On my desk sits a small, framed picture of Stadtkirche St. Marien in Wittenberg, the church from which Martin Luther launched the Reformation. On the back of the frame, the professor who gifted me the picture wrote an inscription: “Take heart. Remember, the extraordinary begins in unexpected places.”
I would consider Henry Milander Park in Hialeah, Florida—a small city of two hundred thousand in Miami-Dade County and my hometown—an unexpected place for the extraordinary, and quasi-religious, scene I witnessed there on November 8, 2023.
At least three helicopters hovered over the park as the sun set, creating a picturesque skyline on an usually cool but still humid South Florida evening. Amid a backdrop of festive salsa music and the Spanglish of prayer circles convened next to RVs with makeshift decorations, you could hear laughter and harsh epithets for Joe Biden. Children draped in “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2024” flags marched with purpose toward the entrance to Ted Hendricks Stadium in the middle of the park. A cadre of street vendors sold Cuban food and all sorts of religious and political paraphernalia.
While depictions of Jesus featured prominently on countless shirts and banners, not even he could rouse such frenzy here. Thousands of Hialeah’s citizens of all ages gathered to express their unwavering support for the focal point of the carnivalesque rally: Donald Trump.
Hialeah’s citizens are overwhelmingly Latino (96 percent) and foreign-born (74 percent), though a plurality identify as white (48 percent). Fewer than 20 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the annual median household income hovers just below $50,000. Several factories and warehouses dominate the city, employing its decidedly working-class residents. Hialeah ranks among the top five nationwide in Obamacare enrollees by share of the overall population. “Efficiency apartments” (one-room studios attached to a house) are common, providing somewhat affordable options in addition to the city’s public housing.
At the ballot box, Hialeah has become a conservative bastion within the generally progressive Miami-Dade County, boasting forty-seven thousand registered Republicans to twenty-two thousand registered Democrats. (A significant portion of the population, thirty-two thousand, identifies as independent, though in recent elections this swath has voted mostly for Republican candidates.) In the 2020 general election, Trump’s decisive win in Hialeah was crucial to his victory in Florida. The “City of Progress,” as it’s known, has become a Latino stronghold for the former president. “We love him, and he loves us,” said one supporter.
Trump does seem to have an affinity for Hialeah. As president, he visited the city in 2018 for a small-businesses roundtable––causing a similar stir (though by no means as frenzied) among its residents. That he chose to hold his rally in Hialeah this past November instead of participating in the third nationally televised Republican debate just a few miles away in Miami, speaks volumes. “He really cares about us,” a Nicaraguan American supporter said. “We are lucky that he chose our city for this important event at this important time. He understands us.” To loud cheers at the rally, Trump explicitly connected his mounting legal cases with the persecution of Cubans under Fidel Castro: “Just like the Cuban regime, the Biden regime is trying to put their political opponent in jail.”
Even the city’s mayor, Esteban Bovo, and the city council have joined in on the love affair. Following Trump’s speech––which was, as usual, replete with anti-immigrant rhetoric––Bovo came on stage to inform Trump and his doting audience of the city council’s proposal to rename one of Hialeah’s main roads President Donald J. Trump Avenue. Bovo proudly presented Trump with a replica of the sign as the audience rejoiced. One supporter emotionally exclaimed, eyes welled with tears, “That was one of the proudest moments for me as an American and Christian…. I love that man.”
Christian nationalist imagery mixing politics and religion was ubiquitous at the rally. Shirts with the slogan “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president” were simply the tip of the iceberg. Signs expressing support for guns rights and opposition to abortion rights were raised next to crosses and oversized images of Jesus praying over Trump. One group held up anti-Palestinian signs next to an effigy of Biden, the absurd implication being that Biden supports Palestinian Muslims over Israeli Jews. Spectators could even purchase a hybrid United States-Israeli flag, with the words “Make America and Israel Great Again” sewn on the bottom.
In some respects, the scene resembled the January 6 insurrection, especially in the Manichaean stakes the participants insisted on. Either you side with MAGA or you are by default an enemy; nuance of any kind was nonexistent. I was witnessing unity not around concerns for democracy or the common good but around hatred toward those who oppose Trump’s plan for “saving” America. The collective hatred for progressives was palpable, not least because of the widely held belief that Biden stole the 2020 election and threatened to usurp other freedoms as well.
The entire scene reminded me of the great nineteenth-century religious revivals I studied in graduate school. The air was thick with an erratic fervor, shifting from jubilation to rage and then back to excitement. You would think the apocalypse was indeed nigh––and that the participants’ last chance for salvation and survival hinged on one man. Numerous supporters expressed views of Trump as a messianic figure whose acerbic rhetoric is also prophetic. “He is our savior, the only one who can save us from the end times,” expressed Nelson, a self-described Venezuelan American in his early thirties. Junissa, a Cuban American in her mid-twenties, claimed, “Only one person can save us from the downfall of this once-great nation at the hands of crooked, evil Biden and his demonic liberal Communists.” Juan, an older man who fled Cuba in the 1970s, blamed President Barack Obama for what he sees as a governmental “takeover by Communists and corrupters of children whose mission is to destroy Christian values and democracy.” He added: “Only one man has the balls to confront the powerful in Washington and restore the good to our fallen country.”
In my youth in the city, it was common to hear the same kind of language used to describe Jesus. Hialeah is a heavily Christian city where over 60 percent identify as Catholic. Statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and San Lazaro dot public areas and private yards. And citizens continue to attend services regularly at the city’s many Catholic churches. Cuban botanicas and Santeria ritual objects are very much part of Hialeah’s religious fabric, but the city’s religious ethos and aesthetics mirror those of Iowa or conservative parts of Texas more than those of the Caribbean.
Milander Park is located adjacent to what is perhaps Hialeah’s most prominent Catholic parish, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Several participants actually parked their cars around the church’s property and walked to the event. I wondered what thoughts crossed their minds as they strolled past the iconic 125-foot concrete bell tower with a large, embedded cross. Did they see no disconnect between Jesus’ teachings of compassion and Trump’s hatred?
I took the opportunity to ask eleven self-identified Catholics what they thought about the Synod on Synodality, or sinodo, the Church’s ongoing initiative to listen to its members in a collective effort to chart the Church’s future. All eleven (who claimed to attend Mass at least once a week) responded similarly but perhaps not surprisingly: “What is that?” and “I’ve never heard of it.” When I explained what the Synod is they did not react favorably. “Just another game by the Communist pope [Francis] to destroy the Church,” said Reinaldo Hernandez.
What explains this ignorance? Do the more conservative Catholic clergy insulate their parishioners from Francis’s initiatives and teachings out of some paternalistic care for their souls, seeing the pope as misguided or even heretical? Or even more insidious, are they thwarting any and all initiatives toward a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse Church? These scenarios seem plausible given the resistance Francis faces from influential voices within the U.S. Catholic Church who, like the most fervid Trump supporters, also see a Manichaean battle between good and evil raging within the Church.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, recently stripped of his Vatican privileges, is among the pontiff’s fiercest and best-known critics. He has repeatedly undermined Francis’s papacy with statements like one in 2014 that equates the Church under Francis to “a ship without a rudder.” And he has impugned the Synod by claiming it “forgets the divine nature of the Church.” It should come as no surprise that Burke aligns with Republican candidates and platforms, and often tosses off edgy political commentary on X. In 2016, Burke said he “was very happy” with Trump’s election as president, and in 2004 he stated that he would have denied Communion to then–Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Even more vocal and extreme than Burke, Bishop Joseph Strickland, formerly of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, has argued, inaccurately, that Francis seeks to “undermine the Deposit of Faith” through his acceptance of abortion. Strickland has also signed a document that brazenly accuses the pope of teaching heresy. And, in August 2023, stylizing himself as the “spiritual father” of his flock, he crafted a pastoral letter that presents the Synod as the doing of schismatics who endeavor to introduce confusion and discord on Church teachings. Strickland, like Burke, is an ally of Trump––and has called Biden an “evil president.” Strickland even spoke at a rally organized by Trump supporters seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
Of course, even among more moderate Catholic voters who might look askance at Burke and Strickland’s excesses, support for Republicans and Trump himself remains relatively strong. Among all Catholics voters, Trump won a narrow majority over Biden in 2020. This should not surprise anyone, given that the Catholic hierarchy usually privileges a strict stance on abortion as the sole issue of importance in any election.
However, while white Catholics voted for Trump with clear majorities in the 2016 (64 percent) and 2020 (57 percent) elections, Hispanic Catholics chose Biden over Trump by a margin of two to one in 2020. Still, Latino voters are swinging in Trump’s direction, by 8 percent compared to 2016. And in Miami-Dade County, they helped Trump cut 23 points off the Democratic nominee’s margin of victory. In Hialeah itself, Trump won two-thirds of the vote in 2020, after only winning the city narrowly in 2016.
These swings and geographical divisions show that, contrary to popular opinion and media representations, Latinos are anything but a monolithic voting bloc. Yes, they generally do tend to vote for Democrats, but voting patterns shift according to nationality, gender, geographic area, and socioeconomic factors. Cuban Americans in Western Miami-Dade tend to vote Republican, while Puerto Ricans in the Bronx usually opt for Democrats. But even then, the trends fluctuate: George W. Bush won almost 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004; Trump underperformed in 2016 with 28 percent only to shoot up in 2020 with 38 percent. Recent polls show the trend is likely to continue if Trump is on the ballot again in 2024. What’s more, the Latino vote has increased in volume and importance in recent years. A record 17 million Latinos voted during the 2020 general election, up a whopping 30 percent from 2016. They accounted for roughly 13 percent of all US voters in 2020.
In recent polls, the majority of Latinos cite the economy and cost of living––not immigration, as experts and the public normally assume––as the main issue in the upcoming election. Many Latinos, especially conservative ones, see Trump’s background and experience in business as an asset. But if you ask those at the rally in Hialeah, the former president’s main virtue is again, as one person put it, his “fight against the evil forces that seek to destroy the country.” When I pressed further as to the identities of these “evil” forces, the responses were similar: a cabal of child molesters in Washington and Hollywood, Biden and the Deep State, LGBTQ persons who threaten children’s morality, and Communists.
How should the Democratic Party combat these perceptions, both the more fantastical and those grounded in material issues? To begin with, I don’t think the party or progressives in general have taken Latino diversity seriously. Take, for example, journalist Paola Ramos’s recollection of her time as deputy director of Hispanic press for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign:
I have no recollections of ever publicly mentioning the words “Afro-Latinos” or “trans-Latinos”; no recollections of seeking the stories of the millennial activists on the U.S.-Mexican border or of the growing Asian Latino community; no memories of embracing the English-speaking Latinos or even paying attention to the lost Latino voices in the Midwest—red political territories we’ve at times given up on trying to win over.
Hialeah is one of those ignored and forgotten territories. The assumption that Latinos there (or anywhere) are a static voting bloc, who will, on average, come out in support of Democrats is both demonstrably false and dangerous for progressive politics.
Grouping Latino voters together for political expediency is a losing proposition. There is no single wholesale Latino “identity.” Latino persons defy dominant notions of identity in the United States, not least a deeply entrenched white-black binary. In his book Latinx, writer Ed Morales notes that Latinos are “a people that live in a world of many worlds, possessing an identity of multiple identities.” What concerns Latinos living along the U.S.-Mexico border is not the same as what matters to Dominican Americans in Boston or to second-generation Nicaraguans in the Bay Area or Miami. Essentializing Latinos plays into the hands of the Far Right, which does listen to—or, at least, pander to—disaffected Latino conservatives and libertarians––even if only during the election cycle.
Catholics (including theologians) and Democratic political strategists must take Latinos’ multifaceted concerns seriously by checking any and all assumptions. Studies of poll data and demography are undoubtedly important. But the real work remains mostly qualitative. Let each person tell you their thoughts and stories. Seeking this kind of complexity and difference can and should be frustrating and uncomfortable. This is the spirit that can make voters feel like their concerns are being addressed. It is also the spirit behind the Synod on Synodality.
Pioneers of U.S. Catholic Latino theology coined the term “lo cotidiano” to emphasize the importance of everyday reality (the quotidian) to theological reflection. Theologian Carmen Nanko-Fernández writes that “theologizing from lo cotidiano appreciates the particularities of context in ways that challenge scholarly flights of abstraction and temptations to impose homogeneity.”
Instead, too often, theology departments end up perpetuating narrative frameworks that resemble the simplistic tropes sometimes rehearsed by well-intentioned progressives. During graduate school, most of my Latino colleagues were of Mexican descent and had a deep relationship with either the borderlands or with el día de los muertos (Day of the Dead). Their narratives simply became the Latino narrative of the institution. Other Latino voices, experiences, and even academic sources were glossed over because they could not be understood within the dominant framework. Similarly, I found that non-Nicaraguan colleagues often parroted a romantic, uncritical narrative of the Sandinista Revolution that they likely learned from texts published by Orbis Books in the 1980s and early 1990s. My family’s negative experience of the Sandinista Revolution was dismissed with recourse to a secondhand and facile understanding of the event and its aftermath.
In general, the stories told by and about Latino communities in the United States follow a similar script: we see Latinos finding love, joy, faith, and hope amid their struggles with poverty and, at least for second-generation Latinos, existing in the “in-between”—that is, one foot here, another back there, with the two never quite meeting to walk in a straight line. For more recent undocumented immigrants, the struggle centers around navigating life in the shadows, away from the gaze of others who have the potential to enact violence upon them with impunity.
While these scripts do highlight the profound plight of some Latino people in the United States, they can obscure Latinos’ variegated experiences. Some might see themselves excluded from narratives that claim to be inclusive—and so suffer from a kind of double erasure, marginalized both by material circumstance and oversimplified stereotypes.
Taking lo cotidiano sincerely means also considering those who don’t fit the dominant political, religious, and ideological narratives. Not all Latinos identify with progressive politics. Not all Latinos are oppressed or marginalized. And not all Latinos venerate the Virgin Mary or believe that Jesus is God—at least 30 percent of Latinos identify as religiously unaffiliated.
The increasingly diverse spectrum of Latino peoples in the United States demands breaks in dominant Latino theological and political narratives––and a rethinking of identity talk more broadly. Ramos’s book Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity represents an excellent example of this kind of rethinking. As she traveled across the country, her “intention was to rediscover the places I thought I knew, to hear the voices that are often neglected in the back of the room, and to see the hidden faces that lay before our eyes all this time.”
In theological and political narratives, the neglected include the Latino Trump supporters of Hialeah. There have been plenty of dismissive comments and articles, but few if any sustained accounts explaining why the people of Hialeah believe what they do. Don’t their daily lived realities and contexts matter, too? Republicans and Trump at least pretend to think so, and to their benefit. The people themselves, however, will be abandoned once again when no longer useful as part of a cycle that perpetuates anger and breeds violence.
Genuine understanding is very different than capturing lives for academic consumption, pastoral correction, or political advantage. The Synod—and our democracy—will remain an unfulfilled dream if we don’t listen to dissonant voices, regardless of where they might lead or whether the listener agrees or feels validated by them. The Synod is about seeing the familiar in a new light, about embracing the ordinary as worthy, lest others with nefarious motives seize the opportunity. Our democracy, if it is to be revived from its apparent deathbed, requires the same kind of listening and the same embrace of the ordinary. Nuance, difference, even discord—these remain the best protections against the spells cast by simplistic binaries of us versus them, good versus evil.