Latino Churches and Schools as Urban Battlegrounds
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo and Ana María Diaz-Stevens
The rumors of the demise of religion have been greatly exaggerated. Certainly among Latinos, one of the salient characteristics of the barrios from Boston to San Diego is the omnipresence of religion. Whether in stately stone churches, ebullient storefront Pentecostal chapels, or the mysterious bótanicas filled with incense and African amulets, the Latino people of the United States surround themselves with vehicles of religious expression. 1
But what is the schooling function of religion, especially in the midst of Latino urban poverty? Among African-Americans, the study of the permanent underclass led Jeffrey Wilson to consider this question. He viewed the educative role of religion skeptically and generally considered it to offer no remedy to the hopelessness of the poverty cycle. 2 A study on black churches was more precise in analyzing the reason poverty and faith coexist with such little apparent mutual influence, pointing out that members of black urban churches tend to view themselves as different from the underclass around them. 3 These authors are more optimistic than Wilson, anticipating that part of the definition of an African- American Christian is to combat poverty and that education in moral values of the poor is within the future agenda of black churches.
It would be a mistake to consider that what is said about religion among African-Americans necessarily is also true for Latinos. Not only is the religious tradition different, but the culture and the social experiences also are essentially distinct. Thus, the urban experience of Latinos is colored by a religious factor that is as unique as it is pervasive. Like urban problems and poverty, religion seems never to fade away, despite the secularist premises of liberals and radicals alike.
As Marx testified in his celebrated phrase, religion may be "the opiate of the people," but it is also "the cry of the oppressed." Certainly no one familiar with the radical ideological role of liberation theology in Latin America can pretend that religion in each and every manifestation is antithetical to real