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America's Hispanic Future


June 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

The Spanish-language television network Univision has been putting up billboards all over New York City. One in particular struck me, given the census figures showing Hispanics to be the country's largest minority. It called Univision as "American as flan." (Flan, for those Americans devoted to apple pie, is a custard.) The ad made me wonder about the significance of this newest challenge to the American melting pot.

The appearance of the Univision signs reflects the growing importance of the Hispanic market. The census figures have awakened politicians as well – everyone is looking for Hispanic votes. President Bush became the first president to deliver a White House address in Spanish. As Richard Rodriguez wrote on this page, Mr. Bush seems to be seeking the title of our first Hispanic president.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Rev. Al Sharpton has offered his sufferings in jail as a gesture of solidarity with Puerto Ricans demanding that the Navy abandon its military exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The Catholic archbishop of San Juan addressed a joint session of the New York State Legislature, while Gov. George Pataki has joined other mainland politicians in traveling to Puerto Rico to demand the end of the Vieques bombing.

Apparently as a result of Hispanic pressure, President Bush decided, against the advice of many military experts, that the Navy would leave Vieques in two years. Sometimes it looked this year as if the Puerto Rican Day Parade had as many politicians carrying the flag of Vieques as it had salsa dancers. And on its cover, Time officially welcomed us to "Amexica."

None of this is particularly surprising in a nation of immigrants actively supporting political causes "back home" while rapidly assimilating into the dominant American culture. Still, modern Hispanic immigration differs from past waves. Unlike the Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans, Hispanics can come and go easily, thanks to the proximity of lands of origin. Means of social communication, like Univision, allow them to remain in constant contact. This cultural continuity is strengthened and protected by the present emphasis on multiculturalism and bilingual educational programs and by the growing use of Spanish in government and private industry. The interesting question is whether all this constitutes something so unusual that the Hispanic presence could someday make a significant difference in the dominant culture.

There is no one Hispanic culture across the Latin nations. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Salvadorans and Cubans can be as culturally different from each other as the varieties of Europeans remain culturally distinct, despite efforts at political unity. The issue, however, is the situation not in Latin America, but here in the United States.

It is in the United States that the consciousness of being part of a single Hispanic world – absent in Latin America – has been emerging as varied Hispanic peoples experience identical conflicts with North American culture. These conflicts occur at a level much deeper than the economic or political; they involve different ways of perceiving, evaluating and standing before reality itself.

Such conflicts are essentially religious, since religion originates in the experience of the meaning and sense of life. This religious sense is the most important factor in the emergence and endurance of cultures; and however various Hispanic cultures may be, they have a common origin in the encounter between 16th-century Iberian Catholicism and the religiosity of the inhabitants of this continent. (In many parts of the Hispanic world, this cultural formation also includes African religious traditions.) The dominant North American culture, however, has at its root the encounter between Anglo-Protestant religious convictions and the Enlightenment.

These two worlds seem fundamentally incompatible. A Mexican friend of mine, pursuing a degree in a Mexican institute associated with an American university, tells me that lecturers from the United States teach that if Mexico really wants to join the "first world," it must shed "Catholic attitudes" that stand in the way.

The conflict between cultures shaped by Latin American Catholic experience and the dominant American culture can be seen in the puzzlement of conservatives and liberals pursuing the Hispanic vote. For example, conservatives find that Hispanics share with them important social values but support liberal views on the role of government in assisting the poor – positions that have their origin in Catholic social thought.

This body of doctrine does not regard private property and its economic benefits as absolute goods. They are subject to the good of society. The state has an obligation to ensure that inequalities do not keep the poor from obtaining employment with a fair wage and finding adequate housing, health care and family assistance.

In the last decades, due in large part to the influence of Latin American Catholicism and the struggles over liberation theology, the church has embraced what is called the preferential option for the poor, which sees meeting the needs of the poor as the moral measure of economic policies.

At the same time, Catholic social doctrine recognizes the private sector as the creator of wealth and limits state intervention to cases of injustice which other social institutions have failed to resolve.

The Latin Catholic view also insists that the spiritual life be recognized as part of the social good. According to the census, around 70 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as Catholic. This doesn't mean that each one is a practicing Catholic. Many are, in fact, abandoning the church in favor of Protestant evangelical communities. (A Catholic friend, invited to the White House for a meeting between Hispanic religious leaders and the president to discuss faith-based social assistance, told me that the overwhelming majority of those present were evangelical leaders.) This trend could eliminate the historically rooted experience among Hispanics of being a Catholic people. It would, indeed, lead to the assimilation of Hispanics into Protestant American culture and so weaken the possibility of a distinctly Hispanic influence on American life.

For the time being, however, 70 percent of American Hispanics identify as Catholic, and that is not a small number. Unless the population share drops dramatically, it seems that Hispanic cultural influence will largely be guided by a Catholic social view.

But we cannot seriously imagine that this outlook will triumph over the dominant culture. After all, it is, in part, the benefits of this dominant culture that attract immigrants. What could happen is the creation of a new cultural mix that will bring together presently incompatible attitudes.

Will the Catholic church in the United States see the Hispanic presence as an opportunity to offer a way of forming a cohesive community that could transcend divisions between liberal and conservative politics? Unfortunately, efforts by Hispanic Catholic leaders in the 1970's and 80's to move the church to challenge the individualistic priorities of the dominant culture seem to have lost momentum under the demands of a secularist multiculturalism that is essentially static. At the same time, because Protestantism is so much at the root of mainstream America, Hispanic Protestants cannot have a transformative effect on their new country. Without a basis in their uniquely Latin American Catholic experience, Hispanics may find their influence in the United States will indeed be no more significant than a taste for flan.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian, is the former president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.

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