We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!” This wry Mexican-American refrain serves as a reminder that the Hispanic presence in what is now the United States goes back a very long way. After all, the entire Southwest belonged to Mexico until 1848. And of course, the Spanish were the first Europeans to settle North America, establishing settlements—and Catholic missions—in locations as widespread as St. Augustine, Florida (1565); San Antonio, Texas (1718); and San Francisco, California (1776).

This Latino presence, however, was largely left out of narratives of U.S. history. After the U.S. conquest of Mexico’s former territory (including large parts of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California), Spanish-speaking people in the region often lost their land, rights, and status; their contributions to the development of the area were downplayed or dismissed; and Eastern politicians and the literate public invoked the notion of Manifest Destiny to encourage colonization and settlement of the West by white settlers.

The exclusion of the Latino story has also affected common historical understandings of the Catholic Church in the United States. As Timothy Matovina points out in his comprehensive and timely Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, many depictions of U.S. Catholic history “obscure [Latino] contributions.” Instead, “popular perceptions have frequently relegated the historical significance of Hispanic Catholicism…to a romanticized and bygone day of the Spanish missions.”

According to this line of thought, Catholicism established itself in North America during the British Colonial period and accelerated fundamentally with the great waves of mass Catholic immigration (primarily from Ireland, Germany, and Italy) during the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It would reach a culmination of sorts in the mid-twentieth century, with the Americanization of those immigrants, a process that was solidified by the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president.

This narrative not only leaves out the long history of the Catholic Church in the Southwest; it also fails to account for the ongoing Americanization of new waves of Latino immigrants. Matovina provides a much-needed counterpoint by highlighting the vitality and persistence of the Spanish-speaking Catholic communities, even after the 1848 Mexican-American War. No mere loose collection of aging missions, the Latino Church by the nineteenth century was far more organized and extensive than many scholars have assumed, with “extant faith communities, religious traditions, and clergy in various locales.” Mexican-Americans energetically asserted their Catholic heritage through public celebrations (such as feasts and devotions) and other local traditions.

Yet Matovina goes beyond simply incorporating this forgotten history. Over eight chapters, he tells the story of Latino Catholicism during the twentieth century, emphasizing its connections with the Spanish colonial past while discussing the great variety of religious traditions, expectations, and needs among the diverse Latino population.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Latino migrants to the United States came predominantly from Mexico, and to a lesser extent, from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Since the 1990s, however, millions of Latinos have come from every country in Latin America and the Caribbean. They have also migrated to areas where there was no previous Hispanic population, such as Atlanta. As a result, today’s U.S. Catholic Church now contains dioceses where “a significant Hispanic presence has arisen for the first time.” As Matovina demonstrates, the response of the church to these continuously arriving waves of Latino immigrants has been by turns both positive and problematic.

First, the positive: Today’s Latino Catholics are the beneficiaries of more than half a century of Hispanic activism and advocacy within the church. Matovina traces the admirable efforts of Latino leaders—both clerical and lay—to organize and minister to the Spanish-speaking population since the 1950s. Notable efforts include the formation of padres and Las Hermanas, the first associations of Latino clergy and religious. The Encuentros, three workshop-oriented meetings of Latino Catholic leaders that occurred in the 1970s and ’80s, generated unprecedented community formation, emphasizing issues such as community leadership, social justice, evangelization, and youth ministry. Apostolic movements, such as the Cursillo de Cristiandad, the formation of Christian base communities, and the Catholic charismatic renewal, revitalized Latino involvement. Increasingly, parishes are promoting Latino cultural expressions and faith traditions, such as the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Way of the Cross rituals. And bishops have become outspoken proponents of immigration reform, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Latinos. All these developments are “altering the landscape of U.S. Catholicism.”

Yet Matovina also outlines a number of challenging structural and demographic issues. First of all, despite the growing number of Latino Catholics in the United States, they are the most underrepresented ethnic group in the priesthood and among female religious. They also make up less than 10 percent of active bishops. This poses a problem of representation at both the upper and lower levels of the institutional Catholic world: Latinos lack a significant presence in the hierarchy, as well as sufficient priests and nuns in their home parishes. Other recent problems, such as the “demotion” of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs to a subcommittee; the sense of distance between Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking members of parishes; disapproval by some clergy of Latino cultural practices and new apostolic movements; and the sexual-abuse crisis have fueled what Matovina describes as Latinos’ ongoing “sense of rejection” in church.

Since Latinos today make up some 35 percent of the U.S. Catholic population and will be the single greatest source of demographic growth over the next several decades, church leaders should continue to respond to the needs of the Latino community, and to incorporate its devotional practices in a way that keeps the next generation of Latinos involved in the church. The best histories are written not just to inform, but also to guide. Thanks to Matovina’s rich and engaging study, Catholic leaders have a clear path to follow.

Published in the 2013-02-08 issue: 

Julia G. Young is a historian of Mexico and Latin America at the Catholic University of America.

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