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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

Mestiso identity is the heart of Virgil Elizondo's life and work

An influential theologian writes of Jesus, the Hispanic experience and himself


A mestizo Messiah, born to be seen as neither Jew nor Gentile, is the Jesus of Galilee at the center of Virgil Elizondo’s pioneering theological work.

To Fr. Elizondo, Jesus’ dual cultural identity “as a marginal Jew from Galilee of Gentiles” was nothing less than what was required to bring peace to humanity.

In his most recent book, A God of Incredible Surprises: Jesus of Galilee, Elizondo explores that theme in depth and celebrates his native San Antonio as a place where the work of Jesus’ “new creation” is taking place daily.

Recognized by TIME magazine as a leading global spiritual innovator, Virgil Elizondo is widely acknowledged as a pioneer among Hispanic theologians in the U.S. Catholic church.

He is, by definition, a modern mestizo, conscious of the intermingling of indigenous and European influences in his life, having obtained his STD/PhD. at the Institut Catholique in Paris. Today, the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, he lives in two worlds.

During the workweek, Elizondo serves as visiting professor of theology in the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame University. He regularly returns to his native San Antonio, though, where he serves as associate pastor at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, deep in the heart of the city’s predominantly Mexican-American West Side.

Elizondo also maintains an office at the Mexican-American Cultural Center, the internationally recognized center for multicultural pastoral foundation he helped found. There, he writes and hosts Spanish-language programs for the San Antonio archdiocese’s Catholic Television service.

Influenced early on by the work of the French Jesuit paleontologist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he sees the process of mestizaje (the Spanish word for the mixing of races and cultural backgrounds) as creating a new evolutionary phylum of humanity.

As a Mexican-American who observed the oppression of his people’s culture from the margins of mainstream “Anglo” society of South Texas, Elizondo’s own life experience informs his concept of marginalization.

Throughout the Gospel stories, Elizondo sees Jesus as shunning the powerful in order to identify with those whose lives have been marginalized, to give them the healing they need.

Now, with the publication of A God of Incredible Surprises, Elizondo has produced a succinct personal testament to his life and thought.

In 12 short chapters, Elizondo explores the paradox of Jesus, “so human he must be divine,” the “unsuspected beauty” of his humble birth and his conscious sacrifice of his life, the importance of his formation in the marginalized world of Galilee, his gifts of the restoration of innocence and his example of peace and faith in the face of death, and the transformational spirit of Pentecost that, even today, Elizondo asserts, is creating “a new humanity.”

Elizondo took a few moments recently at his office in the Mexican-American Cultural Center to answer some questions about the central concepts with which he works and their relationship to his own life.

Was his concept of the importance of mestizaje influenced by the work of the early 20th century Mexican philosopher and statesman Jose Vasconcelos, who coined the term (later adopted by the Chicano movement) raza cosmica -- the cosmic race -- to describe the Mexican people?

“No, not really,” Elizondo said. “Vasconcelos had the idea that the Europeans were going to improve the indigenous races through mestizaje. I see it as a meeting of equals.”

In fact, Elizondo said, one of his most influential experiences in forming his own concept of mestizaje came when visiting Mexico City’s Plaza de Tres Culturas, also known in Tlatelolco, where one of the city’s oldest Catholic churches, made of volcanic rock, stands next to ruins of Aztec pyramids.

“There is a plaque there,” Elizondo said, “that reads, in Spanish, ‘On the 13th of August, 1521, Tlatelolco, heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, fell to the power of Hernan Cortes. This was neither a victory nor a defeat, but the painful birth of the mixed race that is Mexico today.’ ”

Tlatelolco is also significant in Mexican history as the site of the massacre of hundreds of student protesters in 1968 by soldiers of the Mexican army, only recently investigated by the government of Mexican president Vicente Fox.

This concept of “neither a victory nor a defeat” extends to the “both/and” (rather than “either/or”) thinking that pervades the concept of mestizaje Elizondo has developed in his work. Moreover, Elizondo sees the period in Mexico that followed the battle of Tlatelolco as truly an extraordinary spiritual opening in the history of humanity.

“The evangelization of Mexico was a fascinating missionary endeavor that rivaled the early apostolic period of the church,” he said. “Christianity penetrated the Mexican soul in a profound way, as we see reflected in Mexican music, art and architecture.”

At the heart of that penetration was the Mexican ability to understand the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

“Sacrifice -- human sacrifice -- had been a central part of Aztec culture,” Elizondo said, “but now it was transformed.”

After the original “golden moment” of evangelization, though, the people of Mexico and its institutional church went through centuries in which large parts of the population were left to their own devices to maintain their religious traditions.

As Elizondo has described them in his book Guadalupe, Mother of the New Creation, those traditions began very early on in the colonial period as a result of the experiences of St. Juan Diego with Our Lady of Guadalupe.

To Elizondo, the fact that the influences accepted by Mexico’s indigenous people during the early days of evangelization endured through centuries to the present day is a remarkable phenomenon, showing “incredible folk wisdom.”

Yet Elizondo maintains that Mexican piety is not Marian to the diminishment of Jesus, as Protestant evangelicals sometimes imply.

As he puts it: “I think our Latino religion, which is based on the two key icons of Mary and Jesus, is much closer to the Christianity of the Gospels than other expressions of Christianity that do not appreciate the incredible and fascinating bond between the mother and the son. This bond is so close that I would dare to call them a redeeming team.”

At the heart of that relationship, to Elizondo, is their mutual experience of being marginalized. That experience, for Mary, he said, came through being “adopted” by her husband, Joseph, and being regarded, socially, as the equivalent of an unwed mother.

Elizondo characterizes Jesus’ own marginalization through being born in a manner regarded as illegitimate, and working humbly as a carpenter in Galilee.

What does Elizondo make of the importance attached by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew who took pains to characterize Jesus as a descendant of the royal house of King David?

“Well, in contemporary terms, there is probably someone working right here in San Antonio who is a descendant of Moctezuma working as a mechanic,” he said. “I think that would be analogous.”

Jesus was an entirely new kind of patriarch, Elizondo said.

As he puts it in his new book: “As Jesus had reversed many of the notions and customs of his time, he reversed even the image and meaning of ‘father’ to that of the merciful father who unites the new family through tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, and love.”

The recognition of one’s own mestizaje is an opportunity, Elizondo said, to love oneself, just as one is.

“When I was much younger, I was encouraged by one of my teachers to change my name to Ellison and adopt an Anglo-American identity,” Elizondo told me. “I still respect my former teacher very much and love him as a friend, but at the time I really had to choose who I was going to be in relationship to society.”

In the concluding chapter of his new book, titled “If Jesus Had Lived in San Antonio,” Elizondo draws a direct parallel between the community of San Antonio and Jesus’ Galilee, where diverse peoples mixed, where Jews were Hellenized yet remained Jews.

In particular, he reflects upon the rich diversity of people who shopped and visited at his father’s grocery story -- “Blacks, Jews, poor Baptist and Methodist whites and of course Mexicans”-- who enlivened and expanded his understanding of their faith experiences.

No doubt it was that same love of diverse, multicultural community that inspired his vision in founding the Mexican-American Cultural Center and motivated his work, during the 1980s and early ’90s, as rector of San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral.

His tenure coincided with a period of Hispanic cultural re-awakening in San Antonio, encouraged by the city administration of then-mayor Henry Cisneros.

Although he is suffering from macular degeneration, Elizondo has not lost the urge to write.

His next book?

“I want to write a day book of meditations, one for each day of the year,” he said. “I want to call it La Biblia a tu alcance, or, in English, The Bible at Your Fingertips.”

No doubt it will not be his last.

Ed Conroy writes from Texas.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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