Dispatches from the American Society for Church History--New Directionsin Latino/a Religious History

Arlene Sánchez Walsh 

Special from the 2014 American Society of Church History Conference

I was unable to make the 2014 meeting of the American Society of Church History (ASCH) in DC this year. All flights from the LA area were either booked/delayed/and in my case, cancelled due to the terrible weather back East.

Taking advantage of the ability to talk to people just about anywhere, my colleague, Felipe Hinojosa skyped me in and I was able to deliver my responses to the topic “Faith, Power and Resistance: New Directions in Latino/a Religious History.”  Because I am considered mid-career and occasionally feel a certain sense of misplaced entitlement, delivering my response in my pajamas from the comfort of a sunny 75 degree day in L.A. fulfilled that scant sense of privilege one acquires in academia.

The papers were small parts of larger projects by some up and coming Latino/a scholars at different stages of their academic careers focused on varied topics such as the maintaining of ethnic identity as a form of resistance among Mexicano Pentecostals on the borderlands, a work on Latino/a Mennonites and their entry way into multicultural political coalitions as a means to serve the interests of their community, and finally an intriguing look at the civil rights organization, the Young Lords, and their improvised “People’s Church” movement which agitated for more services from varied mainline Protestant groups.  My response aside from some comments specifically targeted to the papers themselves was an attempt to put this field in some context and to speculate on where it is we are going.

First off, I should say that scholars who dedicate their time, writing, resources to explorations of the faith lives of Latino/a community are not many--I am pretty sure I know all of them, and I am sure I know all the historians, which says a lot since I’m kinda of an introvert.  And I am pretty sure that I have either attended or been part of every panel assembled at the ASCH that focuses on Latino/a religious history.  There are not many of those panels either. Latino/a religious history, as it is in other disciplines, is ghettoized as a sub speciality suitable only for those who are interested in it--geographically, ethnically, or otherwise.  Latino/a history is simply not a part of mainstream American Religious History unless historians feel the need to cover it when they cover the Southwest borderlands, or our turn comes up in the syllabus, when we get our week of “Minorities and U.S. Religion,” “People of Color and U.S. Religion,” or some iteration of the word “Hispanic” religion in the U.S. 

No, the vast majority of folks churning o
ut their Ph.D’s in  American Religious History, are still studying some shade of the East Coast or South, and some shade of Christianity, and pretty fixated on the Civil War for some reason. For many budding academics, Latino/a religious history eludes them like their first tenure-track job—well, maybe elude is not the right word--they have never taken a class on Latino/a religion--because it is not needed for them to secure elusive employment, nor is it required that they know anything about our history--because, well, that is a good question, why don’t people know about Francisco Olazábal? Or about the Young Lords? Or about Latino/a Mennonites? 

I’ll try to answer at the end of the piece, for now, back to the ASCH:

Something Old--Now--something completely missing from this session was Catholicism!  The dominant religious tradition of most US Latinos/as was mentioned as an afterthought at the session, and no papers represented Catholicism--which was odd. I think what this says is that there is now enough work being done outside of the history of Latino/a Catholics that we can have an entire panel on Latino/a religious history comprised of Protestant subjects and broadly speaking, Protestant scholars.  

Something New--Generally speaking, the larger disciplines of Latino/a History, specifically Chicano/a history have ignored the religious lives of their communities because those disciplines came of age at a time when religion was bracketed in between the well-worn sociological idea of “social control” or the well-worn Marxist antipathy to religion being anything other than a way to keep workers in their place. Two of these papers, Felipe Hinojosa’s work on Latino Mennonites and Elias Ortega’s work on the Young Lords hold the promise of joining work like Rudy Busto’s King Tiger, that explore the religious life of noted Chicano civil rights leader Reis Tijerina.  That would be something new and something very welcomed if more cross-fertilization were to take place among historians and religious historians—so that the false wall of secularism fades away once and for all.

Something Borrowed--Despite the sessions’ billing as “New Directions,” a few things that Latino/a Religious historians are still doing that their counterparts in American Religious History have done for decades is write about denominations and missions--albeit in very different ways.  Whether it was a focus on the Pentecostals, Mennonites, or Methodists, the session rarely veered from discussions of religious organizations run by dominant culture older males and what that meant for Latino/a religious and political agency.  It brought to mind the hundreds of volumes written about Baptists, Methodists, Puritans, and lots  and lots of congregational histories focused on specific geographic areas. In that way, Latino/a religious history may be in line with all those grand old histories about Puritans in New England--maybe we are just waiting for our Latino Perry Miller to get tenure?

Something Brown--What is specifically Latino/an about these histories?  For one, most of the articles, dissertations, manuscripts in preparation and the few published books, use or rely heavily on oral history or ethnography to complete their works. This is one of the only ways to capture history that has often been erased or deemed unworthy of being preserved.  One of the reasons these books, articles, or conference papers are deemed so important and “pathbreaking” is because they are often the first of their kind--for much of the mainstream dominant culture that comprises America Religious Historians--they have never heard these histories. For some reason, the fact that there have been Spanish-speaking Catholics in America longer than there have been British Protestants is not reason enough to re-direct their historiographical trajectory out West.  What also makes these histories Latino/a is that Christianity in Latin America, on the borderlands, in the cities and rural areas where Latinos/as have called home for centuries--Christianity is a colonial project. Christianity--whether in its Spanish Catholic forms or its European or American Protestant forms historically came first to the indigenous communities of Latin America and after centuries of violent evangelism, settled into a missions movement that saw Latin Americans and U.S. Latinos/as as subjects and rarely as equals. As scholars, we have to figure out what that means for us to have our existence measured out as one huge missions field.

We, as scholars, need to make sense of our place in this colonial project. All these papers dealt with issues of assimilation vs. acculturation. For Mexicanos and the American Pentecostal presence on the borderlands, the question was to accept a new Christian identity in lieu of a lesser Mexicano identity made deficient by centuries of adherence to the false refuge of “Romanism.” For Latino/a Mennonites, subjecting themselves to the authority of a largely white, older, rural leadership who attempted to graft them onto the historic peace church tradition through theological education that attempted to neutralize their ethnic identity and render their political power inert.  Finally, the Young Lords,  civil rights pioneers of the burgeoning Latino/a civil rights movements birthed in the large cities of the East Coast and Midwest, taking over McCormick Seminary in Chicago in the 1960s and creating a “People’s Church,” is reminiscent of the Chicano Movement on the West Coast building coalitions with activist Catholics (Católicos Por La Raza) and lobbying for the church to work on behalf of the dispossessed instead of aligning themselves with those in power.

So where does Latino/a Religious history need to look next to continue to de-colonize itself and recapture the history of our communities?  Breaking away from the model of denominational history would be a start, it would also serve us well to steer clear of the old-guard model of studying “great men,” and last, when sessions like this begin to examine Latinos/as in non-Christian traditions, in Afro-Caribbean diaspora religions, and begins to explore all these traditions through the experiences of the people--the future will be very bright. Uncovering the role of women in all these traditions, and simply not taking the fact that women were teachers and rarer yet,  pastors, as proof that they were empowered helps up move beyond the institutions and towards the lived religious experiences of our people.

There are some of us out there who have been at this for awhile--the vieja guardia. Many of us started in other fields and grafted religious history onto our programs, because there was no one at the level of senior scholar who was working on Latino/a religious history. I started out working with noted Chicana labor historian, Vicki L. Ruiz, because of her work excavating women’s work lives.  Most of us have had to carve out our own space in seminaries, history departments, ethnic studies, and yes, sometimes in programs of American Religion--if we are lucky. There are a number of new faculty members scattered throughout the U.S., there are some enterprising Ph.D students in the pipeline, and if we can all withstand the shrinking job market, the mid-career blues, the glass-ceiling--maybe we can continue to pry the canon of American Religious history open long enough for our scholarship be funded, published and assigned not as a matter of enforced diversity--but simply to correct the historically inaccuracies that should bother us a lot more than they do. 

Why don’t we all need to know Latino/a Religious History? Because it’s not central to the “American” story, it is our job to make sure we remind our colleagues of that exclusion and in effect, that part of the problem, and then ask them if they are going to help change it and become part of the solution.


Edward J. Blum said…
this is one of those comments/posts that should be distributed widely, especially the ending.
Ed's absolutely right. Thanks so much for this, Arlene.

As I turn to work on an article project (and eventually something more ... ?) about Puerto Rican migrants, the New York Archdiocese, and ideas of marriage, family, and sexuality, I've realized the limits of historiography. I wasn't able to attend this session, but I expect to be citing this post for a long, long time.
Monica, thank you and honored!

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