The Church as a Site of Struggle: Faith and Social Mobilization in Latinx History

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, IEHS, and the Western History Association

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Labor and Working-Class; Latino/a


Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Latinx activists and clergy turned to churches and other religious sites not only as places of worship but also as locations for social movement building and advocacy efforts. Facing a number of crises in their communities - migrant farmworker grievances against their employers, discriminatory federal refugee policies, and gang violence and trauma in their barrios - Latinx of different faith traditions developed new forms of political networks and movement within parish spaces and religious organizations. Joining an expanding historiography that highlights religious sites as places of political mobilization for Latinx communities, this panel examines rich histories of protest and organizing in parishes and religious organizations from the Midwest to the West Coast. It explores the ways in which individual clergy and lay organizations worked both within and beyond the bounds of the established church structures to serve, walk alongside, and organize with their Latinx congregants while also noting the pushback these activists encountered from fellow congregants and faith leaders who objected to this particular forms of progressive faith organizing. Together, panelists will take a multiregional approach to consider the ways in which Latinx communities and their allies have shaped the formulations of place and politics in religious spaces across the American Midwest and West and what lessons their efforts offer for activists in the 21st century.

Papers Presented

The Politics of Mercy: Homeboy Industries & the Gang Wars of 1980s Los Angeles

From the mid 20th century to today, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, under conservative James McIntyre in the 1950s and 60s, through Jose Gomez today, opposed social justice efforts by clergy. For McIntyre, the fear was communism; for Gomez, the fear is the “pseudo-religious” activism of “wokeness.” While the archdiocese continues to veer into conservative politics and away from social justice work, Catholic organizations have filled the gap and provided marginalized Latinx communities, lost in cycles of gang violence, trauma, substance abuse, and prison, a way out. After working with the poor in Bolivia, being influenced by his idol, Daniel Berrigan, Gregory Boyle founded Homeboy Industries in 1988. Homeboy Industries serves as an alternative to the Archdiocese’s preoccupation with the culture wars for people stuck in a permanent state of crisis, where trauma, violence, substance abuse, and prison are generational. Examining Boyle’s life, his privileged upbringing in an Irish Catholic family in Los Angeles, his work in Bolivia, and the influence of Jesuits such as Berrigan and Juan Aruppe, offers some insight into how this organization has weathered financial woes, criminal investigations, and accusations that Boyle represents an outmoded Great White Savior, in a church that has relied on that archetype for way too long. In doing so, this work explores how progressive Catholicism has found outlets beyond an archdiocese beholden to conservative traditionalists. They were placed in positions of power over the last few decades to ensure that clerical activists worked outside the hierarchy.

Presented By
Arlene Michelle Sanchez-Walsh, Azusa Pacific University

Migrant Rights, Migrant Ministry

Baldemar Velásquez, Founder and President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), wrote, “FLOC must continue to encourage the involvement of the Church among staff, members, and supporters alike and seek the next step that God has called us to take together.” Velásquez’s statement here intertwines the role of churches, labor unions, consumers, and supporters. The church was formative to the coalition formed by supporters, staff, and union members. This paper asks, how did agricultural workers in the Midwest redefine migrant power, justice, and rights throughout the second half of the twentieth century? While the United Farm Workers are central to the collective imagination of organizations that challenged the indignities of agricultural labor, it is important to recognize the organizing efforts of other farmworker unions, particularly outside of California and the Southwest. This paper will chart the trajectory of FLOC and the religious underpinnings of this labor unionization effort. Furthermore, it will follow these efforts up until the late-1980s/early-1990s when FLOC successfully signed contracts with Campbell’s Soup Company, Heinz, and the growers that supplied tomatoes and cucumbers to those companies.

Presented By
Juan Ignacio Mora, Indiana University, Bloomington

Sanctuary as “Criminal Anarchism”: Immigrant and Refugee Justice, Religious Space, and Conservative Backlash in the Late 20th Century

This paper examines the growth of faith-based immigrant and refugee justice movements and subsequent conservative political and religious backlashes in the late twentieth century. In a period that historians have often noted as an era of ascendancy of right and far right religiosity – most prominently in the Moral Majority that helped propel Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan to power – a small but vocal cohort of progressive religious organizations also sought to use their social and political capital to influence U.S. immigration and foreign policy. During the 1980s, activists and clergy representing different faith traditions joined together to form the sanctuary movement, heeding a moral call to welcome the stranger by opening their doors as places of refuge for Central Americans. These coalitions functioned as both humanitarian organizations and political movements, often operating in defiance of federal immigration authorities. In response to what they believed to be blatant violations of the rule of law, the Reagan administration cracked down on sanctuary activists and other Central American solidarity organizations in Arizona, California, Texas, and Wisconsin by covertly infiltrating coalitions and initiating criminal prosecutions of activists, while conservative faith leaders decried what they called “criminal anarchism” and a perceived growing influence of “leftist radicals” and Marxist sympathizers in churches. This paper will thus explore how faith spaces have become contentious sites to debate the intersections between faith, politics, and immigrant and refugee justice.

Presented By
Sergio M. González, Marquette University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Felipe Hinojosa, Texas A&M University
Felipe Hinojosa is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. His research areas include Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, American Religion, Race and Ethnicity, and Social Movements. He serves as Director for the Carlos H. Cantu Hispanic Education & Opportunity Endowment at Texas A&M, and is editor for the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed, and online moderated forum Latinx Talk. His work has appeared in Zócalo Public Square, Western Historical Quarterly, American Catholic Studies, and in multiple edited collections on Latinx Studies. His new book, Apostles of Change: Latino Radical Politics, Church Occupations, and the Fight to Save the Barrio (University of Texas Press, 2021) is set in four major cities (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston) where in 1969 and 1970 Latina/o radicals clashed with religious leaders as they occupied churches to protest urban renewal, poverty, police brutality, and racism.

Presenter: Sergio M. González, Marquette University
Sergio M. González is an assistant professor of Latinx Studies in the Departments of History and Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Marquette University. As a historian of twentieth-century U.S. immigration, labor, and religion, his scholarship focuses on the development of Latino communities in the U.S. Midwest. His first book, Mexicans in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017), offered a concise introductory history of Mexican settlement and community formation across the state. His current project, Strangers No Longer: Latino Belonging and Faith in 20th Century Wisconsin, explores the relationship between Latino communities, religion, and social justice movements in twentieth century Wisconsin. González has bridged his academic scholarship to broader audiences by serving as a founder of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition as well as serving on the board of Voces de la Frontera, Wisconsin’s largest and most active membership-based immigrant justice organization.

Presenter: Juan Ignacio Mora, Indiana University, Bloomington
Juan Ignacio Mora is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Indiana University's Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society (CRRES) and Department of History. He received a PhD in History from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in May 2021. He is a historian of Latinxs, race, labor, and migration. He is working on his first book, titled Latino Encounters: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans in the Making of the Midwest. This project examines three groups of Latinxs as they used postwar migration and agricultural labor to forge national and transnational networks throughout the Midwest.

Presenter: Arlene Michelle Sanchez-Walsh, Azusa Pacific University
Dr. Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh is professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of the award-winning book Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society. In addition, she has authored over a dozen articles and book chapters on Latino/a religion and has served as a media expert for outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and On Being with Krista Tippett. She is a guest host on the “Classical Ideas” podcast, where she focuses on new scholarship on Latinx religion. Sánchez-Walsh's current projects include an examination of Latinx Mormonism and Race. She is currently writing a biography of Daniel Berrigan. Her latest book is Pentecostals in America, published by Columbia University Press.