Hispanic Catholics: They don't fit into the melting pot

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Article Hispanic Catholics Parish Life
Father Virgilio Elizondo gives an introduction to Hispanic culture in a 1981 interview with U.S. Catholic about Hispanic Catholics.

The Statue of Liberty invites all the tired, the poor, and the wretched of the world to enter through the "golden door" and enjoy life in the land of the free. But what happens when a group of immigrants comes in and doesn't want to blend in? Should the country force these people to Americanize or should "American" be broadened to include the Hispanic culture?

Father Virgil Elizondo, president of the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Tex., votes for the latter. He says that "bilingualism offers more to all of us," Anglos and Hispanics alike. "It's an enrichment."

Elizondo thinks that Anglos who try to understand the Hispanics in this country might discover some new ways of looking at Catholic faith, family life, and tradition. A winning recipe, but not a melting pot.

Hispanics are the first immigrant group in American history who seem to be getting away with not learning English. And the English language has always been at the center of the idea of America as a melting pot. Why aren't Hispanics fitting in?

I think that we need to reformulate the question. It is not that we are not learning English but that we are re-teaching the Spanish. The Hispanic world vision as expressed through the Spanish language is a treasure we do not want to give up.

I don't see America as a melting pot, but a stew pot. In a stew pot, everybody starts out different but they don't lose their characteristics. A carrot is still a carrot; a potato is still a potato. They'll give up something and receive something.

As a Hispanic, I bring something to the United States and I receive a lot. We don't want to see Spanish in place of English but rather to show that people can easily handle both languages and feel it's an enrichment. Rather than being apologetic about it, we're very proud of it. This mixture of the Anglo American tradition and the Latin American tradition is what is giving the Hispanics in the United States today a uniqueness all their own.

Isn't there a lot of resentment from Americans when they see that this country may be headed towards bilingualism?

Yes, but there doesn't have to be. I think that bilingualism offers more for all of us. I feel that the church, for example, needs to provide that old dream of all nations working toward a united America. I don't mean that it has to be united politically and economically, but I don't think that national boundaries have to be religious boundaries. I would really love to be able to see the church make real unity among Americans, from the tip of South America to the tip of North America.

What if you were riding on a bus which had a bilingual sign and someone said to you, "Why can't you guys learn English?" What would you say?

This is a complex question because language is very emotional. Americans have convinced themselves that they are a one-language people. It's a cultural characteristic to hear Americans say, "Gee, I can't learn another language. I'm very bad at languages." I think that's an impoverishment of the people. The whole idea of a liberal education is to pick up at least two languages besides your own.

I think it would be important for Americans to understand that there's been a three-stage Hispanic awakening. In the first stage, they were just not accepted. The Hispanics were kept out, and they were told that even though they may have been in the present-day United States long before the U.S. immigrated to them, they don't belong here.

Then came the second stage, which I call the development stage. Our people wanted to become Americans, the all-Americanization process. They wanted to forget Spanish, change their names, change their religion. Even though some people pretty well succeeded in Americanization, they were still not fully accepted. No matter how well they made it, they were still considered "the other," and that was the beginning of the third stage. Now we realize the images of U.S. pluralism: E pluribus unum. We know that we can be fully American without losing our heritage, our religion, or our language. We can continue using our language as the most concrete and deep way of expressing our being.

Suppose you are the pastor of a parish that's always been German or Polish and suddenly Hispanics start moving in. What should you do?

An immediate solution would be to try to understand them, and I don't just mean linguistically. Each group of people has a way of doing things that's unique to them. This doesn't mean that it's dumb or stupid. It's not dumb to them. It's really hard for someone to see what's precious to the heart of other people, so a pastor should try to be a listening pastor.

When pastors listen, they begin to speak in such a way that even though they don't speak the language, the people can understand them. The gestures of going out to the people are sometimes more important than the language itself. It would be ideal to also try to learn the language too, but good listening is the all-important beginning.

I know a bishop in a Hispanic area who really gives the people the feeling of being welcome. He doesn't keep a private telephone number and the people know that they can call him when they need him. He gets calls at 2 and 3 in the morning. The other day he drove somebody to the post office because this person didn't know how to buy stamps, didn't know how to ask for them. The people who need help the most are the ones who cannot come at regular office hours. The ones who are afraid to go anywhere else feel somewhat at home in wanting to use the church. When people don't have the door shut in their faces, they have the feeling that they're welcome. And that speaks a lot.

What kinds of things bring the Hispanic peoples together?

Family and faith. The people love family. I once met a beautiful young couple with a newborn baby and asked if this was their first one. They said, "Oh yes, Father. We really hope to have many more." It's not "We're supposed to have another one," but "We really want to have many more." Maybe our families aren't as big as they used to be--a lot of people are not having 15--but they still have more than one or two.

I think that the main religious educator for us is the family, too. It isn't so much that we have family discussions about religion, but I think it's the whole atmosphere in the home. For example, almost every house has its home altar where the statues and pictures are kept. Almost always they have a picture of the Blessed Mother, a statue of the crucified Christ, the Sacred Heart, and somewhere in the home you'll find the pictures of the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden.

Most Americans threw out those devotions after Vatican II. Why are they still important to the Hispanics?

Vatican II is interpreted in various ways by different people. It certainly was not against the popular expression of the faith of the common folks. Popular devotions speak to the reality of the people and make religion a very personal thing.

As an example, the Agony in the Garden speaks to the people of that loneliness they feel when no one understands them. The Sacred Heart is popular because Hispanics speak very much to the level of the heart. You notice when we speak Spanish, we use the word heart in conversation in a much more ordinary way than you would in English. In fact, it's very ordinary for us to refer to someone we love as mi corazon, my heart. We often say, "my heart cries; my heart feels," and that's why the devotion to the Sacred Heart makes Christ so humanly present today. We see the heart as the center of the personality.

We also see the saints as family. They are the ones who personalize doctrine for us, and we like to have many statues of the saints in our churches. If new priests, for example, come in and take all the statues out of the church, it is like taking away familia, our family and friends. When they are thrown out, it leaves a very empty church.

How important is Sunday Mass to the Hispanics?

We may not necessarily be a Sunday-church-going people, but the festive element of religion is very important. People may not show up for Sunday Mass, but when there's a feast day, they come. And when Sunday Mass is a festive occasion, they come. If it is not festive, they tell you very honestly, "Why should I waste my time joining in the boredom of the priest?"

When the church becomes a place where it's exciting to go to Mass, when the parish really makes the people feel at home, then the Mass is a festive occasion, a real celebration of the Eucharist. When a parish is very much loved by the people, they go because they want to go. You meet friends, and you visit and have coffee, and the kids play in the yard. When the church is merely a place to go to Mass on Sundays, then it doesn't have any meaning to it.

If Mass isn't very important to the people, what about the sacraments?

I know that theologically speaking the sacraments are the key moments in the life of the church. But speaking practically, sacramentals play a much greater role in the lives of the Hispanics than the sacraments do. Unlike the sacraments, the sacramentals are accessible to everyone. You see, everyone can receive ashes, everyone can wear medals. If you're divorced, that doesn't mean you cannot come up and adore the cross. You don't have guilt feelings coming up--did I go to Confession or didn't I go to Confession? Everyone is invited, everyone comes, and I think there's a power there that's very real. People need to touch the ashes or the crib at Christmas, smell the incense and oils, and hear the blessings.

There is a beautiful custom in the Hispanic home of parents blessing their children. Blessing them at night; blessing them after school. The power of blessing is something we have underestimated in Anglo society. It was always very much a part of my home--we would never think of leaving the house without Mom's or Father's blessing. It is a religion of the people, a personal religion.

This, however, is not to say that Mass and the sacraments are not important in the lives of the people. They play a very important role in the life process of the people. If anything, the sacraments are not celebrated in a merely mechanical manner but are truly celebrated in a festive spirit in which the whole family and community participate. They are never private affairs but the collective celebration of the group.

Why does Our Lady of Guadalupe get so much devotion in the Hispanic culture?

I've heard that more people visit the Guadalupe shrine per year than any other shrine in Catholicism, including the Vatican. And I would believe that. I've never been there when it has not been crowded. You see, Guadalupe is a very fascinating devotion because, as far as I know, there is no other devotion that is so tied to the birth of a people as Guadalupe. Even if you're not a believer, you can't ignore her role in the development of the Mexican people.

As the story goes, an Indian peasant was told by the Virgin Mary to tell the bishop to build a church in Guadalupe. The Indian went and told the bishop, but the bishop didn't believe. Then a beautiful image appeared on the inside of the Indian's cloak. The image combined Indian and Spanish imagery perfectly and was meaningful to both groups. The twofold message was for the people to go to the church and for the church to come to the people. That's Guadalupe, the Spanish mestica, madonna. In the ten years after this happened, from 1532 to 1542, over 8 million people in the area asked for Baptism.

Don't all of these different titles for Mary just confuse people? Doesn't it make them overlook that she's one person?

Not at all. You can refer to the Blessed Mother in many different ways and still mean the same person. In the same way, I can refer to my own mother as the lady who ran the grocery store down the street, as the mother of a priest, or as a saved woman. No one's going to disagree. Mary is the mother of God, our mother. We may celebrate her with different titles, but you'll find a very strong devotion to Mary in almost every Latin American country. And a very strong devotion to Jesus the Nazarene. It is, for example, very common in the way we name children to use the names Jesus, Jesusita, Maria, and Mario.

Is the extended family more real to Hispanics than to other American families?

There's usually uncles, aunts, cousins, god-parents, and especially elderly people. Our elderly people are very much loved. We see grandparents as a blessing when the children are growing up.

In more Hispanic communities, for example, we should have grandparent-education programs. These are very good because, especially nowadays, elderly people have a lot of leisure time and a lot of them are in good health. I think we should do some exciting things with them. For example, we are finding out that politically speaking, they're terrific activists. They love it, it's fun, and they have nothing to lose. Their sons and daughters have a job that they might be risking.

Grandparents are also the ones who are going to transfer the treasures of the heart to the younger generations--the old devotions, traditions, prayers. This is in itself a great value for us.

This picture of the family you paint seems so idealistic, as if there are no drugs, no alcoholism. What happens to the family when someone gets a divorce or they kick the kids out of the house?

It's happening and it's increasing. It's very painful. The reality for people coming in from Latin America is the dominant image of what is American. To be a good American, there is an image of television and literature, an image of how you are going to dress, that you're going to eat McDonald's hamburgers and drink Diet Pepsi and read Playboy and Penthouse.

Sometimes the Latin Americans coming to the U.S. lose the best of the Latin American tradition and pick up the worst of the Anglo American tradition, and that's a disaster. I hope that we can see the reverse of this and maintain the best of one and pick up the best of the other. Then we could have a winning combination.

We talk about Americans accepting the Hispanics. How are the Hispanics accepting life with the Americans?

Hispanics are also making efforts to understand and participate in the American way of life. In fact, we have been making that effort all along, but it is when we are not allowed to participate as equals that we begin to rebel. When Hispanics are treated with acceptance and respect, they too accept, the others in a similar manner.

We really are not asking for anything "special," but merely for the right to be accepted as we are, just as we want to accept and respect others as they are. Difference doesn't mean inequality. We want to participate in the way of life of the United States, but we do not want to have to be apologetic about who we are or why we do things the way that we do them.

You know it's not easy to take away a tag that's put on people--like Anglo for Americans. There are different reactions to Americans. Take the term gringo. It has different connotations, but for Hispanics to use gringo, it refers to a con quistadore, a dominant one. Legend has it that there was a song that the American troops were singing when they were capturing Mexico City, an old marching song of the infantry: "Green grow the lilacs..." The kids heard the marching troops coming in and that's the origin of the word gringos. That's why the word has a connotation of con quistadore--it was the marching song of troops invading Mexico City.

Overall, Hispanics simply don't classify people according to Western categories of race. They simply cannot because Hispanics themselves are so many different combinations of Spanish-speaking peoples, some black-skinned and some light-skinned.

We read all the newspaper accounts of fights and tensions among people of the different Hispanic groups-like trouble between Cubans and Puerto Ricans. How can this be possible if Hispanics are as united as you say?

I never said that they were united.

For the first time, people of Latin America are meeting each other as one people in the United States. This is the birth of a real Latin American people. Cubans and Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and all the others are becoming neighbors.

For example, I am Mexican but I had never met a Puerto Rican until a few years ago. There are fantastic differences between us, yet there are similarities. That's almost like saying, "Well, why don't you English-speaking British and Irish think together? Aren't you all English-speaking?" For us, until very recent times, we've been strangers. We're all becoming one people in the United States.

There's been so much Hispanic immigration to the U.S. during the last few years. Has it had a bad effect on Hispanic culture?

It has certainly brought about change--some good and some bad. Often, there's very much a mentality that they're not only immigrants, but they're in exile. However, many people are very honest that they would never go back, even though they mentally have their bags packed.

On the other hand, for some Hispanics, the U.S. immigrated to them. As one elderly woman from New Mexico once told me: "We happened to have lived on this site for as far back as we can remember--for at least 1000 years. So, we were here when Spain arrived, we were here in this same spot when this became Mexico, and we were here when this became the United States. We don't know what country will be coming through here next, but we'll still be here."

But regardless of the feelings, we are assuming the dominant U.S. culture in various degrees and that is bringing about change. I would hesitate to say that it was bad in itself. Only time will tell to what degree it has been bad or good.

This article appeared in the October 1981 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 46, No. 10, pages 24-29).