- Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture by Felipe Hinojosa
By Felipe Hinojosa. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 328pp. isbn 978-1421412832
Latino/a religious studies have tended to focus primarily on Catholics and much less frequently on smaller Protestant denominations. In his recent monograph, historian Felipe Hinojosa recovers the little-known presence of Latinos/as in the predominantly white Mennonite Church. Raised in the Church himself, Hinojosa explores how Latino/a Mennonites came to assert a religious and ethnic identity as “evangélicos” in the context of the Civil Rights era and its socially transformative politics. Ultimately, he argues that Latino Mennonites came to their ethno-religious consciousness through the convergence of their faith and the politics of the Chicano, Puerto Rican, and black Civil Rights movements.
Latino Mennonites begins by offering a history of the missionary or volunteer efforts of this Anabapist denomination among poor, Spanish-speaking populations in South Texas and rural Puerto Rico. As the wealth of white Mennonite church members (especially farmers) grew during the prosperous post-World War II years, they performed “servant activism,” supporting aid and development efforts around the world. In the small towns of the Río Grande Valley, “VSers” or Volunteer Service Program participants, reached out to Mexican Americans, some of whom were moved by the gospel the Mennonite missionaries preached, the food and entertainment they provided, and the examples of good Christian living they modeled.
In Puerto Rico, Mennonites first reached hillside hamlets during World War II, as conscientious objectors in the Civilian Public Service: As pacifists who opposed the war, Mennonites, along with Quakers and other religious minorities, performed civilian duty as an alternative to enlisting in the military. Once the war ended, however, the Church continued its missionary work among these populations, much like social settlement workers or Mormon missionaries have done. These efforts were so popular, according to Hinojosa, that “by the early 1960s, the Puerto Rican Mennonite Church grew to nearly 500 members and 12 congregations across the island” (39). He adds that “[b]etween the 1940s and 1960s, Mennonites [also] helped organize roughly 26 African American and 17 Latino churches across the United States” (49). Latino followers were not limited to South Texas or Puerto Rico, however. Spanish-speaking congregations appeared in Chicago as early as the 1930s, and in New York City in the 1950s.
The Mennonite tradition of “quiet progressivism” led many to embrace the integrationist politics of the Civil Rights movement. Their impulse to engage with the social problems of the times came into conflict, however, with their insular and isolated culture (primarily German and Swiss in origin) that emphasized remaining apart from the world. Still, the Church established an Urban Racial Council (URC) in 1968 to promote greater integration of racial minorities, address their specific concerns, and strengthen their faith.
Hinojosa skillfully shows that Latinos struggled with the question of race within a black-white social context in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the URC’s leadership committee included a Mexican American member, many had ambivalent feelings about joining a group that seemed to focus primarily on urban African American issues and neglected the conditions of rural Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. Thus, the following year, Latinos/as formed the Latin Concilio to address their own needs, such as the development of Spanish-language religious curriculum. They ultimately decided to work cooperatively with African Americans under the URC umbrella, but only after changing the group’s name to the more inclusive Minority Ministries Council (MMC). They also maintained their autonomous Latin Concilio to do work among Spanish speakers both in the U.S. and Latin America.
Hinojosa highlights the 1972 Cross-cultural Youth Convention, which took place in Northern Indiana and brought together nearly 300 black, Latino/a, Native American, and white youth from around the country, as a pivotal moment in raising racial and ethnic consciousness among nonwhite Mennonites. The gathering helped crystallize both an ethnic and religious identity for black and brown Mennonites by giving them the opportunity [End Page 143] to reflect...