Sustaining borderlands traditions in a Latinx Pentecostal Church

Jonathan Calvillo

While much attention has been given to the recent expansion of Latinx Protestantism throughout the United States, Los Angeles has been a critical space of Latinx Protestant growth and innovation for nearly a century and a half. In this chapter, I argue that one characteristic that makes Latinx Protestantism in the Los Angeles basin particularly unique, is the innovation of Latinx Protestant practices generated by the blending of older and newer forms of Protestantism. Unlike traditional studies of ethnic, immigrant faith, which conceptualize practices of the distant immigrant homeland as the “old” way, and practices conceived locally as the “new” way, I argue that for Latinx Protestantism in Los Angeles basin, many “older” traditions are homegrown, and many “newer” practices come from abroad.

Home to the largest population of Latinxs in the United States, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has both given rise to US-based Latinx Protestant movements and welcomed expressions of Protestantism originating in Latin America. Focusing on the case of an independent neo-Pentecostal church, La Gran Cosecha Sobrenatural (LGCS), in Santa Ana, California, this chapter highlights ways in which streams of Latinx Protestantism from a century past intersect with streams of Latinx Protestantism from recent decades, to produce unique Southern California ethnoreligious expressions. Practices of worship, liturgy', and ritual are a central focus of this chapter. By harnessing local histories as a cultural resource, LGCS has established a burgeoning transnational church network. The borderlands experience of being “betwixt and between” national identities (Pulido 2007, 246), especially sets the stage for how older and newer expressions of Latinx Protestantism, converge within the Los Angeles area.

To examine how bygone and novel cross-border cultural streams in the Los Angeles basin shape local Latinx Protestantism, I conducted qualitative research at LGCS for two years. LGCS is located in Santa Ana, California, a majority Latinx city of 332,725 residents located 30 miles South of Los Angeles (U.S. Census Bureau 2018); nearly half of Santa Ana’s residents are foreign born, most hailing from Mexico. Given its long history as a gateway city, Santa Ana and its congregations often function as diasporic spaces — spaces where immigrants sustain ties to the homeland and to compatriots in diaspora. Santa Ana also contains some of the region’s oldest continuously inhabited Mexican barrios where residents have sustained older cultural expressions from the US-Mexico borderlands. Indeed, substantial sections of the city itself function as diasporic spaces for newer immigrants, and as borderlands spaces for older Chicano populations. Churches in the city often negotiate between these realities. In my time of observation I came to recognize that though it was a relatively new congregation serving mostly recent converts and recent immigrants, LGCS sprouted from old roots embedded in the rich local soil of borderlands Protestantism.

I begin this chapter by presenting a brief history of Latinx Protestantism in Santa Ana, California, situating it within broader developments taking place in the Los Angeles region. I especially highlight figures and movements that have contributed to Latinx Protestantism locally. Next, I review LGCS’s history, noting the transnational character of its founding leaders and analyzing the older borderlands traditions and newer Latin American expressions that LGCS draws from. I conclude by reflecting upon how the convergence of the older and newer forms of Latinx Protestantism in the greater Los Angeles area continues to shape the practices of LGCS and of Latinx Protestants in the region.

Early borderlands Protestantism

Though the religious history of Santa Ana and its neighboring cities was indelibly marked by the Catholic mission system, the devotion of California’s early ranchero households, and the popular religiosity of Mexican immigrants, early Protestant inroads into local Latinx populations also laid important foundations. Predating most official Protestant missionary efforts targeting Latinxs in the region, German settlers brought Protestantism into social proximity with California’s Spanishspeaking populations. Some of the settlers that established Anaheim, California as a German colony, “married into Spanish families” (Mahlberg 1968, n.p.). These German colonists were “predominantly Lutheran and Catholic,” as Mahlberg (1968, n.p.) indicates. Intermarriage with Californios and the founding of Anaheim in 1858 created opportunities for close associations between this select group of Catholics and Protestants. Santa Ana and Anaheim remained part of Los Angeles County until 1889, when they were encompassed by the newly formed Orange County.

Early communities of Latinx Protestants sprouted from the efforts of Mainline Denominations. Holland (1974, 226) notes that “the first Mexican Presbyterian church was organized in Anaheim,” in 1882. Presbyterian minister Moss Merwin would proceed from 1888 onward to establish church missions serving ethnic Mexicans in Los Nietos, San Gabriel, Irwindale, and San Bernardino (Holland 1974).

Also in the 1880s, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) established mission efforts in Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Santa Ana under the direction of Reverend Antonio Diaz (Cal-Pac 2014). In the following decade, the Rev. Alden B. Case established the California Spanish Missionary Society to reach Spanish-speakers in the region, founding a mission in Santa Ana in 1902 (Case 1902). By 1914, a comity council was established between Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian denominations to avoid “competition and duplication,” in outreach to Latinxs (Holland 1974). Such cooperation was already being experimented with in Santa Ana, where 1910 marked the year that a Mexican Protestant church was founded through interdenominational efforts. In 1912, this church was named the Mexican Methodist Church and given to the care of the MEC denomination. This church still exists under the name El Getsemani UMC (Cal-Pac 2014), one of the oldest Latinx Protestant Churches still in operation.

The founding of the Mexican Methodist Church in Santa Ana illustrates several critical points related to the expansion of Protestantism among Latinxs. The first pastor of the church, Ambrosio Gonzales, was the grandson of the first documented Hispano convert to Protestantism in New Mexico (Martinez 2006). Moreover, Gonzales was a third-generation Latinx Protestant, whose affiliation with Protestantism was tied to the emergence of older Protestant communities established among ethnic Mexicans throughout the Southwest. Once the United States wrested control from Mexico of about half of its territories, as codified through the treaty of Guadalulpe Hidalgo in 1848, up to an estimated 100,000 ethnic Mexicans remained in the United States across the Southwest. Some of the first ethnic Mexican Protestant congregations were founded in locations where ethnic Mexicans were most prevalent, such as in Texas, New Mexico, and Southern Colorado. Gonzales’ faith affiliation was tied to these early communities. Furthermore, Gonzales’ move across the Southwest is reflective of broader migration trends of ethnic Mexicans moving from throughout the Southwest toward the West Coast, often spurred by the development of the railway line (Fernandez and Gonzalez 2010). Other local leaders within Latinx Protestantism would follow similar migratory paths. The emergence of Los Angeles as a metropolitan hub of Latinx Protestantism is linked to the migration corridor that was etched into the Southwestern United States, a pathway through which religious capital would flow in multiple directions.

Latinx Protestantism in the Los Angeles area of yesteryear was notably binational in character. The respective works of Sanchez-Walsh (2003), Barton (2006), Espinosa (2014), Martinez (2011), and Ramirez (2015) indicate that binational borderlands exchange among Latinx Protestants in the United States and Mexico functioned as an important catalyst in the emergence of a distinct Latinx Protestant culture. Despite divisive geopolitical realities of the border, Latinx Protestants historically found ways to flout border barriers, with documented examples of movements and denominations traversing the border throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century abounding. Barton (2006, 141), for example, reports that the establishment of the first Spanish-language Methodist conference in 1885 “included northern Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico. Methodist conferences for Spanish-speaking work continued to overlap the U.S. Mexico border until 1930.” Barton notes similar patterns among Presbyterians and Baptists. The regions of Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico provided key loci in the development of borderlands Protestantism in the late nineteenth century, as outlined in the works of Martinez (2006, 2011) and Barton (2006). Again, the Mexican Methodist Church of Santa Ana exemplifies this pattern, as Rev. Gonzales was succeeded by a Mexican national, Rev. Vicente Mendoza. Mendoza, one of the most prolific hymn composers in the Spanish-speaking world (Barton 2006), penned his most famous hymn, “Jesus Es Mi Rey Soberano," in 1920. From 1915-1921, Mendoza was transferred to Southern California because of the Mexican revolution (Velasco 1974). His most renowned song, then, would have been penned during his ministerial appointments in Santa Ana and Los Angeles. He returned to Mexico after ministering in California.

The emergence of Pentecostalism in Los Angeles, California, in 1906, further energized Latinx Protestantism. With Latinxs a significant presence at the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 (Espinosa 2014, Ramirez 2015), Pentecostalism precipitated the indigenization of borderlands Protestantism. Mexicans in the region who partook of the early Pentecostal awakenings in Los Angeles carried a Pentecostal praxis to locations in the borderlands and beyond. The works of Espinosa (2014), Sanchez-Walsh (2003), and Ramirez (2015) indicate that some of these new Pentecostals were already Protestants, with some Latinx Mainline Protestant ministers turning to Pentecostalism, often after experiencing the Pentecostal baptism in the Holy Spirit. Sanchez-Walsh (2003), alluding to Stark and Finke’s work (1987), describes Pentecostals as the “winners” within Los Angeles’ competitive religious economy among Latinxs.

The Pacific Electric railway line from Los Angeles to Santa Ana facilitated the founding of a Pentecostal mission in Santa Ana as early as a year after the Azusa Street Revival broke (Robeck 2006). In fact, one of the Latinx leaders most effective at disseminating the Pentecostal message, AC Valdez, testified to having experienced a life-changing encounter in Santa Ana, which would propel him to become an evangelist. His family had participated in the Azusa Street Revival, but Valdez hesitated several years before ultimately embracing Pentecostalism. He would go on to become one of the founders of Pentecostalism in Australia and New Zealand.

Latinx Pentecostalism furthered the transnational character of Latinx Protestantism. Many Latinx Pentecostal early adopters would go on to become Pentecostal leaders on both sides of the border (Espinosa 2014). In chronicling the growth of Pentecostalism in the borderlands, Ramirez argues against “treating Chicano and Mexican Pentecostalisms as two discrete movements” (Ramirez 2015, 72). He instead argues that the “organic growth of a binational network” unified borderlands Pentecostals early on. The transportable nature of Pentecostalism ensured that it was readily carried throughout the Los Angeles region, and across borderlands corridors. The emergence of local Latinx Protestant leaders willing and able to cross borders ensured a widespread influence of Los Angeles-based religion.

Latinx Protestantism in the Los Angeles area would not swell to noticeable constituencies for much of the early twentieth century (Sanchez 1995), but the established foothold of Protestantism among Latinxs served as a constant religious option for Latinxs in the region and likewise would influence later religious movements. A significant expansion of Latinx Protestantism would begin to take place as increasing numbers of Latin American immigrants settled in the Los Angeles area post-1965. By this time, Protesantism had gained a noticeable following throughout Latin America. Mexican immigrants would continue to come to the Los Angeles area, and by the 1980s, significant numbers of Central American immigrants were also represented in the region (Reedy-Solano 2004). As the Los Angeles area became home to the greatest concentrations of Guatemalans and Salvadorans in the United States, the faith traditions of these groups contributed much to the region’s religious practices. Within many Latinx Protestant Churches, Central American leaders would come to lead Latinx churches (Reedy-Solano 2004).

The influence of neo-Pentecostal movements from Latin America became especially salient among Latinxs in the Los Angeles area. Movements such as Elim, Restauración, and Llamada Final, with roots in Central America and/or led by Central American immigrant pastors, would be represented by megachurches in the Los Angeles area. By some counts, Guatemala and El Salvador have some of the highest rates of Protestant affiliation in Latin America (Pew Research Center 2014). Mexicans and Mexican Americans, on the other hand, have some of the highest rates of Catholic adherence. These rates of commitment to Protestantism would lead to high representation of Central Americans in the larger Latinx Protestant community of Los Angeles. Though a majority Mexican city, Santa Ana would be home to several of these churches, such as Elim. With a base in the Los Angeles area, many of these churches would plant congregations throughout the United States and beyond, as noted in a case study of La Iglesia de Restauración (Berho et al. 2017).

The style of worship that many of these neo-Pentecostal churches embodied would influence the broad Latinx Protestant landscape. Various scholars have noted an inclination toward Judaic motifs in sound, movement, and visual aesthetic within churches (Alviso 2002, León 1998), themes represented heavily within these neo-Pentecostal streams. Affinities toward Jewish motifs is certainly not a new invention of these Latinx neo-Pentecostal movements, but these movements put a particular spin on the motif. The use of shofar horns, of choreographed dance with flags and tambourines, and of music with Jewish inflection, is part and parcel of the expressive culture of these churches. The production of music for wide distribution, and the invitation of pastors and congregants alike to conferences and conventions within the Los Angeles area would ensure that these neo-Pentecostal movements would exercise broad influence, in the region and beyond. Even churches that were not formally affiliated with these movements could not help but be made aware of their influence. More traditional Pentecostal and Evangelical churches had to decide if they too would take on these forms of expression. Many of them did, and as the case of LGCS indicates, negotiations between distinct forms of expression would contribute to the formation of unique Latinx Protestant identities in the Los Angeles basin.

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