The mainstream (mis)perception of Latino religious expression often falls somewhere between the stereotypes of elderly Catholics at prayer in a darkened cathedral and boisterous Pentecostals, neatly pressed and singing and shouting their prayers in Spanish. But Latino Christians are as diverse in their spiritual life as they are racially and culturally. Below are six examples of ways American Latinos have expressed their faith.
1. Gang Intervention. In the 1980s, Catholic priest Greg Boyle joined with the mothers in his barrio parish to go beyond the walls of the church to develop an innovative ministry to East Los Angeles gang members. Their work sparked Homeboy Tortillas and other pioneering business initiatives to help young people escape la vida loca, offering a new model for church involvement with gangs.
2. The Option for the Poor. The theology of liberation rose out of Latin America and became a part of spiritual life for many Latinos in the U.S. Starting in the 1980s, offering hospitality and assistance to those fleeing the wars in Central America became the way God’s redeeming love became incarnate in lives of many Latinos and other progressive Christians.
3. César Chávez and the Grape Boycott. The social consciousness of many Latino Christians dawned with farm- worker strikes and the grape boycott organized by César Chávez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. Chavez’ mix of devout Catholicism and Gandhian nonviolence sparked the largest Latino social movement in the history of the U.S. and inspires Latino activists around the country to this day.
4. Defense of Ancestral Lands. Charismatic preacher Reies López Tijerina was the leader of a Christian desert commune in the late 1950s when he received a call from God to go to New Mexico and lead the fight to defend the Chicano land grant claims there. The insistence of Tijerina that Chicanos were legally entitled to lands granted to them before the region became part of the U.S. led to many confrontations with authorities, including the violent takeover of a courthouse by Tijerina and his followers.
5. Helping the Church Become More Democratic.
Both Catholic and Protestant Latinos have largely been subject to non-Latino leadership in their churches until late in the 20th century. Raising the priorities of Latinos in the church has been a long struggle. Some Latinos advocated for recognition through the structures of the church, others pursued education and earned positions of leadership. Some Latinos left mainstream denominations to form their own ministries where they could have more impact in their own neighborhoods.
6. The Virgin of Guadalupe. In 1531, as the native people of Mexico were being crushed by the brutality of Spanish rule, the appearance of Mary as a dark-skinned Aztec teenager on a hill outside of Mexico City was taken as a sign that God had “put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” The appearance of Guadalupe brought millions of native people into the church and marked the start of a uniquely American brand of Christianity. While Guadalupe has long been associated with Catholic Latinos, an increasing number of Protestants are also finding inspiration in her image as a compassionate defender of the poor and a feminine symbol of the divine.