On a spring evening in 1906, a Mexican-American day laborer happened by a humble wood-framed building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, near the railroad station. There, he struck up a conversation with three women who were busy cleaning the space for a religious revival the next day. The talk turned to the topic of holy living, and soon the young man “fell to his knees and burst into tears…touched by the power of the Holy Spirit.” He was among the first of thousands of Latinos who would join the expanding U.S. Pentecostal movement in the early twentieth century.
In Latino Pentecostals in America, Gastón Espinosa traces the birth and phenomenal growth of the Latino Pentecostal movement, focusing specifically on the Assemblies of God (AG), today the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world. Espinosa shows that Latinos have been active and enthusiastic participants in the movement throughout its history, eager to take on leadership roles and willing to fight for recognition from the largely Euro-American Pentecostal hierarchy. In revising and restoring Latino Pentecostal history, Espinosa is challenging narratives that have left out Latino contributions. In 2013, he notes, the Assemblies of God commissioned a history of the denomination that made no reference to Latino leaders.
The Azusa Street Revival of Los Angeles, led by a charismatic African-American preacher named William J. Seymour, was one of several that sparked a national movement in the United States. Pentecostal practition-ers believe that the faithful can receive baptism directly from the Holy Spirit. Their religious services, which often last for hours, can be emotionally charged, as participants give testimony of their faith, experience divine healing, and speak or sing in tongues.
From the beginning, Latino converts to Pentecostalism served as pastors and leaders within their own communities. Seymour himself ordained a number of the first Latino ministers, who would go on to begin independent churches and ministries in Southern California and beyond. At the same time, evangelist Charles Parham’s Apostolic Faith Movement was inspiring Latinos to start Pentecostal ministries in Texas.
Espinosa’s meticulously researched book tells the stories of several early Latino Pentecostal leaders. One of these was Antonio Ríos Morín, a former Mexican Revolutionary who preached to thousands in the barrios and farmlands of South Texas, and became the first Mexican ordained by the Assemblies of God in the United States. Other Latino ministers were active in New Mexico, Colorado, and Puerto Rico during the first few decades of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s, however, many of these Latino ministers had to confront the outsize personality of Pentecostal preacher Henry C. Ball, who eventually took charge of the Latino Assemblies of God in the United States, and oversaw the movement’s expansion into Mexico and Central and South America. By many accounts, Ball was a fierce advocate for his Spanish-speaking faithful. At the same time, he provoked the ire of some Latino ministers, who were excluded from the highest rungs of power within the movement. One of them, Francisco Olazábal—a fiery minister from Mexico whose thousands of Latino followers fondly called him “el Azteca”—eventually left the Assemblies of God, deeply resentful at the fact that “the Gringos have control.”
By 1937, Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God members finally had a Latino superintendent: Demetrio Bazan, Ball’s former assistant. Under Bazan, the Latino Assemblies of God grew rapidly, thanks to the growing number of Mexican migrant laborers arriving to work as braceros, or field laborers. By the 1960s, the movement had grown large enough that it was divided into independent districts. This administrative change, Espinosa argues, led to an “unleashing of charisma, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirituality.”
One of these independent Assemblies of God districts is the Spanish Eastern District, which includes both Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in New York. Puerto Rican Pentecostalism has a distinct history, to which Espinosa devotes three chapters. It began among the diaspora of Puerto Rican contract laborers in Hawaii and California, some of whom returned to Puerto Rico and expanded their ministry. Meanwhile, the growing Puerto Rican population in New York was also receptive to the Pentecostal message. Today the movement is well established among Puerto Rican communities across the East Coast and Chicago.
After surveying the history of the Latino Assemblies of God, Espinosa examines the role of women in the movement. He acknowledges that, while Latina Pentecostal women are allowed—indeed, encouraged—to become ordained ministers, “they are still called upon to submit to the authority of their husbands at home.” Nevertheless, Espinosa points out that female participation has increased in recent years, and Latino Assemblies of God districts now have a higher percentage of clergywomen than the average Euro-American district.
The Latino Assemblies of God is now the largest single Latino Protestant denomination in the United States, and it’s still growing. Although Catholics still make up 66 percent of the Latino population, 20 percent of the Latinos who have left the Catholic Church are now members of the Assemblies of God. The movement’s growing membership has translated into political clout. Espinosa demonstrates that—contrary to the common idea that Pentecostals are apolitical—Latino Pentecostals have been deeply involved in civic outreach and faith-based social programs since at least the 1960s. Today, national organizations such as the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference offer Latino Pentecostals “direct access to national political leaders and American presidents.” Because they are swing voters who lean right on abortion and gay marriage but are strongly supportive of immigration reform, they have been courted by both Republican and Democratic politicians. Given their increasing numbers, they are likely to enjoy more and more political influence in the next few decades.
Overall, Espinosa’s book provides a comprehensive look at the origins, development, and current state of Latino Pentecostalism. His scholarship will be tremendously valuable to scholars of religion, as well as to those in religious ministry. For Catholics in particular, Latino Pentecostals in America helps explain the attractiveness of Pentecostalism to so many Latino ex-Catholics. Nevertheless, the book does leave some questions unanswered and some topics unexplored. First, Espinosa could have said more about Catholic-Pentecostal relations. He describes violent Catholic reactions to Pentecostal Latino proseletyzing in the early twentieth century, and then, at the end of the book, explains that Catholic and Pentecostal leaders now collaborate with each other in public. How was the conflict resolved (if, indeed, it was)? Second, the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America is only very briefly discussed—yet it is an important topic, since many Latinos arrive in the United States having previously converted to Pentecostalism in their home countries. But these are minor quibbles. Overall, Latino Pentecostals in America provides a much-needed window into a fascinating aspect of Latino religious life.