Migrating Faith is the first book from Latin American and American historian Daniel Ramírez. It covers the rise of Mexican Oneness Pentecostalism from Azusa Street Mission and Revival (1906-1909) through the weathering of the Bracero Program (1942-64), and is the third book-length critical treatment of U.S. Mexican Pentecostal history, joining works by Arlene Sánchez-Walsh (2003) and Gastón Espinosa (Latino Pentecostals in America, 2014) that assess the prolific growth of Pentecostalism along the southern U.S. border.
Ramírez’s transnational description of “Latino USA” as “the northernmost Latin American country” is a striking reframing of both American religious history and U.S. Pentecostal history. The trajectories of Mexican Apostolic Pentecostalism spread outward from the routes of migrant workers through the rugged Southwest US and northern Mexico, into border zones, agricultural valleys, and mining towns in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Baja California. Chapter one of Migrating Faith introduces the conversion narratives of Latino Apostolic pioneers. Leader Antonio C. Nava’s perception of the “warmth of the Holy Spirit” from which he “felt a new life in all [his] being,” resonates with American conversions of the period, yet Nava’s mystical commission to the ministry features heavenly messengers that are unusually clad in military attire (38). That Ramírez’s treatment surfaces resonance between this militant imagery and Nava’s prior desire to join the insurrectionary forces of the Mexican Revolution is just one example of the author’s keen grasp of the cultural imaginaries of the period. Ramírez provides a nimble account of the first generation of converts, among them Francisco Llorente, Juan Navarro, and Marcial de la Cruz, religious pioneers who “possessed the insouciance to believe that their words and deeds carried cosmic significance.” Ramírez’s attention to the archived struggles of Mexico’s revolutionary period keeps the triumphs of Mexican believer protagonists visible. After an initial experience with the Spirit at Azusa, matriarch of the movement Romana Valenzuela intrepidly pursued an evangelistic path into Mexico while American missionaries sought furlough from revolutionary dangers. Ramírez distinguishes between Mexicans’ often capable reach and methods, and the often “clumsy” or “disrespectful” efforts of their Anglo traditional coreligionists.
That these particular converts opted into a Jesus-only baptism distinguishes Ramírez’ heterodox cohort from Espinosa’s, members of the orthodox Assemblies of God. Chapter two establishes the borderlands Apostolic movement as its own field of competitors that eventually settled into three stalwart variants with overlapping territories. As the ranks of Apostolics swelled in Mexico, the benefits of firmer institutional organization grew obvious and one of Ramírez’s most compelling actors emerges to assume leadership of one denomination, la Luz del Mundo. Eusebio Joaquin’s mystical transformation into the “prophet Aarón” exemplifies the intense religious creativity made possible in deep heterodox headwaters. Joaquin’s assumption of this supernatural mantle is so riveting, it strains the balance of Pentecostalism’s creative tension as inscribed in Grant Wacker’s influential primitivist-pragmatist paradox (2001) and suggests instead Espinosa’s (2014) contrary positing: that Pentecostalism’s definitive moment is not in the tension between the primitive and pragmatic, but in the former’s spectacular overwhelming of the latter. Ramírez’s accounting still locates a balance between the impulses in Mexican Apostolicism as a whole, as Joaquin’s fervid mysticism is juxtaposed with the institutional bent of Iglesia Apostolica de Fe. The adopted denominational order, including women’s head coverings, separation of the sexes, and the avowed authority of preaching over individual revelation does seem comparatively stringent, but Ramírez asserts the value of this organizational structure given the chaos endured in a long revolutionary period. If Espinosa’s interpretive emphasis on Pentecostal primitivity over and against its pragmatism is well-taken, Ramírez’s amalgamation of the two impulses is equally forceful. In positing that the cross-national merger of Apostolicism’s two flagship denominations stymied “the atomizing effects of [repatriating and revolutionary] macro-forces,” Ramírez uncovers a charismatic, transnational Trojan horse within the pragmatic, denominationalizing impulse.
Chapter three explores life narratives of repatriated Pentecostals whose creativity under duress enabled Pentecostalism’s expansion into western and northern regions of Mexico. Apostolic Pentecostals toiled under the Cristero-era’s arduous anti-clerical prohibitions, but many repatriated Pentecostals contested the custody of temples and fought for positions of leadership in the Revolution’s ejidos. Chapter four discusses the development of an epistolary culture through which braceros, legal and illegal, carried letters of introduction as means for ready acceptance into apostolic pews. Chapters three and four also trace the emergence of a transnational solidarity and, eventually, a transnational consciousness which Ramírez argues provided important symbolic and material support both to migrating believers and the ethos of Apostolic Pentecostalism. This transnational consciousness flourished in song. Ramírez is at his best when he connects the free emotionality of Pentecostal worship to extensive analysis of Pentecostal hymnody. His readings highlight themes of sacred journeying and heavenly citizenship– important resonances for marginalized Mexican migrant laborers—and show how they created a “sacred ethnoscape.”
In chapter five, Ramírez forgoes the usual fare of Pentecostal narratives — healings, tongues-speaking, and conversions– to focus on the culture of hospitality and practices of fellowship which enacted an apostolic “transnationalism from below.” Chapter six delves more deeply into the Apostolic musical archive to chart confluences and agentive departures between missionary hymnals and Pentecostal competitor offerings, marking clear examples of Pentecostal contestation and creativity. In the concluding chapter, Ramírez argues for new scholarly rubrics to accommodate the modes of self-enunciation that Mexican Apostolics vociferously employed, including music and tongues-speech, to fill in an otherwise scant archive of the lives of Mexican subalterns.
It is one thing to assent to the premise of a fresher take on American religious history, one which disrupts a well-rehearsed east to west trajectory, and another thing to be wholly immersed in Ramírez’s richly detailed, often poetic, and even at times humorous religious history. This highly recommended book will enrich the curricula of American religious history, Mexican religious history, borderlands history and is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate readers.