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Posted:  August 27, 2003

Theology of borderlands

Nancy Pineda-Madrid, one of the few U.S. Latina theologians, delves into questions of suffering, oppression, liberation and salvation.


(Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the story about Nancy Pineda-Madrid that appeared in the Aug. 29 print edition of NCR.)

More Resources
Follow this link to view a list of writings by Pineda-Madrid and by other Chicana and other Latina feminists: Further Reading.

When Nancy Pineda-Madrid made retreats as a teenager in her hometown of El Paso, Texas, she often sat on the steps of the retreat house, high on a hill. Looking across the Rio Grande, she could see the city of Juarez, Mexico. Although El Paso is one of the poorest cities in the United States, "it was wealthy compared to Juarez," Pineda-Madrid remembers. But at Loretto Academy, which she attended, "a third of the girls were from Juarez, and these were girls from elite families, very cultured and sophisticated."

Today Pineda-Madrid, who teaches at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., continues to ponder socioeconomic inequities in and outside the United States, the spiritual and intellectual vitality of Latinas, and the realities of borderlands.

"In many ways, growing up on the border I had a dichotomous experience. There were many people who were wonderful role models, professionals -- the mayor, doctors, lawyers [were Mexican-American]." But there was also "a very deep silence, and articulating need or asserting one's sense of self" was simply not done. "I see it in myself and I see it in my parents. My mother would take me to parish council meetings when I was young. She would share with me her perspective, but she wouldn't articulate it in the meeting. I was very struck by this: Why was she so quiet?"

Pineda-Madrid is one of a small number of U.S. Latinas engaged in academic theology: Currently, only 22 hold Ph.D.s in ethics, historical and contemporary theology, biblical studies and related disciplines; 11 of these are Catholic. "It is utterly imperative," she said, "for Latinos and Latinas to come to a maturity in our faith. We have to articulate on our own behalf our experience of God and who God calls us to be. That has to come out of us. It can't be something someone projects onto us or that we passively receive. I'm especially passionate about this as a Mexican-American woman. There are so many stereotypes associated with us. There's economic prejudice, with 'English-only' laws and a very racist rhetoric against immigrants. Mexican-Americans are seen as less. We do the labor no one else wants to do. So, to speak, to be an intellectual, is audacious, coming from this experience."

In her doctoral studies -- for eight years, as Pineda-Madrid completes her dissertation while teaching full-time -- the economic factor has loomed "huge, huge. … You always live with that stress. Whatever [financial] relief you get is a relief for a month, and then you think, 'Now what?' " Pursuing a Ph.D. "is an endeavor of the very elite, and I'm not elite, on many levels."

Bias and oppression, Pineda-Madrid notes in an essay, are not just economic and racial: They have to do with who gets to name reality, to define the situation -- to "control knowledge." With the control and validation of knowledge also come the power and freedom to act on what one knows. This freedom is part of what makes us fully human. Pineda-Madrid is particularly interested in how these realities are present -- or absent -- in the lives of Latinas, especially Chicanas.

How then to develop a theology that is authentically Latina? Theologian Ada-María Isasi-Díaz has done so through the use of interviews with grass-roots women of several cultural backgrounds. Pineda-Madrid uses another rich resource. Just as womanist theologians such as Katie Geneva Cannon have mined fiction by African-American women for theological and ethical insights, Pineda-Madrid explores fiction and essays by Latinas: "Who can tap into the tectonic plates of a culture and see the shifts taking place? It's the artists and poets; so I went to the artists and the poets."

Pineda-Madrid has examined works by poet, playwright and essayist Cherríe Moraga and by novelist, poet and short story writer Sandra Cisneros to develop a Latina theology of suffering. She agrees with them that "the suffering experienced and the pain inflicted by oppression do not automatically enable us to love more or to care more. No moral superiority emerges as a simple result of experiencing more pain." But Latinas do need to take their own suffering seriously -- not trivializing it, not resigning themselves passively to it, not plunging into an escape of its effects or eliminating suffering by any means, regardless of consequences.

Like the literary artists she studies, Pineda-Madrid believes that Latinas must take their suffering seriously in a way that values human flourishing. As a theologian with a commitment to liberation, she also believes that "this human search for greater liberation and wholeness is not an end in itself" but becomes "the occasion for our encounter with Divine Mystery." How then, she asks, do we discern this mystery in the everyday, including daily suffering and struggle? And how can the suffering of Latinas play a role in the redemption of all people?

Pineda-Madrid points to Latinas' "acts of courage" and resistance to evil amid suffering. In this struggle, she observes, Latinas "grow in their capacity to embody and incarnate the life of God." These acts of courage, "recasting their suffering in concrete, imaginative ways" illustrated by Latina writers, can provide models to us all.

Though the writings of contemporary Latina theologians began appearing in the mid-1980s, Pineda-Madrid stresses that these works are part of a current of intellectual and theological thought predating that era. Latina theologies, she says, are not just a reaction to or variation on the work of white feminists, nor a response to Latin American male liberation theologians or even to U.S. Latino theologians, who began publishing a decade before their Latina colleagues. All of these contemporary strands of Christian theology "have made their contributions" to Latina theologies. But there exists a long history "of Latinas who have attempted to articulate intellectually the existence of resistance -- which is amazing given the experience of oppression."

Pineda-Madrid points to the philosophical, theological and literary works of the 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, to the journals and memoirs of 19th- and 20th-century Latinas Doña María Inocencia Pico and Nina Otero-Warren, and more recently, to writings of the Chicano movement of the 1960s.

Pineda-Madrid is also attentive to the symbols shaping images of Latinas and how these symbols can speak beyond the culture in which they emerged. One of the most powerful symbols is that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Two interpretations of Guadalupe especially interest Pineda-Madrid: that of Chicana feminist theorists, particularly Norma Alarcón, and that of pioneering Mexican-American theologian and pastor Virgil Elizondo.

Many Chicana feminist theorists have argued, as have other scholars, about whether Our Lady of Guadalupe represents liberation or submission. They criticize traditional interpretations and offer alternatives to "virgin vs. whore" models of womanhood, emphasizing instead the way Chicanas make meaning and take initiative in the world. How, Pineda-Madrid asks, can Christian theologians not take these insights into account? On the other hand, Pineda-Madrid says of this group of thinkers, "I really want to push them. There is a way in which their work doesn't go far enough. They certainly ask the liberation questions," she says. "But I follow [Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo] Gutiérrez and see liberation and salvation as related."

Pineda-Madrid also wants to challenge Elizondo who, she says, "has been a huge support to me in pursuing this topic." She praises Elizondo's attention to culture, but notes that he does not address the distinctive experience of Latinas; she is also concerned that Latino theology could remain "trapped in a theological ghetto." Philosophy, she believes, can help explore how the symbol of Guadalupe might be meaningful beyond the Latino community. "In many ways," Pineda-Madrid says, Guadalupe "is a touchstone for reinterpreting many different parts of the Christian tradition. [Elizondo] and I agree on this, but I'm of the belief that without a theoretical foundation we can't have a real conversation with Chicana feminist theorists, or African-American scholars, or people involved in interreligious theology."

In search of a usable theory, Pineda-Madrid came upon the work of the philosopher Josiah Royce, originator of the term "the Beloved Community" and author of The Problem of Christianity. She uses his insights to shed light on diverging interpretations of Guadalupe and the communities reflected and created by those interpretations.

Royce, a member of the American Pragmatists school of thought, was born in 1855 in the American West. His parents were forty-niners, lured to California by tales of land and gold. His philosophy "deals a lot with suffering and with the problem of evil," says Pineda-Madrid. "He knew the underside of the forty-niners, of the dream that was sold to East Coasters: finding gold and getting rich. His family was living in enormous poverty. It didn't work out for them, which was the case for many people. He knew the negative side of the American experience."

Royce was haunted by the Civil War and by Lincoln's assassination. He was deeply aware of race relations, not only between whites and blacks, but also those involving the 19th-century Mexican settlers or Californios who lost their land to Anglo settlers in his home state of California. Pineda-Madrid points out that Royce developed much of his philosophy based on these social problems. He also criticized the rugged individualism so pervasive in this country and, like many contemporary feminist theologians, "believes that everything in the world is in relation; reality is fundamentally social." This insight, Pineda-Madrid says, coincides with the pervasive Latino view that "to be human is to be in relationship."

Pineda-Madrid, a woman of the borderlands, is also a woman of the West. Raised in Texas and New Mexico, she attended college in Los Angeles, studied and worked for a decade in Seattle, and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly eight years. In the summer of 2001, she married Larry Gordon, who is Jewish, in a celebration reflecting each of their cultures and religions. Gordon is the lead community organizer for San Francisco in the Industrial Areas Foundation. Pineda-Madrid shares the parenting responsibilities for his two teenage children. "Life just begins at 6:30 a.m. regardless of what time you go to bed!" she laughs.

Pineda-Madrid, now 44, did not start out as a student of theology. She earned a bachelor's in business administration and worked in her father's insurance business for two years before changing her direction. But between the end of her college coursework and the beginning of life in the business world, Pineda-Madrid spent a year in Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico, engaged in pastoral work. "I had to stay close to home because I had cancer my senior year in college and my medical care was in El Paso, so going overseas was not an option," she said Mexico was the logical place to go. Pineda-Madrid set up her own program of mission and ministry with the help of a religious sister from the same community as her aunt.

In the middle of her year in Palomas, Pineda-Madrid came back to the United States for three weeks of theological formation at the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio. There she met Gustavo Gutiérrez. "I was really excited about what I was doing," she remembers. But Gutiérrez challenged her. "He said, 'Is this an adventure for a year or is this a commitment for a lifetime?' " His challenge stayed with her. "It really is because of Palomas," she said, "that I made a decision to go into ministry and then into theology."

After earning her M.Div. at Seattle University, where she was the only person of color in her degree program, Pineda-Madrid worked for the Seattle archdiocese as coordinator of multicultural ministry and later as director of pastoral planning. "I could have done that for many years and been happy and successful," she says, "but I wanted my work in the church to contribute explicitly to U.S. Latinos." As a member of the oversight committee of the Campaign for Human Development for the U.S. bishops, Pineda-Madrid realized how few Latinos were in senior leadership in the church, "even in places where there were very, very large Latino communities." During her theological studies in the mid- and late-'80s, she read works by Elizondo and Isasi-Díaz. "I was in tears when I read [their work]," she said. "I realized how much I appreciated what they did, and I wanted to make a contribution."

Today, Pineda-Madrid converses regularly with these two theologians as well as with María Pilar Aquino, Orlando Espín, Roberto Goizueta and others who founded the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States in the late 1980s. The academy publishes the quarterly Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology. Because its members embody two different theological tendencies, one more pastoral and the other more academic or systematic, the academy lives with a tension Pineda-Madrid calls "very rich."

Pineda-Madrid's philosophy and style of teaching reflect a theological approach combining both perspectives, as befits her familiarity with borderlands. She insists on the need for critical thinking in matters of faith and has more than once "experienced the Spirit breaking in by virtue of a book I read."

She also understands teaching as spiritual formation. This formation, she notes, needs "to engage the imagination." It can be at once "affective, intellectual and moral. Morality isn't just my personal morality but the morality we create as community. It isn't just about charity but about our political lives together."

Jane Redmont of Berkeley, Calif., is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today and When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2003

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