Where the Spirit Leads: Latinos Are Considered a Key Demographic in the Political Wars of 2008. but the Community Is Far from Monolithic, and Latino Pentecostals-Defined by Faith More Than Politics-May Be the Least Known and Most Unpredictable Group on the Landscape

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THE ENIGMA OF LATINO PENTECOSTALS is found in their ability to resist labels and simple classifications. Or maybe it's just that most people's assumptions about them are all wrong? Either way, Latino Pentecostals have been ignored, misunderstood, and mislabeled for too long.

The Latino community has functioned almost undercover for many years, hidden for the most part from the eyes of mainstream society. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, writer Octavio Paz calls the "masks" that Mexicans and other Latinos wear in society "a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible." The image of Latinos in mainstream U.S. society is as unfocused as our ability to agree on what we will call them--Latino or Hispanic, Chicano or Boricua. The name we choose for Latinos tells us more about ourselves us than it does about them.

Pentecostals, too, are unknown, even suspect to many. People don't know what to make of their unknown tongues, miracles, or outlandish holy roller ways. Pentecostals from Aimee Semple McPherson to Pat Robertson are partly to blame for this--with a striving to be in this world but not of it that sometimes borders on the bizarre and sensational. Most Pentecostals, however, deserve more down-to-earth reputations. By preaching that everyone has a right to enter into direct contact with God 2 regardless of their education, race, or class, Pentecostals have become the fastest growing Christian movement in the world today.

To be a Latino Pentecostal, then, is a double whammy. In a highly polarized society, they don't fit into the predetermined camps racially, culturally, or spiritually. Politically, this has made Latino Pentecostals a focus for those on both the left and the right who seek to claim them as their own. Liberals see a church made up largely of non-white, urban poor people and assume its members must be progressive like themselves. Conservatives jump upon the idea that because most Latino evangelicals are pro-family, anti-abortion, and tend to support the war in Iraq, they must be conservatives.

Despite all this label-slinging, Latino Pentecostals are not quite as passive as some might think. Instead, they have been quietly challenging assumptions and crossing borders for generations, often defining themselves in unexpected ways.

Though not necessary political, the following aspects of Latino Pentecostals nevertheless have a political impact, transcending our current political and social categories and opening a path to social change.

* The mixed racial and cultural composition of the Latino family--a blend of Native American, European, and African peoples has challenged the racial standards of mainstream society since its very beginnings in America. Latino Pentecostals challenge the stereotypes that all Latinos are Catholics and, conversely, that all conservative evangelicals are white.

* Latinos participated in the birth of the Pentecostal movement in the United States. …