Book Review: Being Latino in Christ, by Orlando Crespo
When my daughters come of age and are asked to complete the questionnaire for the United States Census Bureau, I wonder how they will respond to the questions about ethnicity and race. In the 2000 Census Individual Report long form, question five asks, “Are you Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?” Question six then asks a person to classify him or herself as “White/Black, African Am., or Negro/American Indian or Alaska Native . . . Other Asian/Some other race.” I wonder because I am a first generation “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” born in Puerto Rico, and I married a woman with deep roots in white America. I assume that my daughters would respond “Yes (Puerto Rican)” to question five and “White” to question six. After all, those are the only options.
Orlando Crespo has written Being Latino in Christ: Finding Wholeness in Your Ethnic Identity for second-generation Latinos like my daughters—Latinos who find themselves in the twilight zone of belonging to two ethnic cultures but not feeling “ethnic enough” to fit into either. Crespo believes that by embracing both parent cultures Latino Americans (and I assume he would include other bicultural Americans) can provide a bridge between cultures and serve both parent cultures in the name of Christ. He states,
In this book I argue that most Latinos born in the United States will be happiest somewhere in between [the two parent cultures]. I seek to point us toward a healthy balance as we gain a conceptual understanding of Latino ethnic identity and learn how to practically live out our God-given strengths and gifts. (10)
Being Latino recounts Crespo’s personal and traumatic journey toward embracing his Latino roots and coming to terms with his calling to minister in multicultural America. He then hopes to encourage other second-generation Latinos to do the same. Crespo recalls the racist attitudes against his ethnicity that led him to be ashamed of being Latino. These forced him to adopt survivalist strategies by which he could live in two ethnic worlds. Then he took a trip to Puerto Rico and discovered his ethnic roots. His journey of ethnic self-discovery was directed in part by four trail markers: “(1) connecting with others like me; (2) embracing the pain of my people; (3) understanding Latino complexity and alienation; (4) receiving encouragement for the journey” (17).
After sharing his own story, Crespo attempts to broaden the term “Latino” by proposing two constitutive factors for ethnic self-identity: (1) Latino heritage somewhere in the family which can be traced back to a Hispanic country and (2) a willingness to identify with that heritage “by being open about our ethnic roots, taking initiative to learn more about our Latino culture and caring about the issues relevant to our people” (30). Crespo then provides an ethnic identity/assimilation grid “that can help you see where you stand in your ethnic sense of self” (41). The grid indicates whether there has been a high assimilation to American mainstream culture or a high Latino ethnic identity.
In order to help Latinos understand their biculturalism, Crespo uses the paradigm of mestizaje. Mestizos were the offspring of the Spaniards and the Native peoples during the Spanish conquest of the Western Hemisphere. According to Justo Gonzalez, mestizo “was a pejorative term, by which the Spaniard or the ‘pure’ criollos who were their descendants justified their control of power and wealth, and the oppression of the Indian as well as of the mestizo” (56). Crespo believes that when one understands the negative effects of mestizaje, such as self-hatred and a low sense of self-worth, one may overcome issues of inferiority through faith in Christ. Of course the whole purpose for this journey of ethnic self-discovery is to use our God-given bicultural ethnicity for ministry and racial reconciliation.
I was encouraged and convicted by reading Being Latino in Christ. It encouraged me about my own identity as a Puerto Rican, as well as by the fact that God has graciously and sovereignly saved me and called me to minister in a multi-cultural city to a multi-cultural congregation. I concur with Orlando Crespo that my biculturalism has permitted me to enter into a variety of ministry opportunities that I may not have had if I only identified with one culture.
By this token, Being Latino convicted me because I remember a time in junior high school when I would have gladly anglicized my name in order to fit in with our small town society. This was not in response to overt racism; it was more about Junior High peer pressure. Had it not been for the encouragement of my music teacher, I may now be known as “John Raymond” Sanchez! Also, the book made me realize that I have not spent enough time teaching my daughters about our Puerto Rican heritage or the Spanish language.
Crespo strikes a good balance between grounding our identities firstly in Christ while also affirming the significance of our ethnic identities. So on the one hand, Crespo states that “culture and ethnicity are not to be set over who we are in Christ” (80). In Christ God has removed ethnic barriers (Jew/Gentile), social barriers (slave/free), and gender barriers (male/female)—”for you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). At the same time, God has not eradicated ethnicity (or gender). Crespo correctly understands this, stating that “throughout the Scriptures we find God affirming culture with the intent of bringing all cultures and peoples under His lordship, as opposed to merging them all into a homogeneous culture” (67). Therefore, it’s unhelpful to suggest that God is “colorblind.” From Genesis to Revelation God has revealed a redemptive plan to gather for himself a people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Gen. 12:1-3; Rev. 7:9).
In light of God’s work of gathering a multi-ethnic people, however, I wish the author would have further developed the biblical framework for the place of ethnicity within God’s plan for the nations both now and in the new earth. Chapter 5 is titled “Ethnicity in the Scriptures” and promises to provide a biblical framework for ethnicity (65), but Crespo’s framework includes only a few biblical characters whose ethnic identity was “a tool in the hands of God to fulfill his purposes in the world” (65). In the end, I found the biblical framework offered so simplistic that I purchased and read J. Daniel Hays’ From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, a book that I found illuminating, thorough, and helpful in this regard. It answered the biblical-theological questions that were left undeveloped by Crespo.
Given Crespo’s admission that our identity in Christ is more important than our ethnic identity, it’s strange that his proposal lacked gospel-centeredness. To be sure, Crespo grounds his proposal in Scripture and in Christ, but somehow the gospel of God’s work of reconciling sinners to Christ and his body felt peripheral. It is the gospel preached to Abraham that reveals God’s plan for a multi-ethnic people (Gal. 3:7). It is the gospel that addresses sin, including racism. It is the gospel that provides the paradigm for true forgiveness and reconciliation through the cross of Christ for all peoples. And it is through this gospel that God is now gathering a multi-ethnic assembly for his own glory. Therefore, this gospel has implications for how we are to live our lives in Christ here and now.
As such, Crespo never addresses a number of questions that I wish he had: How should God’s redemptive plan for a multi-ethnic people be expressed in our local churches? Should there be “Latino” churches or should we strive to have multi-ethnic congregations? And so on.
Perhaps these questions weren’t addressed because the book was guided by the author’s personal experience and was intended to encourage readers to embrace their ethnic identity. This is both a strength and a weakness. Since issues of race and ethnicity are personal, it is understandable that the author would present the issues from his personal experiences of living through racism. Yet the author’s experience was not my experience. Crespo says he had to overcome self-hatred, feelings of shame about his ethnic identity, and a low sense of self-worth. I grew up in a small town in central Florida and did not experience prejudice to the degree that I felt ashamed of being Latino. Perhaps my case was unique.
Still, I struggle with the idea that in embracing our Hispanic roots we Latinos must somehow “embrace the oppression” of our ancestors and “feel their pain.” Here the mestizaje paradigm proves unhelpful, for it presumes an oppressed history that must be embraced if we are to gain a true ethnic identity. I agree that we should learn about our ethnic cultures, learn from our histories, and identify with our heritage. But I fear that offering a paradigm which assumes and identifies with oppression may induce us to carry a chip on our shoulders, thus actually hindering racial reconciliation. It may even fan the flame of racial division.
Overall, Being Latino in Christ is a helpful tool for second-generation Latinos who struggle with their ethnic identity on a personal level. If you are a second-generation Latino, this book will help you assess your ethnic awareness and identity and then use this identity for the work of the ministry. However, read this book along with Daniel Hays’ From Every People and Nation so that you can gain a biblical-theological view of race and ethnicity that will move from an individual understanding of ethnicity to God’s overall plan for a multi-ethnic people. Once you have a clear ethnic self-identity as a Latino in America, then use your God-given ethnicity with all its inherent benefits and blessings to advance the gospel and serve in ministry and racial reconciliation as God allows.