Roots of Mexican Pentecostalism: Los Angeles

On the northern side of the US-Mexico border, Apostólico roots stretch back to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles which began in 1906 under the ministry of William J. Seymour. Summoned from Houston to preach at a Holiness mission in Los Angeles, Seymour found himself locked out of the Sunday evening service at the host church. His insistence that morning that a believer’s reception of the baptism of the Holy Spirit should be evidenced with speaking in tongues proved unpalatable.8 His public rejection at the church resulted in an invitation to pray privately with friends at the home of a couple from the church, and these kindling prayer meetings on Bonnie Brae Street conflagrated into a three-year revival on Azusa Street. Histories of the Azusa Street Revival since the 1970s aptly picked up on the interracial overtones as well as on the racist undertones, but they almost all focused exclusively on the Black-White divide of Jim Crow America (Anderson 1970, Jacobsen 2003, MacRoberts 1988, Owens 2001, Synan 1997, Tyson 1990). However, more recent scholarship has fleshed out the role of Mexicans at the revival (Espinosa 2014, Ramirez 2015, Sanchez-Walsh 2003). To be sure, the participation of Mexicans in the revival was limited and their involvement can hardly be accounted for at the revival after they were refused the opportunity to testify in a 1909 case (Bartieman 1925). Nevertheless, early converts planted the seeds of Mexican Pentecostalism in a contiguous transnational terrain.

Mexicans’ perennial debuts occupied limited (if any) space in memoirs or official writings, hardly surviving in the historical narrative of the revival. The earliest evidence of Mexican participation at the Azusa Street Revival is found in the Apostolic Faith Mission’s own contemporaneous accounts. However, the limited references to Mexicans in The Apostolic Faith, the mission’s official organ, employed paternalistic language to describe their presence. The reports stressed ethnic, racial, and linguistic difference in order to highlight the ability of the person operating in the Spirit to cross cognitive (language), social (de facto segregation and Black-led revival), and gendered (women praying for men) boundaries. Thus, in several instances, a Mexican is described as “Mexican” for the purpose of emphasizing differences and the ability of those operating “in the Spirit” to cross those lines. The rhetorical choices, however, ultimately result in the exoticization, marginalization, and occlusion of the non-English-speaking Mexican other. As a result, historians are challenged to uncover more fully the roots and routes of Mexican Pentecostalism.

The paternalistic rhetoric aside, we can certainly see how the sacred space created largely by disempowered people of Jim Crow Los Angeles blurred social boundaries. These transgressive acts engendered a spontaneous communitas, that is, a momentary leveling-out of the social playing field and the inversion of expected roles. However, as anthropologist Victor Turner reminds us, “it is the fate of spontaneous communitas in history to undergo what most people see as a ‘decline and fall’ into structure and law” (1995, 132). Such was the case of the Azusa Street Revival in early 1909 when its revival fires began to cool (Robeck 2006, 311). We find very few references to Mexicans at the revival, and even fewer once the hallmark spontaneity of Pentecostal preaching and testifying had largely been stifled. That feature of communitas suffused with pneumatic spontaneity was noted in the first year of the revival:

It is noticeable how free all nationalities feel. If a Mexican or German cannot speak English, he gets up and speaks in his own tongue and feels quite at home for the Spirit interprets through the face and people say amen. No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education. This is why God has built up the work.

(Apostolic Faith, November 1906, 1)

The “work” that “God has built up” (referenced by the anonymous editor of The Apostolic Faith) hinges largely on liminality, as liminalities are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony” (Turner 1995, 95-97). The transgression of social boundaries became a hallmark of Mexican-Pentecostalism in the years under study. Take, for example, the following entries from The Apostolic Faith:

On August 11th, a man from the central part of Mexico, an Indian, was present in the meeting and heard a German sister speaking in his tongue which the Lord had given her. He understood, and through the message that God gave him through her, he was most happily converted so that he could hardly contain his joy. All the English he knew was Jesus Christ and Hallelujah. He testified in his native language that was interpreted by a man who had been among that tribe of Indians. This rough Indian, under the power of the Spirit was led to go and lay his hands on a woman in the congregation who was suffering from consumption, and she was instantly healed and arose and testified.

(The Apostolic Faith September 1906, 3)

To answer skeptics, the editors included follow-up information:

Los Angeles, Aug 12, 1906. This will certify that my daughter, Mrs. S. P.

Knapp of Avenue 56 and Alameda Street, was healed of consumption by God on the above date, God’s Spirit working in answer to prayer and through a poor Mexican Indian. For particulars, inquire of Frank Gail, with Troy Laundry, corner 14th and Main, Los Angles.

(The Apostolic Faith September 1906, 2)

Note the stark contrast between the “poor,” “rough” Indian and the “German sister.”9 Whereas the names of people, particulars of places, and the incorporation into the local body of believers, (denoted by the term “sister”), were cited with respect to the German sister, we only know that this unnamed man was from Mexico, poor, rough, and that he was reported to wield spiritual gifts of the interpretation of tongues and healing. The background information related to his place of origin, incompetency in English, and low-social status was likely cited in order to stress the ability of believers under the influence of the Holy Spirit to temporarily cross these otherwise humanly impervious boundaries. The following submission to the Apostolic Faith highlights the claims to bridging language incommensurabilities. Language is both cognitive and social, and this bears out in the following submission which, again, underscores the immensity of the miracle in nearby city of Whittier:

As soon as we would come in after supper, after working on the chain gang during the day shoveling dirt, I would get my Bible and call the men into the big room and the Lord gave me their tongue, the Mexican language.

I did not have that tongue, until I went into the jail. As I would talk with them, the tears would run down their faces. There was not one of them but was weeping bitterly. Then when I went into my little cell, after I got done preaching, two or three of them would come in and talk with me a long while. Most of the men were Mexicans. Two or three could talk my language and they could interpret English for the others. I did not know what I was saying in tongues, except as they interpreted for me. When I was preaching to them in tongues, I read the 55th chapter of Isaiah to them in the Mexican language, with my Bible in my hand. I did not know the chapter or that I had read it until they told me. I never had the Lord use me so much before as in jail. It seemed wave after wave of power would run over me. There was hardly a night I would sleep more than an hour or two. The Lord was giving me messages to give them. Bless His holy name.

(Apostolic Faith November 1906, 4)

According to the contributor, this Bible study relied on the divine and a few English-speaking Mexicans to bridge the language gaps. The designation “Mexican language” was a common faux pas of the time, and thus suggests how systems of nomenclature pertaining to the Other often elude efforts at precision by the dominant group. The phrase “two or three of them could talk my language” [emphasis mine] implies a social marginalization, but it also frames his possession of English language as mundane (f/hswordly) and his utterance of the Spanish as divine phenomena of tongues (pthe/worldly). More broadly, even Mexicans in California were viewed as foreign and as a separate missiological effort.10

This representation of Mexicans persisted from the beginning of the revival until its nadir in 1909. Even in these attempts to document their active and passive participation, Mexicans are used as metaphorical baselines of class, color, and low literacy. A Tumerian approach (which contrasts binaries of oppositions and discriminations) to these reports offers us a useful framework to interpret the auspicious start of the revival in terms binaries of liminality and systems of structure. Before turning to Turner’s binaries, let us consider the 1909 reference to Mexicans at the revivals. In his attempt to side with the silenced Mexicans, Frank Bartieman, the chronicler of the Azusa Street Revival, slipped into paternalistic representation of Mexicans when he recollected:

Old Azusa Mission became more and more in bondage. The meetings now had to run just in appointed order. The Spirit tried to work through some poor, illiterate Mexicans, who had been saved and “baptized” in the Spirit. But the leader deliberately refused to let them testify, and crushed them ruthlessly. It was like murdering the Spirit of God. Only God knows what this meant to those poor Mexicans. Personally I would rather die than to have assumed such a spirit of dictatorship. Every meeting was now programmed from start to finish. Disaster was bound to follow, and it did so (1925, 140).


Systems of Structure


System of nomenclature

No distinctions of wealth

Distinctions of wealth

Absence of rank

Distinctions of rank

Sacred instruction

Technical knowledge

Continuous reference to mystical powers

Intermittent reference to mystical powers

FIGURE 4.1 Contrasts the liminal elements that enable communitas, and its antithesis the “systems of structure”

The contrast between Bartieman’s lament and the 1906 accounts of free worship reminds us of the inevitable outcome of communitas in a Turnerian scheme. In this case Turner’s binary of “structure and law” were tantamount to “bondage” and the silencing of Mexican voices. The Azusa Mission’s drift towards structure and law prefigured the eventual exclusions of Mexicans from the revival. To further demonstrate how limited representation of Mexicans at the revivals presents us with the problem of recording and narration of Mexicans at Azusa, consider how the once existent communitas in which Mexicans participated, eventually morphed into a system of structure at the cost of their own exclusion from the site of the revival in Los Angeles by 1909 (Figure 4.1).

Previously, the testimonies of anonymous participants abounded with references that underscored the communitas of the revival, but to establish this point and foreshadowing later divisions, the anonymous writers use Mexicans and “colored people” as referents to symbolize the bottom rank of race and class. This suggests that divine power served as an intermediary and necessary agent so that middleclass whites could bond in spiritual communion with others. “If it had started in a fine church,” testified one prominent Methodist laymen, “poor colored people and Spanish people would not have got it, but praise God it started here” (The Apostolic Faith November 1906, 1). The various denominational and celebratory accounts of the revival attempt to portray it as a site in which equality reigned supreme. In the end, however, Seymour’s Azusa Street Revival lost its interracial character, and by 1915 only allowed African-Americans to serve in leadership. According to Seymour this was done in order to “keep down the race wars” (referring to conflict with whites) (Robeck 2005, 319). While systems of structure should provide a community with the tools to record a narrative, the inclusion, or conversely elision, of certain people therein rests on the reactive power of the revival’s leaders. When the Azusa Street Mission assumed characteristics of structure, Mexicans were not invited to be part of that structure but were instead sent away to minister to peoples of their own shared tongue. Thus by 1909 Mexicans took different routes for evangelism and found most of their success in small churches among migrant farmworkers in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Our limited sources from early Apostólico leaders indicate that in 1909 Luis Lopez was baptized in the name of Jesus in Otay (San Diego) and Williams Seymour ordained Juan Navarro into the ministry in Los Angeles. Lopez and Navarro both left the Azusa Street Mission to carve out their ministries in the San Diego area (Ramirez 2015, 45). Although Lopez’s baptism is celebrated in the denomination’s semi-centennial volume as the first Jesus-name baptism of a Mexican, it is not clear (probably unlikely) that they had begun to articulate a Oneness doctrine of God by this point.11 In the years following the Azusa Street Revival, we can more clearly see how the baptisms of these soon-to-be leaders proved instrumental for the loosely organized migrant Apostólicos.

While the prospects of growth may have seemed bleak for Mexicans at the revival, by 1912 Mexican Pentecostals had begun to branch out beyond the local mission and to establish their own autonomous missions. This expands our site of analysis beyond the Azusa Street Mission. Based on the vast differences noted in these earliest accounts we might ask then if ethnic-Mexican Pentecostals would have ever consented to being absorbed and carried by the current of American Anglophone Pentecostalism. In the remainder of this chapter, we will see how the Apostólico movement in the borderlands maintained a strong Mexican identity. If the Azusa Street Revival represents an era of muted voices and scant ordinations for Mexican converts, the post-1912 period figures as an era of a host of revivals in far-flung and scattered borderland spaces. Thus, basing our knowledge on the limited record, the Mexican roots at the Azusa Street Revival appear to have been shallow and mostly dormant, but ironically, their extraction in 1912 allowed for transplantation to a more fertile ground, namely southern California. There, Mexican Pentecostalism took deep root, establishing itself as a staple of the greater Los Angeles area.

Two watershed moments in 1912 marked a later confluence of streams along the border: the baptisms of Francisco Llorente in San Diego and of Romana Carbajal de Valenzuela in Los Angeles. By the end of the decade, their discrete evangelistic trajectories coalesced in the borderlands. Llorente evangelized in agricultural towns of southern California; Valenzuela founded the first churches in northern Mexico. Herein begins the recovery of Apostólico roots and routes beyond Azusa. The solidification of a Mexican leadership propelled the movement beyond its incipient and scattered phase (1912-1916). The official denominational history book of the AAFCJ, Historia de la Asamblea Apostólica, proudly emphasized that the leaders and converts of the early church were Mexican by nationality' and that many of these conversions took place in homes or in farm labor camps. The all Mexican-born triumvirate of Juan Navarro (likely ordained by Seymour), Francisco Llorente (baptized by Navarro), and de la Cruz (baptized by' Llorente) gleaned their first fruits of converts in the migrant populations of southern California in San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Los Angeles. In 1915 the movement’s organizational genius, Antonio Castañeda Nava, arrived to the Imperial Valley for work in the cotton fields. In the following year Marcial de la Cruz proselytized Nava, an event heralded as the founding of what would become Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus in the United States.12

The second phase (1916—1919) revealed incommensurate growth north and south of the border. California (especially Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties) proved to be fertile ground because of the northward migration from war-torn Mexico, the rapid growth of agribusiness, and population mobility. With no temple to occupy as their own. Apostólicos gathered in homes in the United States and thereby formed a network of churches. With the exception of Marcial de la Cruz’s congregation in San Francisco, the US branch of the movement was entirely based in southern California. Many had begun to arrive there pushed out by the Mexican Revolution and pulled in by job opportunities in agriculture. De la Cruz himself transferred to the Imperial Valley for ministry and field work during the heyday of revivals in the Imperial Valley area (Cantú and Ortega 1966, 6-8). While the Imperial Valley is recorded as a preaching point, no congregation was established until 1918. The revivals in the Imperial Valley are examined later in this chapter). The introduction of Mexican churches into this labor circuit reinforced the movement’s ethnic identity and Hispanophone preference. By 1916, evangelization was in full swing on both sides of the border but with more rapid growth in the United States, owing to propitious conditions of agribusiness recruitment (Gaxiola-Gaxiola 2007, 135-165).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >