Jesus, Christianity, and White Racism: Dilemmas in Spirituality for Chicanos

Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.

Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.

On July 19, the San Diego Union-Tribune, once one of the most blatantly racist, conservative, daily newspapers in the U.S. (now it’s a little better under current ownership), printed an essay called “The Color of Jesus” by Sandi Dolbee. Apparently Dolbee is the “former religion and ethics editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune.” The essay explores the biblical character of Jesus of Nazareth, including his actual ethnicity and likely skin color. It refers extensively to the book and other statements by Edward Blum, a professor of history at San Diego State University. Dolbee concludes, “To put it bluntly, for White people to feel supreme over persons of color, Jesus had to be White. It was especially helpful for Christian slaveholders to justify their behavior and skirt pesky Bible verses like the one about the golden rule.” Then Dolbee quotes Joan Taylor, a Christian origins professor at London’s King’s College: “White Jesus is a legacy of colonization.”

I found these arguments very compelling. They made me reflect on my own spiritual journey as a Chicano that was baptized a Roman Catholic as an infant. Apparently my parents argued over the religious upbringing of my siblings and I. My mother, en paz descanse (may she rest in peace), once told me that she had to sneak me to my own baptism unbeknownst to my father. I remember my mother taking me to Catholic mass at a time when the mass was in Latin. I didn’t understand a damn thing and was totally turned off by the ritual solemnness. It was flat out boring. When one of our white neighbors offered to take my brother and I to a Presbyterian Sunday School each week, my mother relented. So I went to Sunday School there almost every week from elementary school until high school. Sometimes I ditched after my mother dropped me off at the church. By high school, I just wasn’t into it anymore. I remember being totally turned off when a Sunday School teacher told me I needed a haircut. What the hell, I thought, Jesus had hair a lot longer than mine.

Much later, when I became the director of a Chicano community agency that provided educational and social services in Omaha, Nebraska, I was embroiled in a struggle to make the local Catholic Archdiocese more responsive to the needs of our working-class Chicano community. Our organization, the Chicano Awareness Center, was already confronting public institutions such as our school district and the state university regarding their abject neglect of Chicanos. Myself and others observed that the Catholic Church in our city implemented an extensive system of Catholic education from elementary to postsecondary levels. Yet, local Chicanos had virtually no access to this expensive, private education that was presumed to be superior to that of our public schools.

And our Omaha Public Schools (OPS) were terrible. A group of Black parents, with the support of the Legal Aid Society, successfully filed suit against the OPS district to contest their deliberate segregation of Black students. OPS was forced to desegregate its schools, busing Black students to predominantly white schools and vice versa. It didn’t generate the degree of backlash that occurred in cities like Boston, but white parents were pissed. They didn’t like the presence of Black children in “their” schools and they especially disliked having to bus some white kids into predominantly Black schools. A little later, the Legal Aid society had to file another suit to challenge the OPS policy in which Chicano and Native American students,

As a result of such institutional racism, many Chicano parents would have preferred that their children attend Catholic schools, but they were expensive and offered few scholarships.

However, despite their reputation, we found that the Catholic schools in Omaha offered no bilingual education, making them completely inaccessible to monolingual Spanish-speaking Chicano students. In addition, the Catholic educational institutions at all levels, including higher education, had no Chicano Studies or diverse curriculum, actually putting them behind the public schools in this important dimension. Likewise, there were virtually no Chicano teachers or professors in the Catholic educational system at any level. The only somewhat bright spot we saw was some commitment from Creighton University, the local Jesuit institution, to provide access and support for Chicanos.

The Catholic Church’s neglect of Chicanos in Omaha was not only in education. The local Archdiocese also implemented an extensive network of social services throughout most of the metropolitan area. This included a spectrum of services to combat alcoholism and substance abuse. Yet again, most of these services were not accessible to Chicanos for reasons of geography, income, language proficiency, or all three. If someone in Omaha was convicted for first offense drunk driving, they had a choice of jail time or counseling. However, none of the certified alcoholism treatment programs in Omaha had a bilingual counselor, so Chicanos had only the option of jail time.

This finally changed when a Catholic nun, Sister Joyce Englert, came to work at our Chicano center as a certified substance abuse counselor. I came to respect her a great deal. Unlike so many white folks working in Chicano, African American, or Native American communities, Sister Joyce did not see herself as a missionary and she didn’t act like one either. She was very upfront about the systemic neglect of Chicanos by the Catholic Church throughout the entire United States. In 1983, the Catholic Church on the national level issued a “Bishops’ Pastoral Letter” on the church’s historic and present neglect of Chicanos and other Latinos.

They used the term “Hispanic.” Why would the Catholic Church suddenly wake up to this pattern of their own systemic racism? I believe it was largely because of the formidable increase in evangelization among Chicano communities by other Christian denominations. An example was the Lutheran Church in Omaha, when it hired a Spanish-speaking minister who soon implemented a weekly worship service in Spanish. Suddenly, it appeared that Chicanos were being lured away from the Catholic Church, taking their financial offerings with them. The Bishops’ Pastoral Letter was likely a desperate response.

Sister Joyce made many of us aware of the pastoral letter and the internal struggles within the Catholic institution regarding service to Chicanos. With her input, some of us who were local activists organized a meeting with the nun that headed up the local Archdiocese. Sister Joyce knew the woman and she warned us that she was just as cold and racist as the other white institutional leaders in Omaha, including the superintendent of public schools and the chancellor of the university. I don’t have a strong memory of that meeting between the head of the Archdiocese and ourselves. I do remember that Sister Joyce has right, and the Archdiocesan head treated us like shit. We certainly got nowhere with our demands for a much stronger level of education and service for Chicanos by the Catholic Church.

That pretty much confirmed for me that I had no place spiritually in the Catholic Church.

I remember once that I visited a Black church in North Omaha with a friend. I was the only Chicano in the large church service that morning, and the Black minister as well as the entire congregation went out of their way to make me feel at home. I’ll always remember that. When I became a university administrator, I sometimes told that story to students of color as a suggestion of how their student organizations might welcome new members. I often reflected on the spiritual advantages of the Black community over the Chicano community. It seemed to me that Blacks had a church organization that was actually governed by members of the Black community, and that each church had a Black minister and Black leadership council. I compared that to what Chicanos had in the Catholic church, a hierarchy ruled by white racists and churches usually run by white priests. If we were “lucky,” they might assign a Gachupin priest from Spain to head up a local Catholic church.

Questioning my place in the Catholic Church was one thing. It was another to think of a spiritual place for myself outside of Christianity, which was pretty much all I ever knew. Even the Black church, which I respected, was of course a Christian institution. I did have Black friends in Omaha that ridiculed the Black church. They felt that most Black ministers were politically conservative and often allowed themselves to be used by racist politicians that wanted a connection with a welcoming segment of the Black community. A couple of my Black friends in Omaha were atheists that perceived Christianity as a tool of the white racist oppressor that functioned to keep the Black community in a subservient, subordinate position. I had other Black friends in Omaha that were members of the Islamic faith and through them, I became acquainted with the teachings of the Black Muslim minister, Louis Farrakhan. This was a whole different way to thinking about the spiritual dimension of being an activist against racial inequality.

I think the first time I considered a personal alternative to Christianity was my exposure to the culture of Danzante, a practice of some in the Chicano community of which I was unaware until I moved to San Diego in 1988. One time I was visiting Los Angeles and wanted to stop by Olvera Street in Downtown LA. As far as I knew, Olvera Street represented the first city street established in LA before the gringos stole half of México’s national territory. I also knew that Olvera Street had some of the best Mexican “fast” food I ever had, and the ambiance was cool in spite of all the tourists. I parked my car a couple of blocks away at Union Station and walked to Olvera Street. On the way, I heard some drumming that I had never heard before. It felt like the drums were reaching inside my body and grabbing me by the heart, as cheesy as that might sound. Miles Davis used to talk about how good music gets inside your body, and that was what I experienced. I had no idea what kind of drumming it was. When I arrived at the plaza of Olvera Street, I saw a group of about a dozen Chicanos/Mexicanos dancing in “vestuarios” that were designed to reflect the garb of Aztec dancers centuries ago. The drumming I heard was done by two members of that group that each had a wooden, stand-up drum that they pounded with thick wooden sticks. I listened to them and watched the dancers until they took a break, when I spoke briefly to a few. They told me that they were from LA and that they played and danced regularly at Olvera Street.

When I started working at UC San Diego a few months later, I met a Chicano staff member named Felipe Rangel that had started his own Danzante Azteca. I joined the UCSD Chicano/Latino Staff Association and came to know Felipe pretty well. He invited me to observe his Danzante’s practices and eventually gave me a chance to play the drum that drove the group’s dancers. It felt like an incredible experience to me, something very spiritual. Felipe had researched various aspects of Aztec culture in Mexico dating back centuries. The uniforms or “vestuarios” of his group were designed from images of Aztec dancers in books on Mexican history and culture. I came to find out that there were Danzantes Aztecas based in Mexico City as well as in Chicano communities throughout the Southwestern U.S. Along with Felipe and his family, all of whom were members of his Danzante, I attended and played the drum, or “Hue Hue” at a ceremony marking the spring equinox among some of the Danzantes in Southern California. It was obvious that the members of these Danzantes did not just dance for fun or to provide entertainment. In some way, they were trying to preserve through practice the spiritual values of our Mexican ancestors long before Christianity and colonization came to the Americas. Much later, I read an interesting article that referenced contemporary Danzante culture called, “The Aztec World’s Presence in Colonial and Modern México” (2008) by Moctezuma.

I remember one very surreal experience as a drummer in Felipe’s Danzante. I don’t remember its name but a church in San Diego’s Barrio Logan invited us to play at the church. The amazing thing was that we actually performed as a Danzante Azteca, clearly a non-Christian practice, during a morning mass of this Catholic Church. I didn’t meet the priest but he must have been a lot more progressive than most. Likewise, I was surprised that the Catholic congregation, often very conservative, allowed us to perform during mass. The acoustics inside the church were incredible, and playing that drum during a Catholic mass made for a very moving experience for me. After serving as part of the Danzante for about a year, I had to leave. My doctoral classes, along with a full-time professional job, didn’t give me a chance to devote myself to practices and performances and I knew that Danzante is not something to pursue without maximum dedication.

I suppose that all these spiritual experiences and considerations stirred inside me but I didn’t really set aside the reflection time to process them and reach any conclusions. It’s also a reality that among Chicano activists, our conversations were so political that there was never a space for “spiritual talk.” At least that was my experience. Although we were constantly engaged in developing strategy to strengthen Chicano/Mexicano culture, including language and identity, through education and other institutions, we never discussed what type of spiritual experiences or structures would best facilitate the empowerment of Chicano communities.

More experiences pushed my thinking about all this. By the late 1990’s, I had become a huge fan of Afro Cuban music, even playing the congas as a hobby that became a passion. In 2007, I had my first visit to Havana, Cuba. I was initially attracted to the music but also by the intense national effort by Cuba to decolonize after the triumph of its revolution in 1959. From my days as a college undergraduate in the 1970’s, I had great respect for the accomplishments of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other contributors to the Cuban revolution. I was also aware that Cuba had undertaken significant educational reforms to increase literacy and achievement across a broad swath of the Cuban population. After visiting Cuba for the first time, I decided to write an academic paper on Cuba and its potential contribution to Chicano empowerment in the U.S. Cuba seemed like a unique situation in which unlike virtually any other Latin American country including México, Cuba successfully undertook a broad, transformative effort to decolonize after more than a century of direct oppression by first Europe and then the United States. Although it often made the mistake of replicating other European models such as the Soviet Union and East Germany, respectively, rather than models grounded in Cuban culture and history, Cuba tried very hard to avoid copying the racist, Eurocentric models of the U.S.

In researching my paper, I read a very interesting book by Christine Ayorinde titled, “Afro-Cuban religiosity, revolution, and national identity” (2004). Ayorinde provides a historic perspective on the perseverance of African culture, particularly religion, in Cuba. She describes the stance on religion taken by the Cuban government after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. As part of decolonization, the government perceived religion as the sort of dogma that inhibited the empowerment of Cuban people. However, they saw Catholicism, with its highly organized hierarchy based in Europe, as more insidious and damaging than the less visible worship of Afro Cuban religions in Cuba. Amazingly, the descendants of slaves from the Congo region of Africa, the region that now includes Nigeria, and the Dahomey and Calabar regions managed to maintain their specific religious practice even in the face of extreme colonialism. The post-revolutionary Cuban government seemed to evolve its perspective of these Afro Cuban religious practices. After their initial perception of them as dysfunctional dogma, they began to recognize that practitioners often avoided “delinquent” behavior as a result of their religious adherence to African-based practices. At a certain point, the Cuban government began to market the music and dance of Afro Cuban religions to tourists from Europe and Latin America. Eventually, the government seemed to move toward a more positive perspective of Afro Cuban religious practice, especially preferred over Catholicism. According to Ayorinde, there were persistent rumors in Cuba that a number of high level Cuban officials, even Fidel Castro himself, practiced an Afro Cuban religion. Of course, the Cuban government has had a long-standing relationship with some African countries, even dispatching Cuban troops to help Angola fight off the imperialism of South Africa.

From reading this and seeing for myself the persistence of Afro Cuban religions in Cuba, it made me think more deeply about a possible parallel with the Chicano experience in the U.S. I thought again about my experience in a Danzante Azteca with its recognition of the religions of indigenous groups in “ancient” México. If Cubans, even “white” Cubans, could actually live according to the religious values of African peoples, could Chicanos live under the values of Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Tarahumaras (the indigenous people of the region in México from which my family comes), and other indigenous Mexican peoples? I re-read a very compelling book that I had read after it was published in 1996, “México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization,” by the Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfíl Batalla. The author’s thesis is that the so-called process of “Mestizaje,” or racial mixing between indigenous peoples and the Spanish during the conquest of México, was actually a myth. Batalla claimed instead that the great majority of Mexican people are not mestizos but rather, “de-indianized Indians.” Thus, in both blood and culture, Mexicanos and presumably Chicanos are much more indigenous than Spanish/European. Batalla further claimed that many of México’s national problems are due to its government’s insistence on replicating the U.S.’ Eurocentric models of culture and governance. He strongly suggested that the solution to México’s issues is more likely grounded in the culture of its indigenous peoples.

Obviously, the religious dimension of this is critical. According to my limited understanding of indigenous religion in both “North America” and Latin America, it is not compartmentalized as is Christian practice in the U.S. In those indigenous religions, one could not be a slave owner or simply a greedy capitalist pig and also claim to follow the humanitarian teachings of Jesus Christ. I read another fascinating book on religion called “God is Red: A Native View of Religion” (1972) by the Native scholar, Vine DeLoria. According to one review of the book, DeLoria “argues convincingly that Christianity has failed today’s society, and describes basic tenets that underlie Native religions.” I often hear people describe “religion” as though it can be easily detached from “culture” as a whole. In the context of indigenous religion, this seems unrealistic. In their perspective, a “Christian” is one that lives consistently according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, in all aspects of life. Was Jesus a racist? If not, how can a racist be a Christian? It takes a strong degree of compartmentalization, a skill at which white people seem especially adept.

As time went by, I had a couple of other moving experiences that pushed my thinking about religion and spirituality. One was another well-known book, “Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina,” by Eduardo Galeano. I read the English-language translation, “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” (1997). In horrifying fashion, Galeano, from Uruguay, describes the five-century-long process in which European countries colonized México and the rest of Latin America, brutalizing its people and exploiting its natural resources. As one review said, “Weaving fact and imagery into a rich tapestry, Galeano fuses scientific analysis with the passions of a plundered and suffering people.” For me, one of the book’s most striking features was the documentation of the role of the Catholic Church in this genocidal process. As countries like Spain and Portugal murdered thousands and robbed an entire continent, the Catholic Church was there, right next to them. If I was already turned off by the racial attitudes and behaviors of the Catholic hierarchy, this was the last straw. Likewise,

I swore that I would never visit Europe. The “historic” sites often described by Chicanos I knew that had visited Europe were largely constructed through the wealth accumulated through Europe’s pillage of Latin America. Fuck that.

Another spiritual experience for me that I tried not to glamorize was the documentary, “Precious Knowledge,” premiered in 2012. As one review described it:

“Precious Knowledge interweaves the stories of students in the Mexican American Studies Program at Tucson High School. While forty-eight percent of Mexican American students currently drop out of high school, Tucson High’s Mexican American Studies Program has become a national model of educational success, with one hundred percent of enrolled students graduating from high school and eighty-five percent going on to attend college. The Filmmakers spent an entire year in the classroom filming this innovative social justice curriculum, documenting the transformative impact on students who become engaged, informed, and active in their communities.”

I first saw Precious Knowledge at the Latino Film Festival in San Diego. A number of the students and teachers highlighted in the documentary attended this local screening to describe their experiences in “Raza Studies.”

On a broad level, the documentary reinforced what I experienced as a college undergraduate taking my first courses with a social justice content, including Black Studies and Chicano Studies, respectively. I experienced how academic content can give a student pride in his/her ethnic identity and a strong sense of historic connection to the struggles of one’s own ethnic group. I also experienced how that same coursework can contribute mightily to one’s commitment to social justice and community empowerment. In addition to my own authentic student experience, I saw the same effects on countless students at both the high school level in Omaha and the university level at UC San Diego.

I also found myself zeroing in on a specific aspect of Precious Knowledge. The documentary included classroom scenes in which a social studies teacher presented information on the religious beliefs of the Aztec peoples in pre-Columbian México. Likewise, the classroom scenes showed an English teacher presenting students an explanation of the Mayan concept of “En lá kesh,” “Tu eres mi otro yo,” or “You are my other me,” for lack of a better translation. In my discussion with Chicano friends and colleagues, some of them felt that this part of the documentary was superfluous or even absurd. I myself thought it was very profound to see a Chicano teacher in the classroom teaching Chicano students about the religious practices of ancient indigenous Mexicanos while actually pointing out their practical applications in contemporary life. While some seemed to see this as “cultural” in a more neutral sense, I saw it as religious within the context of culture. It seemed like this pedagogy had potential for the teaching of Chicano students at a broader level as a means toward empowerment.

I also found that the Tucson Mexican American Studies Program became a catalyst for academic explorations of these themes. For example, Villanueva wrote an article titled, “Teaching as a Healing Craft: Decolonizing the Classroom and Creating Spaces of Hopeful Resistance through Chicano-Indigenous Pedagogical Praxis (2013). Likewise, Paris wrote an article titled, “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice (2012)) that praised the pedagogy and curriculum of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies. As a scholar of higher education that has read literature on Chicanos in higher education since the 1970’s, I found it rare that scholars would consider the spiritual possibilities in classroom practice and university campuses. However, I think most would agree that spirituality is an important dimension of human life, and that as a subordinate group in the U.S. racial hierarchy, we should reflect on and discuss the spiritual approach that maximizes the empowerment of Chicano communities. Does practicing a religion that originated among the white people that perpetuate our oppression make sense? I don’t think so, especially since white people continue to dominate the decision-making structure of virtually every Christian denomination.

Others would certainly argue persuasively that it’s not really practical for Chicanos to stop practicing Christianity and return to the religions of indigenous México. They would argue that we speak Spanish, the language of the colonizers, and that it’s simply not practical for Chicanos/Mexicanos to begin speaking an indigenous Mexican language instead. Well, is it more feasible and beneficial to construct some degree of “syncretism” or “synchronicity” between Christianity and indigenous Mexican religions? Although scholars of Afro Cuban culture seem to disagree about this, it is often posited that decades ago, Afro Cubans adopted a synchronicity between Catholicism and their native African religion. For example, Changó, the Orisha of thunder and the drum, was synchronized with Santa Barbara by many Afro Cubans. In their book “Saint Barbara Changó: Religious Syncretism?” (2011) published in Cuba, the scholars Bolívar, López, and Del Río addressed that question from a historical perspective. Likewise, in his lengthy treatment of Spanish, African, and Cuban history, Sublette (2004) notes that as Islam spread south throughout Africa, it was often synchronized with indigenous African religions.

Others might argue that it makes no sense for light-skinned Chicanos with European features to worship a Mexican indigenous religion. However, in my travels in Cuba, I met several light-skinned, green-eyed Cubans that described themselves as “white” within the Cuban context, that also told me that they were practitioners of an Afro Cuban religion. I don’t think skin color should necessarily be the determinant of the degree to which Chicanos identify themselves as indigenous. I knew very light-skinned people back in Omaha with one parent that was a full-blooded Omaha Indian, so skin color doesn’t tell the whole story.

I admit that it’s rare for me to write about Chicano empowerment without suggesting some concrete, strategic recommendations. I don’t have the answers to this one. As I stated, I do believe that the spiritual dimension is important to Chicanos and that the religion most of us practice is essentially that of the oppressor. That’s inherently problematic. Unlike most strategic considerations for Chicano empowerment, one’s spirituality seems like a much more individual consideration. Resolving this critical issue will require praxis: research-theory, reflection, dialogue, and action. For me, the issue remains largely unresolved although at times I sense personal progress. Not a great ending for an essay that’s not very cohesive either, but hopefully these points help frame our collective consideration that contributes to greater decolonization.

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