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Latino Catholicism

Summary and Keywords

The Latino/Latina or Hispanic Catholic presence spans the colonial era, the period of U.S. expansion during the 19th century, and the waves of new immigrants in the 20th and 21st centuries. A long-standing element of Latino Catholic history, the struggle for justice both in church and society, became even more prominent during the 20th century.

While Catholics in the thirteen British colonies were a minority in a Protestant land, in Hispanic settlements from Florida to California, Catholicism was the established religion under Spain and, in the Southwest, under Mexico after it won independence in 1821. Spanish subjects founded numerous missions intended to Christianize and Hispanicize native populations. They also established parishes, military chaplaincies, and private chapels to serve the religious needs of Hispanic settlers. From the standpoints of original settlement, societal influence, and institutional presence, the origins of Catholicism in what is now the United States were decidedly Hispanic.

The first large group of Hispanic Catholics incorporated into U.S. territories was Mexicans in the Southwest, who, as a common adage puts it, did not cross the border but had the border cross them during U.S. territorial expansion. When military defeat led Mexico’s president to cede nearly half his nation’s territory to the United States in 1848, Mexicans underwent the disestablishment of their Catholic religion along with widespread loss of their lands, economic well-being, political clout, and cultural hegemony. Many continued their traditional expressions of faith, which enabled them to defend their sense of dignity, to collectively respond to the effects of conquest, and to express their own ethnic legitimation.

Nascent 19th-century Latino immigration to the United States quickened over the course of the 20th century, expanding the diversification of national-origin groups among Latinos in the United States. Mexican immigration increased substantially after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and has continued into the 21st century. Significant numbers of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Central Americans have also come, along with some South Americans. Each group of Latino newcomers has fostered ministries and church structures that served the needs of their compatriots.

Latino Catholic activist efforts range from local initiatives such as establishing Spanish-language masses and prayer groups to broader endeavors such as the recent National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros of the 1970s and 1980s, major events that enabled Hispanic leaders to articulate their ministerial needs and demands to Catholic bishops and the wider church. Latino Catholics have also been active in social causes such as the plight of farmworkers, immigration, and faith-based community organizing.

Keywords: Latino/a, Hispanic, Catholicism, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, immigration, exile, justice

Colonial Foundations

Hispanic Catholics have lived in what is now the United States for twice as long as the nation has existed. The first diocese in the New World was established in 1511 at San Juan, Puerto Rico, now a commonwealth associated with the United States. Subjects of the Spanish Crown founded the first permanent European settlement within the current borders of the fifty states at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, four decades before the establishment of the first British colony at Jamestown. In 1598, Spanish subjects traversed present-day El Paso, Texas, and proceeded north to establish the permanent foundation of Catholicism in what is now the American Southwest.

The arrival of Christianity in lands now part of the continental United States began with Spanish expeditions into the area, such as Juan Ponce de León’s famous excursions into Florida and the fated Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, from which only Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and a handful of companions survived after an eight-year ordeal of hunger, captivity, and an overland trek from Florida to New Spain (present-day Mexico). Later, Spanish subjects established settlements to stake territorial claims for the Spanish Crown, to pursue economic gain, and to propagate Catholicism among native populations. Villas (towns) with formal civil and church institutions, military garrisons, and missions provided historically tested structures around which Hispanic frontier communities emerged.

Catholic missionaries, usually Franciscan friars, with the major exception being Eusebio Kino and his fellow Jesuits in Arizona, accompanied exploratory expeditions and then were an integral part of Spanish efforts to establish settlements. Sometimes the friars founded missions within or near settled indigenous communities. In other cases, they induced nomadic peoples to settle down at newly established missions, usually in the vicinity of Spanish towns and military garrisons. Since they typically had but a small group of friars and perhaps a few Spanish military personnel, the mission settlements were in effect missionary-led Indian towns.

While initially the prospect of entering the missions to stave off enemies, starvation, and harsh winters seemed attractive to some Native Americans, a number of them eventually found mission life too alien and coercive. Not only were they not accustomed to the Spanish work routines and religious lifestyles, they also found unacceptable the friars’ demands that they shed their traditional ways. Many became resentful and left the missions. In some cases outright rebellion ensued, most famously in 1680, when New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians exploded into open violence under the leadership of a shaman or spiritual leader named Popé. They drove the Spaniards and their loyal indigenous subjects from the region and purged their communities of Catholic symbols and everything Spanish. Though the Spanish reconquered them, beginning in 1692, and Franciscan missionary efforts resumed, the revolt illuminated the potential clash of civilizations in mission life, as well as the natives’ capacity to resist the imposition of a new religion and way of life.

On the other hand, a number of Native Americans remained within the world of the missions, accepted Christianity, and took on Hispanic and Catholic identities. For the missionaries, Hispanicizing the natives entailed creating living spaces for their charges around impressive churches, which became the center of everyday life. The missionaries worked diligently inculcating Catholicism, defining work regimes, establishing predictable routines of daily life, teaching the Spanish language, overseeing social interactions, enforcing Christian-appropriate gender relations, and striving to modify native cultural practices they deemed contrary to Christianity. At the same time, even as natives were incorporated into Catholicism and Hispanic society, to varying degrees they exerted their own cultural influence on the Hispanic newcomers.

The missions reveal a long-standing, significant element of Latino Catholicism: the faith, leadership, and struggles for self-determination of women such as Eulalia Pérez, who became a prominent figure at Mission San Gabriel (near Los Angeles). A native of Loreto, Baja California, Pérez moved to the mission in the early 19th century with her husband, who was assigned there as a guard. After her husband’s death, Pérez lived at the mission with her son and five daughters, where she became the head housekeeper, a leadership position in the mission community that grew increasingly significant as the number of friars decreased. Her duties included managing supplies and their distribution, as well as supervising Native American workers. As the elderly Eulalia noted somewhat modestly in a memoir she dictated to an interviewer, as the “mistress of the keys” (llavera) at the mission she “was responsible for a variety of duties.” In fact she was the lay overseer of the mission community’s daily life.

The Spanish Crown viewed the missions as temporary institutions whose role was to prepare Native Americans to become good Spanish subjects. Officially, from their inception the missions were destined for secularization; that is, transference from missionary to civil authorities and diocesan clergy once the friars completed the work of Hispanicizing the natives. But in fact secularization varied from region to region, depending on socioeconomic realities, central government policies, the level of cooperation among Native Americans, and the often-competing interests of missionaries and local officials.

In theory, the indigenous converts at the missions were to receive individual land allotments and other assets in the secularization process to aid them in their transition to a new status as Hispanicized Catholics. But in numerous cases this did not occur: the Native Americans simply lost everything to unscrupulous officials or other Hispanic residents, often moving into Hispanic towns where they occupied the bottom of the social structure. However the mission residents fared, the secularization process transformed their communities from corporate entities under the authority and protection of specific missionary orders to independent communities that became another element of Hispanic civil society. In the process, many missions no longer had resident clergy. A large number fell into disrepair, many of them later being rebuilt. Nonetheless, the church structures at locales such as Santa Barbara, California; Ysleta, Texas (near El Paso); and San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson, Arizona, among others, have functioned continuously as Catholic houses of worship into the early 21st century.

Though missions were numerically the predominant Catholic institution in the northern stretches of New Spain, parishes, military chaplaincies, and private chapels also played a crucial role in establishing and maintaining Catholicism. Unlike the missions in which the population consisted exclusively of Native Americans—save for a few friars and Hispanic military personnel—these other religious foundations provided for the spiritual welfare of Hispanic civilian and military settlers and their descendants, as well as for some natives who eventually joined their communities. 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 the churches and sought to obtain the services of clergy, either religious-order priests such as the Franciscans or diocesan priests, who were primarily trained to serve existing Spanish-speaking Catholic communities rather than to work for the conversion of Native Americans. In Spanish colonial times, Hispanic Catholics established parishes in such places as St. Augustine, San Antonio, Laredo, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles, along with military chapels in other locales, such as Santa Barbara and Monterey, California, where the current Catholic cathedral has its origins in a colonial military chapel.

Private chapels and pilgrimage sites also reveal local initiative and the origins of Latino Catholicism in the colonial past, most famously the sanctuary of Chimayó in New Mexico. Tewa Indians acclaimed the healing properties of Chimayó’s sacred earth long before Catholic settlers arrived at this locale on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Spanish subjects completed the first chapel at the site in 1816 and dedicated the Santuario de Chimayó to Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas (Our Lord of Esquipulas), a Guatemalan representation of the crucifixion associated with a Mayan sacred place of healing earth. During the 1850s, however, devotees of the Santuario de Chimayó added a statue of the Santo Niño de Atocha (Holy Child of Atocha) in response to a new local shrine dedicated to the Santo Niño. Subsequently the Santo Niño and the miraculous dirt became the focal points for most Santuario devotees. They remain so today for thousands of pilgrims who visit Chimayó annually.

Though Louisiana was under Spanish control from 1766 to 1803 and Spain controlled Florida for well over two centuries, until 1821 (with one hiatus of British rule from 1763 to 1783), most Hispanic Catholics in what is now the United States resided in the Southwest. During the Spanish colonial era and the subsequent period after Mexican independence in 1821, New Mexico was the most populous territory and thus the one with the largest number of Catholics. By the beginning of the 19th century, the diocesan clergy in New Mexico had begun the process of slowly displacing the Franciscan missionaries who had served in the region since the late 16th century. This was, of course, an expected course of events since the missions had always been viewed as temporary institutions dedicated to preparing the indigenous communities for parish life as Hispanic citizens. The number of diocesan priests grew as the Franciscan numbers declined, particularly after Mexican independence, when many Spanish friars were forcibly exiled or left the new republic out of loyalty to their native Spain. Diocesan clergy increases were largely due to the recruitment of local youth who went to seminary in Durango, the seat of the diocese that encompassed New Mexico. Between 1823 and 1826, four New Mexicans completed their training and returned home to begin their ministries. By the end of the 1840s, the Franciscans had all left or died, and some seventeen or eighteen diocesan priests, most of them recruited locally, served the spiritual needs of New Mexico’s parish communities.

Priests and their lay parishioners enacted cultural ways and traditions that included Catholic religious expressions. Catholic colonists followed the Spanish practice of honoring patron saints deemed to have a particular interest in their community, especially the saint for whom a settlement was named. Communities also enacted traditional rituals and devotions such as processions, Mass, the celebration of Catholic feast days, initiation rites, compadrazgo (godparentage), and dramatic proclamations of Christ’s death and removal from the cross, among others.

Enduring Communities of Faith

As the United States expanded from the original thirteen colonies to span the North American continent during the first half of the 19th century, Hispanic Catholic places of worship and some 80,000 Spanish-speaking Catholics were incorporated into the growing nation. Following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida through the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, the conquest of northern Mexico began with the war between Texas and Mexico (1835–1836), which resulted in the establishment of an independent Texas Republic. Nine years later the United States annexed Texas and another war erupted in disputed territory along the Rio Grande near present-day Brownsville, Texas. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an official end to this war, ceded nearly half of Mexico to the United States, and purportedly guaranteed the citizenship, property, and religious rights of Mexican citizens who chose to remain in the conquered territories.

Parishes and other elements of Catholic life were not immune to change during the turbulent period of transition following the war. Catholic dioceses were established at such places as Galveston (1847), Santa Fe (1853), San Francisco (1853), Denver (1887), and Tucson (1897). European clergy served in many areas of the Southwest, with the French predominating in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; the Irish, in northern California; and the Spanish, in Southern California. During the second half of the 19th century, Catholic bishops’ appointments in the region reflected this same general pattern. Scores of religious sisters also crossed the Atlantic or came from the eastern United States and began schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other apostolic work in the Southwest.

Differences in culture and religious practice led some newly arrived Catholic leaders to misunderstand and criticize their Mexican co-religionists. Conflicts between Mexicans and Catholic leaders at times resulted in public controversy and even open resistance, as in the infamous conflict between Padre Antonio José Martínez and Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Padre Martínez was the leading figure among 19th-century New Mexican priests. His numerous accomplishments include a distinguished academic career as a seminarian in Durango, the establishment of a primary school and seminary preparatory school in his hometown of Taos (from which some thirty students went on to be ordained for the priesthood), the operation of the first printing press in what is now the western United States, authorship of numerous books and pamphlets, formal certification as an attorney, and extensive service as an elected New Mexican representative in legislative bodies under the Mexican and later the U.S. governments. In 1854, Lamy, a Frenchman and the newly arrived first bishop of Santa Fe, reinstituted mandatory tithing and decreed that heads of families who failed to comply be denied the sacraments. Martínez publicly contested the prelate’s action. Their dispute led to Lamy’s excommunication of Martínez and to a schism between Martínez’s supporters and the officials of the Santa Fe diocese. The conflict illuminates Hispanic efforts to defend their Mexican Catholic heritage against the intrusions of newcomers, even Catholic bishops.

But a number of foreign Catholic clergy and religious became beloved among the Mexican Catholics they served and energetically supported their people’s faith life and religious practices. The first bishop of Galveston, Jean Marie Odin, offered ministrations in Spanish and insisted that other priests coming to Texas do the same. He participated in Mexican religious feasts such as local celebrations in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe and spoke enthusiastically of the religious zeal demonstrated in these celebrations. Women religious led Catholic initiatives in numerous locales, such as Los Angeles, where the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived in 1856 to establish a school and orphanage. They soon expanded their ministries to meet other needs such as health care, disaster relief, catechetical instruction, and job placement for women. Most of the sisters who served during the 19th century were of Irish descent, but their numbers included women from Mexico and Spain as well as several local Hispanic women who joined the order after receiving their education from the sisters. In Colorado, New Mexico, and the El Paso district, exiled Italian Jesuits served in parishes and as circuit riders to scores of mission stations. They also founded a college at Las Vegas, New Mexico, which they later moved to its current locale in Denver and eventually renamed Regis University, and established La Revista Católica, the first Spanish-language Catholic newspaper in the United States.

A number of local communities asserted their Mexican Catholic heritage in the public spaces of civic life through their long-standing rituals and devotions—sometimes on their own, at other times with the support of sympathetic priests and religious. From Texas to California, various communities continued to enthusiastically celebrate established local traditions such as pilgrimages, los pastores (a festive proclamation of the shepherds who worshiped the newborn infant Jesus), Holy Week, Corpus Christi, and established patronal feast days such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The persistence of religious traditions is particularly striking in light of some Catholic and Protestant leaders’ attempts to ban, replace, and condemn them. In the face of such initiatives, as well as military conquest and occupation, violence and lawlessness, political and economic displacement, rapid demographic change, and the erosion of cultural hegemony, Hispanic Catholic feasts and devotions had a heightened significance. These religious traditions provided an ongoing means of public communal expression, affirmation, faith, and resistance to newcomers who criticized or attempted to suppress Mexican-descent residents’ heritage. Undoubtedly, fear and anger at their subjugation intensified religious fervor among many devotees.

The most renowned lay group that served as the protectors of treasured local traditions was the brotherhoods of Los Hermanos de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Brothers of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), or Penitentes, in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Penitente brotherhoods evolved in towns and villages well before the U.S. takeover of the area. Their most noticeable function was to commemorate Christ’s passion and death, although they also provided community leadership and fostered social integration. Organized as separate local entities, Penitente brotherhoods had a leader named the Hermano Mayor (literally “older brother”) and a morada (literally “habitation”) or chapter house where they held meetings and religious devotions. Despite the sharp criticism they often received from outsiders, the Penitentes continued providing leadership for prayer and social life in numerous local communities.

In more-urban areas, which tended to have a greater presence of priests and religious, activist Mexican lay women and men continued traditional feast days and faith expressions in Catholic parishes. The annual series of celebrations for Tucson’s original patron saint, St. Augustine, lasted for an entire month at San Agustín parish. Similarly, San Fernando parishioners in San Antonio organized public rituals and festivities for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christmas, San Fernando, San Antonio, San Juan, San Pedro, and other feasts. Most conspicuous among these rites was the annual Guadalupe feast, celebrated with a colorful outdoor procession, elaborate decorations adorning the Guadalupe image and their parish church, gun and cannon salutes, extended ringing of the church bells, and large crowds for services conducted in Spanish.

Women frequently played a key leadership role in public worship and devotion. Throughout the region, young women served in processions as the immediate attendants for the Guadalupe image in her annual feast-day celebration. They occupied similar places of prominence in processions for other Marian feast days such as the Assumption. Even when male Penitentes provided significant leadership for communal worship, women played vital roles in such traditions as the annual procession for the feast of St. John the Baptist. To be sure, often these leadership roles did not significantly alter restrictions on women in other public functions; rather, these roles reinforced the notion that women were naturally more pious than men and symbolically linked the purity of young girls dressed in white with icons like the Virgin Mary, a communal accentuation of feminine chastity that lacked a corresponding association between young boys and Jesus. Yet, Mexican-descent women extended their familial efforts to transmit cultural and devotional traditions into a public role of community leadership that shaped Mexican Catholics’ ritual expressions. Their leadership illuminates what Ana María Díaz-Stevens calls the “matriarchal core” of Latino Catholicism—that is, women’s exercise of autonomous authority in communal devotions despite the ongoing patriarchal limitations of institutional Catholicism and Latin American societies.

Following the U.S. takeover of northern Mexico, Hispanics also engaged as Catholics in U.S. political life. When members of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party gained control of the San Antonio mayoral office and city council in 1854, citizens of Mexican descent organized to oppose them. They accused Know Nothings of desiring to make them “political slaves” solely because they chose “to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience and the ritual of our ancestors.” Local political leader José Antonio Navarro wrote an open letter that was read publicly and subsequently published both in the English and Spanish press. Navarro reminded his hearers that his people’s Hispanic-Mexican ancestors founded their city and that one of their first community initiatives was to build the parish of San Fernando, in which they worshiped God. Citing Know Nothing anti-Catholic attitudes, he also proclaimed that “the Mexico-Texans are Catholics, and should be proud of the faith of their ancestors, and defend it inch by inch against such infamous aggressors.” Ethnic Mexicans joined forces with fellow Catholics and other allies to defeat their Know Nothing opponents in the following election cycle.

A number of communities in the Southwest struggled for their very survival. In the process their observance of long-standing traditions often abated or even ceased. Nonetheless, as Bishop Henry Granjon of Tucson noted in 1902 during his first pastoral visit to Las Cruces, New Mexico, many Mexican-descent Catholics in the Southwest continued to practice their own customs and traditions decades after the U.S. takeover of their lands. According to Bishop Granjon, in the Southwest these traditions unified ethnic Mexican residents in their efforts to resist the Anglo-American invasion of their way of life. The waves of newly arrived women religious and clergy such as Granjon vastly increased the Catholic institutional presence and support structures in the region, enhancing leadership initiatives among Mexican Catholics that enabled a number of local populations to adapt and continue their traditional expressions of faith, to defend their sense of dignity, to collectively respond to the effects of conquest, and to express their own ethnic legitimation.

New Immigrants

Latinos were a small part of the 19th-century immigration that expanded the U.S. Catholic population with millions of newcomers from Europe. Though an open border between the United States and Mexico allowed Mexican citizens to migrate even after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, their numbers were relatively low until the last three decades of the 19th century, when gradually a larger group of immigrants and refugees began to arrive. Mexican immigration accelerated substantially after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and, with the exception of the 1930s decade of the Depression, has continued unabated ever since. Growing numbers of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens by birth, migrated to the mainland after World War II, initially congregating largely in New York City but later dispersing to other locales across the United States. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 initiated an exodus from the island that brought numerous Cubans, while civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s increased the population of Central American refugees. The Dominican presence in the United States, especially New York, grew substantially after the 1961 assassination of Dominican dictator and general Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Though South Americans compose a relatively small portion of U.S. Latinos, since the closing decades of the 20th century their numbers have also increased, with Colombians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians predominating, but with additional émigrés from nations such as Argentina, Chile, and Brazil.

The profound but vastly diverse formative experiences of émigrés from the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America defy easy generalization. Church-state relations have a long history, as evidenced in the acrimonious episodes of conflict in Mexico and, in more-recent decades, in the elections of a Catholic priest and bishop as presidents of Haiti and Paraguay, respectively, in both cases leading these clergy to desist from exercising their priestly functions at the behest of Vatican officials. Historically, the number of available clergy is another key factor shaping Catholic impact, in some cases with sufficient priests to wield significant influence, but usually less than enough to address large and dispersed Catholic populations. Devotional expressions of faith are widely practiced in a Catholicism that values direct encounters with God, Mary, and the saints in everyday life. Every country in Latin America has at least one shrine dedicated to a Marian image that is a center of national veneration and identity. Yet, the faith stance among local populations ranges from those who engage Catholicism as primarily a heritage of devotional traditions, as a means to struggle for justice, or as an institution with a defined body of doctrines and teachings. Not surprisingly, many Latin Americans identify Catholicism with some combination of these or other elements, though a substantial number are involved with Catholicism only nominally or not at all. Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal and evangelical forms, has expanded rapidly though unevenly throughout the continent, including among Latinos in the United States. Mexico remains one of the most staunchly Catholic nations in terms of the preferred denominational allegiance of its population, while Puerto Rico, where the U.S. government and churches conducted an energetic program of Americanization and Protestant proselytizing after annexing the island in 1898, is among the most Protestant. Such historical and religious legacies mark in myriad ways the perceptions of Latino émigrés, who had formative experiences at home that they carry with them to the United States.

Catholic ministries to Latino newcomers expanded with the rising tide of immigration. Émigré clergy, women religious, and lay leaders ministered among their compatriots, as during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath, when Mexican Catholics collaborated with U.S. church officials to establish new parishes in such diverse places as Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Toledo. In other instances U.S. Catholics engaged in outreach to the newcomers, such as the visionary lay apostolic endeavors of Mary Julia Workman in settlement house ministry in Los Angeles and Veronica Miriam Spellmire in establishing and fostering the phenomenal growth of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in San Antonio, as well as the response of the New York archdiocese to Puerto Rican migration under the leadership of Cardinal Francis Spellman and priests such as Joseph Fitzpatrick, Robert Fox, Ivan Illich, and Robert Stern. U.S.-born Hispanics also engaged in dedicated ecclesial service to their own communities, such as the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence (MCDPs), the first and only religious order of Mexican American women founded in the United States, who have provided leadership in evangelization and catechesis in the Southwest and beyond since the 1930s.

Like their European co-religionists, from early on Latino émigrés advocated for national or ethnic parishes as a means to retain their language, cultural practices, sense of group identity, and Catholic faith. As early as 1871, Catholics at San Francisco proposed a national parish to serve the Spanish-speaking population in their growing city. Although most Spanish-speaking residents were of Mexican descent, representatives from the consulates of Chile, Peru, Nicaragua, Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Spain were among the leaders in this effort, making it one of if not the first pan-Latino Catholic initiative in the United States. Four years later, San Francisco archbishop Joseph Alemany established the national parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1879, Cuban lay Catholics in Key West, Florida, worked with church officials to establish a chapel named after Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), the most prominent Marian icon and devotional tradition in Cuban Catholicism. Worshipers at the chapel organized the Caridad del Cobre feast, other Marian devotions, Christmas pageants, and even a celebrated pastoral visit from the archbishop of Santiago, Cuba.

The widespread policy of officially establishing national parishes for various European immigrant groups began to change by the 1920s, when Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago became the first major U.S. prelate to reverse this policy. Nonetheless, even today various Catholic parishes are in effect national parishes because they serve overwhelmingly Latino congregations. The impulse to found and support such faith communities is evident among all Latino groups, as in the predominantly Puerto Rican parish of Santa Agonía (Holy Agony) in New York, the Cuban parish of San Juan Bosco in Miami, the largely Mexican immigrant congregation of St. Pius V in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, and the multiethnic Latino immigrant communities of the Misión Católica de Nuestra Señora de las Americas on the outskirts of Atlanta and of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, or La Placita, as it is commonly known. Congregations such as these engage parishioners at multiple levels, providing social services and sacraments, English classes and traditional devotions, religious education and legal aid, parenting classes, and prayer groups. When Latinos are congregated in multicultural rather than Latino ethnic parishes, they tend to establish and support their own Hispanic feast-day celebrations, devotional practices, renewal movements, and parish organizations. These widespread initiatives reflect Latinos’ desire to stake out their own turf within U.S. Catholicism, just as Germans, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, Ukrainians, and others did previously in their national parishes.

The involvement and the sheer number of Latinos are important factors in what is nothing less than a historic shift in the parish, which is widely perceived as the central institution of U.S. Catholic life. In the early 20th century, when the flows of European immigration were at their zenith, numerous national parishes catered to a particular language or cultural group. In the early 21st century, factors such as the decreasing number of priests, financial constraints, and growing ethnic diversity have increased the number of U.S. parishes—currently over a third of them, more than five thousand in all—that have significant contingents of at least two language or cultural groups. Latinos are a major force in the ongoing evolution of the U.S. Catholic parish from the ethnic enclave to the shared or multicultural congregation. For good or for ill, intercultural encounters between Latinos and their co-religionists in shared parishes alter the day-to-day congregational experience of numerous Catholics.

Latinos transform Catholicism in the United States in various other ways. To cite but one prominent example, they founded the most influential retreat movement in the country. Eduardo Bonnín and other Spanish laymen in Mallorca, Spain, established the Cursillo de Cristiandad (Short Course in Christianity) in the wake of World War II. In 1957 two of their countrymen assigned to a Waco, Texas, military base collaborated with a local priest, Father Gabriel Fernández, to lead the first Cursillo weekend retreat in the United States. Four years later, cursillista team members from previous Spanish-language weekends led the first English-language Cursillo. By the following year, cursillistas had conducted weekends in numerous locales, such as San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Newark, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Boston. Over the ensuing two decades nearly every diocese in the United States introduced the Cursillo movement, having an impact on literally millions of Catholics from a variety of backgrounds. As Cursillo spread, a number of retreat programs that closely emulate its core dynamics appeared: Teens Encounter Christ (TEC), Search and its Spanish counterpart Búsqueda, Kairos, Christ Renews His Parish, and the Protestant Walk to Emmaus and youth-oriented Chrysalis retreats, among others. Thus the Hispanic-founded Cursillo had far-reaching impact on other Catholics and even on Protestants, making it the most influential weekend retreat movement in U.S. history.

Struggles for Justice

Whether entering the United States as the result of U.S. territorial expansion or as émigrés, Latinas and Latinos face the common challenge of adapting to life in a new country. One of the most defining aspects of this challenge has been the need to defend themselves from a generally aggressive anti-Latino attitude. At a very practical level, stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes lead to discriminatory practices that have severe implications for daily life.

Consequently, Latinos have long had to actively combat racism, poverty, and other social maladies. Through their community organizations and activism, which have included mutual-aid societies, newspapers, labor unions, political organizations, and civil rights groups, Latinos have struggled to ensure dignity, self-determination, and the right of full participation in U.S. society. For example, after migrants to the mainland established the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America in 1923, organization members defended their people in efforts such as the 1926 release of four compatriots erroneously detained as aliens at Ellis Island. Three years later, Mexican Americans founded the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Although LULAC promoted good citizenship, the use of the English language, and even “Americanization,” it also focused considerable attention on such issues as school reform, increased Mexican American representation for juries and other public duties, and an end to discrimination. In Tampa during the first decades of the 20th century, Cuban and Spanish cigar makers struggled to maintain their unions in the face of violent efforts to crush them. Vigilantes often kidnapped, intimidated, expelled, and even lynched strike leaders.

Like the struggles of African Americans and other “minority” groups, Latino struggles for justice increased dramatically during the 1960s. While Latino activism was most visible to the general public in the efforts of Chicano/a leaders César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers (UFW), it was also evident in Puerto Rican–led organizations such as the Young Lords and the Puerto Rican Forum, as well as such predominately Chicano groups as the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), La Raza Unida Party, and the Crusade for Justice.

Arguably the most renowned figure in Chicano history, César Chávez is also known for his knowledge and promotion of Catholic social teaching and for the faith he nurtured and expressed in frequent Mass attendance, his experience of Cursillo, spiritual fasts, the discipline of nonviolent protest, and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Chávez was not afraid to make demands of his church on behalf of struggling workers: “We ask the church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.” Despite initial reluctance from Catholic bishops and priests, Chávez and his fellow union officials garnered support from church leaders, including backing for boycotts of grapes and lettuce that pressured growers to bargain in good faith with the UFW.

More recently, numerous Latino Catholics have advocated publicly for the rights of émigrés and for immigration reform. In the wake of massive pro-immigrant rallies across the nation that rancorous immigration debates incited during spring 2006, the Pew Latino religion survey found that slightly over a fourth of Latino Catholics said their congregation had participated in an immigrant rights protest or boycott during the previous twelve months, a substantially higher percentage than mainline Latino Protestants and more than double that of Latino evangelicals. Reflecting in part the higher percentage of immigrant Latinos who are Catholics, Hispanic Catholics were also more likely than Protestants to have personally participated in an immigrant rights demonstration and to report that their parish clergy had spoken out on immigration. Latino Catholics have also fostered efforts to defend the rights of immigrant workers, such as the numerous Hispanic Catholic immigrants who are among the more than 200,000 janitors in the Justice for Janitors campaigns, which since 1985 have been organized in cities across the United States and Canada under the auspices of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Catholic bishops have been staunch defenders of immigrants, such as Los Angeles archbishop José Gomez, who has asserted that just laws and treatment of immigrants constitute “the greatest civil rights test of our generation.”

Less widely acknowledged is Latino Catholic leaders’ role in pioneering the faith-based model of community organizing. While African Americans forged church involvement in social transformation through the civil rights movement, Saul Alinsky’s organizing model, developed in his well-known work in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago in the late 1930s, has been the most influential among broad-based community organizing efforts in the United States. The first predominantly Latino faith-based community organization, San Antonio’s Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), played a key role in transforming Alinsky’s organizing model to root it more deeply in local congregations and the faith of their members. Organizer Ernie Cortés worked with lay leaders and priests to establish COPS among ethnic Mexican Catholic parishes in the working-class neighborhoods of the city’s West Side. COPS members learned from Alinsky’s organizing model, but as Hispanic Catholics they also infused Alinsky’s style of organizing with the faith of their core leaders: parishioners who perceived their activism as an extension of their commitment to God, church, family, and neighborhood. The COPS approach of building a community organization on the foundation of congregations and faith-based leaders has been adapted and further developed in various forms in faith-based community organizations, which now total some 160 organizations and exist in nearly every state.

The growing ferment for social change, along with the reforms of Vatican II and the inspiration of Latin American liberation theology, animated Latino Catholic activism both within society and within the church itself. Archbishop Robert Lucey of San Antonio had led the first national effort to coordinate Hispanic ministry, the establishment of the Bishops’ Committee for the Spanish Speaking in 1945. Beginning in the 1960s, Latinos established their own organizations. Father Ralph Ruiz, priest-director of the Inner City Apostolate for the San Antonio archdiocese, led Chicano priests in the 1969 founding of PADRES (Padres Asociados por los Derechos Religiosos, Educativos, y Sociales; or Priests Associated for Religious, Educational, and Social Rights), the first association of Latino clergy in the United States. PADRES quickly took an active role in initiatives such as the National Chicano Moratorium, the United Farm Workers, community organizing, and advocacy for Hispanic concerns within the U.S. Catholic Church. Similarly, Ricardo Cruz and other Chicano activists organized Católicos Por La Raza to extend the transformative efforts of the Chicano movement to the Catholic Church. The organization’s conflicts with Los Angeles cardinal James Francis McIntyre brought it notoriety, particularly a dramatic 1969 confrontation during the cardinal’s Christmas Eve Mass, which resulted in several injuries and arrests. Two years later, Sister Gregoria Ortega, a Victoryknoll sister and community activist, and Sister Gloria Graciela Gallardo, a Holy Ghost sister who had worked as a catechist and community organizer, convened fifty sisters at Houston, Texas, and established Las Hermanas (“The Sisters”), the only national Catholic organization of Chicana/Latina women. While initially composed of Mexican American sisters, soon lay women and other Latina religious, particularly those of Caribbean heritage, joined their Chicana counterparts in forming Las Hermanas to struggle for the rights of Latinas and Latinos in church and society.

Over the following decade, Latino Catholic leaders founded pastoral institutes such as the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC, now the Mexican American Catholic College) in San Antonio, the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center in New York, and the Southeast Pastoral Institute (SEPI) in Miami. The Hispanic pastoral institutes were centers for language and pastoral formation, Hispanic ministry and justice advocacy, and groundbreaking research and publications about Hispanic liturgy, faith expressions, history, and theology. For the first time Latino Catholics had institutions of their own to explore their heritage and the theological and pastoral implications of their experience as Hispanics and Catholics living in the United States. Latino Catholic leaders also established national organizations to support and advocate for Hispanics in a wide range of church leadership positions, including liturgical ministers, pastoral musicians, youth and young adult ministers, catechists, seminarians, deacons, church historians, theologians, personnel with pastoral formation institutes, and diocesan directors of Hispanic ministry. When Jesuit priest Allan Figueroa Deck led the effort to found the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry (NCCHM) in 1991 as an umbrella group of Hispanic Catholic organizations, some sixty existing organizations were able to qualify as members. Latino leaders’ extensive promotion of leadership parity in the church also helped shape the increase in Hispanic bishops. Mexican American Patricio Flores became the first U.S. Latino Catholic bishop in 1970; since then, more than fifty Latinos have become bishops in the United States.

The most significant national structure for Latinos to collectively address the U.S. Catholic bishops and other church leaders was the National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros. Leaders from the New York archdiocese such as Father Robert Stern and Puerto Rican lay leader Encarnación Padilla de Armas, along with former staff member of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) Edgard Beltrán, collaborated to convene the First National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentro in 1972. Latino Catholics voiced their ministerial needs and vision at this gathering, at two subsequent National Encuentros in 1977 and 1985, and at a fourth “Encuentro 2000,” which united leaders from the diverse racial and ethnic groups in U.S. Catholicism. The Encuentros were the symbolic center of a wide-ranging Hispanic ministry movement that proclaimed Latinos’ pleas and demands to the U.S. Catholic Church and especially its bishops, who participated in the Encuentros, funded them, and supported them with directives such as their 1983 pastoral letter on Hispanic ministry, their 1987 National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry, and the 2002 document Encuentro and Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry. Despite the high expectations the Encuentros inspired, however, they were not a panacea for realizing participants’ visions for Hispanic ministry and equal treatment within the U.S. Catholic Church. Mexican American priest Virgilio Elizondo succinctly expresses the overall assessment of many long-serving leaders regarding their efforts to foster Hispanic ministry in U.S. Catholicism: “When I look at all that has been accomplished since that First Encuentro, it is nothing short of a miracle. But when I look at all that remains to be done, it is scary.”

Discussion of the Literature

Like the wider body of historical scholarship on Latino history, the historiography of Latino Catholics in the United States has generally been a literature defined by national origin: Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and others. Other publications have focused on particular topics, such as Hispanic ritual and devotional traditions, national organizations, and the role of women in Latino Catholicism. Still other works examine the mutual influences, distinctions, and commonalties across regions and across multiple Latino groups. All these approaches are necessary to continue the development of the subfield of Latino Catholic history.

The selected works in the bibliography (Further Reading) encompass excellent studies on specific Latino Catholic groups. Dolan and Hinojosa’s Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church, 1900–1965 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994) contains three essays on the history of 20th-century Mexican American Catholics: Gilberto Hinojosa on Texas and the Southwest, Jeffrey Burns on California, and David Badillo on the Midwest. Treviño’s The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) provides a more focused study on ethnic Mexican Catholics in Houston, beginning in the period of the Mexican Revolution. García’s Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008) examines how Chicanos have engaged Catholicism as a popular religious practice and as a basis for social action during the 20th century. Díaz-Stevens’ Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue: The Impact of the Puerto Rican Migration upon the Archdiocese of New York (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993) focuses on Puerto Rican migrants to New York and the impact they had on the Catholic Church there. Poyo’s Cuban Catholics in the United States, 1960–1980: Exile and Integration (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) examines the interrelation between Cuban Catholics’ commitment to exile identity and their reluctant integration into U.S. church and society during the 1960s and 1970s. It also narrates the prior involvement and activism of these Cuban Catholics in their homeland before the socialist turn in the Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro. A number of publications examine culturally conditioned Hispanic religious traditions. One such volume is Tweed’s Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), which explores diasporic religion among Cuban exiles at the shrine they created in Miami to honor their national patroness, Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity). Stevens-Arroyo, et al.’s Program for the Analysis of Religion among Latinos (PARAL) Studies (New York: Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies, 1994–1995) examines Latino Catholics vis-à-vis their popular religiosity, formation of identities, and engagement with African and indigenous religions. The four volumes in this coauthored series present various approaches and perspectives, particularly the social sciences.

The other works cited in the bibliography present a national or comparative perspective. Sandoval’s On the Move: A History of the Hispanic Church in the United States (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006) provides the best available short overview of Latino Catholic history. Badillo’s Latinos and the New Immigrant Church (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) is a comparative study of ethnic Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Catholics in 20th-century San Antonio, Chicago, New York, and Miami. It focuses on the influence of urban environments, Catholic parishes, and the formation of ethnicity as factors that shape Latino impact in church and society. Matovina’s Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012) is a historical and early-21st-century analysis of the multiple ways that the U.S. context, the U.S. Catholic Church, and the diverse Latino population mutually transform one another. Medina’s Las Hermanas: Chicana/Latina Religious-Political Activism in the U.S. Catholic Church (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004) is one of various extant histories of national Hispanic Catholic organizations, in this case Las Hermanas (“The Sisters”), the only national organization of Latina Catholic women. Chicana women religious founded the organization in 1971, but subsequently they opened membership nationally to all women religious and lay Latina Catholics. Nabhan-Warren’s The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013) is a study of the premier apostolic movement among U.S. Latino Catholics, the Cursillo de Cristiandad (Short Course in Christianity), which spread among numerous non-Latino Catholics and even many Protestants and became the most influential weekend retreat movement in the history of the United States.

The growing body of scholarship on Latino Catholic history makes a significant contribution to the broader field of North American religious history, particularly the history of Catholicism in the United States. Works on U.S. Catholic history often subsume Hispanics into an Americanization paradigm presumed to hold true for all Catholics in the United States. Typically they present three historical periods that constitute this paradigm: the fledgling Catholic presence in the original British colonies, the great century of Catholic immigration from Europe (1820–1920), and the Americanization process of the descendants of those immigrants, a process often depicted as culminating in John F. Kennedy’s election as president, which signaled for numerous Catholics the authentication of their full acceptance in U.S. society. A major contribution of Latino Catholic historical scholarship is that it fosters an understanding of U.S. Catholicism that incorporates Latinos (and other non-European groups) but is not modeled exclusively on European Catholic immigrants and their descendants’ societal ascent and assimilation during the 20th century. The various sources cited herein reflect the growing body of literature on Latino Catholic history that collectively reassesses each epoch delineated in the standard historiography. This literature has examined the Hispanic colonial foundations of Catholicism in what is now the United States, the legacy of the first large group of Hispanics who entered the United States through conquest simultaneously with the great century of European immigration, and the waves of Latino immigrants who since the early 20th century have composed an increasingly significant portion of what was purportedly an established, Americanized, post-immigrant church. Scholarly analyses have also documented the numerous ways Latino Catholics have drawn on their faith to struggle for justice in church and society.

A challenge that historians are just beginning to address is the need to conceptualize U.S. Catholic history within a global perspective, especially the intersections of U.S. and Latin American history. Following the Spanish colonial presence in lands now part of the United States, U.S. political and economic expansionism led to the conquest of nearly half of Mexico’s national territory at the midpoint of the 19th century, consolidated U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico five decades later, fueled economic shifts that led to the origins of late-19th- and early-20th-century immigration from Mexico, resulted in a U.S. presence throughout the Caribbean and Central America that helped induce migrations from those regions, and has driven the globalization process that since the late 20th century has fed an immigration explosion from throughout Latin America. This latter process further blurred the border between Latin and North America, accelerating the development of previous links between Catholicism in the United States and Catholicism in the rest of the Americas. Examining the U.S. Catholic past through a hemispheric lens is essential for the ongoing development of historical studies of the Latino influence on Catholicism in the United States.

Primary Sources

Primary sources for the history of Latino Catholicism include parish and diocesan records, correspondence, photographs, printed and audio-visual material, official church documents, accounts and editorials in religious and secular newspapers, sermons, speeches, essays, diaries, journals, memoirs, reminiscences, travelogues, testimonials, and press releases. Outside of the Vatican archives, the most extensive collection that documents the Catholic Church and its people in the United States is the University of Notre Dame Archives. The archives have been developed since the 19th century and include a vast array of bishops’ correspondence, as well as papers pertinent to noteworthy Hispanic topics such as the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), Latino priests’ organization PADRES, and the Midwest Council of La Raza. Most Catholic dioceses and many religious orders also have archival collections. Access to such collections is sometimes limited and often has particular appointment or access requirements, so researchers are advised to contact archivists in advance before visiting a collection.

Other entities such as public libraries, university archives and special collections, and general Hispanic record collections also contain valuable sources for the history of Latino Catholicism. For example, important documentation, particularly for the colonial era and the 19th century, is available at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin. The Hispanic Collections at the University of Houston contain the massive records of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project, which includes the single largest compilation of Spanish-language newspapers (including religious newspapers) printed in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Other important collections include those at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, and the Dominican Archives at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. Archives in Mexico and Spain contain a vast array of material on Spanish colonization and missions in territories now part of the United States, most notably the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City and the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain.

Published collections of primary documents can aid the researcher in locating key sources for the study of Latino Catholicism. The first such volume was Antonio M. Stevens Arroyo’s Prophets Denied Honor: An Anthology on the Hispano Church of the United States (1980). It contains one hundred historical documents, almost all of them from the 20th century and from Puerto Rican or ethnic Mexican sources, highlighting the genesis and development of a distinctly “Hispano church” in the United States. The subsequent volume edited by Timothy Matovina and Gerald E. Poyo, ¡Presente! U.S. Latino Catholics from Colonial Origins to the Present (2000), contains almost one hundred documents, nearly all of them distinct from the Stevens-Arroyo selections. It spans the colonial era to the end of the 20th century, adds documents from the two decades after Stevens-Arroyo published his work, and encompasses selections from a broader range of Latino groups. Numerous other publications present documents—many of them translated, annotated, or both—on key figures, organizations, and events from the Spanish colonial era to the early 21st century.

Further Reading

Badillo, David A. Latinos and the New Immigrant Church. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

    Díaz-Stevens, Ana María. Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue: The Impact of the Puerto Rican Migration upon the Archdiocese of New York. Notre Dame Studies in American Catholicism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.Find this resource:

      Dolan, Jay P., and Gilberto M. Hinojosa, eds. Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church, 1900–1965. Notre Dame History of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. 1. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.Find this resource:

        García, Mario T. Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.Find this resource:

          Matovina, Timothy. Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

            Medina, Lara. Las Hermanas: Chicana/Latina Religious-Political Activism in the U.S. Catholic Church. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

              Nabhan-Warren, Kristy. The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                Poyo, Gerald E. Cuban Catholics in the United States, 1960–1980: Exile and Integration. Latino Perspectives. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                  Sandoval, Moises. On the Move: A History of the Hispanic Church in the United States. 2d ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006.Find this resource:

                    Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M., et al., eds. Program for the Analysis of Religion among Latinos (PARAL) Studies. 4 vols. New York: Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies, 1994–1995.Find this resource:

                      Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                        Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami. Religion in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.Find this resource: