The Liberating Theology of Our Abuelitas | Sojourners

The Liberating Theology of Our Abuelitas

Growing up as a daughter of Cuban immigrants in Miami meant that my upbringing was primarily shaped by the culture of my family’s home country. The main preserver of that culture is my abuela (grandmother), who immigrated here in the 1960s. She brought with her a sense of hard work, familia, food, and most of all, faith.

That faith helped sustain her and raise me. Many wouldn’t consider Abuela a theologian in the formal sense: She never attended seminary, or, for that matter, college. She never wrote a book or read Bible commentaries. However, she devoted her life to the Roman Catholic Church, the community she found there, and her faith in Jesus.

She made a living by sewing her own clothes; on weekends, she outfitted me in her homemade dresses and showed me off to her church friends. On weekdays, I’d sit in the empty pews during her choir practice, watching her belt out her struggles to God. Abuela tended to her garden with care, bringing forth life and food through the mangos and avocados that made their home in our backyard. As we dug our hands in the soil, she’d tell me stories of her life in Cuba and of my grandfather, who died before I got the chance to meet him. “La vida es dificil, Katy,” she’d tell me, “pero Dios nos da fuerza.” Life is difficult, Kat, but God gives us strength.

As a young widow, Abuela raised her children alone in an unfamiliar country. Her home became a refuge for many in the community who’d stop by for dinner or a game of dominoes. Abuela was the matriarch of our familia — financially, spiritually, emotionally.

And this isn’t unique to my reality. The spiritual coach Lalah Delia once said, “Your grandmother’s prayers are still protecting you” — a phrase that has become popular among many younger generations of people, primarily Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. In many ways, the prayers that still guide and sustain us are those prayed by the women — our tías, abuelas, and comadres — who have gone before us, often overlooked and unnamed in our communities, churches, and scriptures.

Oftentimes, our mothers and our grandmothers serve as the beacons of our faith, the foundation of our spirituality. In fact, this is so universal for the Latine community that several of our theologians have given it a name: abuelita theology. (Note: The term Latine is used in place of Latino/a as a way to highlight the diversity of the Latino/a experience in gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.)

Abuelita theology is birthed from the reality that in Latine religious culture, matriarchal figures serve as the core of preserving and passing on religious traditions, beliefs, practices, and spirituality within the family. They function as what Chicano historian Mario García calls “live-in ministers,” particularly because the privilege of receiving formal religious instruction is rare within the Latine community. Thus, abuelitas have served as the functional priestesses and theologians in our homes and in our familias.

For Latines, abuelita theology helps us articulate how a marginalized, impoverished, and subjugated people continue to have faith in the God of liberation, and how such faith has endured through centuries, despite the exploitation engrained in the colonizers’ proselytization of the Americas.

The theologies we have inherited from our abuelas have given us a firm foundation of what it means to live out our faith and demonstrate love in the world. “Those wise women taught us about the power of prophetic words and the responsibility we have to seek and hear them,” wrote theologian Loida I. Martell-Otero. “They did not simply pass on el evangelio (the gospel) as a set of accepted dogmatic statements. They nurtured us with a keen sense of the Spirit's ability to create anew.”

This theme of inherited and lived theologies also continually comes up in scripture. We read story after story of mothers who engaged in acts of resistance and persistence. Like Rizpah, for example, who protested her sons’ unjust murders for six months (2 Samuel 21:7-14), or Moses’ mother Jochebed, who engaged in civil disobedience to protect her son from being murdered at the pharaoh’s instruction (Exodus 2:1-10). In both of these cases, their courage directly affected the course of Israel’s history.

Even Paul himself recounts the importance of the faith of our mothers and grandmothers when he tells Timothy, “I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you (2 Timothy 1:3-5, CEB, emphasis mine).

Paul begins his letter in gratitude of his ancestors. Then he acknowledges Timothy’s faith — a faith birthed from his abuelita and his mamá. This is a communal expression of faith that takes seriously the impact of not just people who came before him, but the women who shaped him. We wouldn’t have Timothy — and consequently the letters written to him — without Abuela Lois and Mamá Eunice.

Abuelita faith allows us to learn from the wisdom of marginalized women, or “the least of these.” When we embrace an “abuelita theology,” we embrace Jesus’ gospel of setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19).

Our grandmothers and mothers, along with Lois and Eunice — and all the abuelitas y mamas who have discipled us through their stories of survival, resistance, and persistence — continue to call out to us from the pages of scripture and through our own ancestral history. As we work to decenter whiteness and colonial realities from our theologies, may we embrace an abuelita faith, one that takes seriously the lived experiences of our overlooked mothers and grandmothers.

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