“If you really want to see what our religion is like, you have to come around here to the community, where the true religion takes place.” Such was the opinion of Edgar Olvera, a lay Catholic leader, as to how I should go about conducting my research on Latinx religions. Numerous scholars of religious practices within U.S. ethnic enclaves would concur with Edgar, noting the propensity of public acts of faith for vesting a space with ethnic authenticity and performatively inscribing a group’s claims to local belonging. The significance of public faith became increasingly evident through my five years of ethnographic research examining the influence of religious affiliation on ethnic identity in the Latinx enclaves of Santa Ana, CA. Acts of public faith were particularly important given Santa Ana’s demographics. Reflecting the local Latinx population, many of the Santa Ana residents that I interviewed and interacted with were undocumented. With a history of residential and educational segregation, limited economic opportunity, and struggles over political representation, many Santa Ana residents, including some with legal residency, found societal membership to be elusive. I propose that religious practices performed communally in public spaces can be understood as enactments of citizenship, particularly for members of groups whose societal membership is called into question. These acts are uniquely meaningful when engaged in by residents of neighborhoods most affected by mechanisms of exclusion. Some acts of public faith expand the common good and express a sense of local belonging, aspects which I argue are tied to particular forms of citizenship. By pushing against the boundaries of citizenship, these often mundane acts can serve as forms of resistance. In the sections to follow, I will describe my research context, discuss notions of citizenship, and examine the ways in which public acts of faith provide grounds for local citizenship claims in one majority Latinx city.
Santa Ana, CA has a history replete with efforts from Latinx residents working to legitimize their local presence. Orange County, CA, has historically been home to numerous Latinx enclaves, with Santa Ana traditionally being home to the largest of these ethnic pockets. Historians recall Mendez vs Westminster, a 1947 case encompassing Santa Ana, which purported to end the segregation of Latino school children. The case would eventually provide a precedent for Brown v. Board of Education. Local swimming pools, movie theaters, and park areas were among the spaces where Latinx residents of a bygone era, primarily Mexicans, faced unjust restrictions.
Subsequent generations of local Latinx activists hearken back to legacies of justice work. Issues that capture the efforts of city-based activists today include advocacy for immigrant rights, combating gentrification, assuring the rights of LGBTQIA individuals, decrying educational inequality, and spearheading health and housing initiatives. These initiatives are crucial as the city of 330,000 residents whose population is 80% Latino, half foreign born, is home to many residents endangered by their legal status. Moreover, the issues listed above intersect with legal status issues to heighten the vulnerability of local residents. The city council, the first among U.S. big cities to be composed entirely of Latinos, validated the arduous efforts of activists by declaring the city a “Sanctuary City.” Nevertheless, with a new federal administration in place, insecurities are at peak levels and even U.S. citizens in these communities must contend with the realities of having family members, friends, and neighbors struggling through issues of legal status. Communities of faith may become all the more important for residents seeking refuge, resources, and respect. It is in these spaces that many experience a sense of local belonging, an aspect of substantive citizenship. When these spaces of faith spill over into the public sphere, God is perceived as affirming that the excluded collectively are welcome. Through the sacralization of physical space, the excluded inscribe themselves upon the landscape and experience a sense of spatial belonging, even if just momentarily.
Citizenship and Public Faith
When I asked Patricia Martinez, a committed member of a local Pentecostal congregation, about how she identified ethnically, an addendum to her response took me by surprise:
Yo, mexicana y latina. Ni tengo ni papeles. Ni de aquí ni de allá.
Me, Mexican and Latina. I don’t even have papers. I’m neither from here, nor from there.
Patricia expressed a sense of social dislocation in light of her unauthorized status. Though I did not ask her about her legal status, her response illustrated the fusion between legal status and ethnic identity that some immigrants experience. As Patricia does not have papers, she perceives she does not belong “here.” Conversely, returning to Mexico would mean bidding farewell to her U.S. born children and grandchildren so she no longer feels that she is from “there.” Patricia’s conflation of legal status and belonging was part of her lived reality and is not far removed from popular discourse around U.S. citizenship policy.
The lived reality of citizenship is quite layered, both for those possessing formal citizenship, and those lacking it. Bloemraad, Korteweg, and Yurdakul, for example, define citizenship as a “form of membership in a political and geographic community.” These scholars conceive of citizenship as involving four interlocking, shifting spheres: 1.) Permission, denoting legal status conferred on members by the state, 2.) Privilege, signifying rights afforded to members, 3.) Participation, referring to members’ engagement in political and civic arenas, and 4.) Place, encompassing a sense of societal belonging. Across historical periods and geographic regions, these components shift, with some gaining prominence and others waning.
The concept of substantive citizenship is especially important for understanding how marginalized populations lay claim to societal membership. According to sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn, substantive citizenship involves “local practices that recognize or deny standing to certain groups and individuals irrespective of their formal standing under constitutional provisions or statutory law.” Substantive citizenship accounts for limitations within formal citizenship. Limitations to citizenship may include instances where the rights of formally recognized citizens are restricted or cases where contributing members of society lack legal citizenship status. Both types of discrepancies highlight disconnects between citizenship in practice and citizenship as a status. Such mismatches are salient at the local level where excluded populations negotiate the lived boundaries of citizenship. As Staeheli notes, “local scales are implicated in the restructuring of substantive citizenship.” In Santa Ana, for example, debates over sanctuary city status and over cutting city ties with ICE can be framed as a contestation of who should be afforded basic rights of safety. Beyond debates taking place within official civic chambers, acts of contestation and resistance also originate from “marginalized citizens and noncitizens who contest their exclusion,” according to Holsten. In describing the efforts of slum residents in Brazil to exercise basic rights, for example, Holsten employs the phrase “insurgent citizenship.” This Brazilian case study exemplifies a population that is contesting the boundaries of “illegality,” in this case related to restrictions on where to establish housing settlements when government provisions are lacking.
One potential route that is taken by those outside the boundaries of formal citizenship is to demonstrate diligently how one meets the criteria of formal citizenship. Guzman Garcia, for example, describes how broader logics of deportability and neoliberal citizenship influence the way undocumented immigrant members of a Pentecostal church in Fresno, California construct a sense of worthiness via their religious participation. In light of their faith commitments, these congregants lay claim to a “spiritual citizenship” which produces hope in a celestial future yet entails developing “good moral character” deserving formal state recognition. This is not to say that the state recognizes these efforts formally, but rather that individuals are highly invested in these efforts.
Public acts of faith, especially when performed communally, move beyond individual efforts as they have the power to call excluded communities into an experience of substantive citizenship. The public and communal aspects of these faith acts are important as they speak to the manner in which citizenship is more than a status mark of individual worthiness. Staeheli argues that while liberal and republican theories emphasize citizenship as an individual status, “the political reality is that citizenship is extended to social groups.” The citizenship deck is stacked against certain groups, and papeles are categorically meted out in unequal fashion. Public faith acts provide an opportunity for those denied formal and/or substantive citizenship to say, “We are here,” and, “We have a stake in this neighborhood.” This is both a communal act of affirmation, and a concerted effort of community building. I now turn to examples of how public, communal acts of faith provide space for the enactment of substantive citizenship among Santa Ana’s residents.
Building Connections in the Community
Veronica Ochoa is a woman who participates in a form of substantive citizenship through her devotional practices, efforts which can essentially be classified as community organizing. Veronica’s public devotion is well recognized in her neighborhood. She is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who provides for her family by selling food and by serving as a caregiver to local children. Neighbors know Veronica for a different type of care that she provides. Veronica has taken it upon herself to care for a local altar dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Veronica lives in a boxy, two-story apartment building of six units that faces an identical building. A broad open courtyard between the two buildings is inhabited most days by playful children and on weekends serves as celebration space. Nestled between an apartment building and a brick wall rests an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe. The altar is a miniature house with a front entrance left open to reveal statues of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Veronica lives adjacent to where the altar is located and she voluntarily oversees the wellbeing of the altar; she cleans the shrine, checks the statues to ensure they are free of damage, and prepares statues for special celebrations that require them to be moved out of the altar. She also helps to organize celebrations focused on venerating the Virgen de Guadalupe at that specific altar. Neighbors in her apartment courtyard and in the surrounding buildings are aware of her commitment and follow her lead when special days such as the Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe come around.
As an undocumented immigrant, Veronica’s line of work in the informal economy minimizes her presence on the radar of local authorities. Despite her efforts to maintain a low profile, in her community Veronica is a recognized leader. Neither is her work isolated within her neighborhood. The objects of devotion that she cares for travel to other parts of the city and of the county. During various times of the year, representatives from other neighborhoods come to her altar to borrow the statues. Her barrio, often overlooked or feared because of its gang presence, is lifted to a place of honor; it holds spiritual significance because of the neighborhood altar that she oversees. Veronica sustains ties between neighborhoods through her devotional practices. This woman who has little to give financially, and superficially appears to have little influence, actually holds a place of importance. Her local parish recognizes her work and lists her name on church informational flyers as a contact person for events in her neighborhood.
Veronica’s activities exemplify substantive citizenship in several ways. Veronica helps to provide for the spiritual and emotional needs of her community, and facilitates organizing efforts which directly address disadvantages faced in her community. Her place in the community is affirmed by those that know her and her activities bring recognition to her community, aspects of substantive citizenship emphasized by Nakano-Glenn. That much of Veronica’s organizing efforts catalyze the involvement of other women, reflects the visible, public contribution of women in migrant communities, challenging yet co-existing with traditional gender roles. Many of the communal faith gatherings I witnessed were indeed disproportionately led and attended by women. This shows an opposite trend to the male dominated hometown associations for Mexican immigrants documented by Goldring. Goldring notes that “the gendering of citizenship in transnational spaces may contribute to differences in feelings of membership and belonging in the relevant nations, and thus to the gender of membership in the nation.” In Veronica’s case, she is helping to bolster the citizenship of working class female neighbors in particular and of her community more broadly.
Listening to the Community
Arturo and Julieta Esparza are a married couple deeply committed to their Pentecostal church. As I got to know them I came to see their strong commitment to the well-being of their neighbors as well. While Julieta grew up in a Pentecostal church, Arturo recounts his experience of major transformation after arriving in the U.S. and finding his place at a Pentecostal church. An outgrowth of their evangelico theology, the Esparzas have a strong desire to share with others their testimonio of how Jesus Christ saved them. The Esparzas, however, opine that some members of their faith family are too quick to bolster boundaries against their acquaintances of different faiths. Instead, the Esparzas have invested in caring for their neighbors regardless of their faith background, and have thus gained the trust of many of their neighbors.
Arturo shares that several years ago, when his children were of school age, he noticed that the summer options for children in his community were few and far between. Given his passion for the game of fútbol, Arturo decided to start a co-ed children’s soccer league at a local park. He went door to door asking neighbors if their children were interested in participating in the league. He eventually was able to field several teams and would guide the teams to practice, and then to play against each other. Arturo saw this as an opportunity to share the love of Christ with his neighbors. After noticing a need, he was willing to engage the issue. As families began to build stronger bonds through the league that Arturo started, Julieta would often become the listening ear that parents would approach to share their stories. Julieta describes how in their times of deepest needs, some of the mothers in particular would trust her with their secrets. They respected Julieta’s advice and would seek her counsel. When the opportunity presented itself, Julieta would pray with her neighbors; she saw this as part of her ministry.
An important contribution put forth by Julieta and Arturo relates to their ability to listen to their community. Julieta and Arturo were initially able to facilitate community integration through listening to the needs of their neighbor. This involves both literal listening to conversations, as well as observation. Like Veronica above, Julieta and Arturo have helped to provide their community with a sense of empowerment. They have enacted not only their own citizenship but have encouraged that of their neighbors as well.
Sustaining a Sense of Peoplehood
Mercedes Uribe provides a gift to her community by instilling others with a sense of peoplehood, a key aspect in her enactment of substantive citizenship. In observing a neighborhood procession honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe, the faith of Mercedes stood out. Initially comprised of two dozen participants, the group swelled to nearly a hundred revelers largely due to Mercedes’ hospitality. Mercedes’ voice could be heard bidding neighbors to join a concluding celebration hosted at her home. Her devotion, embodied in steamy bowls of posole stew, a homily in hominy, accompanied by the boisterous laughter of volunteers, enveloped the street. Those yearning to recreate ethnic traditions found solace in the procession and at Mercedes’ home.
The case of Mercedes illustrates the capacity of public acts of faith for sustaining collective ethnic identities. Every year leading up to Christmas, the traditions of las posadas enliven the streets of Santa Ana’s barrios. Mercedes is known throughout her neighborhood for opening up her home to the traditionally nine days of posada celebrations. The reenactment of las posadas, commemorating Mary and Joseph seeking lodging in Bethlehem as Mary is with child, has been celebrated in Mexico for over 400 years. Mercedes explained to me that numerous groups from her local parish contact her to use her home as a space to re-enact las posadas. According to Mercedes, “those nine days get filled up quickly! Some of them even want to go beyond the traditional nine days.” In one of the most densely populated cities in the nation, space is at a premium. Many of Mercedes neighbors who live in crowded conditions are not only looking to re-enact las posadas, they themselves are living las posadas, as they seek room.
One of the strongest motivating factors for Mercedes’ involvement in these celebrations is her desire to re-create traditions observed in Mexico. From her explanations, it is clear that she takes pride in providing for her neighbors an experience of remembering. Many of her neighbors cannot return to their homelands, but at her home their memories are renewed. Mercedes recounted the response of one surprised visitor who took part in a celebration at her home: “It’s exactly like over there [in Mexico]!” He explained to her that he did not expect to experience something similar in the U.S. An often agreed upon definition of ethnicity in the social sciences accounts for “memories of a shared historical past.” In creating space for performative acts of devotion, Mercedes is allowing her neighbors to recollect a shared past. Lest the uninitiated think that Mercedes’ celebrations are only accessible to co-ethnics, she can also be seen welcoming Vietnamese and white neighbors into her home.
Some might argue that acts of devotion highlighting ethnic distinctions do not coincide with notions of citizenship, assuming that these acts isolate a particular group from broader “mainstream” U.S. culture. The views of the late Samuel Huntington, for example, would concur with this notion by going so far as to say that Latino migration, particularly from Mexico, is dividing the U.S. into “two peoples, two cultures and two languages.” Yet, scholars who study the socio-cultural incorporation of immigrants into U.S. society note the importance of cultural spaces for the vitality of immigrant households. It is often in spaces of ethnic performance that inter-generational ties are strengthened, and processes of adaptation are facilitated. Younger generations learn from the older, but are also able to provide input regarding their experiences. Warner notes that spaces of faith expression are effective sites of “selective acculturation,” a process wherein immigrants and their children are able to collaborate in maintaining ties to homeland cultures even as they adapt to receiving contexts. Furthermore, traditions such as las posadas have been in the Americas, including the U.S. Southwest, for centuries. These are not foreign practices, but essentially native practices, a blend between the Indigenous and the European, being sustained. Thus, the opportunities provided by these residents translate over to the wellbeing of their city, in ways that even state and local agencies are not equipped to accomplish.
The Role of Churches in Public Faith
The institutional backdrop for many of the participants I observed influenced modes of community engagement and of substantive citizenship enactment. Opportunities to engage local neighborhoods and discourses about local neighborhoods offered by churches were two important factors in the enactment of substantive citizenship. Church-sponsored activities that especially bolstered community engagement included prayer walks, peace marches, and cultural celebrations throughout residential neighborhoods. An important benefit to this institutional connection was that churches often collaborated with nonprofits, businesses, and city agencies to host public events. These collaborations strengthened ties between immigrants and local institutions. Activities of engagement less focused on propositional evangelism often garnered the highest rate of response from neighborhood residents. For example, hosting a handball tournament at a park was more likely to draw local participants than was an evangelistic campaign at the park. This point is primarily a commentary about modes of community engagement and participation rather than a critique of church evangelism efforts.
Direct efforts to reach non-members and invite them into the “fold,” also provided pathways of local engagement. When such events were framed as opportunities to save corrupt and immoral neighborhoods, local residents often perceived these events as acts of outsiders encroaching on locals. However, outreach events that involved community members in planning and staging, and highlighted residential community assets, were received more readily. Members of under-resourced communities, often seen solely as objects of community outreach, were effective at working within their own communities. As such, events were most successful when community members were leading the efforts themselves. The passionate faith expressed by the Catholic and Protestant parishioners I encountered did not require them to negate the presence of positive aspects within their communities.
The manner in which churches spoke about local neighborhoods was of significance. Discourses about the barrio correlated with the affective ties group members demonstrated toward their neighborhood. Messages spoken by church leaders, for example, correlated with how parishioners perceived their neighborhoods of residence and their role therein. Some Santa Ana parishioners internalized church messages emphasizing neighborhood problems, paralleling McRoberts’ work among African American parishioners in Boston where “the street” was the locus of vice and perdition. Members internalizing such messages were less likely to invest in and draw from the assets of their working class communities. In contrast, parishioners that internalized church messages that valued local communities, spoke positively about the neighborhood they lived in and invested in the wellbeing of their neighbors. Parishioners tended to either take ownership of their neighborhoods or to retreat from their own residential communities. Immigrants who had more positive views of their communities were embedded within resource rich residential networks while immigrants with negative or apathetic views of their community held weaker ties to these residential networks. Moreover, messages reinforced by faith groups regarding local neighborhoods correlated with resource opportunities of group members. In these ways, churches influenced how substantive citizenship was lived out at the neighborhood level.
Substantive Citizenship in a time of Insecurity
Since the writing of this article commenced, the new U.S. President and his administration have elevated the fears and anxieties of numerous populations in the U.S. Forms of substantive citizenship with insurgent inclinations will likely continue within sites such as Santa Ana, where ordered policies purport to brutalize community members. Efforts to alter the nation’s trajectory will continue via formal political channels. Many advocate to both streamline formal citizenship pathways and to protect the rights of formal citizens whose rights are categorically denied. Social action rooted in faith surely has a role here. Perusing the work of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta highlight the prominence of faith in their acts of resistance. The efforts of the sanctuary movement in its past and recent iterations are also forms of resistance. As a corollary to these examples, I have argued that mundane acts constituting the spiritual rhythms of lower income and undocumented residents in cities like Santa Ana, are also acts of resistance. When communities on the periphery come together to worship, to care for each other’s needs, and thus build the community as people of faith, these are acts of insurgent citizenship.
Communities of faith are uniquely positioned to serve the vulnerable in this season of insecurity. These communities can maintain ties with a broad network of institutions outside of themselves, even as they elevate the disenfranchised from within. Through institutional networks, communities of faith can serve as proxies for important civic institutions to which undocumented immigrants, for example, may not have access. Communities of faith can also serve as the collective megaphone through which marginalized communities speak. By embedding vulnerable populations within networks of local empowerment, faith groups bolster the substantive citizenship of excluded groups. Faith communities can thus occupy the space between legal and social aspects of citizenship, even as they struggle to close that gap. Affirmation of substantive citizenship is critical, as marginalized groups find themselves stuck in perpetual advent, waiting to be recognized formally. It behooves faith communities, nonprofits, and civic organizations to expand on these practices. The dignity of individuals and entire communities benefits from these efforts. Moreover, when the most vulnerable among us are lifted up, society as a whole flourishes.