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Michel’s Madrina

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Editor’s note: Missioner Catherine Sullivan reflects on the role of “madrinas” in the Bolivian culture when she is asked to be a baptismal godmother for a friend’s daughter.

Madrina is a very important term in Bolivia. There is actually an entire day and festival dedicated to madrinas, because here the word refers to a friend whom you feel so close to that you would trust them to watch over your children—a ‘co-mother,’ they often say. In English, madrina loosely translates to “godmother,” but it plays many roles in many different occasions.

There are madrinas de graduacion (graduation godmothers), friends and comrades who have seen you through your studies and who walk you down the aisle at your graduation, bestow upon you a silver graduation ring, and help to celebrate your hard work and achievements. I was blessed enough to be asked by one of my great friends, Ruth, to be her madrina de graduacion when she graduated from high school after years of courses in the San Sebastian Women’s Prison.

There are madrinas de la boda (wedding godmothers)—these are a bit more complex. At many Bolivian weddings, there can be a dozen madrinas, friends you trust and ask to be in charge of a specific part of the ceremony. Some are in charge of buying and looking after the wedding rings, some in charge of searching for and booking the wedding music, some in charge of flowers, and still others food. It is a big commitment, but the idea is that the act will be reciprocated when your own wedding comes to pass.

There are also, of course, madrinas de bautismo (baptismal godmothers). Yes, a madrina de bautismo buys the baptismal dress and shoes and promises to watch over the spiritual well-being of the child, but in Bolivia it is much more than that: a madrina de bautismo promises to be a second mother to the child who is to be baptized. So, when my good friend Leticia, who is currently finishing out her sentence in San Sebastian’s Women’s Prison, asked me to be the madrina of her beautiful five-year-old daughter, Michel, I told her I needed time to think things over. Though I wanted to say yes immediately, the title of madrina is not one to be taken lightly, especially in this culture where family comes first.

For weeks I prayed about the idea, and talked to friends and people who had done similar things in the past. I spent more and more time with Michel, and sat down to have clear-cut conversations with Leticia about expectations and what it would mean for me to be a true madrina living in a country over 4,000 miles away. I quickly came to realize just how deeply my friendship with Leticia, and my love of her whole family, had grown in this past year and a half. I knew her as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, as a brilliant mathematician, as a soccer player, as a true friend. After much prayer and deliberation, knowing that we have the blessing of technology on our side, and knowing without-a-doubt that we were going to be family forever, I told Leticia and Michel that I would be honored to be Michel’s madrina and Leticia’s co-mother.

Michel and I have talked about how we might only be able to see each other through a computer for long periods of time, but we’ve also talked about how she should always feel free to call me and send me letters no matter what, and that I love her very much.

As the paperwork is being processed for her baptismal certificate, I have been able to spend some extra time with both Michel and Leticia. Just last Saturday, I was in the prison early making breakfast sandwiches with them while Michel did my make-up with her sparkly eye-shadow kit. And this past Tuesday, my friend Molly and I were able to take Michel out of the prison for a long walk, an empanada, and some ice cream. We did silly-walks the whole time, and she loves playing “where’s Michel?” and ducking under the table out-of-sight. She is such a smart little girl, and she picks things up so quickly. She can braid my hair better than anyone, and knows how to say otorrinolaringólogo” (ear, nose, and throat doctor) perfectly. I, on the other hand, cannot. And I’ve tried.

Though I was happy to be able to say yes to becoming a large part of this family’s life for the rest of mine, the gravity of such a role has not left me. Being a madrina is an honor, a privilege, and a responsibility, and I will try, and hope that I can, live up to the title.

Reflection question: What are the roles you play to those around you? How can you remind yourself of their honor and importance?

Catherine Hope Sullivan is the youngest of five children raised by a sassy Italian and a historian of world religions. Thanks to them, her younger years were filled with new and interesting people from every walk of life. Forever a Belle, Catherine graduated from the all-women’s Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN, with degrees in English writing and Italian (and an unofficial degree in female empowerment). Catherine has a serious passion for world travel because of the amazing people and traditions one encounters in every part of the world. She chose overseas mission to serve and learn from every person she meets. She has been in Cochabamba, Bolivia, since January 2016.