Recovering lost and hidden stories is the ethical imperative of historians such as Felipe Hinojosa, whose most recent monograph is a revolutionary contribution to Latinx church history in the United States. This volume foregrounds how four church occupations across the United States serve as vignettes to a larger story of Latinx activism, faith, and politics in the late 1960s. The author shows how “young radicals transformed Churches into staging grounds to protest urban renewal, poverty, police brutality, and antiblack and anti-Latina/o racism.” (2) Through the narratives of four cities, Hinojosa highlights Latinx participation within a broader context of the civil rights movement.
The first occupation takes place in the southside of Chicago after a senseless shooting of Latinx men, leading to “Black, Latina/o, and white activists” coalescing into a unified protest. (20) One group emerged as a central piece to the protests and later occupation of a seminary and church, the Young Lords Organization (YLO). Born as a gang on the streets of Chicago, it turned to radical political and social activism. (23) McCormick Theological Seminary and Armitage Methodist Church became the battleground for a vision of collective action to the ever-present menace of “urban renewal.” (25) The YLO demanded these Christian institutions to be accessible for the community and to become centers for community action. The occupation was met with fierce resistance by Seminary leaders and local pastors who suspected these protesters’ radical agenda. Hinojosa points out that despite the YLO’s centrality to the gains of these occupations, “the Young Lords are not often remembered…” (55) The YLO was pivotal in making Latinxs religious leaders and lay voices (the “invisible minority”) known to the White church at large. (39)
The second story takes place in Los Angeles with the protests led by Católicos Por La Raza. The Católicos was made up primarily of Chicana/o activists but were backed by a broad coalition of people who wanted to see a change in Catholic positions towards the growing non-white population. Though they envisioned themselves as a “reformist” group, Hinojosa shows that these protests were both provocative and radical, while simultaneously “not anti-Catholic” (58). The newly constructed St. Basil’s Catholic Church was the stage for their protest, symbolizing Catholic opulence in the face of the desperate needs of the wider population. Hinojosa successfully connects these protests as overflows of Vatican II ecclesial openness and the nascent Liberation Theology emerging from Latin American Catholics. (72) Católicos interrupted the Christmas eve mass in 1969, which led to arrests, lengthy trials, and in the case of some activists, jail time. (83) While in other chapters, it was “outsiders” to the church who took center stage, in Los Angeles, it was the “insider” Católicos who demanded “the church be Christian.” (68)
In the next chapter, the Young Lords again emerge as key actors in these Church protests, this time in Harlem with the occupation of the Spanish United Methodist Church. The Young Lords and other like-minded activists served breakfast, organized clothing drives, and offered free medical attention. (105) Hinojosa drives home a pivotal point to the argument of the book, visualized in a scene of the Harlem protest: “Occupation – that desire to reclaim space to save a community – is born out of the misery of displacement.” (96) Occupation serves as an antipolar solution to crisis of displacement, be it racial, social, or economic. The occupation agglutinated a distinct Latinx identity, seeking liberation from the internal and external modes of “colonized mentality.” (119) Hinojosa centers the Young Lords, seeming outsiders, into the history of the Church in Harlem as critical players in developing a renewed church consciousness.
If Chicago and Harlem had the Young Lords, the story in Houston had as its protagonists the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). MAYO was a group inspired by the Black civil rights movement and combined it with their unique brand of Latinx confrontational politics. (127) The group occupied Juan Marcos Presbyterian Church in the Northside of Houston. The expressed goal of MAYO was in part to solve the material needs of the poorest members in the barrio and advocate for Mexicans in Houston. In the late 1960s, Houston was undergoing a dramatic demographic change, an increase in urbanization, and a geographic shift, most evidently clear in the white flight to the suburbs. Amidst this rapid shift, MAYO activists worked closely with like-minded groups transcending race, class, and gender to combat racism and provide for material needs. (129) Although MAYO would later disband, Hinojosa shows that this advocacy and political struggle formed a generation whose education was that of the school of occupation and activism.
Hinojosa’s deft analysis shows that these radical protesters were mostly “outsider” with some “insider” activists. Whether the YLO or MAYO, Hinojosa argues that these groups wanted to pull churches into the streets and have them work for justice in their local barrios. The “outsider/insider” binary places the activists in relation to the church and the tensions that their proximity entails. Of course, these are not firm lines but nuanced categories since many of the actors who were “outsiders” had at one time been “insiders.” (e.g.: Felipe Luciano, 90) Hinojosa’s “outsider/insider” category remains an effective tool to make a compelling case that non-Church elements spearheaded Latinx advocacy in many of these protests. The common threads of activism and persistence of Latinx voices in different Church contexts weave a historical tapestry of the extensive efforts to combat the silencing of Latinx voices during this period. Apostles of Change is an expertly crafted text that integrates first-hand testimony, archive, and historical sources to present this lesser-known side of Latinx activism in American history. Hinojosa elegantly states, “When history dreams new visions…we can learn from the prophetic voices of Latina/o radicals who long ago laid claim to churches as institutions that belong to the people.” (150)
Princeton Theological Seminary