I remember the night Yolanda invited me to her home. She had been saving me a seat in the pew with her at Dolores Mission for weeks, and our conversations after evening Masses were delightful but too brief. She asked me about my prayer intentions and shared with me hers; and she shuffled off a few minutes later, usually to make dinner for her husband. Shortly after a day retreat I had offered at the parish, I had asked to interview her about her relationship with Our Lady of Guadalupe. Around Christmastime, she said she was ready and insisted on hosting. Her husband was downstairs with his friends, and I listened to what she had to share with me over pork tamales, rice, and beans she had prepared for us. It was after Christmas but before the new year, and I remember the twinkling multicolored lights that decorated her kitchen. While most of these interviews ran anywhere from 45 minutes to twice that long, Yolanda and I talked for well over three hours, and I continue to be grateful for her generosity with her story. A few minutes in, it was clear that my carefully prepared list of questions was hardly necessary, that there were things she needed to name, that were important for her to tell me, that she wanted me to know.
Her story was inseparable from the story of her family, and their story was inextricably intertwined with that of the parish. As we talked, she pulled out album after album filled with photos of baptisms, quinceañeras, weddings, carne asadas in the neighborhood, pachangas on the plaza of the church, the list goes on. Like my aunts, Yolanda talks with her hands, a smile playing about her lips as she describes her loved ones in the pictures pasted over the thick and yellowing pages of the albums. When she describes different members of her family, I see in her face and hear in her voice the same tenderness as when she tells me about the three pastors who preceded the current pastor of the parish, as well as former and current members of the pastoral team. Her eyes light up as she shares their stories. That light draws me in, its warmth pointing to the love she has for the people who animate those stories.
Yolanda’s family lived in public housing, a short walk away from the parish plaza. As I listened to her pass on the sacred stories of her community, I was so struck by their gravity. I had not started to connect her experiences with what I had learned about the Clinton era legislation that had affected this community until I drove past one of the murals painted by Fabian Debora, a parishioner and former gang member. By federal law through much of the 1990s, when gang activity in Boyle Heights was peaking, if anyone living in public housing was convicted of gang-related crimes, everyone in that unit would be evicted, forcing a choice between security and togetherness that tore many families apart. Between such federal legislation and the Three Strikes Law in California, the 1990s were a dark time to try to raise up young people in Boyle Heights, as Yolanda and her neighbors were. Like so few of us who live outside her community, she and other mothers knew very well the impact of such punitive legislation had on family and community life there. They knew, too, that another way is possible, and they used what they had to call Greg Boyle to a vocation that would lead him out of parish leadership and into what is now Homeboy Industries. They saw how few options children in their neighborhood had at their disposal, how joining a gang not only provided protection in a neighborhood rife with violence but also more financial security than any local factory jobs could offer. Whether their child was being sought out to join a local gang or not, they knew very well that every child in that neighborhood bore the image and likeness of our God, and they did something to honor that. They started where they were, with what they had, visiting young people from their neighborhood in juvenile hall, inviting young people involved in gangs to the plaza for a meal, listening to their experiences, reminding them that they are loved by God, as well as by the neighborhood.
While a social scientific analysis of how economic and political forces, in their specificity, interact with one another to threaten the survival of communities like Yolanda’s is beyond the scope of this essay, it is hardly lost on me that her parish honors the legacy of Óscar Romero. Parishioners at Dolores Mission are the children and grandchildren of a crucified people, as Ignacio Ellacuría described them. As he and Jon Sobrino have written, economic and political forces collude to crucify the most marginalized in our societies, echoing the experience of Jesus of Nazareth, who was tried for crimes he did not commit and put to death by the state between two thieves, as the Gospel of Luke would have it. As they come to the US, often fleeing political persecution and seeking economic opportunity, many Dolores Mission parishioners are caught in the crosshairs of empire here, as well, living in neighborhoods the rest of Los Angeles tries to ignore.
Even so, parishioners like Yolanda, who come from crucified communities, get in the way of this cycle perpetuating itself. How often I witnessed women chatting on the plaza after a weekday evening Mass welcome in someone who was looking for housing, walking them to meet a caseworker with Guadalupe Homeless Project on site. Simple actions like this one may seem like an act of service, but they are more than that, too. Walking alongside someone who is unhoused to talk about the possibility of receiving services acknowledges the dignity US American society often denies them, embodying an alternative ethic and accompanying logic of solidarity, which necessarily resist the ethics and logics of empire. Such actions highlight the impact of the rugged individualism that has characterized US American economic and political practices throughout its history, and parishioners like Yolanda choose a different path than the one many of the rest of us follow in going about our daily lives, however unwittingly. In doing so, they practice mercy.
The time I spent at Dolores Mission was transformative because it reminded me of why I felt called to study theology in the first place. As an undergraduate at the Jesuit university across town from Boyle Heights, I had acquired a grammar that helped me make sense of experiences I had had in the Orange County parish that had raised me—not only going to Mass on Sundays, but also serving the growing homeless population at the Catholic Worker and in our church parking lot, celebrating Communion Services at the county jail, visiting those who were hospitalized at Christmas. My undergraduate experience taught me about vocation in the broadest sense—the work to which God calls us that we can hardly imagine living without.
When I was conducting interviews at Dolores Mission during my field work there, I had felt troubled by how readily members of the community had signed the consent forms I went over with them before we started our conversations. I remember feeling this way when I spent time with Pati as she showed me around her office at Proyecto Pastoral, the nonprofit arm of Dolores Mission. She serves as the restorative justice coordinator with Healing Hearts, Restoring Hope, which falls under the umbrella of Proyecto Pastoral. As she was signing her form, I thanked her for doing so, and she said, “you know, I don’t have a problem talking to you about these things because you came back. A lot of people pass through here, promising to come back, but not everyone does. I trust that you’ll do right by us.”
That trust is part of what can drive our work as ethnographers and as Latinx theologians. One of the things her community taught me quite viscerally is just how privileged we are to have access to the kind of education we need to earn a doctorate in theology. While this was hardly new information intellectually, the time I spent at Dolores Mission integrated that knowledge into my body and into my heart. Before I met that community, I understood that the differences between us in access to higher education have little, if anything, to do with ability and everything to do with sinful social structures that, in many ways, are broken by design. But conversations with Lupe are what I remember when these topics come up in conversations about the future of theological education. Over breakfast a short walk away from her salon, she asked about my studies, confiding in me that she has dreamed for years now of becoming a spiritual director.
“You’d be amazing at that,” I said. “What a great use of your gifts that would be.”
“I would love to learn more about St. Ignatius and how to talk with people about their relationships with God,” she said. “I feel God has been calling me to this for a long time. But I don’t really write English very well, and the classes are all the way on the other side of the city. My car isn’t very reliable, and gas is expensive. I may be able to get a scholarship for part of the tuition, so I need to figure out how to pay the rest of it and how to get back and forth. It would be so many bus changes that it might not be safe coming back, if the classes are at night. Dios mediante, we’ll figure out a way.”
“Dios mediante.” God willing. “We’ll figure out a way.” This kind of reliance on God, the radical trust her statement embodies rings differently in my ears, five years later, in part because she is not abdicating responsibility for a call she heard from God, but rather, she is acknowledging that responding to this call in this way would affect more than her alone, that taking these courses would affect the daily life of her family and others who love her, as well. Lupe is recognizing, too, that there are limits to what we, as human beings, can do ourselves.
Many of us in the academy would do well to heed such wisdom as hers. Too often, we embody the kind of hubris that has marked higher education for generations, that weds itself to exclusivity masquerading as academic rigor, that has barred White women and people of color from the kind of access to theological education Lupe feels called to pursue. For too long, those who do not belong to communities like Boyle Heights have written about them in ways that focus on how they fail, on the myriad of ways they fall short, placing the voices of outsiders at the center of their analyses. One of the gifts of drawing on ethnographic methods in our theological construction is the opportunity to center the voices of those who call such communities home, to the extent that doing so is possible.
I am reminded of how betwixt and between we Latinx theologians often are, at times seen as exceptional by those outside our communities, at others seen as less committed to our communities from those who belong to them. Our vocations can require us to spend so much time with our books and in the world of disembodied theory, sometimes sacrificing time with the families and communities who love us and contributed to our calls to these vocations. In the midst of that, I hear a call to deep listening to these voices that often go unheard beyond neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and parishes like Dolores Mission, as well as to the voices of our loved ones at home. As we sit with what that listening teaches us, we begin to see patterns, to recognize how political and economic forces that divide today rhyme with the actions of empires of old. As a Latina theologian whose vocation calls her into parishes like Dolores Mission, I see how we tend the stories of our communities, called to accompanying tasks, as well. We contextualize these stories into broader histories—of our people, of marginalized communities, of the dominant culture—tracing the liberative impulses that speak to God’s deep and abiding love for God’s creation over time. We seek to articulate something new in the shell of the old, outlining the contours of theologies that liberate in the face of death-dealing structures that were not built for us. In doing so, we express an eschatological hope in things not seen, imagining anew what could be if more of us were to follow the example of Yolanda, starting where we are with what we have.
As Latinx theologians, our presence in the academy can be dangerous because of its implicit critique of the power structures that have shut our communities out for so long. That we would gain access to opportunities to pursue degrees that qualify us to teach in institutions with legacies of exclusion exposes the lie that the current state of affairs in theological education has ever had anything to do with ability or academic rigor. To the contrary, the crisis in theological education is rooted in its preference for sameness, in the myriad ways it replicates the myth Willie James Jennings calls the self-sufficient White man and proffers the failure of imagination so characteristic of White supremacy in all its forms. The logics and ethics of our communities—that knowledge is partial, that wisdom is communal, that we are necessarily interconnected and interdependent by virtue of our humanity—refute the logics and ethics of the dominant culture simply by the fact that they exist, that we who belong to our communities perpetuate them by example, that they endure.