Heading North: Can Hispanic Immigration Restore America’s Christian Culture?

Last year, Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington published Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which he claimed that the national identity of the United States is being threatened by large numbers of immigrants who refuse to assimilate with our society and culture.

Huntington argued that America, founded by British settlers, is a country with a core set of Protestant values and that any immigrant who wants to take part in the “American dream” needs both to share those values and speak English.

Many Americans rue the flood of immigration—legal and not—and what they perceive as immigrants’ refusal to learn the national language. They’re outraged that immigrants are allowed to become citizens without renouncing allegiance to their old countries and worry that large swaths of the American Southwest may someday become so Hispanic that Mexico will finally win back the lands it once lost to the United States.

But something happened a few months after Huntington’s book appeared. For years, Hispanics in the United States tended to favor Democratic candidates for political office. While Hispanics are, more often than not, Catholic and have a deeply ingrained love for life and family, they often forgave the fact that the Democratic Party stood for legal abortion. Indeed, the party had done a good job convincing minorities that it was for the poor and marginalized while the Republicans were elitist and racist.

But in 2004, the Republican candidate for president garnered 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—a significant increase over that same candidate’s performance four years earlier.

Writing the day after the election, the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Gonzalez said the results vindicated President George W. Bush’s “hunch that aggressively pursuing the Hispanic vote would pay off. His familiarity with Mexican-Americans in Texas formed in him an instinct. Here was a people who believed in family members looking after each other, who shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of homosexual marriage.”

In 2004, many Hispanics, like the so-called values voters in the rest of the electorate, seemed to be opting for the pro-life president.

This trend should inspire nativists to reconsider their belief that Hispanic immigrants reject American values. And for Catholics who are serious about evangelization, it’s worth considering that most immigration is from predominantly Catholic Latin America—Mexico alone accounting for 30 percent of all immigrants. A few years ago, Latinos became America’s largest minority and now comprise about 12 percent of the population—and 39 percent of the U.S. membership of the Catholic Church. By 2050, Hispanics are expected to constitute about one-quarter of the U.S. population and more than half of the membership of the Catholic Church in this country.

The presence of a significant population of culturally Catholic immigrants offers hope that their culture will permeate a decadent American society and contribute to the re-evangelization of native-born Catholics.

Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, said that immigrants from Latin to North America “often bring with them a cultural and religious heritage which is rich in Christian elements.”

To be sure, not all Hispanic immigrants are Catholic. Not all are practicing their religion or are even formed in the Faith. But as the immigration debate continues to simmer, Catholics here should consider the potential for this wave of immigration to restore Christian values to America. Is that potential being realized? And is the Church helping to facilitate it?

Conversely, what happens to immigrants living in a society that is both historically Protestant and suffering from secularism, materialism, and the disastrous effects of the sexual revolution? Examples abound of immigrants being corrupted by their new milieu—young men and women who, if they’d remained in their home villages, would continue attending Sunday Mass and would never consider taking on some of the practices they find all too common in their new land: cohabitating, aborting an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and contracepting in marriage.

Does the Church in the United States—whose lobbying apparatus comes down on the side of more open immigration—fully understand the possibilities here? And is it helping immigrants navigate the moral minefields? This is no time to stand on the sidelines.

Christian Humanism

Key to Hispanic immigrants re-evangelizing America is their own formation in the Faith. As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a native of Puerto Rico and the national spiritual director of Communion and Liberation USA, puts it, “The Hispanic presence can be a factor in the saving of American culture only if they are faithful to their own faith.”

Speaking in very general terms and aware that other ethnic and national groups share many of the same characteristics, he noted that Hispanics are commonly marked by a strong and traditional faith, a deep Marian devotion, a sense of community, and a love for life and family.

“Traditionally, we’ve had a deep sense of religion in our life,” said Sister Rosa Maria Icaza, CCVI, associate director of programs at the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas. “You don’t leave religion and God for Sundays. We have the sense that we are surrounded by God.”

That sense is written into the language. “In Mexico, when we ask someone ‘How are you?’ we respond ‘Bien, gracias a Dios!‘ which means, ‘Fine, thanks be to God,’ Sister Icaza said. “When we go away from each other, we say, ‘Hasta manana, si Dios quiere,’ which means, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, if it’s God’s will.’

“This culture is a very humanistic culture and deeply marked by Catholic values,” said Mario Paredes, who was director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Pastoral Center in New York City for 27 years. “Case in point: Most of the Latinos have a greater number of children, will not favor abortion, even if they practice it; will not favor birth control, even though hospitals many times will force them to use birth control…. They bring Christian humanism as an important component as they communicate those values in the neighborhoods where they live.”

Christian humanism, Paredes said, is evident in the way Hispanics live as extended families. “It’s not just mother, father, son and daughter. It is many children, and it is also the grandmother, the grandfather and the uncles and the nieces and the nephews,” he said. “In pain, in sickness, in death, you see how they help each other. Many of them don’t have insurance…. And they all put together their money to pay bills.”

Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio said Hispanics have a sense of community based in Christianity—Christ, who formed a community with the apostles, provides the example. So deeply is this ingrained among Latino immigrants that it can be a partial antidote to the hyper-individualism found throughout American society.

Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants are also bringing religious traditions to the United States. One example is the novena before Christmas known as Las Posadas—a reenactment of the Holy Family’s search for shelter in the days leading to the Birth of Jesus.

In New Haven, Connecticut, last year, Las Posadas were held at a different family’s home each night. As many people who wanted to come were welcomed. When attendees were finished praying, they greeted each other warmly, shaking hands with friends and strangers alike. Indeed, it would be considered odd—even rude—not to do so. Over the course of nine nights, the community bond already present from the parish grew stronger through the sharing of prayers, meals, and problems.

Archbishop Gomez added that the Hispanic qualities of “looking at life in a more joyful and open way,” seeing the family as one extended beyond the nuclear family, and the joy in the family being together are traits “we had in the United States and have to recover. Family was so important in the U.S., and now we have a crisis in the family.”

Cultural Desert

The Rio Grande and the Arizona desert aren’t the only barriers immigrants must cross in coming to America. Some of the problems they face here come from their very own advocates.

The growing number of Spanish-language weddings in this country compelled the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to translate the Church’s marriage rites into Spanish. The bishops voted to approve the Ritual del Matrimonio at their meeting in Washington, D.C., last November, and the translation is awaiting Vatican approval.

The Ritual del Matrimonio includes wedding rituals that date back centuries in Spanish culture. In addition to exchanging rings, spouses give one another—or sponsors give them—items that serve as signs of their unity, fidelity, and mutual support. One of these is a set of 13 gold coins known as arras, symbolizing the man’s pledge of support and the trust and confidence he places in his wife.

During the exchange, the groom says to the bride: “Receive these arras as a token of my pledge that I will provide for you and our family.”

Rev. Victorino Osorno Osorio, a pastor in Tlaxcala, Mexico, said that as the bride accepts, she responds, “I receive these arras and pledge to care for the goods that you will provide.”

While the wording hearkens back to a more traditional separation of gender roles—breadwinner husband, homemaker wife—not so with the three options found in the U.S. bishops’ version.

Indeed, in an interview with Catholic News Service last fall, Rev. Juan Sosa of the committee that drafted the Ritual said the arras “symbolize an exchanging of equality between the spouses in household stewardship.”

Sister Icaza, another member of the committee, agreed. “I think that our prayer life and our liturgical life should respond to our daily life,” she said. And in our daily life, in Mexico and the United States, women, wives are also working, the wives are also providing. That’s why I think we changed this to be more realistic, closer to life.”

But was there a conscious decision to leave out the traditional formula? “I think so,” she said.

In being careful to avoid charges of sexism by endorsing a more traditional view of familial roles, the bishops’ conference may have emasculated an old and beautiful ceremony. While the conference celebrates the cultural values that Hispanics bring to this country, it seems willing to whitewash some of those values to fit into a modern feminist vision of life.

The Culture of Death

But if some in the Church in the United States want to change immigrants’ ideas about men’s and women’s roles, an even more pervasive problem is Americans imposing their conception of the ideal family size on immigrants.

Martha Zepeda was expecting her third child. She and her husband went to a free prenatal clinic at a mid-sized suburban New York hospital. Because she was approaching 40, the doctor at the clinic, a Puerto Rican woman, suggested an amniocentesis.

Zepeda, who is Mexican, blanched. “Oh no! I’ve heard that that can be dangerous for the baby,” she told the doctor.

She had heard of women—her own friends and relatives—going to that clinic, getting a “shot,” and losing their babies.

“And what if there’s something wrong with your baby?” the doctor asked her.

“So what? What would you suggest then?” Zepeda demanded.

“Get rid of it,” the doctor replied matter-of-factly.

“Oh no!” she shot back. “If there’s anything wrong with my baby, I would love him even more.”

Abortion is still illegal in most Latin American countries. And in most areas, it’s not even part of a person’s consciousness.

“In Honduras, abortion is like, you couldn’t even think of it. It is so far removed from the thought process of the people,” said Brother Agostino Torres, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal who works with the homeless in New York and spent time at the community’s mission in Honduras.

Immigrants come into a society that takes abortion for granted. “When they find out they’re pregnant, their doctor often says, ‘Well, what are you going to do? Are you going to keep this baby?'” said Angela McNaughton, who runs the pro-life Pregnancy Care Center in New Rochelle, New York. “It’s presented. It’s there. So the mindset is changing.”

“Planned Parenthood is definitely targeting Mexicans,” said Ishmael Rodriguez, project director of Madonna House, a Red Bank, New Jersey, shelter for pregnant women and their children. “They reach out with ‘safe sex’ slogans. ‘Protect yourself, use condoms, get on the birth control pill because you don’t want to get pregnant because you came to this country to work.'”

Some pro-life advocates are looking at long-term strategies to reinforce the natural pro-child attitude of immigrants. Adriana James, Spanish coordinator for the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, said Hispanic families tend to avoid discussions of the facts of life. They leave things like sex education to the public schools, she said, so children end up being taught by a Planned Parenthood representative.

One solution? Get Pre-Cana volunteers to “open themselves more to the rich sacramental approach, including an understanding of sexuality based on [Pope John Paul II’s] theology of the body,” James said.

James is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family and the daughter of a Mexican mother and American father. She finds that Hispanic culture is heavily relational.

“We tend to be, as [Pope John Paul II] would say, very personalist in our approach to everything. But when that’s broken down, especially with American culture, which is very individualistic, it’s almost like Hispanics who move here fall into that when they should be reaching out, the way they normally would in their culture. It’s sort of like they close up. They don’t seek the truth.”

She said that the Family Life Office tries to educate families about the sanctity and dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God. “I think that…the Hispanic culture really accepts this Christian premise more readily than American culture, which would, in the Cartesian way, doubt everything first and then go from there,” she noted. But the “docile” mentality of Hispanics is challenged by their “life in our secular American culture, and it becomes okay to cohabitate, or neglect the importance of the faith in the family life.”

Rev. Tony Stubeda, director of Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, also acknowledged the pressure from living in a secular society. “When they were in Mexico or in the small villages they came from,” he said, “there was a lot of cultural support in being Catholic. Part of the spiritual life was going to the church in town…. There isn’t a strong Catholic culture to support you” in America.

Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said that economics is a big factor. Because modern society “does not need unskilled labor,” he pointed out, immigrant farm workers and the like are not compensated sufficiently the way they were a century ago. As a result, they have to work longer hours and, if they have a family, are often not able to be there to provide guidance and moral formation.

Krikorian, whose center advocates stricter immigration policies, disagrees that immigrants from a Spanish, Catholic culture can help restore a deteriorating American culture. In fact, he thinks immigrants are better off staying home, as the problems they face in the United States are probably bigger than what they’d confront in their original countries. “Illegitimacy, for example, has been rising quite significantly,” he said. “Illegitimacy among Hispanic immigrants is much higher than it is among native-born Americans as a whole.”

Spiritual Care

Still, some Catholic leaders remain hopeful.

“It’s the Church’s responsibility to help open their eyes to what is good and what is bad about [life in America] and not to become too self-centered…. [They must] think about themselves as dignified people, people who are part of a community,” said Rev. Paul Sustayta, pastor of Holy Spirit Church in Los Angeles. “Once you have this experience of Church and of faith and a powerful faith experience, that is a wonderful light for them, and they can always interpret and discern for themselves what’s going too far.”

But priests like Rev. Charles Murr believe immigrants need more than just the knowledge that the Church is there for them. They need the sacraments.

Father Murr was ordained a priest for a diocese in Mexico and worked there for 15 years before moving to New York as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Manhattan. Rapid growth in the parish, he insists, was the result of a strong emphasis on the sacraments.

Mexicans “are a people of frequent confession, frequent Mass and Communion, frequent Eucharistic adoration,” he said. “No decent Mexican would ever think of going to Holy Communion without being in the state of grace. It is only after they are here a while and see that this seems unimportant that they stop going to much of anything.”

They start to believe it’s unimportant, he said, when they find confession restricted to one hour on a Saturday afternoon. He made sure parishioners knew there were plenty of scheduled hours for the sacrament and that he was available any time people wanted to confess.

Mario Mendoza can relate. Mexicans, he said, are used to daily Mass and knowing that confession is available every day of the week. When he and his family settled in North Texas 30 years ago, they found confession restricted to Saturday afternoon. He was five when he came to Texas, and he grew up with a casual attitude toward the sacrament. “Okay, I’ll try to find a time that’s convenient for me,” he thought.

Greenville, where he lives, has a fairly large Hispanic population who “haven’t been well served by the previous priests, even though they were bilingual,” he said. “They started to have Mass in Spanish on Sunday, and the attendance was somewhat weak, so they cut the Mass.”

Happily, their new priest is different. Rev. Paul Weinberger “will celebrate a [Spanish] Mass even if there’s only one person present,” Mendoza said. Not surprisingly, the parish is starting to attract more Hispanics.

Father Weinberger was pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Dallas for almost a dozen years and built up a dying parish in a bad neighborhood, attracting people with orthodoxy and a down-to-earth manner. That was the draw for the Perez family, anyway.

As Francisco Perez remembers, he and his six siblings were all baptized in the Catholic Church. “But when I was five,” he said, “we started to go to a Baptist church.”

His mother one day got an invitation to the quinceañera of the daughter of a friend—a rite of passage for Mexican girls when they turn 15. The ceremony traditionally starts with a Mass, followed by a fiesta. The Mass was at Blessed Sacrament, and Mrs. Perez “really liked what Father Paul was doing there,” Perez said. “He was giving orthodox sermons, there was structure. Someone was in charge of the church. So we started going.”

They never left.

A Culture of Invitation

While providing the sacraments and orthodox formation is essential, it won’t do any good if they are hidden. The Church cannot assume that Hispanic immigrants will automatically show up at Mass simply because it’s Catholic.

Clemente Hernandez was a regular churchgoer in his native Tlaxcala, Mexico, but he didn’t start attending Mass in the United States until someone invited him—a year after he arrived. “We weren’t familiar with the place,” he recalled, and anyway, he was absorbed in work. His story is not unusual.

Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Brother Philip Maria is director of Casa Juan Diego, a storefront in Yonkers, New York, that reaches out to immigrant day laborers.

“We try to get them involved in the local church that speaks Spanish,” he said. “But most of them, once they made the break to come to this country they also tend to be lax with their faith. It’s new, they’re not familiar. They don’t automatically think, ‘Oh, I’m Catholic, let’s find a church.'”

“Basically we’ve found that if they’re just invited, almost everyone starts to get involved,” he continued. “But they won’t cross that bridge unless they’re invited…. It’s a cultural thing.”

And Protestant churches and sects do invite them, Brother Philip pointed out.

Rodriguez, of New Jersey’s Madonna House, finds that a lot of immigrants weren’t terribly religious before but now that they’re in a strange land, they seek out the Church. It’s a great opportunity to evangelize, he said. Yet Brother Philip finds that Hispanic men are often reluctant to pray and to be in church because of poor formation and a fear of embarrassment.

With all this reticence in mind, it’s especially harmful when some American Catholics react in ways Father Stubeda encountered in New Ulm, Minnesota.

“One of the biggest struggles…is to find…welcome in the Church,” he said. Old-line parishioners often resent the fact that immigrants—even those who have been here a while—still want to hear Mass in Spanish.

But “oftentimes the most intimate way in which you can worship and attend Mass and follow your devotions is to express yourself in your native language,” said Al Hernandez Santana, associate director for Hispanic Affairs for the California Catholic Conference.

Clinging to Spanish may even be a kind of bulwark against what immigrants see as harmful aspects of American culture. A recent study at the University of Arizona College of Medicine found that Hispanic teenagers living in Arizona who speak primarily English are more than twice as likely to report being sexually active as Hispanic teenagers in the state who speak primarily Spanish.

Similarly, Father Stubeda reports that many immigrant families see their children learning English and becoming ashamed to speak Spanish. That harms communication between parents and their children.”

A Christian Nation…Again?

Samuel Huntington is concerned that our identity as a nation is changing. True enough. With massive Hispanic immigration, America is becoming less English-oriented and more reflective of Latino culture. But, as many in recent years have noted, America used to be a Christian nation. With Hispanic immigration, it may become so again.

The potential is there. Significant Hispanic immigration has been a reality for decades, and it is now showing signs of being a commercial and political force. But are Hispanic Catholic immigrants as influential with their faith as they have been with their political and commercial weight?

Perhaps they would be if they had the cooperation of American Catholics, beginning with the personal invitation that Brother Philip insists is so vital. Instead of trying to remake them in the image of our Anglo-Protestant, secularist, individualist culture, American Catholics would do well to cherish the faith Hispanics bring and encourage its public expression. We are, after all, members of the same body.


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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