In a period of heavy anti-immigrant rhetoric, Hispanics remain rooted in faith and family while adopting — and influencing — mainstream culture.
Some Americans fear that large waves of legal as well as illegal immigrants are changing the nation’s identity. Along with that fear comes the worry that America will end up living in parallel cultures. Native-born Americans will live in one culture, while immigrants live in one or more separate cultures.
The Catalyst asked Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist and Bush Institute Education Reform Fellow, and Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, to address these issues of identity as well as the integration of Latinos into the larger culture. The following conversation was conducted via email and moderated by Catalyst Editor William McKenzie.
How do you see Latinos shaping religion in America, arguably one of the most important cultural forces in the nation?
Rodriguez: As the fastest growing religion demographic in America, Latinos will not only define American evangelicalism but also American Catholicism in the 21st-century. That said, our commitment to life, religious liberty, biblical justice, immigration, and educational equality will have political ramifications when it comes to courting this religious demographic.
Navarrette: It’s happening in many different ways, in many different corners of America. You have some Latinos — who are most often baptized as Catholics — joining Protestant and Mormon churches. You have others sticking with Catholicism and trying to revitalize it. Still others are backing away, and attending church less often. But overall, the effect is profound and extremely positive.
You each mentioned religiously-minded Latinos having a profound, positive, and even political impact. Could you expand upon the likely impact on our social, civic, and even political life?
Rodriguez: The Latino ethos facilitates and invites collaboration, cooperation, and compromise.
Let me explain. Latinos are not extremists. You will be hard-pressed to find a measurable amount of Latinos on the hard left or on the hard right of America’s political ideological spectrum. I have stated this before, so permit me to reiterate: We are both the theological heirs of Billy Graham’s message and the spiritual descendants of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march. Therefore, our righteousness and justice platform repudiates extremism on both sides. I believe this to be incredibly positive in a nation so divided.
Navarrette: To our credit, Latinos are usually very religious. We have no trouble making room in our lives for God, and we’re humble enough to ask His help in our darkest moments. That spills into the wider society because Latinos are completely integrated and assimilated into that society. We learn about Thomas Jefferson and Cesar Chavez. Eighty percent of us speak English, or a combination of English-Spanish. We get our news from the same networks that everyone else does. So we’re going to impact the local Rotary Club and — to a lesser degree — the political parties. What happens to us, happens to America. Because we are America.
Rodriguez: Amen Ruben. My concern is that instead of becoming engaged with the American political process, many Latinos of faith are so “turned off” with the current discord that it may serve as a deterrent in engaging our community.
Navarrette: I like what the good reverend said about how we shy away from extremism. He’s right. But in the era of [Donald] Trump, it’s significant that some Latinos are willing to be more extreme than, say, their parents were.
Rodriguez: I don’t think Latinos are becoming more extreme, even those that may reluctantly support Trump. I believe that Trump’s support among Latinos stands out of unbridled disappointment with the previous administration’s attempt to curtail religious liberty via Hobby Lobby, Sisters of the Poor, and other cases. To be even more forthright, I am aware of many Latino evangelical pastors who voted for [Barack] Obama in 2008 and supported Trump in 2016.
Navarrette: That’s a solid concern. Since they’re in the center, Latinos have grown frustrated with the shouters at both extremes. Many could tune out. Hopefully, more will continue to dial in.
How do we break down fear of the stranger, which has been acute whenever America has experienced a large wave of immigration?
Navarrette: By getting to know the stranger. It’s always easier to demonize those we have little contact with, whom we don’t know. Latinos do that with African-Americans, Asians, and Jews. We’re not immune to prejudice. But it’s also true that Latinos — and especially Latino immigrants — are their own best advocates. You should hear what I get from employers who appreciate Latino workers and are willing to go to bat for them. Should that happen more often? Yes. But it’s an encouraging start. We need to make more introductions.
Rodriguez: I see this in several ways.
First, there’s education. The Bible says the truth shall set them free. We need to speak the truth. In other words, every single time an opponent of immigration reform presents a misnomer, and an exaggeration or a lie as it pertains to our immigrant community, we need 10 voices to rise up vociferously as possible and speak the truth.
Second, political advocacy: Latinos must engage members of Congress who oppose immigration reform by connecting with them, especially those on the right, via the bridge of faith and family.
We need a national public campaign with television commercials and a social media component that advances the cause of immigration reform in a positive redemptive matter; a daily virtual “march.”
Navarrette: All good ideas. Here’s my takeaway from all that: We’re too reactive. We need to be more proactive, and not simply wait to see how The Man is going to mess with us today.
Some may look at the growth of Spanish-language television, the existence of so many illegal immigrants, even Spanish-language ballots and worry that we are creating separate cultures. How does the nation create one culture amidst so many cultures?
Rodriguez: I am a “One Nation under God” advocate. But I do not believe that Spanish television or Spanish messaging in marketing tools and even bilingual education in any way form or shape dilute or serve as a threat to America existing as one nation under God.
While I do believe that all of our children should master English and demonstrate proficiency in the English vernacular, the Spanish language serves as an asset in a global economy. Shakespeare alone is one thing, but when Shakespeare and Cervantes get together, you have an upgrade.
Navarrette: Look, we don’t have to do that work. America does it for us. Whether we’re talking about the German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and spoke German and made sausage and beer, or the Italians who formed Little Italy in lower Manhattan, America has always let immigrants have their cannoli/strudel/flan and eat it too.
Why is now any different? We can be proud Americans and still maintain our language, culture, food, and customs. We’ve assimilated. We mean you no harm. As my kids would put it, America needs to “chill-lax.”
“We can be proud Americans and still maintain our language, culture, food, and customs. We’ve assimilated. We mean you no harm.”
We also are living in a time when a globalized economy and the forces of automation have left some communities behind. How would you speak to those who feel that they are being displaced economically, including by immigrants?
Rodriguez: The iPhone is more to blame than the immigrant. Technological advances in our digital age serve as the primary reason why many individuals engaged in evolving sectors of the economy continue to be displaced. Silicon Valley, not the Central Valley is to blame.
Navarrette: This is more in the reverend’s wheelhouse, since he grew up in Pennsylvania steel country. I’m less sympathetic. People make choices, and they live with the consequences. If you live in Youngstown, and you can’t read the writing on the wall, that’s not my fault. That’s not society’s responsibility. That’s on you. If you don’t study in high school, don’t go to college, don’t get additional skills, use drugs and alcohol, and never leave Youngstown — and then you can’t find work, you don’t get to call a radio show and blame all your troubles on immigrants, NAFTA, or robots. You messed up your own life. Own it.
I’m not feeling that whole J.D. Vance thing. We’re supposed to start a national commission because the white working class is suffering from crime, drugs and unemployment? You don’t think Latinos go through that? That’s our normal, in many cases. Where’s our national commission?
Rodriguez: I wholeheartedly agree.
Faith, education, work ethic, life decisions all serve to define our realities. This sense of entitlement with an expectation that government must correct our choices, continues to serve the worrisome narrative of an Uncle Sam who is both father and mother of us all. God forbid.
Much of what we are talking about has to do with becoming part of the American mainstream. What role do you see schools playing in helping immigrant students become the next generation of leaders, scientist and teachers?
Rodriguez: Precisely! If we can raise the standards, and make sure Latinos do not receive educational “hand me downs,” we will secure the future of America’s economic and cultural viability.
We must make science, technology, English, and math priorities. We need more choice, charter schools, business partnerships, and a reformation as it pertains to public education.
Navarrette: Oh, education is huge. In fact, the influence of schools in putting kids on the right life trajectory is second only to family, and it’s stronger than religion. Our kids spend one hour a week in church but 30-35 hours a week in school. We need more testing, greater accountability, more parental involvement, more choices like charter schools, higher standards, and greater expectations. And we need to do battle — real battle — with teachers unions, most of whom are largely white, who put the interests of adults before the interests of children. They are not our friends. They are part of the problem. Schools are everything. If they’re not working correctly, we’ll never see immigrant students fulfill their potential. And America will cease to be exceptional.