Today, as many as 3.5 million Hispanics in the United States belong to Pentecostal denominations. Hispanics in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be Pentecostal, and approximately 20% of the Assemblies of God churches in the country are now Hispanic. Rather than simply noting this as a recent development, however, Gastón Espinosa traces these trends all the way back to the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 in his excellent new book, Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action. The depth of Espinosa’s research combined with his engaging storytelling makes Latino Pentecostals in America a valuable and accessible resource for both the academy and the church.
In spite of the book’s comprehensive-sounding title, Espinosa does not chronicle all Latino Pentecostal experience, but focuses in much more narrowly on the history of Latinos within the Assemblies of God (AG) denomination. Espinosa himself points to the book’s title as an editorial decision, but the story of Latinos in the AG, which is the largest of the Pentecostal denominations in the U.S., still provides a valuable lens into the broader Latino Pentecostal experience. Espinosa’s work also fills important gaps for a denomination whose early history is often characterized as being entirely (literally) black and white.
Beginning in the first chapter, Espinosa tells the familiar origin story of American Pentecostalism, but in this rendering, such well-known personages as William J. Seymour and Charles Fox Parham are surrounded by a large cast of Mexican Americans. The first supernatural manifestation on Azusa Street occurred when an unnamed Latino laborer “fell to his knees and burst into tears” (35). Latinos were not just recipients of the Holy Spirit: they were also conductors of its power. Recognizing the presence and possibilities of Latino communities in the revival, Seymour himself ordained Mexican Americans to spread the fires of Azusa Street among their own people.
The next five chapters chronicle this spread across the American Southwest. In chapters 2 and 3, Espinosa counters the typical narrative that white Pentecostal leaders like Alice Luce and Henry C. Ball were solely responsible for the establishment and growth of the AG movement among Texas Latinos. Instead, he points to the foundations laid by Mexican Pentecostals through their many borderland missions. Control of these endeavors was gradually assumed by figures such as Ball who simply absorbed these once independently operating ministries into his own “Latin Convention.”
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 tell the story of the Latino quest for self-determination in the Southwest. Resistance against the marginalization of Latino leadership arose most powerfully in the form of Francisco Olazábal who built his own power base in El Paso and began to challenge Ball’s authority. Realizing he could never win over the white denominational power-brokers, Olazábal eventually broke away from the AG as the founding president of what became CLADIC, the first Latino-led Pentecostal denomination in the U.S. Other Latino leaders fought for freedom within the AG with varying degrees of success. Espinosa is evenhanded in his discussion of these conflicts, pointing out the positive achievements of white leadership as well as the successes and struggles of Latino leaders from their first experiences of autonomy until now.
Somewhat abruptly, Espinosa turns in chapters 7, 8, and 9 to a discussion of the Puerto Rican AG movement and its legacy. Backtracking all the way to Azusa, he attributes the development of Puerto Rican Pentecostalism not to Euro-American missionaries, but to indigenous leadership, particularly in the ministry of the evangelist Juan Lugo. The Puerto Rican AG, according to Espinosa, was certainly impacted by whites and Latinos from the U.S., but it was also strongly influenced by the economic realities on the island, by movements of cultural nationalism, and even by the tropical storms that struck Puerto Rico. As in the American Southwest, controversies over self-determination and full acceptance as an AG district led to a schism in which the Pentecostal Church of God became a more dominant presence on the island than the Puerto Rican AG. Espinosa explores the influence of both these groups through the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York.
Chapters 10, 11, and 12 change direction once again as Espinosa approaches, in order, issues of women in ministry, social justice, and political engagement within the Latino AG movement. Each of these chapters charts the historical developments in Latino AG understandings and presents names of significant leaders and movements for each issue. Espinosa’s treatment of the expectation of “paradoxical domesticity” for Latina AG ministers is particularly insightful.
In many ways, Latino Pentecostals in America reads more like several distinct publications. There are two outstanding books of denominational history here, offering in-depth portraits of the AG movement among Mexican Americans and among Puerto Ricans. There are also three perceptive articles exploring cultural issues in the Latino AG church. What binds these disparate elements together is the fact that each of them has all too often been left out of the official narrative of the Assemblies of God. Espinosa, however, is not offering his work merely as an appendix. By grounding his history in a reinterpretation of Azusa Street, Espinosa places Latinos at the heart of both Pentecostalism and the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.
Duke Divinity School