Students Diana Melendez (at left), Vanessa Marfil and Luis Salinas walk arm-in-arm around their campus, Texas A&M. They are a part of Destino®, a ministry of Cru® that mobilizes Latino university students to reach their communities and the world for Christ.

A Family Like No Other

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Family: A six-letter word that evokes connection, kinship and loyalty. For Latino Americans, who represent many diverse experiences and cultural heritages, family anchors everything. From family’s deep waters of respect and community, identity and belonging boldly emerge.

When you see your mamá and your tías drink agua de tamarindo while cooking dinner, you feel the warmth of their presence and the safety of their laughter; your soul revels in the uncovered beauty of these times. Your appreciation for family means entering a room and showing respect to every person—even with 40 people present—by greeting them with a kiss on the cheek, from the oldest to the youngest.

Hispanic, Latino, Spanish: Do you know the difference?

Afro-Latino/Latina: A person of African and Latin American ancestry.

Culture: An integrated system of beliefs, values, customs and institutions that express these beliefs, values and customs, which binds society together and gives people a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity.

Ethnicity or ethnic background: A common cultural heritage that is maintained by a group of people that distinguishes them from others.

Hispanic: A person of Spanish-speaking origin or ancestry; focuses more on language. Someone may be Hispanic but not Latino (e.g., Spanish American).

Latino/Latina: A person of Latin American origin; focuses more on geographic location. There are 20 countries that compose Latin America.

Nationality: A term that relates to legal citizenship, not ethnicity. Every American citizen’s nationality is American, no matter his or her ethnic background.

Spanish: A person who comes from Spain; it’s a term of nationality and a language.

Definitions provided by Bustle, Michelle Blanco, the Lenses Institute, the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism, and The Heart of Racial Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson.

Celebrating holiday traditions, like Three Kings Day, and gathering with your abuelito and abuelita for meals around the table with pastel de choclo and marraquetas chilenas feels good because it is good. The familiar morning aroma of Café Bustelo brewing in your father’s coffee pot, and the scent of fried eggs and fresh bread instantly connects you to shared memories with your loved ones.

Family means acceptance by the people you love and who love you back, in the beautiful and the broken moments that pepper the journey of living, losing and loving still.

Many Latino college students at universities nationwide experience how family extends beyond blood relatives. Friends now become the family they choose. And in the ministry of Destino®, one particular family continues to spread its roots across this nation in the lives of Latino college students and those who love them: The Destino Familia.

What Challenges Do Latinos Face in the U.S.?

“If you’re Latino, the stereotype is you’re lazy, dumb, don’t speak English, just got to the country, are illegal, or a criminal. Labels are shallow, but human beings are infinitely intricate. Culture, like color, is beautiful; but America is portrayed as black and white, left or right, right or wrong. There is no in-between! But the truth is we are not the stereotype. We are the bridge in between. We have influence and value.” — Mark Vera, Executive Director, Destino Movement®

“We have to always navigate living in two worlds: sometimes not being Latino enough or American enough (i.e., we don’t speak Spanish well enough or English well enough, or know either cultures well enough).” — Gloria Vera, National Conferences and Events Director, Destino Movement®

“Latinos in the U.S. are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. Yet in many ways Latino voices have been overlooked, silenced or subdued. There are beautiful aspects about the culture that work against the culture of the U.S. High family values and collectivism in Latino culture means you make decisions for the good of the whole, which might be a sacrifice in an individualistic U.S. culture where you do what’s best for you. Latinos have a high tolerance for uncertainty; in U.S. culture we want to be in the know before moving forward. Latinos may wait to be invited to give voice, be promoted and offer leadership; in U.S. culture the loudest voice that speaks first gets heard.” – Lucas Lopez, Destino® Missional Team Leader in Denver, Colorado

“One of the reasons why it’s hard for me to be a Latina woman in America is because I am under the pressure of not losing my Latinidad (what makes me Latina) as I journey in learning and understanding how to be bicultural. I no longer live in my country of origin, and because of that, I have to be more intentional about keeping in touch with my Salvadoran roots; otherwise that heritage could easily be lost in the midst of more dominant cultures.” – Alice Becerra, Destino® Team Member in South Los Angeles, California

Destino®, a ministry of Cru®, began in 1995 with the vision to mobilize Latino university students, faculty and family members to reach their communities and the world for Christ. Now 18 years later, more than 80 men and women serve as full-time staff members.

The following stories provide a personal look into the lives of five Latino students and Destino staff members in the Destino Familia. Their stories show God’s power and love among today’s generation of Latino leaders, as they ask others ¿Cuál es tu destino? (“Which is your destination?”) and find the answer together in God’s Word.

“When I think of Destino, it’s like coming home.”

Arianna Valenzuela is a junior global studies major, specializing in human rights and justice in Latin America, at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

When I think of Destino, it’s like coming home. You’re with students who are also Latin American and you share the same similarities, something that we all relate to.

I really like that they [Destino students and staff members] don’t pressure you, they’re just willing to listen and they’re genuine and caring and allow you to be 100% comfortable in your own skin. And I think that’s important.

The first couple of meetings when I went to Destino, they always brought up the topic of how it’s hard to be a Latino in the United States. I never had that issue before. I always told them I wouldn’t know how hard it is; I never thought it was hard to be a Latino in the United States. I came from California, where it’s so diverse. I’ve never been seen as a person of color or been exposed to what many Latinos go through in the United States, being considered as ethnic minorities. I always felt I was given equal opportunities because of my hard work and not because of my color. But when I moved to Minnesota I started experiencing the hard things that other Destino students would talk about. At the end of one semester, I encountered what it felt like to not be treated equally.

I was the only Latina reporter for a newspaper where I worked, and I felt I wasn’t given the same opportunities as those who were white. I thought of interesting stories that would matter to the community, and they would always get shut down. But then a week later, I would see another reporter write the same story I presented. Things like that made me wonder, Am I being treated unfairly because I’m Latina? It was sad that I had to ask that question because I’ve never asked that question in my life before.

In Destino, I feel comfortable; I am able to tell them things that are going on without feeling judged. I definitely like the community that they’ve built because I feel welcomed and included.

Destino is a place where you’re gonna grow as a person, create strong relationships and learn more about God and how He works in your life without you knowing it. People listen to you and give a little bit of their insight about what the Bible says.

Being with Destino helped me a lot as far as building a relationship with God and realizing that with anything that I do, God is always by my side and I should never feel ashamed despite making mistakes.

Destino made my experience of Minnesota much better. They complemented my life and my journey, and I’m definitely looking forward to continuing to be a part of it.

“We want to build well in the Hispanic community.”

Daniel Becerra currently works with Destino as a full-time staff member, leading the South Los Angeles Destino team while serving at California State University, Long Beach, and California State University, Fullerton, and coaching others who serve at Cal Poly Pomona and Long Beach City College.

I immigrated to the U.S. Most of the students we minister to are children of immigrants or first-generation. I see myself in their shoes. I experienced the first few years of college without knowing the Lord and understand how that affected my life. I see students today who don’t know the Lord and I think, Man, that was me.

In my scope alone, which is only 10 campuses in my area, 49.5 percent of the student body is Hispanic or Latino. There is a need for Destino to speak to the realities of these students. I remember from my college experience there were so many things that were important to who I am. There are some things you can’t disciple someone in unless you’ve taken the time to learn and be willing to understand their reality.

A lot of students don’t know how to bring their culture into the college campus and their faith. We [in Destino] want to help them do that. Sometimes they are viewed as not American enough on the campus but not Latino enough at home with extended family. They don’t feel like they fit in. Destino reaches out and encourages first- and second-generation students who live in this cultural tension.

Many of the students we minister to have a really hard time going to a retreat, conference or even a social event because of their parents, especially first-generation Latino students. If the parents don’t want them to go, they won’t go. It’s a very collective culture, and you have to win the heart of the student and the heart of the family. What we realized is we have to take a step to get to know the family members. This requires a bit of intentionality and time.

We have a familia event where we invite parents, make a meal for them and tell them what Destino is. We have a mix of some enchiladas, tamales and tacos along with carne asada and burgers to complement the meal. Lots of upbeat Spanish music plays as we offer desserts like flan and drinks like horchata—foods that the parents and family would enjoy. The students share their stories and it’s a unique opportunity to get to know the parents, who are encouraged by what God’s doing in the life of the students but also what He’s doing on the campus. It has been very successful. It’s really neat to see parents connecting with each other.

In Destino, we talk about the issues that are relevant to our students, the ones that are near to their heart. Immigration is significant for them. Some live in fear of family members being deported. A student might not share that from a place of shame. If we don’t share something that’s integral to who we are, it’s really hard to be in a relationship with others.

We want to build well in the Hispanic community, and we need more mentors and disciplers who can enter into this culture.

“It’s relationships like these that keep me going.”

Brianna Esa currently works with Destino as a full-time staff member at two campuses, California State University, Long Beach, and California State University, Fullerton.

What drew me to be involved in Destino, even though I am Anglo, is a prayer that God answered for me as a teenager. I was growing up in a high school that didn’t have Christians around. I prayed, “Lord, please bring me a friend that follows you.” I took a Spanish class because I loved other languages and cultures. Then God had me meet a friend from Venezuela in 10th grade. We would talk about God and family in Spanish class, and I grew to love these conversations.

I have chosen to surround myself with the culture of others. I studied abroad in Mexico my sophomore year. That is where I came across Student Life and for the first time heard about Cru. After graduation, I worked as a Spanish teacher. Then I did STINT [a short-term international mission] in the Dominican Republic for a year and another STINT in Arizona. It became clear that Destino reflected my values of caring for others from various cultures and having a sense of community.

I heard that there was a need for more laborers with an ethnic minority ministry, and I applied to Destino. The Latino culture is a very relational one. I enjoy getting to know the students who come to Destino.

At Fullerton, I coach student leaders. In the past, they have burned out. I want them to take care of themselves before they become overcommitted.

I checked in on a student leader, Priscilla, a sophomore. It is her first year leading and being discipled. She loves serving in Destino. She helps with evangelism and co-leading a small group of six to eight students. She told me that it is rewarding for her to share about God with others.

It’s relationships like these that keep me going, even when things are difficult. I have learned from my own burning-out that I was alone a lot, but God was present to give me comfort and peace. I pass along God’s peace and comfort to students in Destino by learning to sit in people’s hard places.

“People all around me needed to hear.”

Gladys Garcia is a junior Mexican-American studies major at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She works for Learning Tree, an after-school enrichment program, at an elementary school near campus.

When I was promoted to site leader—supervising a whole after-school program—I was all business. Making friends and talking about Jesus wasn’t on my radar; all I was concerned about was doing a good job.

Then a significant shift happened on Destino Spring Break, in Port Aransas, Texas.

Part of the trip includes starting spiritual conversations on the beach. I wasn’t feeling it at first, so I decided to ask God to help me see people the way He does. My attitude changed almost immediately—I really feel that God answered my prayer.

A girl I met that week began to tear up as I presented the gospel. She had said at the beginning of our conversation that she already believed in Jesus. So I asked why, if she’d heard this message before, it was so emotional for her now. She knew that what she was doing on spring break wasn’t glorifying to God, but our conversation was a reminder of His love in spite of it.

That experience, and others, motivated me. I didn’t need to travel to Port Aransas to share the gospel. People all around me needed to hear. I decided that when I went back to work I’d see how I could have spiritual conversations and where they’d lead.

The following week, two co-workers, Ricky and Megan, invited me to join them for dinner. It felt like God was saying, This is the moment. We went to this noisy little diner, Jim’s Restaurant, and as we got to know each other, I told them about my spiritual background and involvement in Destino.

That dinner started a routine—we hung out after work often and grew close. I invited them to come to our Destino meeting on campus, and Megan loved it. She still comes regularly.

Ricky’s response was colder. He said he didn’t like mixing religion and friends. I believed that God would work in his heart, but I couldn’t force conversation.

Right before summer break, Ricky had a pool party at his house, and somehow the conversation turned to alcohol. I mentioned that I didn’t drink, being underage. Ricky commented, “Well, Jesus drank wine.” That sparked a question about the Last Supper, and as we bobbed there in the pool, I explained how Jesus was preparing to die on the cross for us. I could see Ricky’s mind turning this over. He said, “I’ve never heard it this way before!”

I’m excited that God changed my heart, and what it’s led to with Ricky and Megan. God wants us to share the gospel wherever we are, with whoever crosses our path.

“The familia aspect of Destino encourages me.”

Mandy Luevano currently works with Destino as an affiliate staff member on two campuses, Texas A&M University-San Antonio and Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, while working as a social worker at the Center for Health Care Services.

As a college freshman, I was in a place in life that through complete surrender to Christ, I had an urgency to find a Christian community. Then, I saw a flyer for the Destino Movement.

“Hi, this is Mandy Luevano. Can you tell me more about Destino?” I asked when I phoned Brent McBain from the flyer.

“Sure. Let’s get together and talk at McDonald’s, okay?” Brent replied.

I sat right there in McDonald’s talking with Brent and decided to go. Later at the meetings, I saw what people had through Jesus. There was a strong sense of community ties. The relationships I made there kept me going. I have learned so much.

Now I have an opportunity to serve as a staff member. I have a family I choose to be a part of. To have a community with Destino that knows and understands the family pressure means a lot.

You’re used to being family a certain way as a Latino, but Jesus says that I am an adopted child of God. The familia aspect of Destino encourages me. Having a family that follows Jesus makes a world of difference.

There are certain expectations as a Latino. Some parents have demands that are part of the family culture and their religious faith. When I was at staff training for Destino, we had to show 10 people the video “Falling Plates”. I decided to show it to several family members.

My aunt made a decision for Christ, but it has been a very slow, resistant process. I had a cousin who was agnostic and for the first time thought about God’s characteristics and how that could apply to his life. The conversation with him was about who God is. I showed my dad, who recently went to church with me for the first time in my life. I showed my brother and cousins. I found out some of my cousins are believers and followers of Christ. Now, we pray for each other.

The Lord has been showing me that, as I am in a new city, a new job, with Destino, He is with me and I need to keep growing in my relationship with Him.

Being in Destino has made a world of difference in my life. The Lord has given me the loudest message: that a relationship never has an endpoint. Every relationship needs to be continuously growing.

Day in the Life

Watch a day in the life of Destino staff member Vanessa Marfil.

Learn more about the Destino Movement and how you can get involved.

Jan Stewart and Jason Weimer contributed to writing this piece. The video of Vanessa Marfil was made by the Destino Movement.

Melody Copenny
Words by

Melody Copenny

Melody serves as a journalist with Cru®. She’s an Atlanta, Georgia, native and University of Georgia graduate with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism. She enjoys the intersection of creativity, theology and popular culture in her writing projects.

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Philip Long
Illustrations by

Philip Long

Philip writes for Cru®’s publications as a missionary journalist. He earned a master’s degree in Christian studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Philip balances family life along with bike riding, drawing and whittling toy cars.

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