Journal of Christian Ministry | 2019: Latino-ization of the Church in the United States

2019: Latino-ization of the Church in the United States

2019: Latino-ization of the Church in the United States


Allan Figueroa Deck

In anticipation of his plenary address at ADME’s 2019 conference, we are reprinting a portion of a chapter by Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J. on the influence of Latino migration on the church in the United States. Fr. Deck is the Charles S. Casassa Chair of Catholic Social Values and professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University. He previously served as the executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was a founder and first president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States as well as of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry. This excerpt is used by permission from Christianities in Migration: The Global Perspective (Christianities of the World) by Peter C. Phan and Elaine Padilla (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

The Pew Research Center summarized its findings about Latinos and the transformation of American religion saying that ‘understanding religious faith among Latinos is essential to understanding the future of this population as well as the evolving nature of religion in the United States.’ This chapter provides a necessary overview for a neuralgic topic as US society, religions, and religious movements experience Latino-ization as a result of migration, relatively high Latino birthrates, and considerable exogamy.

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What is happening in the political realignment of the nation echoes a change as well with regard to society and religion.
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First, we sketch centuries of Latino migrations, especially those of the past one hundred years. Second, we profile Latino religion from its remote origins keeping in mind the diverse elements of that rich religious heritage. Third, we consider some of the ways that Latino religion contributes to the transformation of Christianity in the United States today. Finally, we highlight some of the major observations. In addition to the pioneering work of the Pew Hispanic Research Center already noted, these reflections owe much to the scholarship of Gaston Espinosa, Timothy Matovina, and Richard R. Trevino whose works provide a resourceful entry into the complex world of US Latino religion today.

Latino Migration to the United States: The Oldest and the Newest

Herbert Eugene Bolton, the father of borderlands history, reminded us more than a century ago that the movement of civilization, religion, commerce, and culture north from Mexico and the Caribbean is one of the greatest yet unacknowledged dynamics of US history. He reminded us that this northward movement was prior to the frontier movement of Anglo Americans and other European immigrants westward from the Atlantic seaboard. An adequate appreciation of the presence of Latino cultures and religion in the wake of this northward movement has been eclipsed by the Frontier Thesis, a narrative based upon a narrow historical interpretation of US history that ignores Latino contributions. Catholic Church histories as well have tended to reflect the same regrettable Anglo-American bias that makes little of the deep Latino roots of US Catholic Christianity.

Compounding this blindness is a long-standing prejudice in the Western world against things Hispanic, which Philip Wayne Powell identified decades ago in The Tree of Hate: Propaganda and Prejudices Affecting United States Relations with the Hispanic World. This prejudice has tended to work against the acceptance of Latinos as a “successful” immigrant group, and this despite the fact that Latinos are actually the oldest group of migrants to have stepped foot on what is now US soil. In the majority today’s Latinos were actually born in the United States and arc therefore not immigrants. Significant numbers of them, moreover, have experienced upward socioeconomic mobility. Even though there are many generations of Latinos whose presence goes back much farther than many European Americans, Latinos remain strangely alien. Over the past one hundred years the constant replenishment of Latinos by relatives coming from Mexico, together with the homeland’s geographic proximity, has contributed to a unique situation in which Latinos continue to be judged by the general public more as foreigners than as Americans.

Latino migrations in North America began early in the 1500s, one century before England’s colonial explorations of the region. John Tutino demonstrates how the Latino presence has been a formative factor and how it certainly has continued as such throughout the origins, foundations, and ongoing trajectory of the nation—an immense movement of peoples, goods, ideas, religion, ways of life, and culture from Latin America.