Religion is at the heart of the Latina/o experience in the United States. It is a deeply personal matter that often shapes political orientations, how people vote, where they live, and the type of family choices they make. Latina/o religious politics—defined as the religious beliefs, ethics, and cultures that motivate social and political action in society—represent the historic interaction between popular and institutional religion. The evolution of Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and Catholic Social Action throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries illuminates the ways in which Latina/o religious communities interacted with movements for social justice.
The Latino/Latina or Hispanic Catholic presence spans the colonial era, the period of U.S. expansion during the 19th century, and the waves of new immigrants in the 20th and 21st centuries. A long-standing element of Latino Catholic history, the struggle for justice both in church and society, became even more prominent during the 20th century. While Catholics in the thirteen British colonies were a minority in a Protestant land, in Hispanic settlements from Florida to California, Catholicism was the established religion under Spain and, in the Southwest, under Mexico after it won independence in 1821. Spanish subjects founded numerous missions intended to Christianize and Hispanicize native populations. They also established parishes, military chaplaincies, and private chapels to serve the religious needs of Hispanic settlers. From the standpoints of original settlement, societal influence, and institutional presence, the origins of Catholicism in what is now the United States were decidedly Hispanic. The first large group of Hispanic Catholics incorporated into U.S. territories was Mexicans in the Southwest, who, as a common adage puts it, did not cross the border but had the border cross them during U.S. territorial expansion. When military defeat led Mexico’s president to cede nearly half his nation’s territory to the United States in 1848, Mexicans underwent the disestablishment of their Catholic religion along with widespread loss of their lands, economic well-being, political clout, and cultural hegemony. Many continued their traditional expressions of faith, which enabled them to defend their sense of dignity, to collectively respond to the effects of conquest, and to express their own ethnic legitimation. Nascent 19th-century Latino immigration to the United States quickened over the course of the 20th century, expanding the diversification of national-origin groups among Latinos in the United States. Mexican immigration increased substantially after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and has continued into the 21st century. Significant numbers of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Central Americans have also come, along with some South Americans. Each group of Latino newcomers has fostered ministries and church structures that served the needs of their compatriots. Latino Catholic activist efforts range from local initiatives such as establishing Spanish-language masses and prayer groups to broader endeavors such as the recent National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros of the 1970s and 1980s, major events that enabled Hispanic leaders to articulate their ministerial needs and demands to Catholic bishops and the wider church. Latino Catholics have also been active in social causes such as the plight of farmworkers, immigration, and faith-based community organizing.
In the spring of 1982, six faith communities in Arizona and California declared themselves places of safe harbor for the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans that had been denied legal proceedings for political asylum in the United States. Alleging that immigration officials had intentionally miscategorized Central Americans as “economic migrants” in order to accelerate their deportation, humanitarian organizations, legal advocates, and religious bodies sought alternatives for aid within their faiths’ scriptural teachings and the juridical parameters offered by international and national human rights and refugee law. Known as the sanctuary movement, this decade-long interfaith mobilization of lay and clerical activists indicted the US detention and deportation system and the country’s foreign policy initiatives in Latin America as morally bankrupt while arguing that human lives, regardless of documentation status, were sacred. In accusing the United States of being a violator of both domestic and international refugee legislation, subsequently exposing hundreds of thousands of people to persecution, torture, and death, the movement tested the idea that the country had always extended welcome to victims of persecution. Along with a broad network of anti-interventionist and humanitarian aid organizations, sanctuary galvanized more than 60,000 participants in 500 faith communities across the nation. By the 1990s, the movement had spurred congressional action in support of Central American asylees and served as the model for a renewed movement for sanctuary in support of undocumented Americans in the 21st century.