Theology of Borderlands: Nancy Pineda-Madrid, One of Few U.S. Latina Theologians, Delves into Questions of Suffering, Oppression, Liberation and Salvation

Article excerpt

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. "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-Maria Isasi-Diaz 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 Cherrie 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. …