Scholars of Latin American descent have made up only a small portion of the U.S. membership of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) during my professional career. Yet, following the data available online through the SBL, the numbers have improved in recent years, though they remain quite low. The earliest report available online (2014) tracks US Latina/o/x membership at 2.8%. The most recent report available (2019) lists current US membership portions as 3.7% Latina/o/x. Neither report tracks Latina or transgender Latinx membership specifically. Women and transgender members are still a very small portion of SBL (23.9% women and only 1 transgender member in 2014; 24.8% women and 0.1% transgender in the 2019 report). Although there are some tensions surrounding this data collection, and SBL is not the only guild to which to look for biblical scholars, these reports tell an important story about the shockingly small, but modestly increasing Latina/o/x population of biblical scholars.
In a May 5, 2021 virtual talk, “Latinas and the Bible: Re-Claiming Voices,” for the Hispanic Summer Program Exchange series, Ahida Calderón Pilarski further analyzed this data and concluded that in 2019, there were five Latinas who filled out the SBL survey and worked in full-time faculty positions in biblical studies in the U.S.A. In 2019, I would have composed a list that included Pilarksi, Aída Besançon Spencer, Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz, Kay Higuera Smith, Sophia Magallanes-Tsang, and myself; Doris García-Rivera was then president of the Seminario Evángelico de Puerto Rico, and Adela Yarbro Collins would have already retired from Yale. I am not sure if all these individuals identified as Latina or were members of SBL, which may account for the discrepancy between SBL’s numbers and mine. I am also doubtful that I have an accurate and exhaustive list. Regardless, the numbers are startlingly low, and our information too scant. As I would hold that without the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) I would not have a PhD, and it has supported conversation among many of these few Latinas in biblical studies, so HTI has had a very large stamp on Latina biblical scholarship.
While the field has far to go, HTI has, throughout its twenty-five years, played a critical role in fostering collaboration among Latina/o/x scholars in biblical studies and further nurturing Latina success. It has done so by supporting doctoral students in ways both material and immaterial, and by fostering networks for collaborative knowledge-making that can, step-by-step, transform the academy at large and biblical studies in particular. I write as one of those who started as a doctoral fellow in 2003, and HTI helped me to succeed in graduate school through its direct support, particularly its mentoring program and its network, but the program also provided a network of collaborators, thought partners, and friends who are like family both within biblical studies and beyond it. HTI has thus shaped my success and scholarship well beyond my doctoral work. In this brief essay, I want to speak to the capaciousness of HTI’s biblical studies support, the ways that it fosters collaborative knowledge-making across boundaries that I believe is key to diversifying biblical studies, and to some of the places where I think future work is possible.
Biblical Studies En Conjunto
Like many other fields of knowledge, Biblical studies too often took for granted an individual scholar, striving for objective neutrality; although that ideal still casts a large shadow, it is no longer quite so dominant an imagination. I do not need to spend much time on the limits of that myth; Fernando F. Segovia well described the limits of supposed individual scholarly objectivity while also describing other methods and approaches that have proliferated in biblical studies. Latina/o/x biblical scholars cannot be said to follow one method; just as Latina/o/xs are diverse in a larger way, biblical scholars of Latin American descent also practice many different forms of biblical scholarship. HTI has been unique in nurturing a space for many different forms of Latina/o/x biblical studies, forms that might not otherwise be in conversation with each other. Nevertheless, HTI particularly provides a space to nurture the hallmarks of Latina/o/x biblical interpretation as described by my own HTI mentor Jean-Pierre Ruiz: connected, collaborative, and committed.
HTI supports scholars from across denominational boundaries and at a variety of institutions, though overwhelmingly from institutions within the realm of theological (mostly mainline Protestant with some evangelical and some Catholic institutional members) higher education. This broad support across institution types and across denominational lines facilitates conversation across the sorts of faith and field boundaries that might more often separate scholars at the SBL. That said, even those scholars whose research might be more delimited to the “historical critical” tend to arrive as scholars who are deeply connected to their home communities and care about the bettering of Latina/o/x contexts. To exemplify “connected” scholarship, J.P. Ruiz examines the work of David A. Sánchez, someone whose research fundamentally grew out of and responded to his home community in East Los Angeles. Although not everyone draws as clear a connection between their home contexts and their biblical scholarship as Sánchez, many HTI biblical scholars share a common concern, what Francisco Lozada, Jr. has identified as “a sense of mutuality or commonality for the sake of the good of the Latino/a community.” Certainly, definitions of the “good” and of “community” look quite distinctive across contexts, and not all Latina/o/x biblical scholars bring those commitments to their scholarship in the same way. Yet, HTI has often recruited scholars with demonstrated community commitments and brought these scholars together through workshops and programming.
HTI has thus also provided a space for fostering J.P. Ruiz’s second hallmark of Latina/o/x biblical interpretation: collaboration. Here, HTI’s explicit commitment to en conjunto methodologies is illuminated throughout its work, and its success in getting students through the program is no doubt linked to the community of collaborative knowledge-making that HTI hosts. In his essay on this topic, J.P. Ruiz gives a couple of important examples, those spaces where we see Latina/o/x biblical scholars and theologians working together across denominational lines, for instance in Orlando O. Espín’s edited volume, Building Bridges, Doing Justice (2009) or where we see Latina/o/x biblical scholars working with other minoritized scholars in creating collaborative collections, for instance in the volume co-edited by Randall C. Bailey, Tat-siong Benny Liew, and Fernando F. Segovia, They Were All Together in One Place? (2009). HTI works to build collaborative, rather than competitive or individualistic, networks among its students and alumni, and through the workshops for doctoral students, its approach to mentoring, the writing weeks at the dissertation phase, or professional opportunities such as Open Plaza Talks podcast conversations, HTI fosters an environment for its scholars to think and work together, to learn from each other, and to practice thinking across a variety of Latinx/o/a differences.
How HTI Makes Space to Reshape Biblical Studies Imagination
The effects of HTI’s en conjunto practices are evident in my own personal and professional life. HTI has helped to facilitate intellectual partnerships and deep friendships across generational, ethnic, denominational, and disciplinary boundaries. HTI has critically done so by creating and remaking spaces that enable collaborative learning and research. HTI’s program facilitated life-long professional connections, and its workshop designs nurtured both intellectual and personal camaraderie. My mentoring relationship with Jean-Pierre Ruiz so deeply shaped my scholarship and how I have thought about not only the book of Revelation but the very nature of revelation itself. His support has been invaluable and did not cease with his official contract as my mentor. He modeled a way of being a scholar that was connected, committed, and collaborative.
The broader structure of HTI also enabled the building of connections over time that transcended the normal boundaries between denominations and fields. From the first interview weekend, HTI worked to help scholars build connections with each other, across boundaries. Just through the welcoming space of the office, when I first arrived for my interview, HTI helped to connect me to theologian Neomi De Anda, whose friendship and scholarship have become so integral to how I think about the world and how I think about Latinx/a/o storytelling in relationship to scriptures. That HTI also brought so many of us back together for workshops, meals, lectures, and events over the years not only helped nurture this friendship but also helped me connect with other scholars in a range of theological and religious studies fields. As I write this essay, I think about how I came to know the work of the editor of this anniversary issue, how Peter Casarella, through working with us at HTI, invited both Néstor Medina and myself to participate in an event at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Medina’s critical scholarship on mestizaje and culture as a theological project of colonization has become a touchstone for so much of my own thinking over the years, and he has modeled expansive theological inquiry, reading across denominational, religious, national, and disciplinary lines. I am so grateful that HTI created an environment where scholars could come together and share works in progress without fear, so that we could learn not only of each other’s published works but also of the processes through which we think. HTI modeled a different sort of academic environment and thus an alternative academic imagination as well.
Over the years, HTI has supported biblical scholars from a range of backgrounds and approaches, but it has fostered unique opportunities for us to come together in ways that have transformed my imagination of biblical studies, a field that is so often divided into tiny enclaves. Although I had reason to speak with scholars such as Eric Barreto, Ahida Calderón Pilarski, Francisco Lozada, and Gilberto Ruiz outside of HTI, events and programs, and even service to HTI’s steering committee, also provided additional opportunities for us to work and think together. Conversations with each of them proved critical as I worked on my extended essay on “Latina/o/x Studies and Biblical Studies” (Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation 2020). They helped me to rethink the essay’s approaches, but they also challenged me to rethink the ways knowledge gets made in and around the Bible, pushing me to query the roles of gender, migration, race, and colonialism in shaping the terms we too readily employ in our scholarly discourses. I even cite a specific conversation I had with Barreto in that essay, the conversation took place when we were at an HTI meeting together. Barreto helped me to think about how colonizing concerns shape an extractivist scholarly language around “terrain,” “staking a claim,” and “resources.”
Moreover, HTI’s executive director Joanne Rodríguez has been a critical partner in observing and addressing the gaps in Latinx theological studies. When I first started, she helped to support meetings of Latinas in Theology at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. In recent years, I worked on an essay about “Latina Diversity and Difference” for the volume on Women and the Society of Biblical Literature (2019), and I spoke with Rodríguez about how scant the numbers of Latinas in SBL are. She worked with me to invite a group of Latina biblical scholars, encompassing graduate students through to distinguished seminary presidents, together for a week of writing and podcast recording for the Open Plaza. Here was another way that HTI created space, blending a meeting in the physical space at Princeton Theological Seminary with an ongoing set of connections in virtual space through Open Plaza.
Can HTI Remake the Space of Biblical Studies?
We undertake scholarship in a moment of transformation so significant that I cannot begin to imagine what someone twenty-five years from now might say or if there will be an HTI or an SBL or academia as we know it. What I can say is that for academic fields who want to diversify and survive (indeed, diversifying is a necessity for survival), HTI offers a model for nurturing success even with seemingly scant resources. Part of that model is about creating space to practice en conjunto scholarship and to craft an academic imagination otherwise. Such an approach could be replicated and responsive to particular contexts, but broader learned societies might also consider ways to build networks across organizations. Diversifying our academies will require further altering the spaces and structures that make scholarship possible, adapting to nurture communal and collaborative knowledge-formation across a variety of contexts.
As Segovia charted in his 2014 presidential address to the SBL, our critical times demand collaborative scholarship across difference. HTI has helped to nurture these spaces among Latinx/o/as from Christian contexts, and with its growing publishing presence in Perspectivas and Open Plaza, HTI is also cultivating more expansive spaces for scholarly collaboration and connection. We live in an era where we must also build on the strengths of a space like HTI but also find ways to forge connections between and across communities and beyond the fields of religious and theological studies.
For its impressive work creating spaces and charting pathways for Latina/o/x scholars, HTI still operates within the constraints of the broader US religious studies and theological academy, and those constraints manifest in the composition of HTI graduates, with an overrepresentation of paler Latina/o/xs (myself included), a near erasure of Asian Latinx/o/as, and a focus on Christian contexts and communities. Others have already produced more significant work on how colorism shapes educational outcomes in aggregate. Work must be done to transform those facets of the academy, which will require much more intentional work from groups well beyond HTI in areas far beyond the traditional academy. Although relevant to another article, I would also argue that questions emerging from specifically Protestant contexts and those Catholic contexts with greatest affinities for Protestant biblical relations have dominated biblical studies in ways that significantly constrain scholarly questions; partially that has to do with the funding structures that have supported theological and religious studies education, but it also has to do with who has been given voice to dominate scholarly conversations. Addressing the over-representation of these sorts of textual questions will also require intentional work on the part of academic societies writ large to foster serious conversation between and among a broader array of voices. In short, we have much work to do before we can aspire to the model of global-systemic criticism that Segovia laid out, but HTI’s success in fostering alternative forms of biblical studies should be given weight as one model and partner in nurturing more diverse futures for biblical studies.