Krista Tippett, host: I'm Krista Tippett. Today "Globalizing the Sacred." Americans of Hispanic descent have now become this country's largest minority. My guest today, Manuel Vásquez, grew up in El Salvador and is involved in long-term studies of Latino immigrants here. For all our talk of pluralism, he says, we have not grasped the way our culture will be changed by the religious and spiritual worldviews we are now importing, and indigenous religious practices are growing more influential in the global age.
Mr. Manuel Vásquez: Religion is one of the best vehicles to deal with both the local and personal and also the global and the universal. Religions have been doing this for centuries. They have universal messages of salvation and very personal strategies for coping with chaos.
Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
I'm Krista Tippett. Hispanic Americans have become the largest ethic minority in this country, now at an estimated 14 percent of the population and expected to grow to 20 percent by mid-century. We tend to focus on politics and economics when we discuss these immigrants. But my guest today describes how religion is a critical anchor of Hispanic life in the global age, and religion and culture here are being changed.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, "Globalizing the Sacred."
Ms. Tippett: Manuel Vásquez is a Salvadoran-American scholar of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He and his colleagues are involved in long-term studies of the role of religion in diverse Latino immigrant communities, from Mexicans in suburban Atlanta to Guatemalan Mayans in southern Florida. Religion plays a powerful, paradoxical role in these lives, he says, helping people navigate change and adapt and, at the same time, to maintain strong identities and rich connection to their original culture.
Mr. Vásquez: In one of the communities that we're looking at, people have retired from New York, from Boston, and they're going to Florida to enjoy the warmth. But in order to take care of their personal needs, they are relying on a growing immigrant population coming from Guatemala. And they, these Mayans, basically, are sort of plopped into a very hyper-modern society with all the luxuries of a planned city. And they are bringing their traditions of saints and spirits into this community. And they parade through the city, and now you have the local population coming in, participating in this and saying, "Well isn't this great that we have this experience of culture?" But then at the same time we have tensions. Right? Because it's OK to have a colorful festival with music and good food, ethnic manifestations that we want our community to have, but at the same time we're concerned that our space is being colonized by someone else.
Ms. Tippett: To understand why such dynamics are telling a new American story, Manuel Vásquez points back to events that began in the 1960s. Like other scholars, he views the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act as a watershed in American history, though it may have gone unnoticed by many amidst the other social dramas of the era. That act abolished previous country of origin quotas. So, into the 1960s, over 80 percent of immigrants to the United States were from Europe. Today 17 percent come from Europe, 26 percent from Asia, and half from Latin America.
Hispanic immigrants to this country are predominantly Roman Catholic, but they bring with them the tumultuous recent history of their regions. In the 1960s Latin America became the birthplace and testing ground of liberation theology, with an emphasis on activist social justice. Around the same time, charismatic and evangelical Christianity began to grow across Latin America, a trend that continues today. And traditional Catholic leaders became increasingly involved on both sides of political and social conflicts, conflicts which many fled by migrating to this country. When Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador condemned government death squads, he himself was assassinated in 1980. Manuel Vásquez knows these dynamics from his personal history, and they eventually led to his scholarly interest in religion and globalization.
Mr. Vásquez: It goes back to my childhood in El Salvador. I was trained by the Jesuits there. And at the time that I was trained, the Jesuits were at the forefront of what is called progressive Catholicism, associated with liberation theology in Christian-based communities, an attempt to do precisely what you do in your program, which is to link faith and life very closely. And I was trained by them, and El Salvador was undergoing major changes at the time. There was a lot of repression and social ferment.
Ms. Tippett: When are we talking?
Mr. Vásquez: We're talking about the early 1970s.
Ms. Tippett: And when you say you were trained by them, you were educated as a child or did you go into seminary?
Mr. Vásquez: I went into Jesuit high school. And at the time, they were implementing the changes in Vatican II, the opening to modernity and to read the signs of the time. And the signs of the time in Latin America were widespread poverty, social ferment. People were beginning to organize, to claim their rights. And so I came to the Jesuit high school where they were beginning to introduce this kind of sociological outlook to the educational system. For them, social justice was not something that was only a human enterprise. It was a divine mandate. And they even sacrificed their lives, because many of these Jesuits were assassinated, you know, in their fights.
Ms. Tippett: Really. The Jesuits in El Salvador who you…
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah. They, you know, after the killing of Monsignor Romero, Oscar Romero, there was a lot of repression against the progressive Church in El Salvador. So my teachers, both at the high school, at the university, were gunned down. The army came in one night when there was a guerilla offensive, and they took them out of their dormitories and executed them. And, you know, the story is that they aimed for their brains. They wanted to destroy the brains because they felt that the Jesuits, with all their teaching of the liberation and human rights and consciousness-raising, had stirred up the revolutionaries; and as a result, they wanted to kill the brains of the operation. So these people sacrificed a lot for justice, and I was moved by that. And so I became interested in that, and I went to Brazil to do research on base communities, small organizations that were trying to promote social justice and the reading of the Bible.
Ms. Tippett: Another extension of that same impulse.
Mr. Vásquez: The same impulse, yeah. And people basically read the Bible in their homes, and they interpreted the word of God, and they saw that God wanted justice and God was a God of life, opposed to a lot of the oppressive structures that were imposed on them. And so I went to study them, and I, again, was moved by poor people who, even though they had not gone beyond second grade in terms of education, were very eloquent in the presentation of their faith experience. And so I was interested in that. And initially I was interested in just doing a study of a base community, doing kind of a microstudy of it, interviewing people. But as I went into the local, I began to see that you could not understand the local without focusing on the global, because a lot of the problems that were affecting them were problems that were global problems: changes in the economy, changes in the government, migration. A lot of the people were migrating to the United States in search for opportunities. And so as a result, I said, well, if I'm interested in the local and in the everyday, I need to understand the global. And that's how I began to get interested in following the immigrants.
Ms. Tippett: Scholar of religion and social change Manuel Vásquez.
We all learn in school that America was shaped by immigrants who left their country of origin behind, came here and assimilated within a couple of generations. Now modern communications and transportation make it possible for immigrants to maintain rich cross-border ties and essentially to live in multiple places. This is a pattern common among the Hispanic immigrants who Manuel Vásquez studies. He says he does not see this as a failure of the American experiment but as a new chapter in the age-old story of human migration. He calls it transnationalism.
Mr. Vásquez: In other words, this is not an exclusive allegiance that we're talking about here. We're talking about here a kind of citizenship, a kind of belonging beyond the kind of single assimilationist approach that was a traditional approach that you're talking about. I'd like to give the image of the horticultural model of immigration in the past.
Ms. Tippett: What's that?
Mr. Vásquez: Immigrants were like plants, uprooted from their former homelands because of political violence, famine. So you have the Irish coming in the 1840s, uprooted from a poor Europe, and they come here. And so they had to leave behind their roots in order to be replanted here in the New Land. And they forget about their country of origin. What transnationalism says is that you don't have to give up your roots. You can be multiply imbedded in many countries and still belong, you know, have families here in the United States and also back home, send remittances and support families back home. But at the same time make sure that you buy your house here, make sure that your kids are educated in the American system, and, you know, invest here in this life.
Ms. Tippett: And I wonder how, as you study this, all this cluster of issues around immigration and globalization, how your focus on religion and religious sensibilities and religious practices also — you know, does that give you different imagination about what all this means, and what the implications are and how it works, a different imagination than Americans, again, might have?
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah, I think this is a very good question, because the immigrants, normally we tend to see immigrants as a kind of Homo economicus. You know, they come here, and…
Ms. Tippett: Right. We talk about them as economic actors, don't we? Yeah.
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah, the economic actors. They come here because they, you know, there are, of course, better jobs here, higher wages here. They don't have jobs in their home countries. And so the idea is that because there is a wage differential, they, of course, have to come here because, you know, who wouldn't come here with better jobs and more benefits? But a lot of these immigrants, even though that is a strong motivation, a lot of these immigrants also come for religious reasons. You know, you have immigrants who come here to this country as missionaries. They see the United States as in need of reform. So when we talk about family values, many of these immigrants bring very conservative family values to this country. So you've got many Pentecostals who say "I'm going to America because I want to convert who needs to be converted."
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah. So those are special cases, but you have religious immigrants. You also have religious readings of the economics and politics of immigration. Many of these immigrants interpret their journey across borders as a journey of conversion, as a journey of transformation of religious growth. And they invoke saints along the way. They ask for God's help as they cross borders. So these immigrants read their migration story as part of the divine story, where their lives are fitting as part of a mission that God has for them. A lot of the immigrants will tell you, "Yes, I came to look for jobs. Yes, I came to give a better life for my children. And, you know, it's part of God's plan for me. I'm here because God has given me this message that I should come up here and do this."
Ms. Tippett: And you've heard many people speaking that way. I mean, you know, those are not the kinds of quotes that we get in newspaper accounts of immigrants and why they're here.
Mr. Vásquez: No, you don't get it because, I think, if you go to churches, and the important point to go to churches is because immigrants, one of the first things they do when they arrive in the United States is they create their own churches, because their own churches are safe spaces where they can worship, they can come together, they can share often in their native language. And churches serve also as self-help networks that provide the assistance that is not there for many immigrants, particularly in places where immigration hasn't taken place. And so churches provide the first way for them to organize as a community.
Ms. Tippett: So, you know, an interesting insight that comes through to me in your work and also in other research I know of about globalization, including, you know, some of Peter Berger's work and in an interview I had with him, is that religion, in fact, you know, contrary to the idea that was prevalent a couple of decades ago, especially among sociologists, that as the world became more plural and more sophisticated and more global, religion would be less important. In fact, religious traditions and beliefs and practices are very critical tools for people of many traditions. You know, we're tending to talk here very much about Christians because that is the predominant tradition of Latin America, but this is true across traditions, that religious practices are critical tools as people navigate, both becoming part of a more universal world, a global world, and at the same time maintaining their identity and stability.
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah, you put it beautifully. I couldn't have said it better myself. So, yeah, what you sketched initially was the so-called secularization pieces, which basically said that with modernity, religion would be kicked out of the public sphere, in effect, and that religion would become privatized. It would become more of a matter of personal choice, and that people would have a religious market where they would go choose whatever works for them at a particular moment, and so religion would not have any public force. But what we're seeing is very public religions. We're seeing religions that make, as you say, universal claims about truth and about foundations. That's the whole question about fundamentalism, making claims about the true way of being religious.
And then at the same time, these religions help the individual get a sense of selfhood. Take any religion. Take Pentecostalism, sees itself as a universal message of salvation and, you know, it has the so-called "great commission" to go out and convert the nations of the world. But at the same time, Pentecostalism really takes care of the individual at the very personal level, from helping the individual deal with the evils of drinking, drugs, domestic violence, to helping the individual, as you say, navigate through the process of migration. Because when you migrate to a new place, especially if you're a single man, many of the people that we study, you know, the immigrant we study in Florida work in the agricultural sector, and they're single men. They have left their families behind, and they come here and they're around men. And there are all sorts of temptations that appear to them. And churches then provide these resources for them to have a safe space where they can maintain a certain purity from the world outside and keep focused on the family, which is back home.
So getting back to your question, religion is one of the best vehicles to deal with both the local and personal and also the global and the universal. Religions have been doing this for centuries. They have universal messages of salvation and very personal strategies for coping with chaos.
Ms. Tippett: Salvadoran-American religious scholar Manuel Vásquez. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, "Globalizing the Sacred."
Every day across Latin America, an estimated 8,000 Roman Catholics convert to evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Pentecostal spirituality has also influenced Roman Catholic and other traditions north and south of the border, with its emphasis on spiritual gifts of healing, speaking in tongues, and teaching, and most of all with an insistence on the equality of every believer before God. And Pentecostalism was originally a U.S. export with roots in Los Angeles. For Manuel Vásquez, this is just one example of a larger pattern of exchange that has characterized the history of the Americas. U.S. policies in Latin America, he says, have always had a boomerang effect, creating trade as well as immigration back in this country. And in the global age, religious dynamics north and south may have an equally dramatic hemispheric effect.
Mr. Vásquez: Pentecostalism is, I think, the quintessential hemispheric religion because it, you know, emerges in the United States in the early 1900s in the Azusa Revival.
Ms. Tippett: In Los Angeles.
Mr. Vásquez: In Los Angeles, and you already had Latinos there. Many Mexican-Americans [were] involved in that revival, and they themselves began to take the message back home to Latin America. They take it within two, three years to Mexico, to Puerto Rico, Brazil, and right away they start to create their churches. The Assemblies of God have been established in Latin America. They have a long trajectory. But as they do that, they begin to indiginize. They begin to take in some of the aspects of the local culture, not only the language, but also some of the cultural patterns. You know, if they need to speak to indigenous populations, they need to translate the Bible to Quechua. But they also need to deal with the cosmology of the Quechua in order to make sense of what the Quechua are experiencing. So the figure of the devil, as the Quechua understand it, becomes incorporated into the Pentecostal narrative in that region. And then, as these churches are indiginized and as they grow very fast in relation to Catholicism, then they begin to be exported back to the United States. They begin to come into the United States with immigration. And so now we have Pentecostal churches that have very clear Latin American flavor but are appealing to larger segments of the population, not only Latinos but also African Americans, and even your Americans.
Ms. Tippett: You know, I think it's also worth pointing out that the theology and the sensibility of Pentecostals, it says so much about the individual's direct relationship with God.
Mr. Vásquez: Exactly.
Ms. Tippett: And also I think Pentecostals are coming into another culture, in contrast to, say, Catholicism. Roman Catholicism coming into anther culture did not bring with it, and still today would not bring with it, this vast hierarchy and this long tradition that in some sense need to be imposed. So there's something sort of organic about what you're describing.
Mr. Vásquez: Yes. I think, you know, some people have argued that Pentecostalism is not concerned particularly with theology, that Pentecostalism is more of an embodied kind of experience that has to do with the experience of the Holy Spirit and the transformative power that it has in the life of the individual. And so in that sense, Pentecostals, although they have a theology, they're not interested in dogma; they're not interested in the rational analysis of the effervescence that is behind religion. That's why it's very adaptable, because it can really focus on the pragmatic needs, on the practical needs, the everyday needs of a particular population. Especially populations which are at the margins of society: poor people, indigenous people, people who have been devalued. All of a sudden, they feel themselves empowered by the Holy Spirit, and they speak a language that justifies and legitimates their position in the world.
Now, Catholicism, it's true, it brings a hierarchical setup in a very complex theology. However, there are forms of popular Catholicism that are also very much embodied and very much all about the senses, particularly the cult of the saints or Marian devotions, the devotions to Mary. They're all about the senses, they're all about the incense, they're about the music, the colors, the processions, the feel of the personal relationship with your patron saint. And these traditions are traditions that are still thriving despite the fact that Pentecostalism and evangelical Christianity is growing very fast in the region.
Ms. Tippett: Religious scholar and author Manuel Vásquez. Half of Roman Catholics in the United States are now Hispanic. Latino Catholics often import a mix of perspectives counterintuitive in American culture, an activist concern for social justice combined with conservative moral and family values.
(Excerpt from mariachi music)
Ms. Tippett: This music comes from one community Manuel Vásquez and his colleagues have studied in Texas. The Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan is a Roman Catholic Church with a strong charismatic influence. The priest there says that he watches Catholic religious television to learn more about church doctrine. He watches an evangelical station to learn how to preach. He translates some worship songs into Hebrew to be more universal than Spanish or English. And a mariachi band is likely to be playing as thousands of people gather every Sunday.
This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more from Manuel Vásquez, including stories from his research on Globalizing the Sacred. He describes pan-Mayan communities in suburban Florida, a Marian apparition in a strip mall, and Pentecostal churches ministering transnationally to Salvadoran gangs.
This exploration of the religious dynamics between the Americas continues at speakingoffaith.org. You can listen on demand to the entire program and use the Particulars section as a guide. While exploring, read my journal on this week's program and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org. I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Globalizing the Sacred."
My guest, Manuel Vásquez, is a scholar of religion and social change at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He grew up in El Salvador and is now involved in long-term studies of Latino immigrants in the United States. He's been describing the novel religious sensibilities these immigrants bring to our public religious sphere. He has a special interest in what he calls the "little religions," local practices and beliefs by which human beings navigate the opportunities and dislocations of the global era. And Manuel Vásquez says that for all our talk of pluralism, we have not grasped the way our culture will be shaped by the expanding range of religious and spiritual worldviews we are now importing.
Mr. Vásquez: So you have a transformation that you have people coming from Latin America and Asia and Africa bringing traditions that are not just Christian, where we have increasing diversity religiously. We have Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, people who practice African-based religions such as Santería, Candomblé. And so we have a religious diversity that is really posing a challenge to the ways in which we understand pluralism in this country.
Ms. Tippett: Isn't it something like the projection is that by 2050, there will be slightly more than 20 percent of the American population would have Latino origin?
Mr. Vásquez: Right, right. Right now it's close to 14 percent. Even then, there are 40 million Latinos in this country, so it's a substantial amount. But we're going to go up to close to 80 million by 2050, and that's a tremendous increase. And so it's changing the face of what it means to be American and raising the issue again of, you know, loyalty and belonging and language. And not only that, but what are the values, the core values, that will drive our society? Are they going to be, you know, freedom of conscience, tolerance for religious practices? You know, what's in store for us as we have people who have different experiences, different kinds of modernity coming in, coming from India, from Brazil, from China. You know, what does it mean to be, then, American when we have these kinds of modernities meeting in the U.S.?
Ms. Tippett: Now, you've written a book with a very evocative title, Globalizing the Sacred. And you and your co-author write that the genesis of the book was an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1996 in Clearwater, Florida. Would you tell me about that and why that was the genesis of this lofty title?
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah, well, at the end of — let's put it this way. As the millennium was drawing to a close, we knew that religion was going to emerge, I think, more publicly, because people were trying to deal with this change. I mean people try to deal with radical changes by drawing from their interpretative lenses, and religion provides the interpretative lenses for a lot of people. So we were looking for these kinds of phenomena. And the apparition of the Virgin, the Virgin appears in a bank building in Clearwater in the middle of a strip mall, this very beautiful image of the head of Mary in the window. And very soon this event becomes an event that, although started locally, it becomes globalized. You have the media right away sending crews to document it — CNN, ABC, and it begins to make the rounds on the Internet. You have people, by word of mouth, saying, "Well, the Virgin has appeared. Let's go see her." And so pretty soon you have tourists heading to Orlando to come and see the famous apparition of the Virgin. A makeshift altar is set up there for the Virgin. And you have immigrants who are working in the nearby fields coming in to celebrate in December, thinking that this is the Virgin of Guadalupe that has appeared there because the apparition appeared and, you know, happened in December. And so you had this polyglot group of people coming together, and for us it was a fascinating microcosm of how religion is acting today in the world. Religion is entering these very fast and very widespread means of communication, entering it. But at the same time, very much localized. So the global does not erase the local, but rather it is as if the local has been taken in through global media and being globally in such a way that now it becomes a shared space throughout the world. And so we were fascinated by this, and we said, "OK, so, would it be possible that religion is acting this way, not just for this particular event?" In other words, maybe this is not just a unique event. Maybe this is indicative of the reality of religion today with globalization.
Ms. Tippett: So, I mean, it seems kind of a paradox that in this global age, what you were saying, where we need to look for the public face of religion and perhaps its public force, is in the "little religions." And what do you mean when you say that?
Mr. Vásquez: I use that, you know, between quotes because normally people when they think of religion they think of, you know, the great sacred books. OK? We need to look at the world religions. Right?
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Vásquez: And let's go to the big temples, the mosques, the cathedrals. That's where the, you know, real religion is happening. Or let's look at the foundational text, the Qur'an, at the Bible. Religion's still experienced that way, as we saw in the case of Pentecostalism where the scriptures are central, are part of the experience of the religion. However, I would have to say that there's been always this religion that has been lived extrainstitutionally, outside the canonized ways of looking at religion. These, quote, unquote, "little religions" have always been considered to be superstitious, strange, because many of them were syncretic. Many of them mixed the profane with the sacred. Many of them mixed multiple traditions. And what I want to say is that because globalization puts us in every, you know, everybody is in everybody's backyard, that because these localized forms of religion, these "little religions" that were practiced at the margins of the canonized spaces, writings and practices are coming to the center. They're being recentered. And people are looking for uniqueness in a world that is more and more homogenized, because globalization also produces homogenization. People have a hunger for uniqueness, have a hunger for distinctive experiences. And I think these localized experiences provide some of that distinctiveness, and that's how they enter these global patterns.
Ms. Tippett: Scholar of religion and social change Manuel Vásquez. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, "Globalizing the Sacred."
(Excerpt from marimba music)
Ms. Tippett: This is traditional marimba music from a village in Guatemala that has sent many immigrants to the town of Jupiter, Florida, where Manuel Vásquez and his colleagues are studying the role of religion. These immigrants are bringing Mayan spiritual beliefs and practices to suburban Florida. They're seeking to preserve these, even as they make a place for themselves in American life.
Mr. Vásquez: We're doing research on Latinos in Florida, and one of the communities that we're looking at is this Mayan community in Jupiter, Florida. We have a very wealthy Euro-American community. People have retired from New York, from Boston, Chicago, and they're going to Florida to enjoy the warmth. And so they have this very wealthy community called Abacoa. It's a planned community. Everything is beautiful; everything is in its place. But in order to take care of their gardens and golf courts and to deal with their personal needs, they are relying on a growing immigrant population coming from Guatemala. And these are Jacaltec Mayas, Mayas from Jacaltenango. And they, these Mayas, basically, are sort of plopped into a very hyper-modern society with all the conveniences and all the luxuries of a modern U.S. planned city, and they are bringing their costumbres, it's called in Spanish, their traditions of saints and spirits into this community.
Ms. Tippett: What kind of sensibility is it? Is it Christian-influenced at all or is it…
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah, it's a mixture of Christianity.
Ms. Tippett: The saints… it's a mixture of Christianity…
Mr. Vásquez: It's a mixture of Christianity and…
Ms. Tippett: …and kind of pre-Christian?
Mr. Vásquez: Yes. And shamanic traditions, basically.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Mr. Vásquez: And what we have here is that they celebrate, they do the Mass, but they also have offerings to the mountain spirits, they have offerings to their local spirits that are connected to their communities. And they literally take over the public space once a year at the beginning of February, and they have a Maya festival where they process with a saint, patron saint, and they also wear the colorful garb of their ancestors. And they parade through the city, this very modern city, playing marimba, playing all these instruments that are kind of their local instruments. And now you have the local population coming in and sort of participating in this and saying, "Well isn't this great that we have this experience of culture?" But then at the same time we have tensions. Right? Because it's OK to have a colorful festival with music and good food, ethnic manifestations that we want our community to have because, after all, we're cosmopolitans. Right? We, you know, we grew up in New York, we grew up in Boston, and we are used to this cosmopolitanism, and we like this expression. But at the same time, we are concerned that our space is being colonized by someone else's. And so we want to mark our space and say, "Well, wait a minute. This is our space. Why do we have these people coming in?" You know, "Who are they anyway? Why do they do things this way and not that way? We do it this way." So globalization has this dual aspect of bringing us together, creating sort of hybrid forms of communication where people talk across languages, across boundaries, across religious traditions. But also it has a way to really create high borders where we want to reject what's different because what's different is threatening.
Ms. Tippett: OK, so in that sense, in terms of religion, we can think of some religious fundamentalist movements as one expression of that extreme reaction. But I wonder what you see as you study these immigrant communities and, you know, this community in Jupiter, Florida. Just — let's dwell with them. I mean, these are people who are disadvantaged by the structures of our society.
Mr. Vásquez: And the structures of their society, too, where they come from.
Ms. Tippett: OK, all right. Well, that's important to remember.
Mr. Vásquez: It's a multiple marginality that they have.
Ms. Tippett: And, I mean, does religion then serve the purpose of, I don't know, let's say, a cynic might say, "This is Marxist opium of the masses." Right? That religion kind of makes them happy in some sense and in that way keeps them in their place, gives them something to hang on to. Do you also see religion in immigrant communities pushing at those structures or giving people a way to work against their disadvantages?
Mr. Vásquez: Well, this is an excellent question in regard to Jupiter because they not only celebrate the festival and have this one-day fiesta where Abacoa becomes Maya, becomes a Huehuetenango abroad. Right? And you have people videotaping the fiesta so that they can send information back home. And you have cell phones connected so that they can hear the marimba being played in Jupiter, and they can hear it back in Huehuetenango. and the radio there. Right? This is the transnationalism that's happening. Right? And you have the mayor of Huehuetenango. coming to visit Jupiter so that they have a sisterhood of cities. So you do have that.
But it's not only a kind of one-day celebration and then they go back to their lives of being day laborers and being exploited, but also out of this organization grew an organization called Corn Maya, which was a civic organization that is pushing for the creation of a labor center. And the city, after a lot of struggle and a lot of debate, agreed to provide $1 million for them to create a labor center so that the Latinos that were hired would not have to stand on street corners, but they would have a more regularized space where they would be hired and they would be offered protection and the transaction would be above board. So you see here that the religious manifestation goes hand in hand or translates into empowerment, political empowerment. So this organization, Corn Maya, now is a civic organization that represents the interest of Maya Jacaltec. And it's also bringing in not just Maya Jacaltec, but also Mexicans and other Latinos who are now clustering around this organization.
Ms. Tippett: Salvadoran-American scholar of religion Manuel Vásquez. He sometimes describes globalization using terms we might normally associate with physics or cosmology. For example, he says that globalization creates a time-space compression. Religion helps people unbind culture from traditional contexts and boundaries and reattach it in new time-space configurations. In his book, Globalizing the Sacred, Manuel Vásquez tells one story about Pentecostal churches and Salvadoran gangs that he titles "Saving Souls Transnationally."
Mr. Vásquez: Basically this goes back to the immigration from El Salvador again. Because of the political situation in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of El Salvadorans migrate to Washington, D.C., and to L.A. And once they're in L.A., they have to adapt to the local culture, particularly in L.A. where you had a long-standing Mexican-American culture of youth groups, you know, pachucos. The Salvadoran youth had to form their own group to protect themselves from Mexican youth or to have an identity against the other Latino youth. And so they create this gang called Mara Salvatrucha, which is a famous gang. And so, you know, they create this gang, and then, with the drug trade, they begin to get criminalized.
It started as a kind of attempt to have identity for Salvadoran youth abroad, but it becomes cannibalized in a certain sense by criminal syndicates, and then it gets exported back to El Salvador. And they begin to found chapters in Guatemala and El Salvador and Mexico. And so you have these transnational networks of gangs that are operating very loosely across boundaries. And so Pentecostal churches, who are concerned very much with the youth — and our Latino population is a very young population, and so if you want to minister to the Latino population, you have to minister to young folks--and so the Pentecostal churches have to minister to young people who are living transnationally in these gang organizations. And so the churches themselves are transnationally organized as alternative networks of survival.
Ms. Tippett: Between Los Angeles and El Salvador?
Mr. Vásquez: Between Los Angeles, El Salvador, and now there are chapters in wherever there are Salvadorans — in Houston, in Washington, D.C. — and, you know, so it's a whole network that's spread. And you have churches attempting to minister at each stage of the journey of these immigrants.
Ms. Tippett: There are some stock ways of analyzing globalization, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. Right? Or what it's about. And on the one hand, you will have the argument that this is about economic consolidation, that it's basically about progress.
Mr. Vásquez: Right.
Ms. Tippett: And on the other hand, you'll have the critique that this is another form of imperialism and that it's about oppression. Those are forms of dialogue that tend to focus especially on the economic level of globalization. And I wonder, with your focus on the religious aspect — obviously you're also thinking about the economic and political — but how do you think that gives you a different way to interpret both the dangers and the possibilities? What do you see then that these other kinds of analysts perhaps aren't even looking for?
Mr. Vásquez: Well, the focus on lived religion, focus on everyday life, you know, what these immigrants are experiencing religiously, makes you bring globalization down to earth, because many of these debates about globalization are very abstract. People want to be — they make these totalizing claims about what globalization is. Globalization is this or globalization is that. And, you know, if you make that argument, that abstract, globalization can be anything. To me, I'm interested more in the effects of globalization in its multiple ways on local life. And what I see is that these effects are paradoxical, contradictory, that it depends on who you're focusing in at a particular time to see whether these effects are positive or negative. Focusing on everyday life and on lived religion gives me a sense of humility when talking about globalization.
Ms. Tippett: You know, earlier on, you predicted that we have sort of radical transformation ahead. And I think the numbers suggest that that's not theoretical, that that is bound to happen just in terms of immigration and just the changing face of our country religiously, as you have studied and documented and described. You know, change is very unsettling for human beings, and it took America a long time to have a decent, humane conversation between Catholics and Protestants. And now we have this explosion of different forms and beliefs. How do you look into the future, and how you feel about that future?
Mr. Vásquez: Oh, I feel very positive about the future. I mean, I think, despite the tensions and despite concerns, I would say the American experiment is alive and kicking. I would say basically we're fulfilling the rhetoric that we have been talking about. Finally we're becoming a pluralistic society where the issues of tolerance, of respect for human rights becomes central. And not only that, the global means of communication make it possible for us to address questions globally for the first time. So we have both pluralism and the capacity to rise above the specificity of our local concerns. Sam Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, asked a question, "Who are we?" I don't like the answer he gives. The answer he gives is a very perfectionist…
Ms. Tippett: He's the clash of civilization inventor. Yes.
Mr. Vásquez: Yeah, the clash of civilization. The Latinos are bringing this internal clash of civilization. Right? Because they bring a Catholic Hispanic culture that is more corporatist, more concerned and not used to the individual conscience, whereas our culture is more Anglo-Saxon, more Protestant, more individualistic, and you know, our language might be suffering from this. I think that take is wrong. The answer is wrong, but the question is right. I think the question is--`Who are we?' is a central question. In these times of globalization, where we basically are very close to each other and interacting with each other very closely, we need to ask that question, who are we as Americans? What makes us American? And, you know, at the same time that we have an identity, we also have to fulfil the promise of inclusion and pluralism that's part of our history.
Ms. Tippett: Manuel Vásquez is an associate professor of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His books include The Brazilian Popular Church and the Crisis of Modernity and Globalizing the Sacred, which he co-authored with Marie Friedmann Marquardt. You'll find an interview with her on our Web site this week.
The conversation continues at speakingoffaith.org. Contact us with your thoughts on this program. Listen on demand for no charge to this and previous programs in the Archive section, and learn how to purchase your own copy of this program. You can also register for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each interview and a transcript of each previous week's program. That's speakingoffaith.org.
This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck, and Jody Abramson with editor Ken Hom. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss with assistance from Ilona Piotrowska. The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg. And I'm Krista Tippett.