Catholicism With a Latin Beat

The Church of St. Raphael, a handsome historic structure built in 1926, stands in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles, a bedraggled urban neighborhood long associated in the public mind with the most impoverished and troubled sector of the city’s African-American community. St. Raphael’s is only four blocks from the intersection where trucker Reginald Denny was dragged from his vehicle and nearly killed by rioters in April 1992, just after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of state charges in the beating of Rodney King. Then, and for several years thereafter, most of St. Raphael’s parishioners were African-Americans. The whites whose ancestors originally built the church had long since moved to the suburbs.

Now, thanks to a demographic tidal wave that has washed over Los Angeles and many other parts of the United States during the past decade, St. Raphael’s parish is suddenly predominantly Hispanic. At Sunday Masses, its pews overflow with Latino immigrants from every corner of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. There are plenty of blacks, too, at St. Raphael’s, but many of them these days are immigrants from Haiti and Belize who have settled in South-Central alongside their Spanish-speaking neighbors.

The parish calendar at St. Raphael’s is a round-robin of ethnic festivals supplementing the usual Catholic holy days of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. In January, the parish celebrates Haitian Independence Day, a religious feast day for natives of that nation. During the same month, the parishioners honor El Señor de Esquipulas, the image of the “Black (charred or burned) Christ” traditionally venerated in the small Guatemalan town of Esquipulas. In March, there is a service in honor of the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, the human-rights martyr whose violent death in 1980 is now an occasion for storytelling and reconciliation in the Salvadoran community. The parish also honors Bishop Juan Gerardi, assassinated in Guatemala in 1998 after publishing a report on human-rights violations in that country.

In May, Unity Sunday brings together Latino, Belizean, and Haitian immigrants, along with African-Americans. This year the celebration, held under a tent in the church’s parking lot after a Mass that drew 2,000 people, included a “rock-charismatic” group belting out Spanish religious tunes, a Mexican mariachi band, a black gospel choir, and a children’s school choir singing hymns in Spanish and English. The festival concluded with a May crowning of a statue of Mary by the children.

In August, the parish carries on a Salvadoran tradition of honoring El Divino Salvador del Mundo (the Divine Savior of the World). The feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 is another major holy day at St. Raphael’s, because La Purisima (the Immaculate One) is the patroness of Nicaragua.

A few days later, December 12 marks the most important Marian feast day of all for Hispanic Catholics: La Virgen de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Long honored in Mexico, where, according to tradition, she appeared in 1531 to the Indian peasant Juan Diego and miraculously left her dark-skinned image on his cloak, Our Lady of Guadalupe is now venerated throughout Latin America and the Spanish-speaking United States. In 1999, Pope John Paul II declared her patroness of all the Americas. Her image is pervasive in the United States’s Hispanic neighborhoods: in churches and on home altars, but also on T-shirts, baseball caps, and neck chains, and in colorful murals painted on cars, trucks, building walls, and freeway underpasses. She is a familiar maternal presence for Hispanic newcomers who often feel isolated in an alien Anglo culture.

“They arrive very beaten up from the experiences they fled,” Rev. Vicente Lopez, a priest at St. Raphael’s, says of his immigrant parishioners, who tend to be refugees from either grinding poverty or tyrannical political regimes. “They call it ‘atonitos y agobiados‘—astonished and beaten,” Father Lopez continues. “The trial of the culture shock is stunning.” At St. Raphael’s, as in many newly Hispanicized parishes across the United States, there is a conscious effort to counteract the shock by re-creating the rich Catholic communal and devotional life that the Latino immigrants left behind. The result is a lively, ethnically diverse Catholicism that can seem strange to those used to more restrained versions of the faith. The wave of Hispanic immigration is not just bringing new faces into American Catholic churches. It is changing the very fabric of American Catholicism—setting its rhythms to a Latin beat.

America’s Largest Minority

Hispanics are now America’s largest minority, with a population of more than 35 million, according to figures from Census 2000. An estimated 70 percent of them are Roman Catholics. That means that at least one out of every four Catholics in America is of Hispanic origin. A 1999 report by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) noted that the number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States had grown by 71 percent since 1960. The bishops projected that by the year 2050, Hispanics will constitute 24 percent of the U.S. population and more than 50 percent of U.S. Catholics. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone has about five million Catholics, more than three million of them Hispanic, with a projected growth rate of one million new Catholics every five years, largely Hispanic. “It’s a very young population,” notes Louis Velasquez of the archdiocese’s Hispanic Affairs office. “While the general population in the country has an average age of 38, the Latino on average is 21 years of age. Since 1998, this archdiocese has been baptizing 100,000 Latino babies a year.”

A 1999 bishops’ report on Hispanic ministry noted that America’s Hispanics came from 19 different Latin-American republics, as well as Puerto Rico and Spain. Mexican-Americans were the largest group, accounting for 60 percent of the total, followed by Puerto Ricans at 17 percent and Cubans at 8 percent. In terms of looks, America’s Latinos are as diverse as the countries they come from, ranging from blond Argentines to dark-skinned Dominicans and others of predominantly African origin. They are united by their Spanish language, their Spanish-influenced cultures, and their Catholic faith.

Strangers in Their Own Land

The Hispanic presence in America is hardly new. Spanish-speaking Catholics arrived in what is now New Mexico during the late 16th century, decades before the first English colonies were established at Jamestown and Plymouth. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish crown claimed a swath of territory stretching from California to Florida. As late as 1848, New Mexico was considered part of Mexico, as were large parts of California, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas. Many descendants of the original Spanish settlers, who often intermarried or had children out of wedlock with Native Americans, still live in those states today. “I’m eighth-generation from Arizona and jokingly say that when the [Anglo] settlers came, my people said, ‘Welcome!'” says Father Lopez of St. Raphael’s.

But after Spain lost its fragile hold on the American Southeast during the 18th century, and Mexico ceded the Southwest in 1849, the Hispanic presence in America went into severe demographic decline. During the 19th century, waves of settlers and gold-seekers from the East turned much of the Hispanic Southwest into Anglo-Saxon Protestant territory. Waves of Irish immigration to America turned the Catholic Church in the United States into an Irish-dominated church.

By the 20th century, American Hispanics were feeling like strangers in a part of the country that had once been their own. And although their numbers were growing, most of them literally were strangers: recent immigrants from Mexico and migrants from Puerto Rico, driven north in search of work. They took the low-paying industrial and service jobs that many white Americans scorned, and they tended—as is still largely true today—to live in their own Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, or barrios, where they retained their native foods and customs. Former Washington Post reporter Roberto Suro wrote in Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Changing America (1998): “They are surrounded by a city but are not part of it…. After more than a dozen years, they speak all the English they need, which isn’t much. What they know best is how to find and keep work.”

Changes in U.S. immigration laws in 1965 encouraged even more Hispanic immigration, and the long post-World War II roll of the American economy created a north-of-the-border magnet for Latinos seeking a better life. A U.S. government report noted that during the 1980s alone, “between 2.1 and 2.6 million Mexicans took up permanent residence in the United States, counting both legal and illegal arrivals.” During the 1990s, that number of immigrants doubled again. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution in Cuba had launched a massive exodus across the sea that transformed Miami into a Spanish-speaking city. Political unrest and guerrilla warfare in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s sent thousands of refugees north from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

All these immigrants come from countries with rich Catholic heritages, steeped in devotions, personal piety, and faith. When they arrive in the United States, most look to the Catholic Church for a sense of familiarity and warmth. What they find instead in many places is a blasé, suburbanized Catholicism that is culturally foreign to them. “They come here and see a very different Church, one that has short and quick Masses, with people clearing out the parking lot within 50 minutes,” explains Msgr. Nelson Perez, director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization in Philadelphia. “Nobody talks to each other before or after Mass—they just rush out,” says Perez. “Hispanics are very family- and community-oriented, and they find that offensive.”

For example, when Cuban refugees started arriving in Miami after Castro’s takeover, they encountered an Anglo-dominated Church nearly as alienating as the regime they had left. “They fled Cuba with an absolute sense of desperation, except for their faith, which sustained them,” explains Rev. Albert Lahens, a Cuban-American associate pastor at St. John Neumann parish in Miami. “What they found here, they told me, was individualism, coldness, distancing attitudes, and apathy. It was enough to make them wonder whether to stay or return to the island.”

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Hispanic population totals more than 790,000, second only to that of Los Angeles. Chicago’s Hispanic immigrants, mostly from Mexico, encounter not only an unfamiliar American culture, but an entrenched Church infrastructure put into place by the European immigrants who preceded them more than a century ago. “Other groups like the Irish and Polish brought their own clergy with them, but Hispanic clergy have not followed their groups in,” explains Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, director of the archdiocese’s Hispanic Ministry Office. “So these people are coming into a system that is already built, not one that was built by them.”

“The Chicago archdiocese is 35 percent Hispanic, but nothing in our churches reflects that,” says Rev. Mike Herman of St. Sylvester’s parish in Chicago. “There are some racist issues there, because there are some people of color. They are immigrant people, and it tends to be a poor population, which always creates issues. Some of it is based on prejudices, and some just on resistance to change. Change doesn’t just require adding a Spanish Mass, but changing the whole nature of the parish.”

Poverty and Gangs

Furthermore, many Hispanic neighborhoods are wracked, not just by poverty, but by violence, often gang violence. Rev. Mike Enright is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish on Chicago’s rough South Side, where he has spent seven of his 17 years ministering to Hispanics. He says: “It’s daily gunfire over here. For a few years, I tried talking to the gangs. But I wound up either burying them or visiting them in jail. I can’t really say why they choose the gang over the Church, even though I’m trying to get them to choose the Church:’ To help counteract the gangs’ influence on his young parishioners, Father Enright has reopened a neighborhood school, struggled to find the funds to run it, and brought in some Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe sisters from Mexico to staff it.

“To understand Hispanics, we need to understand their spirituality, which requires a great deal of abandonment of most of our Western prejudices and biases,” says seminarian Joe Boland, a former assistant at Immaculate Conception who grew up in the Anglo suburbs west of Chicago but came to appreciate Hispanic culture through his friendships with Hispanics at the seminary high school he attended. “We believe in progress and logic,” says Boland. “A Mexican wouldn’t be likely to believe such things. They’re much more inclined to say something like, ‘It’s all in the hands of God.’ A widely used expression is si Dios quiere (if God wishes).”

Newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop Jose Gomez of Denver, where the Catholic population is now 21 percent Latino, elaborates: “In the Church in the U.S., everything is structured, while in Latin America it’s not. Our structure puts restraints on things and loses spontaneity. Hispanic ministry has to be a little more flexible than our tradition allows. Structure is a huge wall to Hispanic people.”

Until relatively recently, Latino Catholics were either ignored by the non-Latino Catholic majority in their parishes or were expected to assimilate soundlessly into Anglo parish life. Some pastors of the early 20th century went so far as to ban traditional Hispanic devotions, such as Good Friday processions with images of the bloody and suffering Jesus, deeming the statues grotesque. “The lack of evangelization and outreach in our Church’s history with these people is shocking,” says Msgr. Michael Heras, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Corpus Christi, Texas.

In Los Angeles 30 years ago, Father Lopez and a handful of other Mexican-American priests banded together, calling themselves the “Padres,” to try to obtain special attention from the Church for their Hispanic flocks, who longed for Spanish Masses and Spanish clergy. Meanwhile, much of the increasingly affluent, non-Hispanic Catholic population seemed too absorbed in their own affairs to pay much attention to the needs of the Latinos who were increasingly filling the pews.

The Pentecostal Temptation

Not surprisingly, the hostility and lack of understanding that Latinos often found in Catholic parishes in America drove many of them out of Catholicism altogether: As many as eight to ten million U.S. Hispanics, most of whom were originally baptized Catholic, now belong to Protestant churches. Small, welcoming Pentecostal and other evangelical Protestant communities offer Hispanic newcomers the warm fellowship and emotional worship experience that they often crave but have not often found in Anglo-majority Catholic churches. The evangelical focus on personal conversion and transformation of the moral life also appeals to immigrants hoping to lift themselves out of poverty. “The Protestants are going into heavily Hispanic Catholic areas and making contact door to door,” says Patrick Foley, founding editor of the journal Catholic Southwest. “They are talking about the Bible and offering social services, along with a sense of community.”

University of Notre Dame theologian Timothy Matovina, another scholar of Hispanic Catholicism, adds: “The personalism and fellowship among the Pentecostals makes this successful as well. They’re making the personal problems of the Hispanics a part of the weekly worship service.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops have slowly begun to take notice. In 1972, they sponsored a nationwide gathering called Encuentro Nacional Hispano de Pastoral, designed to let Hispanics themselves collect information about and set up programs for their people. In 1997, the bishops issued a National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry. Now, out of the 180 Catholic dioceses in America, more than 150 have organized Hispanic ministries. In 1998, the bishops issued a statement on Hispanic ministry that forswore the religious-assimilation policies of the past. “[We] are pleased to hear Hispanic Catholics voicing their desire for more opportunities to share their historical, cultural, and religious gifts with the Church they see as their home and heritage,” the bishops declared.

After two more Encuentros in 1977 and 1983, the bishops decided to make the fourth such gathering, Encuentro 2000, a multicultural Jubilee Year event celebrating all of America’s minority groups, at which Hispanics would be the leaders. It was the first Encuentro to be organized by the NCCB directly, rather than through the organization’s Hispanic Affairs office, suggesting that Latinos had finally gained recognition by the Church’s hierarchy in America. The June 2000 event, held in Los Angeles, was expected to draw 3,000 attendees, but in fact some 5,000 people came.

Such gatherings often galvanize feelings of pan-Hispanic solidarity. In Miami, for example, Cuban Catholics gained the first foothold, but now the churches there include Hispanics from all over Latin America. “We have a huge community of Haitians, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Venezuelans, and Colombians arriving in Miami now, most of them fleeing their political situations or the corruption of their governments,” explains Father Lahens of St. John Neumann’s parish. “The Cuban influence has been so anchored and so established here that we’re coming to a better understanding that it’s not just a Cuban parish anymore.”

Priest Shortage

The burgeoning Hispanic presence in American Catholicism has generated problems. For the nation’s 25 million Latino Catholics, there are only about 2,500 Latino priests to minister to them, only 20 percent of whom were born in the United States. Only about 500 Latinos are currently studying for the priesthood. That means that many of the leadership roles in Hispanic ministries will inevitably fall to the laity.

Ray Bonilla arrived in Bensenville, Illinois, from Monterrey, Mexico, in 1978 and found his local parish church, headed by an Anglo pastor, unfamiliar in liturgical style and unwelcoming to his people. “When I was a kid, everybody in my village was very Catholic, and we went through all the training of the sacraments together through the years, and everybody participated. It was a big shock when I first came here. The priest discriminated against us. He didn’t like Mexicans. He didn’t even want to see Mexican people in his parish. But I stayed and worked with a group of other people to change this, and after five years, the priest left and was replaced by a priest who tried to speak Spanish. I started getting more involved with the Church, first as a lector, as part of the parish council, Knights of Columbus, and whatever else I could do.”

Bonilla’s parish, St. Alexis’s, now hosts a mixed congregation of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Peruvians, and Salvadorans, along with many Anglos. Like Father Lopez at St. Raphael’s in Los Angeles, the new pastor, Rev. William Conway, tries to make sure that every ethnic group can find a place for its own feast days, and also relate to the feast days—those honoring Mary, for example—that other ethnic groups celebrate. “Everybody is united behind the Marian celebrations, and everyone is invited,” explains Bonilla.

St. Alexis’s also honors the Mexican Day of the Dead on November 2; parishioners bring pictures and memorabilia of their deceased relatives and friends to a side altar in the church. On Good Friday, there is a traditional Hispanic way of the cross, with costumed parishioners reenacting Jesus’ journey to Calvary in an outdoor procession marking the stages of Jesus’ passion. Parishioners also celebrate Mexican Mother’s Day on May 10, a religious holiday for them, and they plan to add Las Posadas, a Mexican Advent procession in which a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph reenact the gospel story of their search for a room at various inns, or posadas, before the birth of the Christ Child.

“Popular religiosity has always been a powerful means of evangelization,” notes Msgr. Perez of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization in Philadelphia. “Every ethnic community has particular religious celebrations that aren’t prescribed by the official order of the Church but that deal with life’s realities in their own form of expression. It’s a way to continue to connect people to the Church.” The connection seems to work; a few years ago, only one parish in Chicago sponsored a Hispanic way of the cross; this year, at least 57 parishes marked Good Friday with the traditional reenactment of Jesus’ death.

Lay Vibrancy

One of the brightest examples of a vibrant Hispanic-American Catholicism is the largely lay-run Radio Paz (Radio Peace) sponsored by the Archdiocese of Miami, which sends Spanish-language programming to 98 stations in southern Florida and Latin America. “Radio Peace has been an essentially unifying force,” notes Father Lahens of St. John Neumann’s. In Los Angeles this past May, parishioners at St. Raphael’s held a monthlong program called “Building Bridges Black and Brown,” during which Latino and African-American Catholics gathered every evening to pray the rosary on the street. They honored St. Martin de Porres, a black Peruvian friar who is now venerated as the patron saint of interracial harmony.

Last year in Atlanta, where a Hispanic population has mushroomed almost overnight, a largely Anglo parish, Holy Spirit, joined with community leaders who helped buy a rundown retail strip mall to convert it into a school and community center for new immigrants. The Solidarity School opened last fall in a modular building in the mall’s parking lot with just 25 children enrolled in kindergarten and first grade, but it has already added on a second grade starting this fall, with other grades to follow. Parents pay what they can, on average $5 a day, which includes materials and meals. One father works as the school janitor for his contribution. More affluent schools in Atlanta, along with individuals and businesses, are donating food and funds. Holy Spirit’s pastor, Msgr. Edward Dillon, rents office space for additional ministries in the strip, which also houses a small chapel and a Hispanic grocery store. The partnership has turned the complex into a “Solidarity Mission Village,” with permanent quarters for the school, and plans for a full-fledged church and green spaces with a traditional plaza where Latinos can gather.

Despite all these signs of life, Hispanic Catholicism in America is still far from truly vigorous. The shortage of Latino priests is a major stumbling block to vitality—although the NCCB reports that now, for the first time in years, there is an increase in Mexican-American vocations to the priesthood, together with an influx of missionaries from Latin countries. The Archdiocese of Chicago has a special program, Casa Jesus, for young Latino men thinking about becoming priests. And there are now 26 Hispanic bishops in the United States, compared with only one bishop in 1971.

Father Lopez of St. Raphael’s in Los Angeles recalls, “The Padres cried out publicly that it was unjust that there were no Spanish-speaking priests or bishops here to reflect this group. They prophetically said that we would soon be facing a huge Hispanic Catholic population.” The prophecy proved true, and Hispanics have become a major force in American Catholicism. And the Catholic Church in America seems finally to be learning how to make the most of their presence—and their capacity to return a sense of tradition, community, and the sacred to Catholic life in America.

  • Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

    Sheila Gribbens Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago journalist with extensive experience in both secular and religious journalism. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of the Church, faith, culture, politics and the media. For more than twenty years she reported for Time magazine out of the Midwest Bureau in Chicago—and at WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC-owned station, she was co-host of the program 'YOU'. She has hosted three radio programs, “The Right Questions” and “Issues & Answers” for Relevant Radio, and "America's Lifeline" on the Salem network. Sheila currently is the Host of "A Closer Look", an hour long news analysis program on Relevant Radio and serves as the Network News Director. She can be heard reading the Sunday Gospel and doing narratives on in the English edition. She has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Crisis Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic New World, MercatorNet and the National Review Online.

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