U.S. Latino/a Religion and Theology: A Glimpse of Past, Present and Future

INTRODUCTION

A new wave of theological exploration has emerged in the last thirty years coming from the Latino/a religious culture of the United States.  The religious identity of this people group, however, has its birth in traditions as old as any other belonging to the vast majority Anglo-American citizens.  The tidy, fixed labels that are used to characterize and categorize U.S. religions are sometimes necessary and in certain instances helpful, but when in surveying the Hispanic religious experience and culture in North America, traditional boundaries are instantly broken down.  Protestantism, Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and indigenous religiosity have collided to form an altogether new hybrid between Mexican-American or Latino/a migrant and Euro-american religious identities – one that is also sometimes considered a “borderland,” chicano/a (Mexican born in the U.S.), or Mestizo/a identity.  What is  more, there are no rigid borders in terms of geography that define or limit the landscape of this diverse ethnic-religious group.  In order to begin describing how such a mestizo/a religion was formed, the high points of an old and complex “Latin” history must be at least briefly traced.

SOME HISTORY

“Until recently, a Euroamercan male hand has written their history, defined their theology, and shaped their identity.  Yet as Hispanics grow in number, they have begun to write their own stories, a process that consequently makes their perspectives subversive to the dominant theological discourse” – Miguel A. De La Torre

Three broad streams have generally shaped U.S. Latino/a religion: the European, the Native American, and the African.  The European heritage has primarily been Spanish, though not exclusively, and to speak of Spain is also to recognize the shared history with Jews (and conversos, or Jewish-Christian converts) and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula dating back to before the Spanish Inquisition and American Conquest. 

Spain was invaded and conquered by the Moors in 711.  Thereafter is called the period of convivencia (living together) in which some wars were still fought, but rarely for religious reasons.[i] Overall, this was a time of relative peace between the three Abrahamic faith traditions.  It consisted of great cultural exchange along with racial and ethnic blending.  Not surprisingly, this Late Medieval Era continues to fascinate scholars today.

After nearly a millennium of Islamic rule in Andalusia, Granada fell to the armies of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile’s “Reconquest” in 1492.  Nearly 200,000 Jews were required to leave the country, and tens years later all Moors were also expulsed.  The Spanish were convinced that God had given them this task of re-conquering the country on behalf of the Christian faith.[ii]  Regarding the reconquista, Rusto Gonzales notes the interesting datum that many of the families of Moors and Jews who were forced to convert or evacuate had lived in Spain much longer than any English-speaking people have lived in the United States.[iii] 

Upon confronting the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Spanish “explorers” would give a document called a Requerimiento to the leaders of native tribes, which would explain that Jesus Christ was the ruler of the world, and that God had given the power of this rule to the Pope and the crown of Spain.  This authority was said to be passed down to these crusaders themselves, legitimizing their invasion and lordship over the land.  If there was any resistance – even though there was obviously no way for the two groups to understand each other – the locals would then be regarded as rebels and could be treated as such.  Encomiendas, on the other hand, were selected numbers of indigenous representatives who were trained and taught in the way of Spanish Christendom to then preside over other local inhabitants on behalf of Spanish “nobles.”  Though this latter practice had greater potential for civility, both methods were frequently abused.

The details of such abuse and the atrocities committed by the Spanish against the indigenous during these years after Columbus’s voyages are well known and documented, so a short overview can suffice here:

The quest for gold in Hispaniola was a disaster for the island’s indigenous people and subsequently, for the inhabitants of the whole continent.  When the goldfields failed to materialize, the Spanish turned on the local inhabitants and forced them to supply a quota of gold every three months.  Every man, woman, and child was liable for this quota; the Spanish cut a hand off those who failed and hanged or burned any who resisted.  After only two years, an estimated half of the population had died or been killed – an estimated 125,000 to 5000,000 people.  Those who survived Spanish cruelty were vulnerable to European diseases for which they had no immunity.  When it was clear that little gold available was exhausted, the conquistadores forced the inhabitants to work the land for them instead.[iv]

The legacy of violence tied up in the quest for a New Catholic Spain, “coupled with avarice and religious intolerance, were the necessary ingredients that would lead to the bloody conquest, subjugation, and rape of the native people . . . Some saw the conquest as a means of evangelization.  Many conquistadors, like Cortes, saw themselves as instruments of God and bearers of the gospel, foreshadowing what the U.S. would later use to justify their occupation of Spanish and Mexican territories.”[v]  Using Aristotilean categories, theologians like Jose de Acosta saw the natives as barbarians devoid of reason in order to justify their enslavement and abuse.  Unfortunately, despite the bright like shown by them in a very dark hour, the few challenges toward and condemnations of the heinous Conquistador crimes voiced by those like Bartolome de Las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos achieved very little in terms of improving the treatment of the natives.

Despite the break in the coexistence of the three monotheistic traditions in Spain, the plurality of religious practices from this period was passed on in part through the commercial exploitation and “discovery” of America by the conquistadorian arm of Ferdinand and Isabella.  In the same way that Spain was not monolithic, neither were the so-called “Indians” that Columbus and the conquistadors came across following his landing in the Americas.[vi]  The various people groups and societies ranged widely in terms of their social-political systems and worldviews, depending on whether it was the Taino, Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs or others.  Some of these civilizations were extraordinarily sophisticated.  Ultimately, however, their weaponry and lack of immunity to disease rendered their defenses incapable of deterring the Spanish invasion.  The Aztecs surrendered to Hernan Cortez in 1521. The Inca Empire and Quechua religion, located in Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, was crushed between 1532 and 1572.

African traditional religions, especially from the Western region of the continent, were brought by force during the slave trade, and have permeated certain areas of Latin America in varying degrees – perhaps most notably in Cuba.  This has led to some continuity with and infiltration in U.S. Hispanic religiosity.  Africa dance, music, and view of the spirit-world in particular have left a significant impression.[vii]  The common history of subjugation and racism served to further amalgamate certain aspects within each of these strands of symbols and rituals in all of their multiplicity.  

In the midst of tragedy, despair and indefensible evildoings, something remarkable happened.  As the story goes, On Mount Tepeyac outside of Mexico City on December 9th, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe (also known as “Our Lady Guadalupe”, assumed to be the Virgin Mary, appeared to a poor mestizo named Juan Diego.  Although the truth of the account is disputed, as some suggest it was actually a tool of the Spanish Catholic church to evangelize the natives, the Virgin of Guadalupe has nevertheless remained a powerful and transformative symbol for the Mexican people.  This power is no doubt partly due to the degree to which it runs counter to the violent history of the Spanish conquest and the patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic ecclesial structures.  Most obviously, the Virgin appeared to a peasant worker of humble beginnings and with a bicultural heritage, rather than to the Spaniards or to any church officials.  Secondly, the Virgin herself is thought to have appeared as a mestiza.  And perhaps most interestingly, she came to a place that was sacred to the indigenous and that had been dedicated to an Aztec goddess.  Small wonder then why “the Virgin of Guadalupe represents a cultural and religious union, a mestizaje, that has not only evoked religious fervor in the people, but also has come to symbolize the mestizo/a identity of the people.”[viii]

Skipping forward several hundred years, most Latin American countries gained independence from Europe in the early Nineteenth Century.  For 15 million dollars the United States would “purchase” from Mexico a territory in 1848 that included New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada and part of Colorado.  In the same treaty, Mexico agreed to accept the annexation of Texas.[ix]  John Quincy Adams and Ulysses S. Grant themselves saw the war against Mexico and the treaty itself as unjust.[x]  Orlando E. Costas contends that “[t]he Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo may have created a political border but could not impose a cultural one.  Mexican families live today on both sides of the Rio Bravo.  They have a historical and cultural claim to the Southwest.  This religion belongs as much to them as it does to Ango-Americans.”[xi]

The reasons for migration across the Rio Grande ever since have largely been determined by economic factors.  It times of depression, less work is available in the U.S., and people tend to blame Mexicans for taking U.S. jobs.  When business is booming, however, a demand for cheap labor increases, and somehow political steps always seem to be taken in order to open immigration doors (such as the Bracero Program) and call upon the Mexican “reserve army.”

Additionally, many Central Americans from the various nations have come to this country because of the civil wars supported by the United States in their homelands, as was the case with the U.S. Contra war in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration.  Likewise, “[t]erritorial invasions and the exploitation of natural resources by U.S. corporations like the United Fruit Company contributed to Latin America’s underdevelopment and internal unrest.”[xii] Now the U.S. is the fourth largest Spanish-speaking country in the Western hemisphere, and making up 25 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country.[xiii]

 

U.S. LATINO/A RELIGION, CULTURE AND IDENTITY

Hispanic Americans belong to two worlds and yet they are not bona fide members of either . . . the future of Hispanics in the Americas lies neither in assimilation nor isolation, but rather in the recovery and affirmation of their double identity.[xiv] – Orland E. Costas

In U.S. Latino/a religion, one finds deep sense of the interrelatedness of all things in an “ever-expanding, extensive continuum that goes beyond our immediate present and place in history.”[xv]  Living as a minority in this context is to live in a space between a variety of cultures, races, languages and beliefs that often clash together quite violently.  The myth of a “melting pot” society becomes most evident in these clashes.  In places where people experience their existence as underprivileged in comparison to the dominant Anglo culture, highlighting ethnic and cultural identity is a means of survival, and God becomes a sources of strength for resistance against oppressive forces.

U.S. Latinos/as are sometimes assumed to merely be Latin Americans or Latin American immigrants in the United States.  While this is true, the majority of U.S. Latinos/as have regional roots that go far back before the independence of the United States or the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848.  In light of the divergence in culture between North America and Latin America, however, Latino/a life in the United States is constituted by a daily struggle to achieve wholeness. Latinos/as are a people separated from the land that previously defined them. The fragmentary nature of this identity lends itself to being understood precisely as Mestizo/a.

By adopting the label mestizaje (Elizondo) with its origins in the word mestizo, which was used described those whose parents were from both Spanish and indigenous descent, the U.S. government’s attempt to hide or erase cultural heritage (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is resisted.[xvi]  Nevertheless, any attempt to encapsulate such a heterogeneous group of people by using one descriptor is necessarily to risk reinscribing notions of exclusion and to potentially occlude important internal tensions and differences.[xvii]  Mestizaje is not a neutral term, and one must counter any effort by scholars or politicians to veil the violent past that this socio-ethic nomination is meant to evoke.

The stigmas associated with being Hispanic in the U.S. are many ranging from being seen as lazy to just plane impure or “dirty”. The legacy of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and Spanish “Providentialism” (as guardians of Catholicism) has contributed to these denigrating stereotypes.  Mestizaje has more to do with how one looks or sounds than where he or she lives.  Judgments made about Latinos/as based on their funny accents and darker have been accumulated to create their deep sense of Otherness.  Conversely, honorary “whiteness” awaits those with clear English and lighter skin color. [xviii]

This alienation is part of the reason why the formation and preservation of communidad is so central to Hispanic-American religious life.[xix]  With between two hundred and three hundred thousand undocumented Mexicans arriving each year in the U.S., Latinos/as are rightly thought by some to be the resident alien populace par excellence: “Children and infants who hold no memories of their (former) homeland are condemned to live within the memories constructed for them by their parents.  [As] exiles, aliens, and outsiders [they] feel unable to escape an inner struggle that defines their ethnicity, an ethnicity that frustrates their ability to reconcile their identity with their presence in the United States.”[xx]

Furthermore, The urban settings or “barrios” where many Latinos/as are concentrated has produced an environment in which much of the Hispanic community suffers under residential segregation, discrimination in employment, and political isolation.[xxi]  An increasing number are beginning to discover the power of their vote, however.  Nonetheless, while Hispanics spend around $300 billion a year into the U.S. economy, 40 percent of their children still live in poverty, which is the highest rate for any ethnic group ever recorded in the U.S.[xxii] They are also the most disproportionately uneducated racial group in the U.S. population.

The prominence of machismo or sexism in Latino/a culture relegates the woman’s role to the private sphere, the home, while men take on the public work.  It is considered macho to provide for one’s family.  Moreover, women are less likely to “get into trouble” if they stay in the house.  Men are very protective, but in a paternalistic fashion.  Their job is to keep women away from other men.  The aggressive and liberal sexual behavior of men on the other hand is rarely questioned.  In fact, infidelity itself is thought to increase their machismo.  Men provide the avenue through which honor comes to the family, while women are considered more susceptible to bringing shame.[xxiii]  The irony with Euroamericans talking condescendingly about “machismo” culture, however, is that it can be used to mask the chauvinistic structures of their own society as well.[xxiv]

Though it would be wrong to think of all Latinos/as as Catholics, most do have shared cultural roots in the communidad of Catholicism.  At the same time, it is estimated that somewhere between 25-40 percent of Hispanics are affiliated with Protestantism somehow – and that number is growing.[xxv]  But the Hispanics who have left Roman Catholicism for Protestantism are not necessarily evangelicals or fundamentalists.  And as was alluded above, popular religiosity in the wake of maintained Native American and African traditional practices and spiritualities undergird the heart of daily Hispanic spiritual life.  In this environment emphasis is placed on the importance of home devotional practices, like home altars, prayers to saints, promesas (vows), quinceaneras (fifteenth-birthday celebrations), vigilias (vigils), estribillos or coritos (choruses).[xxvi]  The spirituality or devotional piety of popular Hispanic religion is dynamic and grassroots-based in nature.  Worship is like a “sacred fiesta,” consisting of enthusiastic singing, freely expressed praise, Santa Cena (the Lord’s Supper), confession of sin, and the confession of faith in the One who forgives sin.[xxvii]

Descending from a context where government and economy are often less than dependable (sometimes due in significant measure to negligence on the part of its Northern neighbor), it is no accident that familia is so importance and central to Latino/a life.  It is the perhaps the most basic and social institution of Hispanic culture, spanning far wider than just to immediate relatives.  The social and familial character of Latino/a culture correlates closely with the stress placed on justice as the fundamental value in society.  In Spanish, for example, the English word ‘righteousness’ does not have an equivalent, and is instead translated as “justicia” or justice in the Bible.  To illustrate, whereas the English version of Luke 23:47 might read, “Certainly this man was righteous,” the Spanish follows thusly: “Realmente, este hombre era justo,” justo meaning just.[xxviii]  And with the emphasis on family, justice in turn is first and foremost seen as a communal matter rather than an individual one.  There is very little room or thought given to the idea of a “private” life.  Justice is chiefly a collective concern.

The complex intermingling of native and Christian religious symbols and rituals have caused problems for Latinos/as, as Protestants claim to have a truer, purer form of Christianity.  In other words, anything not found in the Bible is rejected, or so goes the theory.  Candles, robes, incense, and crucifixes have been seen as unacceptable.  So has at times the practice of wearing black for mourning or of novenas for the dead – the custom of meeting for nine days after someone’s death to remember them and to pray for them.  Pianos, pews, and Christmas trees have always been accepted though – these elements are the valid exceptions.

Pentecostalism has become the second largest religious group in the U.S. of Hispanics after Roman Catholicism.  Countless small independent churches have been formed across the Southwest since the Azusa Street Revival.  Rituals in these immigrant communities often include times for testimonials, healings, prayer to the Holy Spirit and fasting.  In Hispanic worship in general – not just in Pentecostalism specifically – the body is just as important as the soul and the mind.  But because so many ethnic and racial veins run through the blood of Mestizaje identity (indigenous, European, Arabian and even some Asian), the most important elements common to and uniting all Hispanic religion continue to be the Spanish language and cultural tradition itself.

U.S. LATINO/A THEOLOGY

Miguel A. De La Torre and Edwin David Aponte provide a summary of the chief aims for the Hispanic theologian:

Latino/a theology becomes a distinct type of God-talk whose function is (1) to understand the Divine from within the Hispanic cultural location; (2) to seek God’s liberative will in the face of both cultural and economic oppression; (3) to search for a common voice that proclaims salvation, liberation, and reconciliation to the most diverse segments of Latino/a culture; (4) to create theological harmony between the U.S. Hispanic condition and the scriptural narratives; (5) to struggle against the way Latinos/as are perceived and conceived by the dominant culture; and (6) to provide a prophetic voice that unmasks the racism, classism, and sexism implicit in the theology of the dominant white culture.[xxix]

While it may be generally accepted in theory that all theology is done from a particular setting in time and point of view, Latino/a theology, largely in agreement and confluence with liberation theology, fosters a heightened acknowledgement of this reality.  As such, abstract philosophical reflection, though not absent, is definitely reduced or at minimum given a secondary role in the theological methodology.  Embedded within the Hispanic theological outlook is Juan Luis Segundo’s principle of the hermeneutic circle – however implicitly or explicitly – which is partly borrowed from Marxist thought and emphasizes a praxis-based approach to interpreting doctrine and religious ideology.  In this logic known as dialectical materialism, doing theology always starts from a concrete place within a given social stratum fundamentally determined by class.  Moreover, interpretation is considered an on-going process.  Claims to centeredness and objectivity are usually suspect – even if theology in general tends toward this.  One’s subjective position is never wholly transcended.

Whereas mainline Protestantism or European Catholicism might tend to see the role of tradition as one that is implicitly conservative – “harking us back to the church fathers, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and so on” – Hispanics will typically have an increased awareness of “socio-historical realities of the originators of the revered tradition.”[xxx]  Accordingly, tradition from the U.S. Latino/a perspective is one in which the need for constant reformulation and reconstruction is emphasized.  This is taken seriously enough for Luis Pedraja to make the following claim:  “To deny that theology is a product of its cultural context is tantamount to denying the Incarnation and the historicity of Scripture.”[xxxi]

Concerning Scripture itself, Justo Gonzalez has spoken of “Reading the Bible in Spanish” as an especially political and subversive act for Latinos/as.[xxxii]  Using the vernacular automatically hands a certain amount of power over to those on the periphery by giving them the ability to participate.  In particular, however, this extends access to those who typically excluded from biblical scholarship, which is a crucial step.  The exercise of listening to what the voiceless learn from the text henceforth becomes a principle avenue for acquiring new theological insight.

Deeply indebted to Latin American liberation theology, U.S. Latina/o theologians understood theology as “the critical reflection on the praxis” of the people – a praxis that would need to reflect the different sociopolitical, cultural, and historical contexts both explicitly and systematically in U.S. Latino/a communities.[xxxiii]  Consistent with the liberationist heritage then, U.S. Latino/a theology seeks to be a theological task of people – the reality for whom is often one of oppression and marginalization.  If there is a privileged center, it must therefore be one through which the reality of disinheritance can be resisted.[xxxiv]

According to liberation theologians themselves, one finds in the Bible God’s preferential option for poor.  What is more, salvation itself is not something to be seen as solely realized in the future or in the afterlife.  Nor is it restricted to the spiritual realm. Rather salvation is a living and historical reality to be achieved in a community’s present material circumstances.  Relying on Hegelian and Marxist dialectical reading of history, sin is primarily viewed as structural and as having infected the systems and institutions that govern humanity.  Sin conceived of as an impediment for liberation here and now just as much as a hindrance to salvation after death.  Hence, poverty itself must be understood as a scandalous condition and as offensive to God.[xxxv]  Communion with God is breached as long as injustice prevails.  In response, the responsibility of the Church and Christians everywhere must be to work for solidarity with those who are suffering from oppressive systems.  Jesus’s proclamation of the impending Kingdom of God as a reign of justice that brings freedom and good news to the poor, the captives, the blind and lame becomes the hope that energizes a theology of liberation; it is the promise empowers the disenfranchised to be victorious against the slave-driving Pharaoh’s of this world.[xxxvi]

In liberation theology, the starting point is the historical Jesus more so than the christological creeds – though this is not to suggest that the latter is necessarily absent.[xxxvii]  Much of liberation theology has been critical of the established ecclesial orders.[xxxviii]  Juan Luis Segundo voiced his criticism of the church on the grounds that it sought theological unity and the salvation of individual souls over and against any significant effort for socio-economic-political justice.[xxxix]  Archbishop Romero himself echoes this concern: “The church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and joys, the anxieties and sorrows, of men and women.”[xl]  And as Leonardo Boff argues, “[a]ccording to the parable concerning anonymous Christians in Matt. 25:31-46, the eternal Judge will not ask people about the canons of dogma, nor whether they made any explicit reference to the mystery of Christ while they lived.  He will ask if we have done anything to help those in need.  Here all is decided.”[xli]

Thus there has indeed been an extensive influence exerted upon U.S. Latino/a theology and religion by Latin American Liberation Theology.  Nonetheless, the two cannot be confused.  Hispanics generally have more conservative cultural roots than many of the influential thinkers in the liberation movement.  Social and cultural marginalization for Latinos/as in the U.S. is as significant as poverty and oppression. Hispanic/Latino/a theology has actually forced Latin American Liberation Theology to re-examine itself and confront some of its own lacunas.  For instance, the limited focus on politics and economics excludes cultural, aesthetic, and racial dimensions of society.  It also fails to explore popular religion.  Sexism is also not really addressed.  Pedraja claims for example that using culture and ethnic identity “brings about changes beyond the scope of Latin American Liberation theology with its emphasis on politics and economics.”[xlii]  At the same time, the preference for Latino/a culture in Hispanic theology does not imply an idealization of that identity.[xliii]  Rather, since all cultures and identities are human constructions and as such are imperfect, the selection of one particular community’s perspective makes explicit what is already true of theological projects from any point of view.

Despite the critical distinction made between Latin American liberation theology per se and U.S. Latino/a theologies, Maria Pilar Aquino has tried her hand at combining the two:

The very existence of mestiza theology and economics – liberation, even with its unresolved challenges, comes to demonstrate a collective discomfort with respect to modern white, male, Euro-American culture.  When the current American system declares any alternative dead, thereby destroying any possibility of reaching those alternatives, the Latina communities in the midst of their oppression continue to envision a world in which we all can live.  As long as Latino theology continues to demonstrate its ability to coherently articulate that which we can be, convinced of its possibility, then our task finds its worth and meaning.[xliv]

Aquino envisions the God of the barrio, the God of Jesus the mestizo, and the God of manana

precisely as the God of liberation for Hispanic peoples.  To remember that Jesus too had difficulty finding a place, and that he was born away from home, and that thereafter he was an exile in Egypt is to do theology in the Latino/a way.  For Aquino, Hispanics theologize on behalf of life and liberation and on the side of the poor and oppressed. The on-going reformulation of their very identity depends on this. Social location determines the hermeneutics for interpreting Scripture, and only in view of a qualified reading of history can this be done for Latinos/as. Theirs is a spirituality of hope in the struggle for liberation, and the relationship between theology and pastoral action is direct.  And finally, if there is to be any ecumenism, it starts from the ground up.[xlv]

THE WAY FORWARD IS MESTIZAJE: BEYOND THE FRONTIER MYTH

“All my life I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a labor system that treats farm workers as I they are not important human beings”[xlvi] – Caesar Chavez

In the minds of many U.S. citizens, active memory of both the North and Central American conquests by European ancestors is conspicuously absent.  A disconnect is present between the historical reality of “what land belongs to whom” and “why.”  The manor in which the American historical identity has been transmitted and constructed is forgetful and fanciful – so much so that, as far as many U.S. citizens are concerned, there is only one “America.”[xlvii]  Closely connected with the frontier myth therefore is the myth of an innocent history.  The reason why the United States has refused to hear the truth of its own history is articulated well by Justo Gonzales:

[A]s long as it is innocent of such truth, it does not have to deal with the injustices that lie at the heart of its power and its social order . . . In our country, such guilty innocence is the handmaiden of injustice.  Injustice thrives on the myth that the present order is somehow the result of pure intentions and guiltless history . . . Perhaps once we are agreed that we are all ladrones [thieves], it will be easier for all of us to see much more clearly into issues of justice.[xlviii]

Tying this in with the border issue, Goizueta builds on Gonzalez’s thought as follows:

[L]ate modernity is a world of borders; but, given our history, the profound fear of immigrants reflected in recent legislation suggests that U.S. society continues to view these borders through the lenses of a frontier myth, open to economic expansion but closed to human immigration.  The consequent distortion has devastating consequences, among them the inability to acknowledge historical ambiguity.  Conversely, the Latina/o experience is one that . . . allows for ambiguity and reflects an understanding of the border as a true meeting place, where different cultures interact.[xlix]

Indeed, for many Latinos and Latinas, the border is much more than a place where they live.  The border becomes who they are, as a people whose identity and reality is in between.[l]  To be a border is to live between the rapist and the violated woman and to experience the pain of that tension.[li]

Goizueta is careful to argue, however, that the reason for exposing the lie of an innocent history is not to “ascribe blame to some while exonerating others;” rather it is because by doing so, we will “be able to more effectively bring our future reality into harmony with our national deals.”[lii]  The goal is mutual enrichment.  The borderland cultivates an acknowledgement of all our impurities (against the grain of supposed racial purity).  This is welcomed by Latinos/as, because they know that none of us is pure.[liii]

Virgilio Elizondo shares his own testimony and speaks of the period of time when the person of Jesus the Lord was eclipsed by theory, doctrine, philosophical formulation and theological abstraction.  For Mestizos/as, Jesus is instead a “living person – a friend, an older brother, the “master” who – unlike the masters of this world who abused, exploited, and insulted us – was always solicitous for our welfare and would always be around to help us and comfort us on our way.”[liv]

In the history of Latino/a ecclesial life in the United States, Elizondo observes that the “Euro-American ways of the established church were not he ways of [his] people.  The clergy, religious, and theologians were still foreigners and strangers to our way of life and to our expressions of faith.”[lv]  Elizondo gives account of the deep loneliness that often came with not understanding and not being understood as non-English speaker growing up.  What gives hope to the Mestizo/a situation in particular for Elizondo is a close examination of the socio-cultural person of Jesus himself – one whose earthly identity was as a poor man who showed favor to the lowly and disinherited.  God became a historically, culturally, and racially conditioned human being.[lvi]  As a Jew and a Galilean, Jesus resided in a borderland himself, not unlike the Southwestern United States – almost like being a Mexican-American in Texas.[lvii]  His language and accent probably sounded different from the dominant Latin and Roman Imperial context.    Jesus saw a world where native women were conquered and violated by soldiers.  The scandal of the virgin birth takes on new meaning in light of this.  Elizondo resonates with the migration and social distance that would be the core of Jesus’s daily life.[lviii]  Jesus was an outcast in his own homeland which parallels the experiences of Latinos/as who have been “considered too Mexican by mainline U.S. society, and too ‘gringo’ by families and friends in Mexico.”[lix]  In short, appreciating the fullness of the incarnation enables one to recognize the extent to which Jesus suffered the injustices of our world in much the same respect that many Latinos/as do.

Paul writes of how God was pleased to choose the nothings and foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the strong.  In the same way, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God and “dares to live what others fear: the joy of common table fellowship with everyone.  By freely eating with everyone, he breaks and challenges all the social taboos that keep people apart.”[lx]  Did this not a major reason for why he was sent him to the cross?

Elizondo understands the liberation that Jesus brings as existential rather than as a strictly universal concept.  It is a tangible liberation that gives inspiration to the hope for what can be: “that the human family might be one, rich in the great diversity of the various nationalities of the world, but no longer divided into enemies, free enough of racial and cultural prejudices of the past to be able to love one another as each is, free enough to learn from one another, free enough to value and respect one another.”[lxi]

Mainstream U.S. culture and political identity seeks to pollute the beauty of Mestizaje, however, with the blinding glamour of abundance.[lxii] Furthermore, a Latino/a theology of liberation would argue that international markets are a far greater destructive force to local identities than immigration could ever be.  In truth, “Americanization” has gained sway in a much more devastating fashion among the youth of Mexico who find the popular cultural and consumerist way of life very appealing.  Regional groups can confront this totalizing, homogenizing energy. The mestizo/a of today provides exactly this oppositional strength when it shows how racial and cultural mixture does not have to work against national identity but can actually enrich it.[lxiii]

U.S. citizens often do not recognize that if it weren’t for the dire material circumstances in which many immigrants find themselves at home – the conditions of which are often a direct result of U.S. corporate and consumer behavior in the first place – the overwhelming percentage of these same immigrants would prefer to stay where they are.  Survival is at stake.  Moreover, the Western version of the path to development, which is regularly imposed upon Latin America through free trade agreements like NAFTA in accordance with the interests of the North, has had all kinds of unintended negative consequences.  The advice of Harold J. Recinos is instructive on this point:

As Latino/a theologians become more focused on the theological analysis of popular piety, it is my hope that they will turn their attention to systematic analysis of the multiple ways in which popular religion for people in structurally and culturally disadvantaged positions use belief systems to construct everyday forms of resistance to political, economic, and theological elites.  This line of research will demonstrate that U.S. Latinos/as are not passive political and religious actors but self-conscious subjects who imagine an alternative social reality, organized with more justice, dignity, freedom, and happiness.[lxiv]

And so it does seem that this would be a worthy job for the Latino/a theologian of the 21st Century.  In return, it also seems only fair and necessary – in order to make a better future – to call upon others to lend an attentive ear.  The popular religion of the Anglo-U.S. population has practically always been both silent and death when it comes to matters of urgent concern for justice.  Whether it’s with regard to the crises of overpopulation of Hispanics in state and federal prisons for non-violent crimes or the exponentially growing death toll in Mexico as a result of the drug trade driven by U.S. demand and consumption – or the many other acute issues facing U.S. Latinos/as in this age – evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics alike are far behind in their organization and activism on behalf of God’s care for the immigrant and minority communities in this country.

The depth, beauty and richness of Latino/a religious and theological identity has only been minimally highlighted here.  To say with Hispanics that the future is truly Mestizaje, a greater appreciation for and solidarity with this people of eclectic culture and a religious mosaic but be cultivated in the minds and hearts of Americans everywhere.  Latino/a scholars of religion continue to do their part, as can be seen here, but the divide between the dominant Euroamerican culture and Mestizo/a American people is still great.  Giving encouragement to other Hispanics in hopes of a brighter tomorrow, Loida I. Martell-Otero offers this word: “There is a particularity of our spirituality which enlivens our life of faith, and therefore our theology.  We have many names for this: our passion, our joy, our deep love for the Lord.  Non-Hispanics are often nonplussed by it . . . Our challenge is to keep the fire of our passion from dying out.  We must continue to think with our hearts and feel with our brains.”[lxv]  May it be as she says.


[i] Jacob Neusner, World Religions in America, Fourth Edition, 4th ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[ii] Ibid., 90.

[iii] Ibid., 91.

[iv] David Tombs, Latin American Liberation Theology (Brill Academic Publishers, 2003), 7.

[v] Luis G. Pedraja, Teologia: An Introduction to Hispanic Theology (Abingdon Press, 2004), 29.

[vi] Miguel A. De LA Torre and Edwin David Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies (Orbis Books, 2001), 30.

[vii] Ibid., 33.

[viii] Pedraja, Teologia, 30.

[ix] Neusner, World Religions in America, Fourth Edition, 89.

[x] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 50.

[xi] Mar Peter-Raoul, Yearning to Breathe Free: Liberation Theologies in the United States (Orbis Books, 1991), 36.

[xii] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 45.

[xiii] Neusner, World Religions in America, Fourth Edition, 77.

[xiv] Peter-Raoul, Yearning to Breathe Free, 38.

[xv] Pedraja, Teologia, 21.

[xvi] Nestor Medina and Nstor Medina, Mestizaje: Remapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina/O Catholicism (Orbis Books, 2009), xii.

[xvii] Ibid., xiii.

[xviii] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 26.

[xix] Ibid., 39.

[xx] Ibid., 46.

[xxi] Ibid., 54.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 59.

[xxiv] Ibid., 58.

[xxv] Ibid., 61.

[xxvi] Ibid., 62.

[xxvii] Ibid., 65.

[xxviii] Ibid., 68.

[xxix] Ibid., 43.

[xxx] Roberto Goizueta, Alvin Padilla, and Eldin Villafañe, Hispanic Christian Thought At the Dawn of the 21st Century: Apuntes in Honor of Justo L. Gonzalez (Abingdon Press, 2005), xii.

[xxxi] Pedraja, Teologia, 22.

[xxxii] Justo L González, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes Spanish (Abingdon Press, 1996).

[xxxiii] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 43.

[xxxiv] Medina and Medina, Mestizaje, ix.

[xxxv] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 40.

[xxxvi] Pedraja, Teologia, 21.

[xxxvii] Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 1.

[xxxviii] Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 137.

[xxxix] José; Gonzales Faus, José I. Comblin, Cambio social y pensamiento cristiano en América Latina (Trotta, 1993), 218.

[xl] Alfred T. Hennelly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Orbis Books, 1990), 294.

[xli] Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for our Time (Orbis Bks, 1978), 95.

[xlii] Pedraja, Teologia, 36.

[xliii] Orlando O. Espin, From the Heart of Our People: Latino/ a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology (Orbis Books, 1999), 3.

[xliv] María Pilar Aquino, “Directions and Foundations of Hispanic/Latino Theology : Toward a Mestiza Theology of Liberation.,” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 1, no. 1 (November 1, 1993): 16.

[xlv] Ibid., 21.

[xlvi] Peter-Raoul, Yearning to Breathe Free, 138.

[xlvii] Roberto S. Goizueta, “Beyond the frontier myth,” in Hispanic Christian thought at the dawn of the 21st century (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 153,

[xlviii] Justo L González, Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon Press, 1990), 39.

[xlix] Goizueta, “Beyond the frontier myth,” 151.

[l] Ibid., 155.

[li] Ibid., 157.

[lii] Ibid., 156.

[liii] Ibid., 158.

[liv] Virgilio P. Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet, Revised Edition, Rev Sub. (University Press of Colorado, 2000), 69.

[lv] Ibid., 70.

[lvi] Ibid., 76.

[lvii] Ibid., 77.

[lviii] Ibid., 78.

[lix] Virgilio Elizondo, “Jesus the Galiliean Jew in Mestizo Theology,” Theological Studies 70, no. 2 (June 2009): 263.

[lx] Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo, 83.

[lxi] Ibid., 89.

[lxii] Ibid., 91.

[lxiii] Ibid., 95.

[lxiv] Harold J. Recinos, “Issues in: U.S. Latino/Latina theology,” Quarterly Review 25, no. 3 (Fall  2005 2005): 327.

[lxv] Jose D. Rodriguez and Loida I. Martell-Otero, Teologia en Conjunto, 1st ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 158-9.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aquino, María Pilar. “Directions and Foundations of Hispanic/Latino Theology : Toward a Mestiza Theology of Liberation..” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 1, no. 1 (November 1, 1993): 5-21.

Boff, Leonardo. Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for our Time. Orbis Bks, 1978.

Comblin, José; Gonzalez Faus, José I. Cambio social y pensamiento cristiano en América Latina. Trotta, 1993.

Elizondo, Virgilio. “Jesus the Galiliean Jew in Mestizo Theology.” Theological Studies 70, no. 2 (June 2009): 262-280.

Elizondo, Virgilio P. The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet, Revised Edition. Rev Sub. University Press of Colorado, 2000.

Espin, Orlando O. From the Heart of Our People: Latino/ a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology. Orbis Books, 1999.

Goizueta, Roberto, Alvin Padilla, and Eldin Villafañe. Hispanic Christian Thought At the Dawn of the 21st Century: Apuntes in Honor of Justo L. Gonzalez. Abingdon Press, 2005.

Goizueta, Roberto S. “Beyond the frontier myth.” In Hispanic Christian thought at the dawn of the 21st century, 150-158. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

González, Justo L. Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Abingdon Press, 1990.

———. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes Spanish. Abingdon Press, 1996.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Revised. Orbis Books, 1988.

Hennelly, Alfred T. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Orbis Books, 1990.

Medina, Nestor, and Nstor Medina. Mestizaje: Remapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina/O Catholicism. Orbis Books, 2009.

Neusner, Jacob. World Religions in America, Fourth Edition. 4th ed. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Pedraja, Luis G. Teologia: An Introduction to Hispanic Theology. Abingdon Press, 2004.

Peter-Raoul, Mar. Yearning to Breathe Free: Liberation Theologies in the United States. Orbis Books, 1991.

Recinos, Harold J. “Issues in: U.S. Latino/Latina theology.” Quarterly Review 25, no. 3 (Fall  2005 2005): 323-330.

Rodriguez, Jose D., and Loida I. Martell-Otero. Teologia en Conjunto. 1st ed. Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Segundo, Juan Luis. Liberation of Theology. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002.

Sobrino, Jon. Christology at the Crossroads. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002.

Tombs, David. Latin American Liberation Theology. Brill Academic Publishers, 2003.

Torre, Miguel A. De LA, and Edwin David Aponte. Introducing Latino/a Theologies. Orbis Books, 2001.

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