New Directions in Latina/o History: Using Religious History to Overcome Inequalities of the Historical Record

Endorsed by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS) and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Latino/a; Religion


This panel explores how uprootedness among Mexican-descent communities over a period of nearly 100 years - via migrant labor (Barba), repatriation (Elmore), and the closing of churches (Kanter) - has impacted the historical record. The panel highlights the diverse geographies of Mexican and Mexican American religious experiences in the 20th century, from Chicago, rural towns of California, and the scattered communities that faced the state’s heavy hand of repatriation and deportation. Repatriation, indeed, mostly uprooted those in urban centers such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles but historians maintain that virtually every Mexican-born family would have had to confront the decision to leave. While Barba and Elmore’s papers explore the uprooting of Mexicans in an era of the “immigration regime” (1924-1965), Kanter’s paper demonstrates the experiences of a community firmly planted in a neighborhood only to have the doors of the church (quite literally) closed on them in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The papers demonstrate how the use of religious and nonreligious sources in historical research capture the diverse experiences of those often left out of the archival record. Elmore uses federal archives and religious sources to show how civil rights activists leveraged religious institutional resources to resist repatriation, while Barba relies on oral histories and photographs to gather reflections of the past. Kanter pulls together institutional archives and oral histories to offer both bottom-up and top-down perspectives on the closing of churches. Together, these three papers add new insights into the history of migration, politics, and Latina/o religion in the 20th century United States.

Our panel also raises questions about the role of religious communities and resources in Latina/o life in the US: In what ways do non-archival sources and religious sources provide new insights about the experiences of those on the margins of the historical record? How have different communities negotiated uprootedness? The panel is chaired by Julia Young (Catholic University of America), whose recent scholarship highlights the crucial role of transnationalism in Mexican communities in the early twentieth century. The panel does not include a formal comment. Instead, the panelists hope to generate a collaborative conversation with the audience about the use of fugitive sources and traditional archival sources read against the grain as a way of addressing inequalities in contemporary and historical discussions on inclusion, migration, and community building.

Papers Presented

Closing Mexican Parishes: Latina/o Religious Growth in an Era of Contraction

Chicago, where Latina/os make up 44% of the Catholic laity, offers a preview of the emerging majority Latino U.S. Catholic Church. The saga of Latinos re-shaping—and often revitalizing—religious life plays out all over the United States. But this growth has occurred in decades of contracting resources. I wrote a book about the making of Mexican parishes in Chicago precisely in an era marked by their closing. With fewer clergy, aging buildings, decreasing church membership, and archdiocesan budget problems, parish closed in several waves across the city since 1990. In the Pilsen neighborhood, with its pioneering and rich tradition of Mexican Catholic life, the mosaic of parishes has greatly diminished. In the 1970s Pilsen had twelve parishes; just three parishes remain today. I witnessed painful crises as Mexican parishes struggled to keep the doors open and to anchor community, ethnic identity, and spiritual lives.

Many informants view the closing of their local church as another outcome of systemic inequality that Latina/o people experience in Chicago and across the United States. They often blame the church hierarchy (which includes few Latino clergy among the decision makers) for failing to care for the interests of Latinos. People in Pilsen also view the string of parish closings as a symptom of gentrification or the “whitening” of their barrio. This paper stresses the process of researching Latina/o church history amidst contentious urban parish closings.

Presented By
Deborah E. Kanter, Albion College

Material Memories of the Sacred: The Sounds, Sights, and Sites of Mexican Pentecostal Farmworkers (1930–1966)

Since World War I, Mexicans have mad up the majority of laborers in California’s industrial agriculture. The macroforces underpinning migrant agriculture produced a system of inequality, as it was designed to keep laborers deracinated. Images of their placement in these crop-combed fields abound in archives. But contrary to the photographic records of growers and government agencies, which generally portrayed Mexican laborers as vagrants and culturally vacuous, individuals I interviewed testified of a robust religious social life from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The inequalities of historical record keeping have pushed historians to imagine new ways of telling the past. Chief among these strategies have been oral histories and material culture. In this paper, I show how three elements (sounds, sights, and sites) came to characterize performative aspects of everyday lives of Mexican Pentecostals on the margins of society and religious respectability and informed much of their social memory of a bygone era. How my interviewees reflected upon the photographic record may push us toward more fully understanding Latinx religious history and the sacred materiality of their past. Rather than particular events or places, interviewees mostly reflected on la vida cotidiana, that is, everyday life and the spaces of religious meaning making embedded therein. In the recollection of memories and life histories, everyday material religion took center stage their testimonios.

Presented By
Lloyd Barba, Amherst College

Apostles in the Desert: How Mexican Americans Created Catholic Resistance to Repatriation and Deportation, 1929–1939

The forced removal of Latinos from the United States, whether through formal deportation procedures, or through the less formal process of repatriation, is a nearly century-old practice. Between 1929 and 1935, the United States removed roughly one-fifth of its Mexican-descent population. Countless families were torn apart. In many instances, U.S.-born children never saw or heard from their parents again. Mexican repatriation became one of the largest racial expulsions in U.S. history, second only to the American Indian campaigns of the 19th century.

Few groups protested the mass expulsion. Through the work of its border agent, Cleofás Calleros, the U.S. Catholic Church’s immigration office mounted the single most significant resistance to repatriation. During the early 1930s, at the height of Mexican repatriation, Calleros coordinated with members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, Mexican immigration officials, and civil rights organizations to blunt the effects of Mexican repatriation. Today, Catholic resistance to U.S. immigration practices that target Latinos for removal is widespread. My paper demonstrates how Mexican American civil rights leaders, including Calleros, first propelled Catholic resistance to coercive immigration practices. The historical actors at the heart of this paper are often absent in the historical record. By using immigration case files held by Catholic organizations, oral histories, and federal archival records, my paper further reveals a legal regime in the US-Mexico borderlands in which the U.S. Catholic Church emerged as a key player.

Presented By
Maggie Elmore, Sam Houston State University

Session Participants

Chair: Julia G. Young, Catholic University of America
Julia G. Young is a historian of migration, Mexico and Latin America, and Catholicism in the Americas. Her prize-winning book, Mexican Exodus: Emigrants, Exiles, and Refugees of the Cristero War (Oxford University Press, 2015), examines Mexican religious exiles, political refugees, and labor emigrants in the United States during Mexico’s Cristero war. She co-edited Local Church, Global Church: Catholic Activism in Latin America from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (The Catholic University of America Press, 2015). She has published scholarly articles in The Americas, The Catholic Historical Review, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, and the Journal on Migration and Human Security. Young has been a fellow at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, as well as the Institute for Policy Research at Catholic University She is currently researching a new book about right-wing Catholicism in Mexico during the twentieth century, and she frequently writes for the media about immigration, border issues, and Catholic immigration history.

Commentator: The Audience
The panel does not include a formal comment. Instead, the panelists hope to generate a collaborative conversation with the audience about the use of fugitive sources and traditional archival sources read against the grain as a way of addressing inequalities in contemporary and historical discussions on inclusion, migration, and community building.

Presenter: Lloyd Barba, Amherst College
Lloyd Barba teaches in the field of Religion in the Americas in the Department of Religion and in the program of Latinx and Latin American Studies at Amherst College. He received his PhD from the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan in 2016, and is a recipient of the 2018-2019 First Book Grant for Minority Scholars awarded by the Louisville Institute. He serves as the co-chair of the History of Christianity unit of the American Academy of Religion. His book project, Sowing the Sacred, examines the religious productions of mid-century Mexican Pentecostal farmworkers and their usage of photographs and material culture. His publications include articles on Cesar Chavez and religious soundscapes (published in California History), Black Pentecostalism in the Harlem Renaissance (in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion) and Mexican religious photography (in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion).

Presenter: Maggie Elmore, Sam Houston State University
Maggie Elmore is a social and political historian of the 20th century United States. Her research and teaching specializations include migration, Latina/os, religion, and borderlands. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, where she is working on a book, Claiming the Cross: How Latinos and the Catholic Church Reshaped America. Elmore completed her PhD in US history at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017. Her work has been supported by multiple organizations, including the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, the University of Texas, Austin Center for Mexican American Studies, the University of Notre Dame, and the Bancroft Library. Her publications include articles on Mexican American civil rights in World War II (US Catholic Historian, Spring 2017) and the immigrant rights movement (under review). She has presented her scholarship at numerous conferences, including the annual meetings of the Western History Association, the American Historical Association, and the Western Association of Women Historians.

Presenter: Deborah E. Kanter, Albion College
Deborah E. Kanter is Chair & John S. Ludington Professor of History, Department of History, Albion College. Education: University of Virginia, Ph.D. in History, 1993; M.A. in History, 1987; University of Michigan, American Culture and History, 1984. Her publications include Chicago Católico: Making Parishes Mexican (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming); Hijos del Pueblo: Gender, Family and Community in Rural Mexico, 1730-1850 (University of Texas Press, 2009). Articles (partial): “Truly Inbetween People: Situating Latinos in 20th-Century Urban History,” Journal of Urban History, vol. 41:6 (2015); “Faith and Family for Early Mexican Immigrants to Chicago: the Diary of Elidia Barroso,” Diálogo, vol. 16:1 (Spring 2013); “Making Mexican Parishes: Ethnic Succession in Chicago Churches, 1947-77,” U.S. Catholic Historian vol. 301:1 (2012). Grants and Fellowships (partial): Hewlett-Mellon Fund for Faculty Development Grant, Albion College, 2001-09, 2012; ACM Newberry Library Program in the Humanities, Faculty Fellow, 2000; National Endowment for the Humanities, Fellowship for College Teachers and Independent Scholars, 1995-96. Professional Memberships: American Historical Association; American Catholic Historical Association; Urban History Association.