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Celebrating Latino/A/X-Hispanic Heritage Month

Last Thursday, I attended “La Misa in English” at St. John’s, Chula Vista, where over 40 people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds spanning several generations gathered in St. John’s Nale Hall.  La Misa in English is a monthly gathering designed particularly for the predominantly Latino/a/x-Hispanic neighborhood in which St. John’s is planted.

Each La Misa in English gathering is centered around a theme. Past celebrations have centered around San Pedro y San Pablo (Saints Peter and Paul) and Santa Maria la Virgen (the Virgin Mary). For October, St. John’s La Misa celebrated Hispanic Heritage in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

La Misa in English at St. John’s

While many people of Latino-Hispanic heritage in this West Chula Vista neighborhood may resonate deeply with the rhythms and traditions of corporate worship, La Misa offers a chance to experience communion through another lens

Part social, part dinner, and part Eucharist, St. John’s La Misa is a communal space for those gathered to break bread together in both the sacramental sense and as a way of growing together as one body in Christ. Time is built into the liturgy for sitting together at a table, sharing fellowship and a bountiful potluck supper (the post-Eucharist blessing, closing hymn and dismissal take place after dinner). La Misa also provides a monthly gathering opportunity for both regular members of St. John’s and various members in the local neighborhood. Families participating in the ECS Headstart program hosted at St. John’s or neighbors who, for various reasons, may not attend weekly Sunday services find themselves at home at the La Misa service.

Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month is a national observation from Sept. 15 – Oct. 15. It is a time to celebrate “the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.” Originally Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson, it was expanded to a month-long observation under President Ronald Regan. 

The date of Sept. 15 is significant as the start of the observation; five Latin American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) celebrate their independence from Spain on Sept. 15, with Mexico and Chile celebrating their independence in close proximity (Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively). In more recent years, and depending on the discernment of the community, Hispanic Heritage Month has also been observed as Latino-Hispanic Heritage Month, or Latino/a/x Heritage Month, as a way of distinguishing and celebrating the survival, resilience, and goodness of the cultures and heritage of those Indigenous to Latin America prior to Spanish colonization.

A Rich, Multi-faceted Celebration

St. John’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month began with a fully decked-out parish hall bathed in vibrant color. Flags representative of the many countries of Hispanic Heritage decorated the walls and tables, reminding me of how a pithy phrase like “Hispanic Heritage” can belie the diversity of all that the phrase is meant to encompass.  

Beyond colorful decorations, the hall was also adorned with wisdom. Placed at each table setting were inspiring quotes from an array of Latino-Hispanic leaders and influencers from Carlos Fuentes* to Berta Caceres to Selena Quintanilla. Stories of Latino-Hispanic trailblazers and inventors lined the walls (Oscar Romero, Luis Federico, Pelé, to name a few), showing how much our society has benefited from their gifts. Later, during dinner, The Rev. Roger Haenke invited those present to share the quotes or stories that resonated with them the most. I saw my own delight reflected back to me in the voices of those who were excited to share, either because they learned something new, or because they were seeing a figure with whom they were already familiar be celebrated in a public setting. What a gift this was, to celebrate Latino-Hispanic wisdom, leadership, and contributions that are so often left out of the history books or the larger media narrative. 

Just before the formal liturgy began, members of St. John’s performed and instructed two different styles of dance significant to different Latino-Hispanic heritages. David Naranjo, assisted by Iris Atkins, demonstrated and instructed basic merengue steps (merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic. It’s known for its “walking” dance steps, which make it a very accessible, beginner-friendly, dance style). Ashley St. John performed a Ballet Folklórico dance, and Adela Curiel then taught us a variation of the Ballet Folklórico dance, El Jarabe Tapatío, perhaps more widely known in the US as the Mexican Hat Dance. My legs burned, and I was slightly winded by the time musicians Maria and Joe Love began the opening song. and I don’t think I’ve ever been so invigorated or filled with breath (or Spirit?) at the beginning of a Eucharist. 

At a typical worship service, just before the formal liturgy begins, I personally, am used to spending that time in comfortable, spacious silence, that I might only break only to quietly whisper a hello or wave excitedly at a friend a few feet away. It’s a ritual of calmness I practice to still my mind and my breathing in order to prepare for the moment of worship. At last week’s La Misa, replacing that moment of spacious silence with dance was an unexpected gift. Joyfully dancing while surrounded by community in a sacred expression of ancestral heritage and celebration actually readied my mind, body and spirit for Eucharist; it reminded me that laughter and movement are equally and sacred as silence and stillness.

This month’s liturgy included a special Contemporary Reading written by Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. Sor Juana was a poet, writer, scholar and nun who was born out of wedlock in 1648 in colonial Mexico. In a time of clear hierarchies and power structures, women were not widely taught or encouraged to read or write, and so Sor Juana, who was driven by her love of God and Jesus, tutored herself. As I read her bio (which was included in the liturgy booklet), I couldn’t help but marvel at how deeply she would have had to be rooted in her own belovedness in order to trust that she, too, was made in the Image of God, and that her wisdom born out of the lens of her social location, was valid, and worthy, and good.

What struck me most was the way she painted a picture of Jesus that was warm, intimate, and vulnerable, writing, “What could be more worthy of love than that heavenly modesty, that gentle softness pouring out mercies in all His movements, that depth of humility and meekness, those words of eternal life and eternal wisdom?” To Sor Juana, Jesus was a person whose power was rooted in softness, and whose greatness and power came from a posture of humility. I left wondering, how might her picture of Jesus differ from the picture of those with systemic power in colonial Mexico, an era built on power through might and violence, and on the labor and exploitation of those whom Jesus might refer to as “the least of these?” (Matt 25:31-40, which was also the Gospel reading of the evening).

Respecting Wisdom and Dignity in Cultural Celebrations

Through the readings, teachings, music and fellowship of the evening, I went home feeling full – and not just because of the birria and carnitas that were part of the number of dishes brought by the community for dinner. Too often in our history as the Episcopal Church, which, in our country, is historically a predominantly white institution, multicultural celebrations have often been treated superficially. Groups from various ethnic or cultural backgrounds may have been invited to perform their cultural dances, and food from various cultures may have been served. But, while food and dances have their own rich stories and wisdom behind them, they were offered in a way where an unfortunate message is clear: these cultures are the “other.” 

These groups of people and their heritages have historically been displayed for the consumption of the dominant white culture, with little opportunity for voices and wisdom of the culture to be heard and received. These performative celebrations left all those in attendance the chance for a deeper, broader multicultural wisdom and, therefore, a deeper, broader understanding of God’s creation and expression of love. 

What a difference it makes to have a celebration that not only includes visual and gustatory** enjoyments but holds expansive space for the wisdom and voices of leaders of Latino-Hispanic heritage, both those from the St. John’s community and others whose legacies are more publicly and historically known.

Dr. Terence Lester, a writer, theologian, and founder of Love Beyond Walls, once wrote: “‘Everyone is welcome’ is drastically different from ‘we built this with you in mind. People don’t want to go where they are merely tolerated, they want to go where they are included.’” St. John’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration, and their ongoing La Misa in English, was not only built with the Latino-Hispanic community in mind, but it continues to grow and be co-created with seats at the proverbial table for leaders from the community it seeks to serve.

Latino-Hispanic Heritage and Leadership in EDSD****

Of course, St. John’s Chula Vista is not the only congregation in our diocese that celebrates Latino-Hispanic heritage as a way of being. Other congregations who have long held space for Latino-Hispanic heritage, leadership and voices include St. Philip-the Apostle, Lemon Grove, alongside the pastoral leadership of former diocesan Latino-Hispanic Missioner, The Rev. Carlos Garcia; St. John’s, Indio; St. Matthew’s, National City; St. Andrew’s, Lake Elsinore; and St. Paul’s, Yuma.

St. Peter and Paul, El Centro, under the leadership of The Rev. Lilia Mendoza, is starting to offer new Spanish language worship services.  The people of All Saints, Hillcrest, and the Rev. Carlos Expósito, offer Spanish-language Sunday worship materials, First Communion classes, and free/free-will-offering Thursday afternoon Spanish classes that are open to the general public.

Our diocese has also been blessed by a number of lay and ordained leaders of Latino-Hispanic heritage over the years, including current diocesan clergy, the Rev. Paul Carmona and the Rev. Cristina Borges, the Rev. Roberto Maldonado, and the late Rev. Juan Acosta, who served as our diocesan Latino-Hispanic Missioner for over 15 years, and was a founding presence for several Latino-Hispanic communities, including St. John’s, Indio and St. Matthew’s, National City.

Each of these congregations, and each of these leaders, has helped represent a different piece of the Latino-Hispanic American cultural identity (which is varied and diverse in itself, as Latino-Hispanic culture is not a monolith***). Each of these congregations and leaders, has helped bring our diocese towards a fuller, broader, deeper understanding of the wildly diverse and equally beloved possibilities of what it means to be made in the Image of God. And, how much richer we all are for it.

*Feel welcome to search these names if they’re unfamiliar to you!

** “gustatory” = concerned with tasting or the sense of taste

***“monolith” (in terms of a culture) = homogenous; rigid or fixed

****you’re invited to share a story of a leader of Latino-Hispanic ministry in the comments below!


Category: #Advocacy, #Multicultural Ministry, #Uncategorized

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2 replies to “Celebrating Latino/A/X-Hispanic Heritage Month

  1. Debbie Lothspeich | on October 12, 2023

    Well said! Thank you for joining us.

  2. Alice Burnham | on October 13, 2023

    Thank you for these eloquently expressed comments. They do present wonderful information and throw light to issues that may not be known to many.

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