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Hispanic Christology - Major Paper
By Tom Laporte

“Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20). This simple question posed by Jesus has been the source of great debate since the time it was first asked. I take it to be a Christological question. Over the course of time, the process of trying to answer the question has led to arguments, councils, and the condemnation of heretics. The ancient question, as debated at Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, focused on the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. For many, it is not a theoretical question, but one of how Jesus relates to our individual lives. Yet to answer the question one must offer a personal confession or creed-like statement. This in and of itself makes the question quite difficult to answer or even to articulate.
Throughout the centuries, people continue to delve into the mysteries of Jesus being both fully human and fully divine, as described by the formal Council of Chalcedon (Norris 158-159). However, I argue that many Hispanics may not be as rigid as the patristic church fathers. In many Hispanic settings, especially in the United States, Hispanic people come to know and understand Jesus in a variety of ways and forms. These expand beyond the classical debate of "human" or "divine," which theologian, Paul Tillich, would affirm as liberation from historical doctrines (Taylor, 141). For contemporary Hispanics in the United States, Jesus is present, active and known. The variation within this is so great that it is hard to pinpoint a specific theology or Christology, as Hispanics in the United States are as difficult to define and categorize as Jesus himself.

Hispanics, like others, come to know Jesus through a variety of contexts. Jesus can be understood as the human Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of the cross, the resurrected Christ, the Savior, or Jesus of glory reigning in the heavenly kingdom. In Hispanic communities, these different personas of Jesus can be all rolled into one or can be revealed individually. This is possible because Christology from an Hispanic perspective in the United States involves many facets stemming from cultural and religious practices. In contemporary Hispanic traditions, some of the primary sources for engaging Jesus are icons, participation in festivals, pilgrimages to popular religious sites, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and finally, expressed in most communities by faith in the holy mysteries. Each of these, in form and practice, represents a mixture, as do Jesus and the Hispanic people. That is precisely why these areas are prime examples of how many Hispanics view and relate to a lived Christology. They are, like Jesus, a mixture or a mestizo.
People of various Hispanic origins approach theology and Christology in numerous ways. The ones that are listed below are considered broad-based, deeply rooted in cultural tradition, and applicable to a great deal of Hispanics living in the United States. These areas are addressed, as they draw people, particularly Hispanics, to Jesus. These various approached provide a means to be in relation with His person and His divinity. This may mean engaging one or the other, but it doesn't exclude a combination of the two. Finally, rather than articulating a doctrine or theory of Christology, a mestizo praxis of knowing Jesus can allow contemporary Hispanics a variety of means to respond to Jesus’ question, "Who do you say that I am?"
Some Aspects of Hispanic Theology

Hispanics, like Asians or Americans for that matter, are often lumped under one umbrella term. Growing sensitivity and a commitment to cultural understanding has led to the common understanding of the reality that there is great diversity within the term "Hispanic," not to mention the community itself (Romero 15). Along these lines, the concepts of "Hispanic theology" should never be lumped together. There are contextual commonalities, true, but fundamental differences exist as well.
The term "Latin American" itself is generally used to encompass the Americas south of the United States, as well as the entire Caribbean. Much the same as the term "Hispanic," "Latin American" is problematic. It can be used individually or collectively. The Hispanics in the United States and in Latin America as a region create a great mixture. They are a combination of genetic, social, cultural, and linguistic classifications. This mixture is commonly referred to as "mestizo" or "mestizaje" (Elizondo 1992, 106-107). Unfortunately, within this terminology there exist implicit assumptions, scientifically erroneous, of inferiority. This gives all the more reason for Hispanics, as they have been historically discriminated against in the United States, to relate to the mestizo Jesus.
It is precisely ideas such as these which gave way to liberation theology. Although the focus here is not on liberation theology, it is also not prudent to discuss Christology from an Hispanic perspective without acknowledging it. Relevance lies in the fact that liberation theology calls on the church to lead the way in a concentrated effort to free people from poverty and oppression (Elizondo 1992, 104). Clearly, this is a theology that applies to people around the world. It is deeply rooted and regularly identified, though, with Hispanics and Latin Americans, due to the seminal text of the movement written by the Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, in the early 1970's.

What is of note here is that liberation theology has made great headway in allowing minority groups, including Hispanics, to gain a greater self-consciousness and to increase awareness of the distortions of patriarchal influence from past manifestations of Christian history. By shaking this traditional foundation, Hispanics can engage Christology in new and innovative ways. More importantly, the new ways are generally adjustments to those that were in existence. Thus, the combination allows for a mestizo Christology.
There is a tendency for specific communities, in this case Hispanics in the United States, to develop an identifiable Christian culture which is appropriate within the community and to the external groups as well (Martell-Otero 156). The Hispanic community, in most cases, is and has been shaped and characterized by their religious traditions (Elizondo 1992, 109). For Hispanics, Christianity is the dominant custom of religious beliefs. Hispanics, like many other minorities in the United States, have struggled for existence and recognition. Much like the ancient Christians, this has come with a fair share of persecution. The other side of the coin is that Christian religious traditions and customs have become deeply embedded in the Hispanic culture and identity. It has, in many ways, become a method to demonstrate to others the peculiar style of life in the Hispanic culture.

The human sciences of anthropology, sociology, psychology, as well as historical research, find themselves with naturalistic explanations of religion. This idea can be seen as a projection or desire for a cosmic father figure, a need for socially cohesive symbols, or the power of priestly or divine classes. Tillich acknowledges the negative connotations associated with symbolism (Collins 168). However, he stresses symbolic importance as proper and necessary and goes on to posit that symbolic interpretation enhances reality (Taylor 169). Yet, Hispanics continue to embrace religious ideals and beliefs. The form that this takes does change. In the twentieth century, the most rapid expansion has been within Protestantism, especially in the evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Even with a movement away from the traditional Roman Catholic customs, Hispanics carry over some of these traditions, thus contributing to the mixture (mestizo) of religion and cultural identity (Gonzalez 1990, 72). The Protestant movement, on the other hand, has a primary emphasis on the individual spiritual improvement, salvation, and fellowship within the faith community and church leaders. These attributes are neither traditional nor renewed Catholicism. Still, masses of Hispanics turn out for Ash Wednesday services, which is not a common ceremony within Protestant traditions (Romero 68). This contributes to mestizo Christology, but it is also related to the idea that Christianity is not only a denominational religion, but is a cultural component within the Hispanic community.
Processions, Fiestas and Pilgrimages

Processions are not generally associated with most Protestant traditions. However, there is a great link between processions, Hispanic culture, and religious expression (Gonzalez 1996, 20). Processions allow for private and corporate experiences within a public ceremony of worship. This collective event stimulates a variety of senses simultaneously. This mixture of styles helps to formulate identity within a Christian setting. Furthermore, it prepares the individual to encounter Jesus. Tillich argues that if a symbol points to the divine it is a true symbol, and therefore can offer an expression of true revelation (Taylor 166-167). Tillich would oppose ritual as a means to encounter the divine, and most likely would oppose the notion of ritual processions as a form of Christology. One response to that potential opposition is that ceremonial rituals include status enhancement with relation both to the divine and the body of Christ. Hispanics, via procession, become physically and spiritually centered prior to their arrival at the final destination for worship. The communal activity leads to a spirit of presence as the body of Christ.
Fiestas associated with Holy Days, or festivals of the church, are another important means of Hispanic Christian identity. It is here that Hispanics can be in relationship with Jesus by way of song, dance, praise, and celebration. These are all well-recognized as pivotal components of Hispanic worship (Jimenez 111). Thus, these all contribute to the understanding and the practice Hispanics use to understand Jesus. The practices help to identify the person of Jesus and what he does individually and corporately.
Among other customs in Christianity, pilgrimage can be a journey to a shrine, a traditional religious spot, or some other sacred place. Pilgrimages are undertaken for a variety of reasons. Some people contend that the journey lends supernatural assistance for specific situations. Other examples include acts of thanksgiving, penance, piety, and devotional purposes. People have been making pilgrimages since the second century, for various and mixed reasons.

Rome clearly was a popular site for visitors as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. This was, and is still, an appealing pilgrimage destination for Hispanics. Though many other sacred places continue to attract Roman Catholic pilgrims, more recent stories such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe (1531) in Mexico, pull in tremendous numbers of travelers. This steady growth is important not only because of quantity, but because visitors there are a phenomenal cross section of Christian denominations.
Pilgrimage, like processions, is a physical act of one's desire to come in contact with Jesus. The variety of reasons are combined with the variation of how this is a meaningful practice. The end result is a mestizo Christology. It is mestizo as it brings together human effort and spiritual presence. All of this--the reasons, effects, patterns, and the pilgrim--are beyond the mainstream definitions of understanding, thus pilgrimage is mestizo (Gonzalez 1996, 14). For this reason, pilgrimage is a good example of how many Hispanics are brought into the person and salvation of Jesus. Furthermore, it can be argued from a Tillich position that these are Christological practices because Jesus Christ is maintained in, by, and through them. According to Tillich, where Christ is maintained, there is a Christian message, which brings about the New Being (Taylor 213).

In Hispanic households, it is very common to find home altars (Romero 83). One can usually find, either on the altar or elsewhere in the home, icons of Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary. There are formal doctrines for their veneration; however, one opinion is that icons in the Hispanic community fall under the category of popular religion. This can be called "material Christianity," as these items which are either purchased, or given as gifts, were done so for the purpose of using them in relation with one’s spiritual identity and development (McDanell 13). Icons, in and of themselves, can draw out images of Jesus' divine and human nature. The real wonder of icons is that this feat can be done simultaneously. In this sense, icons may depict the divine in its oneness and in the pluralities of its differentiations, emanations, incarnations, as well as human relationships to that of the holy. Icons can also be said to depict the world as a stage in divine action. Here, Hispanics can tie in their struggles to images of Jesus on the cross. Icons know few limits by way of their possibilities. They can represent the idea of the diabolical, and portray evil and the satanic. This adds to the sense of mestizo, as icons can also be seen in tandem with salvation, and/or redemption. Most importantly, icons can be for Hispanics a vehicle to personify and thus identify with and relate to Jesus. Icons can function as a window through which Jesus can be summoned. Tillich suggests that there is no guarantee that such a transcendent goal can be reached on every occasion. However, works of art such as icons clearly have the transformative power (Taylor 68). Icons can be a window for Hispanics, through which they can be transported to the New Being in Jesus.
Obviously, the interpretation and uses of icons are vast. This is precisely because they are mestizo. Icons may borrow from myths and other religious narratives. They depict the past, present, and the future of this life and the life to come. Again, there are religious doctrines surrounding icons; however, generally speaking for Hispanics, icons are most useful in terms of religious experience and concepts of religious figures such as Mary and Jesus. Icons are a reminder of the power of Jesus, and through them salvation can be clearly recognized.

The Blessed Mary

Previously it has been mentioned, in terms of pilgrimage and icons, the importance of the Virgin Mary. She holds an important role in all of Christianity, but especially in certain traditions. She is regularly the object of veneration in Christian art, music, and literature. Here again, I do not seek to explain or expand on theology or dogma associated with Mary. What I find important about Mary is that the practice of popular veneration to her lends itself to the Hispanic community's efforts to answer the question, "Who do you say that I am?"
Mary, too, can be thought of as mestizo. She is human, yet commonly referred to as the Theotokos, Mother of God (Norris 26). She has taken on a key role in Christian conversions and pastoral care for Christians. This is possible because she is recognized as blessed, yet humble and obedient. Mary's Biblical accounts are rather limited, whereas for centuries a plethora of information has been produced about her person and sightings of her spirit.
Juan Diego's vision of her in Mexico led to the establishment of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today, this is one of the most visited sites of religious pilgrimage in the western hemisphere. The Marian Center in Mexico has cultural importance for Hispanics, due to its geographical location, and due to Mary's message of hope in the face of despair (Elizondo 1983, 12). Combined with the regular devotion to Mary in the Roman Catholic Church, in forms such as feasts and in the rosary, Mary is intimately connected to Hispanic life inside and out of the church. This position fits well within Tillich’s framework of religious principle and cultural function, in that it allows for religion to be actualized, and function outside the realm of religion (Taylor 40). It is this cultural importance of Mary that transcends any theoretical or institutional boundaries.

Mary of Guadalupe and other sites of apparitions and pilgrimages are crucial not only due to the miracle of her appearances or the miracles she performs at the sites, but for her interaction, her understanding, and the ability for Hispanic Christian pilgrims to relate and identify with her struggles, identity, and final salvation. Mary can bring in the Hispanic community in many ways--through icons, pilgrimage sites, prayers, and the rosary–to know the saving grace of Jesus. By praying the rosary, one engages many senses and can make a variety of connections with Mary. Finally, Mary, along with her ideal mother-like qualities, can be seen in an eschatological or apocalyptic light. The messages she brings, from Mexico to Russia, all promise a time of peace and ultimate victory for God. This is the message of Jesus Christ and thus Mary’s role is one of great Christological importance. Obviously this message appeals to all Christians, but for Hispanics it is extremely uplifting, considering economic, political, and social strife which is regularly suffered by Hispanics.
Pilgrimages, icons, and devotion to Mary and her apparitions have not been entirely approved by the church. Some warn against excesses, and question the value of practices mentioned above, while others question their authority. Again, Tillich would agree that icons have Christological value in the sense described above, but would not agree that pilgrimages and ritual activities fit into this category. Moreover, Tillich would support a redefined notion of Christology, such as the mestizo which has been described here, in lieu of historical Christological dogma (319). Such redefined symbols allow Hispanics to live in the conditions of reality without estrangement pulling them down.
The larger Hispanic community is not interested in sitting on a council to fine-tune definitions and understandings of these topics. These areas provide a scope for Hispanics to exercise faith as a free response to the holy mysteries of Jesus.


Faith is our human response to God's revelation through Jesus Christ. We most commonly express faith through devotional piety (Romero 17). Faith is more than just devotional acts; it is a lifestyle for Hispanics. Justo Gonzalez writes, "Spirituality is first of all living in the gospel--making faith the foundation for life" (1990, 157). It is here that Hispanics can and do take on the task of meeting Jesus. In common practices, be they in church or at a home altar, there is no drive to explain how Jesus of Nazareth can also be Jesus the Christ. He just is. He is both, a mixture--he is mestizo. Chalcedon would dispute this point of combination, as it is terribly close to jeopardizing the essence as “mutable” or “alterable” (Norris 157). Mestizo, though, is not a mixture in the sense of a melting pot. Instead, it is a coming together of different features, each with their own distinction, to create a new reality that holds them in tension.
Faith, too, has been overly analyzed, explained, and pontificated on within various disciplines. Here faith is addressed as an inner conviction or trust that relates human beings to God. According to Tillich, “Faith transcends every conceivable reality” (68). In the Hispanic community, the emphasis is not on the reason of faith, but a reason to have faith. When the wider community and institutions seem not to understand or care, Hispanics can turn to Jesus in a variety of ways. He can meet them where they are. Above, the methods of how this is operationalized were explained. The reason for this phenomenon involves Jesus' compassion, solidarity, and finally, salvation.

Pilgrimage, icons, processionals, festivals, the Virgin Mary, and faith, all inherently represent a collection, celebrated by a variety of people in a number of ways. Each of them, as described above, are mestizo. The people who participate within them are mestizo, and finally, this collection of examples offers a combination of ways to walk with Jesus, a mestizo.
Granted, Hispanics in the United States are often in desperate or grim situations. Their understanding of and faith in Jesus is not simply a means of wishful thinking. There is indeed a risk in faith. There is a passionate commitment to faith, not based on reason, but inwardly necessitated. Hispanics have suggested that regardless of how divine or human Jesus is, He understands human struggles and intervenes on behalf of His people. This is possible only in Jesus, as He is indeed a combination of all that is human and divine. He is an example of suffering and salvation. He is present with us now in many ways, means, and forms. He is mestizo.
Finally, nothing can really be said about Christology, which forces the need to say everything. Therefore, when considering that Jesus is a mixture, that the examples of how to engage Jesus are a mixture, and that the Hispanic people are mestizos, it makes it relatively easy to answer the question, "Who do you say that I am?" Hispanics can answer, "You are a lot like us. We are a lot like you. Nosotros somos mestizos."


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