- Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action by Gastón Espinosa
Latino Pentecostals in America covers more than a century of Latino history in the Assemblies of God (AG) movement, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States. Gastón Espinosa uses extensive sources, including archives, oral histories, interviews, and quantitative data, to trace the history of the Latino AG in the United States and Puerto Rico from its origins in the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 to the present political and social influence of Latino Pentecostals. Espinosa contends that for over 100 years, “Latino Pentecostals have struggled . . . to exercise voice, agency, and leadership in the Assemblies of God, in Latino Protestantism, and in American public life” (13). The first section focuses [End Page 534] on the history of the Latino AG in the Southwest from 1906 through the twenty-first century. The second section addresses the Latino AG in Puerto Rico and in the Puerto Rican diaspora. The final three chapters emphasize different aspects of Latino AG history through the lenses of gender, social justice, and recent political influence. The chapter on gender, for example, explores the role of women in the Latino AG, who faced “an uphill calling” (282) as they struggled as “third-class soldiers” (321) against marginalization from the entrenched patriarchy within and also from the world around them.
Illustrative of Latino Pentecostals’ long-standing struggle for “voice, agency, and leadership” are the many heretofore untold stories of Latino AG leaders who built their churches and the denomination from the ground up, often in the face of heavy antagonism from Anglos in and out of the Assemblies of God. The pioneering generation of Mexican Pentecostal ministers built a strong following after the movement began in 1906, but Henry Ball, whose family moved to South Texas when he was young, began to consolidate his authority over AG ministries among Mexicans in the 1910s. Anglo leaders like Ball, despite their commitment to the spiritual and physical needs of Latinos, believed that Mexicans were incapable of leading ministries among their own communities. Instead, Ball became a “gatekeeper for any Mexican in South Texas who wanted to secure AG credentials” (99). First generation AG leaders Arnulfo López and Isabel Flores, along with Francisco Olazábal, a dynamic Pentecostal leader in the Southwest, challenged Ball’s leadership and called for an independent Mexican-led AG district. Eventually, denominational leaders in Springfield came to Ball’s aid, effectively barred Olazábal from AG ministry, and reinforced Anglo control over Latino AG work.
At times, however, Espinosa’s close attention to developments within the denomination seems to obscure the ways in which Latino Pentecostals interacted with the world around them. For example, Espinosa argues that the integration of Latino Presbyterians and Methodists into Anglo churches led to the assimilation of their Latino leadership in the 1940s, which often meant that Latino churches closed and many Latino leaders were left jobless. However, since the Latino AG’s designation as a separate district meant that many of their churches “never forced integration,” they were able to remain intact and adjust to the needs of their congregations (171). A discussion of Latino Pentecostals’ relationship with the broader Mexican American experience in the 1940s or what the assimilation of other Latino Protestants looked like would have provided context to understand how these processes unfolded.
Nevertheless, instances like this do not detract from this extensively researched and compelling book. Rather, Espinosa has traversed such a large swath of Latino Pentecostal history that his book provides several [End Page 535] avenues for further analysis. In documenting the struggle of Latino Pentecostals, Espinosa has filled a major gap in the scholarship on U.S. religious history. In particular, his attention to the rich history of the Latino AG complicates the black-white binary prevalent in Pentecostal historiography and invites scholars of Latino, American, and religious history to reconsider their influence on the stories they tell. [End Page 536]