Echoes from the borderlands

One of the most clearly identifiable expressions of older Latina/o Protestantism comes in the form of music (Barton 2006, Ramirez 2009). On certain Sundays at LGCS, the influence of an older musical repertoire was resoundingly present. One particular Sunday, to start the time of praise and worship, Pastor Mirvella introduced a guest worship band. The band was a husband and wife duo, accompanied by their young adult son and another young man who served as the drummer. The husband, a middle-aged man dressed conservatively in slacks, a collared shirt, and a grey sweater, was the lead vocalist and played the accordion. Standing beside him, electric guitar in hand, his son exuded a 1960s bohemian demeanor, with long hair and circular framed glasses. The woman vocalist flanked her husband on the opposite side, dressed conservatively in a long dark skirt and a white sweater, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. The band’s visual aesthetic reflected an earlier era. Their music would do the same. The band, “Los Mensajeros del Key,” launched into a set reminiscent of conjunto, a traditional Mexican genre originating along the Texas-Mexico borderlands and included popular songs such as No Hay Dios tan Grande como tu, No es con espada and Una Mirada de Fe. The songs proved popular with the congregation who received the sounds with clapping and swaying, beyond what they regularly exhibited.

The songs were sung as coritos, a genre typically sung as a medley, transitioning from one song to another without pausing, sometimes returning to songs or choruses sung earlier. The songs they included were all decades old, and have been sung by Latinx Protestants in the borderlands for generations (Ramirez 2015). Toward the end of his set, the lead singer asked the congregation, “Quien vive?!” [Who lives?]. To which the congregation vociferously responded, “Cristo!” [Christ], He then asked, “Y los hermanos?!” |And the brothers and sisters?]. Many responded, “En victoria!” [In Victory!]. This was a call and response pattern practiced in many Latinx Pentecostal churches for generations.

After the band finished playing, Pastor Mirvella offered commentary on the musical style. She proclaimed, “I imagine that some people are not used to worshipping God with this style of music, but this is part of our culture!” She aimed this statement at guests in the audience. Pastor Mirvella explained that on that Sunday she had the honor of performing a baby dedication.2 She asked the participants to come forward and onto the stage and welcomed them as guests. She then addressed the congregation: “I invited this special guest band because the baby’s father, I’ve been told, plays in a banda. I thought they would enjoy this type of music.” Moreover, Pastor Mirvella revealed her belief that older borderlands hymnody provided a cultural bridge for visitors embedded in the local ethnic community. The persistence of this older Mexican genre is itself meaningful. In spite of pressures to “modernize” and to follow the region’s prevalent musical stylings reflective of White mainstream Evangelicalism, itinerant bands such as Los Mensajeros del Rey were in demand because some churches in the Los Angeles basin also believed “this is part of our culture.” The performance of Mexican borderlands Protestantism embodied the notion that Latinx Protestants have history in the region.

More than isolated soundbites, the borderlands songs performed sporadically at LGCS provided a window into the historical formation of an ethnoreligious group. Leon’s (2004) understandings of the psycho-social ramifications of the borderlands, herein, present a particularly helpful analytical device. Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of habitus (Bourdieu 1990), Leon argues that the borderlands generate a type of “feel for the game,” which manifests itself

“through sacred and symbolic practice or ritual performances.” Leon emphasizes that these practices were forged through processes of resistance. They were an alternative to the forces of colonization experienced in the borderlands which brought hope to practitioners and function similarly for some today.

Converging transnationalisms

The case of LGCS spotlights how the Los Angeles basin has provided a distinct site of cross-border cultural convergence within Latinx Protestantism. The life of Pastor Adolfo Solis, particularly his East to West, cross-border journey to California, highlights the prominence of the Los Angeles region in the development and dissemination of a Protestantism centered in the ethnic-Mexican communities of yesteryear. Likewise, LGCS’s congregational life displays key North to South cross-border ties anchored in regional patterns of migration and religious adherence in Los Angeles. Moreover, the church networks that LGCS is connected to bring to light how Los Angeles Latinx Protestantism has exercised a centripetal draw of Latin Americans, both as religious entrepreneurs and as religious consumers, consequently propelling centrifugal faith streams of cultural and structural investment to Latin America. Similar patterns might exist within other Latinx-dominant cities, but the scale at which they exist in the Los Angeles basin is unparalleled.

The presence of older borderlands leaders presents an important mode of preserving older traditions at the institutional level. Such borderlands leaders might reproduce and reintroduce older forms of Latinx Protestantism as they work to establish Latinx Protestant identities among congregants. Still, some older Latinx practices have been diffused to such an extent that Latin American Protestants from far and wide have adopted them as their own and bring them from Latin America to the United States. Coritos present an important example of this pattern. Nevertheless, the expansion of newer streams of Latin American Protestantism through newer immigrants in the region offers new opportunities for older Latinx populations to experience distinct forms of Protestantism oriented toward Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Central Americans have been especially successful in generating innovative worship practices throughout the region. Thus, the success of Central American-based neo-Pentecostal movements is not lost on Mexican majority' churches such as LGCS. For LGCS, these successful neo-Pentecostal churches stand as models of growth and adaptability. As an independent church, LGCS is able to seamlessly adopt practices from an older borderlands repertoire, and from newer transnational expressions embodying diverse streams of Latinx Protestantism.

The continuation of varied cross-border ties means that more than experiencing a unilateral assimilatory pull toward mainstream White evangelicalism, many local Latinx churches in the Los Angeles area are engaged in intra-ethnic negotiations to define institutional identities fueled by' distinct older and newer streams unique to Latinx identity and culture. As Jimenez et al. (2015) note, intra-ethnic negotiations are important processes of ethnic identity formation, yet they are often neglected as essentialized understandings of ethnic groups take precedent. The presence of immigrants and the continuance of migration streams, as argued by Jiménez (2008, 2010), influence the ethnic identities of native-born Latinxs. Opportunities for sustained cross-border engagement is one avenue of inter-generational influence that both native-born and foreign-born Latinx in the Los Angeles region have available to them within Latinx Protestant Church contexts. For many Latinx Protestant congregations in the Los Angeles basin, this borderlands reality has been iteratively renewed. Still, as current immigration policies reduce the pathways of Latin American immigrants onto US soil, and as some Latinx Protestant congregations cater primarily to native-born Latinxs (Rodríguez 2011), Latinx Protestant congregations will have to grapple with how they sustain borderlands engagement.

Notes

  • 1 The research for this chapter was supported by the Latino Protestant Congregations Project.
  • 2 LGCS held baby dedications but not infant baptisms, as they reserved baptism for individuals able to consent.
 
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