A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview
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Latina Empowerment, Border Realities, and
Faith-Based Organizations
Milagros Peña

Any discussion of Latinas must begin with some understanding of their experience within the larger context of their communities. To understand Latino/a empowerment in faith-based communities, this chapter begins with a brief overview of the Latino/a religious experience and then outlines Latinas' particular contributions to faith-based community activist organizations. The research literature on Latinos and Latinas and their place in the U.S. religious mosaic parallels non-Latino/a immigration stories when consideration is given to the role of religion and religious institutions within ethnic enclaves. These ethnic studies can be useful because they highlight nuances that sometimes are glossed over by sweeping immigration theories. As Jaime Vidal (Dolan and Vidal 1994) found when looking at the Puerto Rican migration story, there were nuances to the Puerto Rican experiences that spilled over into shaping the character of previously established Euro-ethnic faith communities.

One difference was Puerto Rican migrants' insistence on maintaining their culture rather than embracing the expected assimilation with U.S. society: “The insistence of Puerto Ricans on speaking Spanish among themselves and on speaking Spanish at home in order to pass on the language (as a first language!) to the next generation was deeply disturbing and even offensive to Americans, who instinctively perceived it as a rejection of the 'melting pot,' a symbolic way of clinging to an alien identity” (Dolan and Vidal 1994: 59). Subverting assimilation and the “melting pot” translated itself into establishing faith communities that insisted on and asserted Puerto Rican ethnic identity in a way that other immigrant communities had not. One could argue that the Puerto Rican story in many ways foreshadowed the present-day expected tolerance for multiculturalism. Of course, Puerto Ricans do not represent the experiences of all Latino/a groups. But as one of a number of ethnic groups with similar stories, we learn from their experiences that even before the current immigration influx, the U.S. religious character was a contested one. Puerto Ricans came to New York “with a culture pervaded by the Catholic ethos but it was a different kind of Catholic ethos” (Dolan and Vidal 1994: 67; see also Díaz-Stevens's [1993a: 240–76] study of the impact of Puerto Rican migration on the Archdiocese of New York).

These studies show that communities of faith can be, and are often, linked to the struggles of ethnic communities to be accepted in a society that marginalizes them. This is evident, for example, in acts of devotion to La Hermita de la Caridad del Cobre,


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A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion
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