation and, if you please, a racist hue.

Neither culture was superior or inferior to the other.

We do not present ourselves as a model of transcultural marriage to anyone. Also we would point out that all marriages are a transcultural experience, even for couples from the same country or with the same language. A girl from Montana, upon marrying a young man {53} from California, has to face many adjustments. Both have to acknowledge that they are coming into marriage as two culturally different human beings, although being of the same nationality and of the same language. Perhaps it is more difficult to recognize different cultural elements and behaviors (ways of using time, space, money, use of gestures, of values, of touching, etc.) in such a partner. These differences can bring the couple to serious crises within the marriage.


From the moment that we met, our falling in love was such that it helped us to think seriously of what we were looking for as a couple. We were very deeply in love, but we had to keep our feet on the ground. Although we had many illusions, at the same time we had to calmly discuss the possible obstacles that we could see. We didn’t want to be naively romantic. Regarding our relationship there were never any racial prejudices in either of our immediate families. As a matter of fact, our greatest concerns and anxieties were produced by the missionary co-workers with whom Norma worked in Colombia, and some Mennonite Brethren missionaries in Hugo’s church in Colombia.

In view of these prejudices it was very clear to us that we had to discern and reaffirm the direction of God in our lives. Both of us were seriously committed to the call to serve the Lord. We wanted to serve in God’s work and we felt that we could do this more effectively together. Because of this conviction we could not understand the admonitions, the warnings, the threats, the remarks, the bad omens that we heard from Norma’s missionary co-workers, and some from Hugo’s denomination. Therefore, it was through the study of the Word and through prayer that the foundation was laid to seek out what would be best for our future. This study of the Word was not to run away from our situation, to put ourselves at ease, or to justify ourselves. On the contrary, the Bible study that we pursued helped us to discuss the qualities and values that each one should reinforce, improve or change, if we were going to live together the rest of our lives. Also, it helped us to strengthen our relationship with friends who supported us and to gather strength for the coming storm.

“Norma Jean, you have to decide. Either you continue {54} with Hugo or you continue as a missionary in Colombia” was the alternative that the missionaries offered Norma, their most recently arrived missionary. This was very difficult for her because she loved the work and was convinced that God had called her to serve in His vineyard. For Hugo they were times of concern and questioning about the real intentions of the missionaries. The prejudices and lack of understanding were so evident. They knew the Colombian culture only superficially. Above all they did not know the Christian values of Hugo and the solidity that he had received in his home. Many United States missionaries believe that a marriage between a North American and a “latino” can never function, because the “latino” is very “machista,” a womanizer, “he beats up his woman,” “he’s a drunk and he’s lazy,” “he doesn’t know how to manage his home and he doesn’t know English.” Of course, these are clichés and stereotypes, of which there are many examples in other cultures (the USA being no exception), and are not only present in the Latin culture.


In dialogue with family members and other people, we found other signs along the way that encouraged us as we were trying to follow God together. One sign was through the then-president of Norma’s mission board, who wrote a letter admonishing their missionaries in Colombia not to obstruct or hinder the relationship of Norma with this Colombian; that culturally and ethnically there could be more differences and obstacles between Norma and, say, a young man from another part of the United States than there was between her and this particular Colombian.

We became more and more sure, we had a profound security that God was in this, He was with us, He was helping and would help us, and would use us in His work. Norma had to leave her mission board and diminish contact/fellowship with Colombians from her mission because, after a year of weighing all in the balances, she decided to begin a new life with Hugo. Culturally speaking, things were more difficult for Hugo. He had never been in the USA, he did not speak English, and any moral support or encouragement from the missionaries was nil, except for four of them who always wisely gave us their blessing, encouraged us and gave us counsel. {55}

In the beginning of our married life, we felt the lack of moral support and solidarity on the part of those co-workers who we had thought were friends. Norma’s family members in Michigan were masters in patience with Hugo as he took on a new culture. There he learned, for example, to eat with cutlery in only one hand and the other hand under the table and not with both hands on the table as is the custom in Latin America. He began to mix “salt” and “sweet” foods on the same plate. Norma, at the same time, never forgot how to make Colombian style rice or to use cooking bananas.


All has not been a bed of roses. If we have had differences it has been due to our personalities. Neither language, nor race, nor cultural values have been an obstacle in our relationship as a couple. The Lord has enriched us mutually, and much more so with the presence of our children. With them we have been able to live together biculturally and bilingually. We have learned to relativize both cultures, to correct our errors and to laugh a lot at ourselves.

One thing that we have had to work on as a couple is the use of time. Hugo is a night person, Norma is a day person. He beings functioning slowly in the morning and gains momentum throughout the day. By nighttime, even into the wee hours of the morning, he is going full steam ahead. Norma wakes up easily, does her best production in the early morning hours and by evening her productivity ceases and the “zombie” stage sets in. Hugo is punctual, but when he is doing something he continues it until finished, without taking a break, without stopping. Although he could be interrupted many times in the process, he doggedly sticks to that project until finished, with no let-up, no rests. However Norma concentrates on something and loses that concentration if interrupted. As the majority of North Americans, she is monochronic, attending to one thing at a time. Hugo, typically Latin, is polychronic; he can be involved with various things all at once but taking more time to get all of them done, and outside interruptions do not cause him to lose his train of thought nor deter him from his goal.

In summary, in dealing with ethnic intermarriage, is not the theological dimension basically a racial dimension? Often objections to an intermarriage do not come from the immediate families, but from those in the community who hold power (i.e., the mission board, the church moderator, etc.).

Each partner’s supreme desire must be to serve the Lord, to be what God wants him/her to be. Either Jesus Christ is Lord or He is not Lord. The ethnic title tagged on a person is not important—the relationship with Jesus Christ is. A believing U.S. Mennonite and a believing Chinese can marry successfully. But what in-depth relationship can develop with a believing Mexican and an ethnic Mennonite “whose god is his belly . . .” or his bank account or his low German brough; a believing Mennonite and a believing Angolan, if God leads them together, can bring much more glory to God in their married life than two ethnically equal, dead-wood pew sitters, where he is a post-doctorate college graduate and she not much interested in even finishing high school.

Two things that helped us in our intercultural marriage were our conviction to come together as a couple in a calling to serve the Lord, and secondly the clear understanding that neither culture was superior or inferior to the other. We proposed to work out the differences as a way of Christian life through dialogue, mutual respect and supporting love. Like dandelions, these cultural differences do not automatically disappear overnight but come and go according to the circumstances, and it all depends on how we treat them. Here is where Christian convictions and Christ’s love help us.

Hugo and Norma Zorrilla most recently returned from Spain where they served since 1984 as missionaries. Hugo has a doctorate in theology from Salamanca, Spain, and has taught in seminaries in San Jose, Costa Rica and in Fresno, California. He is currently on faculty at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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