Latino/a and Mormon

By December 30, 2007

This is cross-posted at Times and Seasons, the last of my guest stint there. 

America, as they say, is browning. Latina/os recently surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group in the United States, and the Church is experiencing that browning along with the rest of the nation. “According to Church statisticians, the future of the Church does not lie in Europe, Canada, or the United States but rather in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and among the ethnic groups in this country.”[1] Given this fact, it is surprising that so little is known about the history and experiences of those that identify themselves as both Latino/a and Mormon. There is only one thin book on the subject, written by BYU historian Jessie L. Embry that is based on oral histories of BYU students and handful of Latina/o Mormons from Southern California. In His Own Language”: Mormon Congregations in the United States is a start, but according to Ignacio M. Garcia, Lemuel Hardison Redd Chair of Western History at BYU, we need to know much more about Latino/as Mormons themselves.

The fact that we learn so little [in Embry’s book] about the Latino members themselves may unconsciously reflect the view held by some in the Church that the international membership is only a complement to the core membership in the United States, especially in Utah. In this view, international growth results in preaching the “truth” and from the “sacrifices” of those that received it first, but it does not signal a new stage in the life of the Church with profound implications for its future. Yet the work among the Latino population is extremely significant. With the Church membership predicted to be predominantly Latino (including all of Latin America) by 2025, the change will be great. Surely one implication is that more Latino Americans will be called to leadership positions on all levels because they know both languages, have been trained closer to the core, and can relate to the majority of the membership. It will also mean, as President Kimball told the publisher of Hispanic Business in the late 1970s, that the language of the Church will be (unofficially) Spanish sometime in the twenty-first century.[2]

The story of Latino/a Latter-day Saints is largely a twentieth-century one, since large-scale conversions did not begin until the last century. This fact becomes significant when it is remembered that much of what historians do is based on archival sources, and those kind of sources for Latina/o Mormons are largely non-existent. Historians, sociologists, and other scholars interested in the lives of those that define themselves as both Mormon and Hispanic are largely dependent on oral interviews and memoirs. Embry’s book relied on fewer than 100 interviews housed at the Redd Center at BYU and I believe that the staff at the Church Archives has one individual assigned to gather interviews and other records from members in all of Latin America. I am not aware of any published memoirs of Latino/a Mormons.

Ignacio Garcia is currently writing his own memoirs and hopes to have them published in the near future. In them, he explores the tensions of growing up Mormon in the Texas barrio. “In the Mexican community there are two ways to look at being non-Catholic: with deep appreciation or disdain.”[3] According to sociologist Pablo Vila, to be Mexican is closely connected to being Catholic. “Because Catholicism and Mexicanness are intertwined, the process of identity construction among Mexican Protestants is, to say the least, complicated. Not only must they construct their Mexicanness without the usual help of the Catholic markers of identity that most Mexicans use, but they also have to prove to the Catholic ‘other’ that they still deserve to be called Mexican.”[4] Garcia suspects that Mormonism is popular among poor Latino/as because the Church gives them an identity. “People who are poor, dispossessed and abused want something ‘moralistic’ that will make them special, require them to be better, and offer a reward not only in heaven but here at home. Becoming ‘special’ within a small but all-encompassing community makes people feel like their lives are worth living.”

To complicate the issue, Garcia also felt growing up that “the fact that we were Mexican Mormons in a lake of white Mormons made it even more imperative that we remain Mexicans.” He relates his struggles with interacting fully with white Mormons. Efforts to integrate the youth “usually failed because at the time of dividing into groups we went with our own, concious that not many on the other side seemed enthused about having us. There were, as in all religious environments, some who made the effort to be friendly and inclusive. But they were few.” Garcia shares examples of specific contacts and interactions he had across the color line, some that were positive and others that were not so much. He recalls an Anglo friend that admired the athletic abilities of the Latina/os. Garcia relates an experience at a youth dance where an Anglo girl that came from an affluent home asked him to dance, giving him hope “that we struck a blow for racial unity, that it was possible for a poor Mexican boy to enamorar a beautiful rich white girl. Culture, race, geographic difference, class, and every other obstacle could and would be that night broken. Unfortunately, that little fantasy came quickly tumbling down.” The two would-be lovers found that their dancing styles did not mesh, leading to “two of the slowest and most excruciating minutes of our lives, [as] we literally went in circles.” Garcia continues:

Before we ended, all the barriers that we both knew existed arose defiantly, to remind us that we were different culturally, economically, racially, and even musically. Oh, we tried to battle against the current. We changed leads, smiled a lot, shrugged our shoulders to lesson the impact, but in the end we succumbed to embarrassment. We parted after the dance with defeated stares, she going back to her side of the dance hall, and I sheepishly dragging myself to where the other mexicanos–especially the girls–approvingly accepted the outcome. I had ventured away from them, even believed that I would transcend the cultural barrier, making me somehow better than them. But I had failed as many others had in that San Antonio of the 1960s. I would never again try to dance or much less date another white girl again. The experience would mesh with others to re-affirm the wide divide that separated the races of my youth. Interestingly, the experience did not sour my relations with those few Anglo acquaintances that I made in the Church. And it did not make me lose confidence in the Anglo leaders who came to speak at our barrio church. In my rather naive mind, I came to understand that people were different and that mingling did not always occur, but this did not mean that conflict was the appropriate opposite. Nor did I come to believe that interracial dating was wrong. Only that I–along with many others–did not have what it took to make it work.

Lack of success on the dance floor was made up on the sporting field. Garcia notes the satisfaction felt by his fellow Latino/a Mormons when victory was had against Anglo members. “We did not acknowledge it publicly and we did it without malice, but for a religious community that confronted subtle discrimination, it was the only way to respond.”

Listening to the voices of our Latina/o hermanos and hermanas will become increasingly important in the decades to come as we learn what it means to be a universal church. “Religious people talk much about unity and try hard to imply that issues of class, race, gender, and ethnicity do not matter in a community of believers. But they do. Even religious people struggle with differences.” The rapid increase of those that identify themselves as both Hispanic and Mormon is subtlely expanding what it means to be a Latter-day Saint in the twenty-first century and we would do well to understand more fully those things that, mostly by accident of birth, construct difference.

___________

[1] Ignacio M. Garcia, review of Jesse L. Embry, “In His Own Tongue”: Mormon Spanish Speaking Congregations in the United States in Journal of Mormon History 26, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 221.

[2] Garcia, review, 219.

[3] Ignacio M. Garcia, unpublished memoirs, in my possession. All unidentified quotations come from the memoirs. Prof. Garcia has given permission to quote them here.

[4] Pablo Vila, Border Identifications: Narratives of Religion, Gender, and Class on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 7-8.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Historiography Race


Comments

  1. I firmly believe that the latino presence in the church in the USA and internationally will have a far reaching impact on our church. I am quite grateful to see more hispanic brothern in higher positions in the church because I think it helps breed understanding at other levels.

    My mission in California taught me a lot about the Mexican members who might be struggling financially yet seem to be spiritually awesome. Between that and my pidgeon Spanish I picked up along the way I really loved those people. I also think it is important for hispanic members to get their stories out there as Darius Gray and others have been contributing for African American members.

    Comment by JonW — December 30, 2007 @ 12:41 pm

  2. Great food for thought. Does anyone out there know if anything has been published about the expansion of the Church into Central America? (Given the rather widespread contemporary folk doctrine associating the Book of Mormon with Mesoamerica, I’d be surprised if no one had addressed this.)
    I’m no historian, but if someone were interested in gathering interviews and oral histories, I know a fairly wide cross-section of members Honduras, and I could probably mobilize a small army of family and friends to gather interviews and materials. Any takers?

    Comment by No one in Particular — December 31, 2007 @ 10:38 am

  3. NoiP, my wife and I are slowly beginning to conduct and collect oral history interviews with Church members in El Salvador, including some of the earliest members of the Church there. The long-term goal is to publish a book-length treatise on the history of the Church in ES, but we hope to publish and present smaller bits here and there in article/academic conference panel form along the way.

    I am very interested in your offer about heading up an oral history project in Honduras. If you’re serious about it, contact me at the email address provided on the “About Juvenile Instructor” page above. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — December 31, 2007 @ 1:21 pm


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