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Scholars hail Elizondo’s vision

NCR Staff
San Antonio

From the southwest borders of the United States to the northern reaches of Europe, populations are migrating and shifting so that cultures are being forced to accommodate strangers and their unusual ways like never before.

In many circles, immigration -- voluntary and often forced, open and often clandestine -- has become a burning topic of the early 21st century. A center in San Antonio and its founder long ago recognized the significance of the increasing cultural mix that was underway and building. The founder, Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, and the work of his center, the Mexican American Cultural Center, were celebrated recently during a gathering of international scholars.

“We are seeing a transformation of Europe that few have yet to grasp and for which almost no one is prepared,” said Jacques Audinet, professor emeritus at L’Institut Catholique de Paris, who spoke here about immigration patterns that are changing the ethnic composition of Western Europe.

It is that transformation that convinced Audinet to travel to San Antonio last month to reunite with his former student, Elizondo, who years ago first raised the idea of challenges of cross-cultural identity with Audinet.

Audinet was one of about 120 scholars, including theologians and pastoral ministers, who spent three days in the newly renovated Mexican American Cultural Center, discussing the meaning and implication of being mestizaje -- the offspring of European and native Indian cultures.

A quarter century ago, Elizondo, the son of a Mexican immigrant, decided he wanted to do his doctoral thesis on the notion of mestizaje.

Audinet admits that at the time few academics understood the importance of the idea, which has become central to the discussion of interethnic issues. Today Elizondo is considered the father of U.S. Hispanic theology. The gathering at the center also served as a celebration of Elizondo’s contributions through his pastoral ministry, a ministry repeatedly described as grounded in the Mexican-American peoples.

So what’s the link between Mexican-American pastoral work and the future of Europe?

“Consider for the moment,” explained Audinet, “that there are already 2,000 mosques in France.” He continued, “You have to understand the pride of the French for their culture and traditions. Then consider for a moment that there are already 4 million Muslims living in France.”

“Western Europe will absorb 100 million new immigrants, almost all African and Asian, in the next two decades, the result of global economic pressures. They will make up 25 to 30 percent of the European population.” He wondered: “How do we come to live together? What identity will emerge from certain ethnic intermingling?”

A point made at the conference was that one does not have to look to Europe to face quickly changing demographic patterns. Asians and Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States. By 2010, nearly half of all Catholics in the United States will be Hispanics.

The Spanish word mestizaje has no precise equivalent in English. To be a mestizo/mestiza is often translated as being of mixed race or mixed ethnic origin. In English this has often had a negative ring. However, in Spanish the word mestizaje has a richer connotation, meaning “to intermingle, to synthesize while maintaining the sense of one’s origins.”

The difference in the way the mingling of cultures is viewed is critical. It can be painful and lead to a lifetime of searching for identity. Jeanette Rodriguez, chair of the theology and religious studies department at Seattle University, referred to the pain of being mestizo/mestiza. It is being in “a constant position of having to define oneself in the context of a society that has ignored one or kept one invisible. … Although mestizos cross back and forth between dual identities, they sometimes feel so terribly unaccepted -- orphaned.”

The importance of the mestizaje discussion extends well beyond problems of identity and feelings of marginalization. It has to do with what happens when cultures collide and new cultures emerge. Will this growing phenomenon be viewed as an advance in the human story or a setback to traditional ethnic identities? The way this question gets answered will shape the issues of war and peace through the 21st century, according to a number of conference participants.

In this sense, U.S. Hispanic scholars may be way ahead of the rest of the Catholic church in an examination of issues critical for the church’s pastoral mission and, even more broadly, for the survival of the human family.

Elizondo, rector of the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio from 1983 to 1995, turns 65 on Aug. 28. In conjunction with his birthday, Orbis Books recently published Beyond Borders: Writings of Virgilio Elizondo and Friends, edited by Timothy Matovina. The book, reviewed by Gary MacEoin in NCR’s June 16 issue, was the platform of discussions at the Mexican American Cultural Center discussions.

The mestizaje theme will continue at the cultural center’s gatherings in the months ahead, said the center’s president, Sister of Mercy Maria Elena Gonzalez. She spoke as she showed a visitor the new grounds, dedicated in April, and described by one European visitor as a “small Roman village.”

“Immigration will continue. Our differences should enrich us, not divide us,” San Antonio Archbishop Patrick Flores told the gathering just hours before being taken hostage (see accompanying story).

Years back, said Peruvian Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, it was Elizondo’s objective to reflect on the life of the Mexican-American people in the light of faith. “[That] led him to look at a biblical theme that had been neglected for a long time -- Jesus, the Galilean, who spoke from within the marginalized and despised land of Galilee.

“People of that territory were looked down upon by their compatriots from Judea because Galileans mixed with people considered as pagans.”

The mestizaje experience is hardly new, speakers pointed out. Understanding it in a Christian light could reveal the pastoral pathway through what is certain to be a complex and unprecedented cross-cultural century.

Tom Fox may be reached at tcfox@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000