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Scholars say religious institutions ignore growing ‘Latino reality’

NCR Staff
San Diego

U.S. Hispanics, with their focus on family and community values, can bring a much-needed balance to U.S. culture, according to Latino and Latina theologians who spoke at a recent conference here.

“We have a passion for faith. We have a contribution to make to a society that is every day more godless,” said Ana Maria Pineda, a scholar affiliated with Santa Clara University and the Lilly Endowment’s Louisville Institute.

Theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, spent two days at the University of San Diego, along with representatives of major funding groups, discussing strengths, shortcomings and future direction of their work. Conference sponsors included the university’s Center for the Study of Latino/a Catholicism.

Among proposals was a recommendation that Hispanic scholars develop their own funding institutions, allowing fuller participation in setting the funding agenda for theological research. Many speakers noted that Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. The nation’s Hispanic population, not including Puerto Rico, totaled 27 million in 1994, an increase of 28 percent since 1990, according to the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs. The Hispanic population in the United States is growing at a rate of 39 percent, five times the rate of non-Hispanics.

U.S. Hispanics are both insiders and outsiders, said Ismael Garcia, who teaches at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “As insiders, we assume and affirm many of the main tenets of the Anglo-Saxon ethical and political tradition” -- values such as fairness, discipline, commitment to human rights and the dignity of the individual. “At the same time,” he said, “we suspect and critique these values because we have experienced firsthand how they continue to be used to justify our oppression.”

Garcia, a member of the United Church of Christ, spoke on “A Protestant Perspective.”

Hispanic theologians, he said, are good at collaboration, but weak on “constructive critique” of one another’s work. Gatherings of scholars are marked by “too much cordiality and acceptance and tame critical response to our findings,” he said. He proposed more frequent gatherings as a way of building trust “so that we can more honestly disagree and push each other” toward greater clarity and accountability, he said.

North America, driven by a market economy, “is caught in an insidious individualism that undermines the practices of the values of care, compassion and the will to sacrifice that are necessary to form and sustain communities,” Garcia said. Hispanics, in contrast, “hold onto relational patterns, such as family, friendship, hospitality to strangers,” he said. “We emphasize relational models in almost everything we do,” he said. “The life of the group is tremendously important.”

James W. Lewis, executive director of the Lilly Endowment’s Louisville Institute, concurred. Increasingly, issues that concern Hispanics “are also issues of the wider culture,” he said. “Your theological reflections have refused to join the individualism parade,” he said. “Latinos may well be poised to show the way” beyond the competitiveness and materialism of the broader culture.

Orlando Espin, professor at the University of San Diego, said that theologians must remain rooted in their communities if they are to articulate a theology that reflects the experience of diverse Latin American groups. Garcia and others stressed that more funding would free up for Hispanic scholars needed time and energy for research.

Garcia said theologians from Latin American cultures could forge a path beyond the “melting pot” for a nation fractured by racial and ethnic differences. “I cannot think of a more significant contribution Latinas can make to North American society and to the church universal than to articulate and model a spirituality that enables those who are different to live together in a context of mutual respect and care,” he said. Conference speakers frequently used Latinas to refer to both women and men.

Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a Catholic who teaches at St. John’s University in New York, said Latino and Latina scholars are often marginalized, even in U.S. Catholic circles, on the assumption that they have little to contribute to mainstream theological discussions. “Wearisome and discouraging though it may be, we cannot cease to insist on a place at the table as full members with voice and vote,” he said. “We cannot retreat into our own corner pretending we have nothing to learn or will find no allies,” he said.

Espin agreed. “We want to impact all Catholic systematics and not create a new Latino/Latina ghetto,” he said. “We have both the right to be heard and the duty to speak.”

Daisy L. Machado of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, said she expects the influence of Latin-American scholars to develop in exciting ways as a new generation of theologians, many of them women born in the United States, are ordained to ministry in Protestant churches. At the present time, only 74 Hispanics are faculty members at institutions affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools -- and only nine of those are women, she said. The result, she said, is that “the schools of theology, seminaries and departments of religion are not connected to the Latino reality in this country despite the fact that the 1998 Latino population was more than 30 million.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000