Faith and Religion in Latinx and Hispanic Heritage
Faith and religion
Spanish-speaking Catholics have lived in what is now the United States for twice as long as the nation has existed. Latinx first embraced the Protestant faith in the first half of the 19th century. Today Latinx lead and participate in a wide array of religious and spiritual groups, movements, practices and faith-based efforts for justice. Understanding Latinx religion and spirituality requires an appreciation of both its colonial Catholic roots. Additionally, it’s increasingly diverse expressions from the 19th century to the present.
Catholicism in what is now the U.S. were decidedly Hispanic. Yet overall, popular perceptions have frequently relegated the historical significance of Hispanic Catholicism in the colonial period to a romanticized and bygone day of the Spanish missions.
Scholars and other commentators note that many restored missions and writings about them fail to account for indigenous perspectives on the mission system. This includes the cultural shock, brutal treatment and death from European diseases that many Native Americans endured. While initially the prospect of entering the missions to stave off enemies, starvation and harsh winters was attractive to some Native Americans, several of them eventually found mission life too alien and coercive. Not only were they not accustomed to the Spanish work routines and religious lifestyles, but they also found the friars’ demands unacceptable that they shed their traditional ways. Many became resentful and left.
Parishes first appeared with the establishment of formal towns and grew in number as some missions were secularized and became ordinary parishes. Local residents built churches and sought to obtain the services of clergy. Meaning, either religious order priests like the Franciscans or diocesan priests. These were primarily trained to serve existing Spanish-speaking Catholic communities rather than to work for the conversion of Native Americans.
New Immigrants, religious pluralism and struggles for justice
Protestant outreach to Latinx rose concurrently with the expanding population. Despite barriers to women’s and Latinx’ leadership parallel to those in Catholicism, Latinx were instrumental to Protestant growth through their service as evangelists, church animators and in some cases ordained ministers. For example, from the outset of the Pentecostal movement, women played key roles in its development.
Many Latinx civil rights leaders have perceived the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, as institutions that did little or nothing to alleviate the suffering of their people. In addition, they were even complicit in their oppression. On the other hand, César Chávez, arguably the most renowned figure in Chicano and Latinx history, conspicuously engaged prayer, fasting, non-violent resistance, devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the principles of Catholic social teaching in his organizing efforts on behalf of farm workers.
Overall, the increased activism of the Chicano movement and other Latinx initiatives for civil rights, along with the reforms of Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, the growth of Latinx Protestant communities and the inspiration of Latin American liberation theology, influenced many U.S. Latinx Protestant and Catholic leaders to initiate efforts for ecclesial and social reform. Together Protestant and Catholic leaders have collaborated in several ecumenical ventures, including faith-based community organizations. Shaping both church and society, such activist efforts are an important element of the ongoing evolution of Latinx religion and spirituality in the U.S.
Triggers from history
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Excerpts taken from Endurance and Transformation: Horizons of Latinx Faith by Timothy Matovina; National Park Service