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Híspaníc Chrístían Worshíp
By Justo L. González
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1996 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Many Faces of Hispanic Worship
Who is a Hispanic? How do they worship? These questions are not easy to answer. There is no such thing as a typical Hispanic, or a typical form of Hispanic worship. Yet perhaps it is in that very multiplicity—in the impossibility of defining and describing us as a whole—that our greatest contribution to the church at large lies.
Besides the distinctions that divide every ethnic group—gender, class, level of education, and so forth—there are three others that are of crucial importance for the Latino community. (Here, as throughout this volume, the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino or Latina" are used interchangeably.)
The first of these distinctions has to do with countries of origin and cultural background. The largest group among Hispanics are those whose cultural roots are in Mexico. Some of these people had ancestors in the southwestern United States before this area became U.S. territory as a result of the Mexican-American war. Others have come across the border at various times since. Generally, they are most numerous in the West and Southwest, although in the last two decades their numbers have been increasing in the Midwest and throughout the nation. The second largest group is the Puerto Ricans, concentrated in the Northeast, but also quite numerous in the Midwest, and found as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Other groups come from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, South America, and particularly in more recent times, Central America. Although these various Latino subgroups speak a common language, there are differences in vocabulary, foods, music, and a host of other cultural aspects. Also, as these groups meet one another and interact, there are younger generations whose parents belong to different subgroups, and who are therefore Hispanics whose roots are found in more than one country of origin. Thus, one could say that a new form of being Hispanic—a form that includes traits from all Latino subgroups—is slowly emerging in the United States.
These cultural differences are reflected in worship. For instance, Latino churches of the same denomination may use maracas and bongo drums, or mariachi music, depending on whether they are in New York or in Texas. In Los Angeles, a church potluck supper may include Salvadoran papusas, while in Boston there might be Puerto Rican mofongo or Cuban congrís.
Second, the Latino religious community is often divided along generational lines. Older people and more recent immigrants tend to prefer Spanish, while many in the younger generations prefer English. Teenagers in particular are often ashamed of being "different" from their peers, or from the dominant culture that they see on TV, and therefore avoid speaking Spanish. The resulting dynamics in congregations is quite interesting, and sometimes sad.
Often the congregation is the only place where the older generation of Latinos and Latinas have a voice—they are generally disempowered in politics, and very seldom can they influence the schools where their children attend or the curricula they follow. Therefore, many older Hispanics are tempted to turn the church into a cultural preserve, whose main function is to transmit the mother culture to the younger generations. When that happens, the younger folk—especially teenagers—resent being forced to worship in Spanish and to follow the traditional culture, with the result that as they grow up they often leave the church—at least for a while. Thus, the generational conflicts that are so common in the dominant culture—and which are not as marked in Hispanic cultures themselves—become quite divisive in many Latino congregations.
Other congregations move in the opposite direction. Since their children seem to prefer English, and since the younger adults who are most fluent in English are also economically the most successful in the community, these churches conduct all programs for children and youth in English, and eventually move as far away as possible from their Latino roots. In consequence, they are no longer able to welcome the new immigrants and their children, who must then find other communities of faith and other places to worship.
Third, the Latino community is divided by denominational loyalties in a way that is quite different from what happens in the dominant culture. Latino Protestantism, both in Latin America and in the United States, has grown mostly on the basis of anti-Catholic preaching and teaching. Among many Hispanics, to be a Protestant means to be anti- Catholic, so often Roman Catholicism is depicted in the worst light possible—they are idolaters who worship the Virgin and the saints, they do not believe in the Bible, they believe that they can save themselves through their own good works, their interpretation of the Eucharist is cannibalistic, priests are tyrannical and immoral, and so on.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are Hispanic Catholics who seem to believe that the Roman Catholic Church has a monopoly over Hispanics, and that a Latino or Latina who becomes a Protestant is a traitor to our common heritage. Some of these people are quite accepting of Anglo Protestants—after all, that is what Anglos are supposed to be—but they see any Protestant growth in the Latino community as unwarranted proselytizing and an infringement of the basic rules of ecumenical etiquette. (One could say in passing that it is precisely this attitude that has been a major contributor to the growth of Protestantism and the defection among Hispanics from the Catholic Church. Those among Roman Catholics who hold this attitude tend to take Hispanics for granted as members of the Catholic Church—and no one likes to be taken for granted.)
Thus, Hispanic worship has many faces according to the various combinations of these three factors. The possible combinations are numerous, and each impacts worship in a particular way. Think, for instance, of a Mexican Roman Catholic parish composed mostly of persons who prefer to worship in Spanish and who still have deep roots in Mexican culture. In that parish, the Mass will be central, probably in Spanish with mariachi music, and perhaps even some liturgical dances patterned after ancient Mexican religious dances. Also, some elements of the traditional Mexican popular religiosity will be present—the Virgin of Guadalupe., posadas, the Via Crucis, and so forth.
In the same neighborhood there may be a Pentecostal church whose doctrine is staunchly anti-Catholic, but whose members come from the same strata of society as the majority of those in the Catholic church. Instead of the Mass, their worship will center on preaching, praise, testimonios, coritos, and prayer for healing. The coritos, however, will most likely be sung to the accompaniment of a mariachi-style band, rather than Caribbean-style maracas and drums. Also, it is quite likely that some of the people who attend this church, and whose rhetoric is rabidly anti-Catholic, will have an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at home. In the same community, there may be a "mainline" Protestant church whose worship is mostly in English and follows the general pattern of Anglo churches of the same denomination. Still, when they celebrate a baptism they do so with a number of elements unknown in Anglo congregations, but quite common in the Mexican tradition—godparents, special dresses and foods, and practices of compadrazgo. In that same church, there may be a time set aside during the worship service for coritos, and they may also sing some songs taken from the mariachi Mass normally sung down the street. Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, in New York, similar combinations are taking place, although in a different context since the Mexican influence is not as powerful as the Puerto Rican or the Dominican.
In brief, there are many faces to Hispanic worship, and any attempt to describe that worship without taking that variety into consideration would be false.
On the other hand, as one travels throughout the nation and worships, as I have, in a wide variety of Latino contexts, one senses a commonality that somehow holds these various strands together. Latino churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, whether mostly Mexican, Cuban, or Salvadoran, have their own particular flavor in worship. It is this flavor that I shall seek to explore in the rest of this chapter, and which is then illustrated in its various incarnations in the chapters that follow.
However, before moving on to that subject, there is an important caveat to be made. There are a number of churches—relatively few, and mostly very small—whose membership is mostly Latinos and Latinas, but whose worship is scarcely distinguishable from what takes place at eleven o'clock in predominantly Anglo congregations of the same denomination. There is a place for such churches, since obviously people who worship there find that these churches meet their needs and relate to their own stance within the cultural gamut in the United States. Yet they are not included in this essay—nor in the rest of this book—for obvious reasons: If they are like any other church, and their worship is no different, there is little need to study their worship or what it might contribute to the church at large.
Worshiping as Pilgrims and Exiles
If there is an experience that unites Hispanics in the United States, it is the experience of belonging, yet not belonging. There are many ways to describe that experience. Among Latinos and Latinas, the most common are probably mestizaje and exile.
The term mestizaje cannot be easily translated into English. In colonial times in what is now Latin America, a mestizo (or mestizo., if it was a woman) was a person of mixed Spanish and Native parentage. A mulato (or mulatd) was a person of mixed Spanish and African parentage. Mestizaje, therefore, is the quality of being mestizo (or mestizo)— and mulatez is the quality of being mulato (or mulata). It was Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, of San Antonio, who applied the category of mestizaje to the Mexican-American experience, and employed it as a tool for sociological, psychological, and theological analysis. At a later time, as Black pride and the notion of negritude have gained currency in theology, similar reflections have taken place, mostly among people of Caribbean origin, around the subject of mulatez.
Elizondo points out that being a mestizo puts one beyond the margins of dominant definitions. From the point of view of the Spanish, the mestizo is an Indian. From the point of view of the Indian, the mestizo is Spanish. In many ways, the mestizo's, very existence is a challenge to the neat divisions and classifications that are used to justify the existing status quo of exploitation and segregation. As a result, the mestizo is exploited by the powerful Spanish, and segregated and rejected by both the Spanish and the Indian. The mestizo is nobody. And yet, the mestizo is the sign of the future, for the new nations being born out of the colonial crucible—in the particular case of Elizondo's example, Mexico—will be neither Spanish nor Indian, but mestizo nations. And, what was true then of the original mestizos of Mexico, where the Indian and the Spanish element met, is now true, says Elizondo, of the Mexican-American, who is a new form of mestizo—now neither Mexican nor American, and both Mexican and American. Therefore, in short, mestizos do not belong; and yet, they belong to the future, for what they now are is what the rest of society is to be.
Although originally stated as an analysis of the Mexican-American condition and consciousness, the notion of mestizaje—and its parallel mulatez—has struck a responsive chord among Latinos and Latinas of various backgrounds, as a way of understanding and stating their condition in this country and society. Furthermore, if mestizos pose a challenge to the accepted definitions of what people are or ought to be in any culturally segregated society, Hispanic mestizaje poses a particular challenge to the United States, which is long accustomed to thinking only in terms of Black and White. We are not White, even though some of us may be blond and blueeyed. Nor are we Black, even though some of us may have all the traits of purely African descent. We are a race that is not a race in any of the traditional senses. Thus, our very existence points to the mythical and ideological character of the very notion of "race": Contrary to what we are told, racism is not the outcome of race, but vice versa. In other words, it is not race that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to the very notion of "race."
Another way of expressing the experience described as mestizaje is the image of exile. Obviously, many Hispanics are in this country as exiles. Even those who did not come here as political refugees are in many ways exiles—just as even those who cannot claim mixed blood are nevertheless mestizas and mestizos. An exile is a person living in a foreign land, and unable to return to the land of origin. Many Hispanics are literally in that condition, due to tyranny and civil wars in their own countries. But even those who originally came to this land seeking economic improvement are also exiles, for they cannot in reality go back—even were they to return to their native lands, much of what they knew would no longer be there, and in any case they themselves are no longer the same people they were when they first left.
The image of exile is complex, and so are the sentiments it evokes. Clearly, in most cases one's sentiments toward the land of exile are not altogether negative. To the degree that one had any choice in the matter, the land of exile is also the land that appeared—and probably was—most welcoming, most able to receive one who for whatever reason had to leave the native land. At the same time, however, the word exile implies not really belonging. The exile's real home is elsewhere—or was elsewhere, for commonly the exile has no home to return to. If a mestizo lives, so to speak, "at the hyphen" (the hyphen between "Mexican" and "American," or between "Cuban" and "American"), the exile lives between parentheses, waiting for the probably-never-to-come time of return.
For Latinas and Latinos who were born in this country, the image of exile expresses the manner in which the dominant society often looks at them. They are made to feel as if they are not at home, invited in many subtle ways to "go home," when in fact they have never known any other home than this. Those who have come from other lands often find themselves living in the midst of a community that cannot understand that, in spite of their decision to leave those lands, they still love them and long for them. All of us find that, even when our neighbors of the dominant culture make their best efforts to receive and include us, we still do not quite belong.
All of these experiences affect worship, and how we relate to it. For one thing, there is probably no place where the feeling of exile and alienness becomes more poignant for me than when I attend worship in most Anglo churches of my own or another "mainline" denomination. Here I am among sisters and brothers in Christ. I believe what they believe, and seek to stake my life on the same faith on which they stake theirs. Most of them are friendly and loving people who have every intention of making me feel included and at home. I am in church, the spiritual home for the homeless of which 1 Peter speaks. And yet, I am not at home. Quite often, even in the midst of such worship, I find myself athirst, "as a deer longing for flowing streams," and repeating the words of the psalmist:
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival. (Ps. 42:4)
This is a painful experience—painful, not only because of the feeling of not belonging, but also because I know how hurt the people with whom I am worshiping would be if I told them of my feelings. Thus I sit quietly and politely, and in the best of cases what should have been an act of corporate worship becomes a time of private devotion and reflection.
Excerpted from ¡Alabadle! by Justo L. González. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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