In case you didn’t pick up on it from my last name, I am of Mexican-American descent. Maybe it is true of all ethnicities, but I know that I have personally struggled to define exactly what that means.1 What are the implications of having an Hispanic heritage and living in the United States in our present age? As an academic, I have often found myself grasping for some intellectual answers to this question. Sadly, in my particular fields of study (i.e., theology and biblical studies) there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of research to draw from. I mean, there’s a lot of black theology out there, and feminist theology, and more than enough white/anglo/european theology2 (which is probably the majority of theology textbooks). There’s even a growing wealth of liberation theology, which has a distinctly Latin American flair to it.
But, Mexican-Americans are different. We don’t fit neatly into any national category. To “regular” Mexicans (the people who actually live in Mexico), we are pochos, puffed up but hollow like rotten fruit, or agringados, no different from any other Yankee. And if the rise in Donald Trump’s poll standing after his racially-charged comments last year are any indication, a significant number of Anglo-Americans don’t look on us too favorably either. Terms like “dirty” or “lazy” are often applied to Mexican-Americans, and it’s no secret that Mexicanos in the American Southwest experience all sorts of negative social stigmas (even if they’re here legally). Because of this half-in/half-out status that Mexican-Americans experience, it is little wonder that sociologists, and especially theologians, have had trouble articulating where such people “fit in.”
Because of this, I want to share with you a fantastic book that I read last year, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, by Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo is a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, and a Mexican-American (again, the name sort of gives it away), who both oversees his San Antonio parish and teaches theology, evangelization, faith and spirituality, and culture and public ritual at the University of Notre Dame. In this book, he offers a compelling examination of the Mexican-American people, their unique culture, and their experiences in the American context. Moreover, he explains many of the key facets of the Mexican-American faith, both where they come from and how they can positively influence the greater Christian tradition.
Elizondo struck a chord with me in this book, largely because he beautifully and pointedly articulates experiences that I myself have had throughout my life, but didn’t know how to describe or make sense of. I highly recommend this book to anyone who fits the label Mexican-American, or just anyone who wants to understand their Hispanic neighbors and their faith better.
Anyhow, I decided to use Elizondo’s insights for a couple of reflections that I’ll post as bookends to this year’s Lenten season. The first one will focus on Ash Wednesday and its significance from a Mexican-American perspective, and the second one will do the same for Good Friday. I really hope that they help to provide elucidation and insights for all of us. Please feel free to share these posts with others, and let me know your own reflections.
Last of all, I will probably be using terms like Mexican-American, Hispanic, Chicano, Mexicano, and Latino interchangeably throughout this brief series. There’s a lot of confusion, and even a little controversy, over which moniker is appropriate. As Elizondo puts it:
Generally speaking, it appears that those who prefer to call themselves Mexicanos still speak Spanish and maintain strong ties with old Mexico. Those who prefer to call themselves Mexican-Americans usually “accept” their Mexican heritage, but linguistically, socially, and culturally they identify more with the U.S. mentality and lifestyle. Those who prefer to be called Chicanos are those who are struggling to emerge with a new identity.
… many answered [in reply to a questionnaire] in terms, not of proper names, but of – at first appearance – indeterminate or undefined names: la raza, nuestra gente, mi gente (“the clan or race, our people, my people”).
… We are la raza, el pueblo, la gente. We are a movement; we are not a monument. We recognize one another; there is a bond, a sense of familia, that we all experience, but there is also an area of self-identity that we do not agree on.3
So, it’s really a matter of preference. And, since they all refer to the same people group, I’m not likely to favor one term over the others.
Okay, enough for today. God bless, everyone!
1: When you consider the wide breadth of diversity among Latinos, it's easy to understand why settling on a definitive Latino identity can be so difficult. Follow this link for more on how Latinos Break the Mold.
2: Not to be confused with James Perkinson's book, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), which is really more of an interaction with Cone's black theology.
3: Virgilio P. Elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American (Orbis Books, 2005), 21.