Demonstrators gather outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. during the Third Encuentro, August 1985 (Photographer unknown/Las Hermanas Collection, Center for Mexican American Studies and Research, Our Lady of the Lake University).

Learning from Las Hermanas

How a Chicana feminist group modeled synodality

When Hermana Yolanda Tarango entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1966, she was required to bring two texts with her: the Bible and a copy of the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council. She laughed as she told me about her mother running from bookstore to bookstore searching for the latter. “They were not on the Vatican website back then,” she joked. Tarango is from Ysleta, which is just outside El Paso, Texas, but she now lives in San Antonio, where she founded a shelter for unhoused women and children. “I saw the whole transition happen before my eyes,” she told me, referring to what the council meant for the lives of religious women, and hers in particular. 

I often left conversations with Tarango thinking to myself, “I love being Catholic!” She has a charisma that draws you in, a contagious laugh, and a compelling story—a story of prophetic witness and unrelenting love for God, Church, and community. Given the dispiriting state of the U.S. Church, where too many treat the Second Vatican Council as mere partisan fodder, it’s a story I desperately needed to hear, and one I think is important to tell right now, in this historical moment. My talks with Tarango, in contrast to such acrimony and division, came to be spaces of healing for me as she recounted the sense of possibility ushered in by the council, and the way it related to her time as a key member of the Chicana feminist group known as Las Hermanas (“The Sisters”).

Las Hermanas was founded in 1971 in Houston, Texas, as a decentralized organization of Latina women. Inspired by the Chicano Movement, which was gaining national attention at the time, Hermanas Gloria Gallardo and Gregoria Ortega gathered religious sisters from across the country to discuss what such a movement could mean for the Church. From the start, Las Hermanas urged Catholics to understand that the Church existed in the world, rather than apart from or above it, and to take seriously the call of Gaudium et spes for the Church to share in the world’s “joys and hopes.” In his essay, “The Mexican-American and the Church,” César Chávez asked where “our Church” was in the Chicano Movement; Las Hermanas, at least, responded with a powerful answer: “Presente.”

Las Hermanas was a group of women taking their formation into their own hands, indicating that they were developing a new, powerful consciousness about their own role in the Church.

Dr. Lara Medina, a Chicana scholar and the author of the only book-length study of Las Hermanas, argues that it was “the first national religious-political organization of Chicana and Latina Roman Catholics in the United States.” Her use of the term “religious-political” is important for understanding Las Hermanas. Unlike a number of the group’s counterparts in both the United States and Latin America, Las Hermanas was committed to opposing oppression inside the Church as much as oppression outside the Church. This made it rare among activist groups linked with the Chicano Movement—many of that movement’s leaders (especially younger leaders) fell away from the Church. But Las Hermanas also offered lonely witness within the Church itself, especially when dealing with bishops who refused to publicly support the Chicano Movement. 

Like others in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Las Hermanas sought to engage how the Church worked—its procedures and mechanisms, the ways different voices in the Church could be heard, and how pastoral planning was carried out. They used the Encuentros, large gatherings by and for Hispanic/Latine Catholics in the United States in 1972, 1977, and 1985, to lift up the concerns of the Chicano Movement, including the struggles of the farm workers that Dolores Huerta and César Chávez were organizing. Las Hermanas helped make the Encuentros opportunities to model a different way of being the Church.

Mario J. Paredes, author of The History of the National Encuentros: Hispanic Americans in the One Catholic Church, connects these Encuentros in the United States with the regional encuentros carried out by the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM) that began in the 1950s and culminated with the famous Medellín conference in 1968. Like others, Paredes credits Fr. Edgard Beltrán, who had worked for CELAM and was present at Medellín, with the idea of holding a similar conference for Hispanic/Latine peoples in the United States—an idea that gained traction after he shared it with an official from the Archdiocese of New York’s Spanish-speaking apostolate, Fr. Robert Stern. But as Michael Sean Winters underscored in a review of Paredes’s book, “More than the initial suggestion came from the Latin American Church: The encuentros would be characterized by the kind of deep consultation...which was unknown, even unthinkable, here in the States.”

One of the most important parts of that “deep consultation” was the opportunity for Hispanic/Latine Catholics to discuss the implications of the Second Vatican Council in their communities. In that context, the Encuentros were their own reception of the council, one that happened alongside major political and cultural changes in the United States—changes driven by the Chicano Movement, the civil-rights movement, and the rise of feminism. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who was at the Puebla and Aparecida conferences, has described this period as providing new openings for the Church to aid those fighting for justice, but he likewise emphasizes the way these movements challenged the Church: “It was a time when people of good will who were trying to help others move ahead in life realized that the task ahead was very great indeed.”

As the Church embarks on a two-year process as a part of the “synod on synodality” called by Pope Francis, O’Malley’s line about the previous era still resonates, and looking back at Las Hermanas’ role in the Encuentros can help those committed to synodality better understand the task ahead. By their presence at the Encuentros, these Latina feminists invited the Church to become more horizontal in structure and to journey together guided by the Holy Spirit. Las Hermanas acted as grassroots agents of synodality at those gatherings, and we should learn from them today as discussions and debates make their way from local dioceses to Rome in the months and years ahead.

 

The First National Encuentro in the United States took place in June 1972 and included about two hundred fifty participants, though only sixty-nine of them were women (fifteen lay women and fifty-four vowed religious). With its relatively small numbers and the inevitable learning curve involved, the gathering was not a particularly impressive consultation for the Church. But it did reveal how the Spirit was guiding Las Hermanas and their co-laborers among the People of God.

Paredes argues that the First Encuentro was “not designed as a congress, but rather as a workshop.” I’d add that it really was a series of workshops. One of them was given by Hermana Clarita Trujillo, and it was dedicated to the treatment of Spanish-speaking religious sisters. She described how their cultural heritage was often undervalued by their congregations—for example, they were often prevented from working with their own communities because the schools in which they taught were mostly for upper-middle-class white children. In her account, the purpose of Las Hermanas was to provide pastoral leadership formation to sisters whose mother tongue was Spanish, so that Hispanic/Latine people in the United States might be better served. One way they did that was by sending some religious sisters to train at the Latin American Pastoral Institute (IPLA) in Quito, Ecuador. 

Mexican American Cultural Center, San Antonio, Texas, September 1980 (Photographer unknown/Las Hermanas Collection, Center for Mexican American Studies and Research, Our Lady of the Lake University)

Studying with liberation theologians from Latin America not only gave the sisters a sophisticated theological framework, but also affirmed that their work was faithful to Catholic social thought and tradition. In doing so, these theologians, along with a number of Latin American bishops, affirmed Las Hermanas in ways the U.S. bishops never did. IPLA honed these women’s ability to speak clearly and boldly when they returned to the United States. Their studies truly energized Las Hermanas and provided another fruitful connection between their work and the work of the Church in Latin America.

The point, for Trujillo, was that Las Hermanas was a group of women taking their formation into their own hands, indicating that they were developing a new, powerful consciousness about their own role in the Church that would carry through to the Second and Third Encuentros.

 

Hermana Dominga Zapata, a core member of Las Hermanas in its earliest years, was one of the dreamers behind the Second National Encuentro held in 1977. She told me the story of being at a Eucharistic conference in 1975, where Pablo Sedillo, who worked for the USCCB, invited her to the house of a family friend. It was at that dinner, as Zapata remembers it, that the idea for a Second Encuentro was raised and committed to by all present. These origins made for a more organically planned gathering that drew over five times more attendees than the First Encuentro. The USCCB’s official report claims 1,200 people were there, and memories of it loom large for those present. “I really wanted to keep it organized, we really tried, but as soon as we showed up, we knew that was not going to be possible,” Zapata recalled.

The hermanas I interviewed vividly described what unfolded at the Second Encuentro. Tarango told me of people from all over the United States jumping on the back of pickup trucks with people they barely knew. Dioceses that said they would bring ten delegates instead showed up with seventy-five people. “Farm workers, some of whom did not even speak English and needed translation, were grabbing microphones and telling bishops what they wanted to see in the Church,” said Tarango. Hermana Margarita Castañeda told me about crowded conference rooms where people were standing with their backs against the wall. Sometimes, the speaker or leader of a workshop lost control of the room when commentary and chatter got louder than the presentation itself.

When I asked Zapata what made the Second Encuentro different from the first, she responded with a certain sense of pleasure, given her role in planning it, but she expressed humility at the overwhelming number of people who showed up. “The first was Hispanics saying ‘We are here,’ the second was saying ‘And we want to be included.’” The Second Encuentro put Hispanic/Latine people—laity and priests—squarely in front of U.S. bishops. “These conferences were important precisely because they were times when the bishops listened,” Castañeda explained to me. It was also an opportunity for the Hipsanic/Latine leaders to meet one another. According to Zapata, it was the first time that many people working in Hispanic/Latine ministries across the United States understood that they were not alone, that there was an entire network of people across the country working to make visible the needs and hopes of Spanish-speaking communities. “In that, you really saw the Spirit moving,” said Zapata.

One of the concrete suggestions that came from the Second Encuentro was that Hispanic/Latine peoples need greater representation at all levels of the Church. As a result of this demand, a National Advisory Committee was formed to advise the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs. This committee eventually called for the Third Encuentro, and in 1983 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published the pastoral letter The Hispanic Presence: Challenge and Commitment, which announced the beginning of the process for the Third National Encuentro.  

 

The Third Encuentro convened in Washington D.C. in August 1985. In the days leading up to it, Las Hermanas held their own conference, “Hacia El Tercer Encuentro” (“Toward the Third Encuentro”), which was its own kind of culmination. While the Encuentro diocesan consultation was going on, Las Hermanas were also hosting regional conferences where they identified the issues that Latina women most cared about and then, at their national conference, offered workshops on how participants could bring them up as delegates at the Encuentro. By the time the Third Encuentro began, many of the women in attendance had already had in-depth conversations about the topics being discussed. It is hard to overstate how impressive this was as a pastoral strategy, especially in the way it empowered women in the Church to lament and reflect on their problems and needs. In their approach to the Third Encuentro, Las Hermanas modeled being a Church that did not speak for the marginalized, but rather gave the marginalized tools to speak for themselves. 

That preparation turned out to be necessary. On the conference’s final day, Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Tarango—authors of Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, the earliest iteration of what we today know as mujerista theology—gathered about five hundred people to pray the rosary outside the National Basilica. At each mystery, someone offered a personal story about the painful realities endured by Latina women in the Church and in the world. One woman told of surviving domestic violence, while another spoke of being a single mother bearing the burden of economic precarity. I asked Tarango, “Did anyone tell the story of their call to be ordained?” She responded, trying to remember, “No, I do not think so, because that is what the whole thing was about.”

The women gathered outside the Basilica because the day before a proposal for language suggesting the possibility of women’s ordination had been rejected. “I do not think people were as mad about it being taken out as they were about the process. They did not respect the process as they had for every other proposal,” Tarango told me.

People from all over the United States jumped on the back of pickup trucks with people they barely knew. Dioceses that said they would bring ten delegates instead showed up with seventy-five people.

As the proposal was being voted on, a young priest ran up to the podium and whispered something into the ear of one of the bishops—and it was all over. The vote did not continue. Zapata and Tarango are unsure if the proposal would have received the necessary votes, but the optics couldn’t have been worse. When I spoke with them, both hermanas seemed to think that the order to ignore the vote came from the Vatican itself, though who made the decision or even who that young priest was remains unclear. What is known is that the scene immediately turned chaotic. According to testimonies of those present, even people ambivalent about the measure stood up in the pews to protest and call for a fair vote.

After the Encuentro organizers closed the session for the day, Las Hermanas gathered at the back of the church. More people than expected showed up because, Tarango says, this was a moment of “consciousness raising.” People came to Las Hermanas looking for them to do something. “It was funny, because people wanted to go back to the hotel and grab sheets to cover Mary, you know, as symbolism,” Tarango said, laughing at how funny that mildly disrespectful idea would have been. Eventually, though, it was Tarango who came up with the idea of praying the rosary at the Basilica instead: “Something more powerful, but you can’t get arrested for praying the rosary.”

Part of the reason many were upset by the flouting of the established procedures was because the Third Encuentro had been organized as a conference with a lot of procedures. It began in local dioceses almost two years before the actual gathering. It was systematic in reaching out to Hispanic/Latine Catholics across the United States, consulting with about six hundred thousand people before the conference even began, according to reports from the time. Paredes, in his history of the Encuentros, describes a meeting in Illinois that produced a twenty-six page document about how the consultations ought to take place, which groups of people were to be consulted, and how the final reports should be written.

Indeed, by many accounts, the Third Encuentro could be too organized. While Paredes admits that the twenty-six page outline of diocesan participation was “a very serious guidebook,” he believes it also became a “kind of straitjacket that risked strangling spontaneity and inspiration.” Perhaps this could be understood as a response to the Second Encuentro, in which the laity really took control of the situation. According to Medina, Las Hermanas publicly criticized that Encuentro for being taken over by the bishops rather than run by and for Hispanic/Latine leaders. In the Second Encuentro, groups like Las Hermanas were allowed to send formal delegates to the gathering, but the Third Encuentro did not reserve places for representatives of grassroots movements. 

Despite these disappointments, the Third Encuentro did push the bishops to write a “National Pastoral Plan of Hispanic Ministry.” In Prophetic Vision: Pastoral Reflections on the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry, Sr. María Soledad Galerón, RMI, writes that the plan acknowledges “the prophetic function of the People of God whom the Holy Spirit sanctifies and directs.” Still, it was not well implemented and, by the 1990s, many of its proposals came to be entirely ignored. In this, Paredes finds an “obvious” parallel to the Second Vatican Council—both, in certain ways, have yet to be truly implemented. But, he goes on to add, the writing of the National Pastoral Plan, like the Council, nevertheless “has changed the course of Church history.” 

The plan’s very existence, however much work remains, is due to the hard work of an entire ecclesial community. The Spirit moved through the Hispanic/Latine peoples at the Third Encuentro, and it couldn’t be entirely resisted. That success owes a great deal to the presence of Las Hermanas there. The group modeled a way of being Church that was not fearful of conflict, and understood that their role was to help lift the voices of the marginalized rather than to make bishops comfortable. They used their experience of being part of a grassroots movement to organize Latina women in local dioceses throughout the United States and to hold bishops to their commitment to the Third Encuentro’s robust process of consultation. Consuelo Tovar, a member of Las Hermanas who later served as the group’s national chairperson, has observed, “Many of the bishops who called for it may not quite realize what they have by the tail.” 

In one of our discussions, Tarango and I talked at length about the meaning of synodality. She cautioned me that the idea that the Encuentros were a “synodal process” is a bit of an anachronism, given that synodality was not a concept well known or used by many of its participants. It’s a fair point, but I replied that the Encuentros still seem like a useful example of how the Church could be more participatory and horizontal. That set us off talking about other models from history. She brought up the conference of Medellín. I had recently read Christian Smith’s Emergence of Liberation Theology, and recommended she read his chapter on Medellín in which he brings to light some of the more political, and decidedly less synodal, parts of the conference. The next day, I scanned the chapter and sent it to her. She responded, “Thank you, it is very familiar and brings me back to the ‘heady’ days of liberation theology activism.”

 

The theme chosen for the Third Encuentro was “reflecting on a model of the Church as missionary and participatory.” Those two words—“missionary and participatory”—have also been chosen by Pope Francis to describe his hopes for the “synod on synodality.” They suggest the Encuentros can give us hope that synodality will be a promising way forward for the Church. However flawed, they allowed those in our Church who previously felt unable to speak to be heard, and with each Encuentro, a new channel of participation was created. But has any of this actually changed the culture of the Church, or are they mostly empty gestures? Hispanic/Latine peoples in the U.S. Church largely remain, as Brett Hoover recently argued in Commonweal, “unaccommodated.”

When I asked Tarango what she believed the greatest impact of the Encuentros was, her response surprised me. She said that it was not only a time for the bishops to listen to the laity, but also for the laity to listen to the bishops. Tarango was reminding me that the lived experiences of all People of God should be equally valued. The work she and others in Las Hermanas did should convince us that, for synodality to be effective, we all must undergo a process of conversion and be genuinely open to discerning the signs of the times and creating the Church we want, together. For Tarango, the prophetic aspect of the Encuentros was not the laity “sticking it to ‘the man.’” Instead, she said, it was when everyone was allowed to say “I am Church, too.”

Tarango now focuses much of her time on her local community in San Antonio. After many conversations via Zoom, I met her in person for the first time in November 2021. Just as I had imagined, she has a permanent smile on her face. As a part of my visit to San Antonio, Dr. Horacio Vela invited both of us to attend his course on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tarango thanked the students for including her friend Ada María Isasi-Díaz on the altar for the Day of the Dead. One young woman presented on Lara Medina’s work. When Dr. Vela asked for my commentary, I told the class that Medina’s first book was about Tarango and that they were in the presence of a true feminist of the 1970s and 1980s. She laughed and looked around at those of us in the classroom, all young Latina women, and said “And now we’re counting on you all to carry the torch.” 

Published in the January 2022 issue: 

Amirah Orozco is a campus minister at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois and recently completed a Masters of Theological Studies from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. This article was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation–funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion.

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