Latinx Activists: Politics, Theology, and Church Occupation
Barbara Sostaita on Felipe Hinojosa
Felipe Hinojosa’s Apostles of Change: Latino Radical Politics, Church Occupations, and the Fight to Save the Barrio casts churches as protagonists in Latinx social movements. Following activists who occupied churches in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Houston, the author sets out to rewrite histories that diminish or dismiss the role of religion in struggles for liberation. After all, Hinojosa writes, “churches are spaces of possibility.” They are contested sites, he insists. They are never neutral.
This is certainly true when it comes to my field of study — sanctuary — often understood as the practice of harboring fugitives in places of worship. When people— typically, migrants with deportation orders— take refuge in a church, the building is transformed. Nurseries become bedrooms. Closets are repurposed into bathrooms. Pulpits are used for press conferences.
Throughout the case studies presented in Apostles of Change, churches similarly undergo a conversion of sorts. Parish halls transform into art studios and food pantries. Naves double as legal aid centers and medical offices. Indeed, Hinojosa suggests that church occupations were a precursor to and blueprint for the 1980s Sanctuary Movement, which would see churches turned into shelters or staging areas for migrants on the run from enforcement officials. Hinojosa tells us that at least one activist involved in the takeover of a church, Lydia Lopez, later went on to become a leader in Los Angeles sanctuary struggles. Movements are connected, and churches are front and center.
Apostles of Change follows Latinx activists in the late 1960s and ‘70s who were convinced that —in the author’s words— “another church was possible.” By disrupting religious services or taking control over a church building, “young radicals” fought back against a neoliberal urban crisis that displaced and criminalized their communities. Churches were ideal spaces to occupy given not only their influence and wealth, but also their complicity in colonization and dispossession. For example, when Católicos por la Raza disrupted a Christmas Eve Mass in Los Angeles, movement leaders cited the Catholic Church’s responsibility “for the destruction of our ancient Indian cultures.” When writing about the Young Lord’s actions in New York, Hinojosa observes that “if we are talking about decolonizing and taking control, there is no better institution to start with, no other institution that will get the kind of response that a church will.” Occupations presented a reckoning. They were, in a sense, a call for reparations and a redistribution of wealth.
As Latinx communities were increasingly being pushed out of their barrios by urban renewal, activists demanded that religious institutions take responsibility for ongoing colonial practices. They invited church leaders to reconsider spending millions on new buildings and to reinvest those funds into their communities. Churches rarely answered the call, at least not in the ways the activists imagined.
Hinojosa notes the short-lived nature of these occupations, explaining they all “faded almost as immediately as they rose.” Each of the disruptions lasted between five and twenty days before law enforcement evicted activists. In the case of Católicos por la Raza, Hinojosa describes the occupation as lasting “one spectacular night.” In regards to the Mexican American Youth Organization’s (MAYO) occupation of Christ Presbyterian Church in Houston, the author explains “there was an air of invincibility, as if MAYO could fix anything in the Northside.” He continues, “And for a brief time it did.” This is arguably one the book’s most important contributions to the study of Latinx religions—an affirmation of brief disruptions, a celebration of interruptions in the everyday. Catherine Walsh refers to these moments as “decolonial cracks” —when experimentation and the imagination open up other possibilities, which disrupt the everyday workings of neoliberal power. Walsh notes, “cracks become the place and space from which action, militancy, resistance, insurgence, and transgression are advanced, where alliances are built, and the otherwise is invented, created, and constructed.” Cracks are brief moments of possibility. They can be covered over, of course. But they also reappear. And they often leave scars.
Apostles of Change is less interested in whether these occupations “succeeded” or “failed,” and instead celebrates the ways these interruptions left traces in their wake. Hinojosa observes the ways “radicals” made it possible for Latinx religious leaders to gain support and implement their visions. The occupation in Los Angeles, for example, opened the door for an organization of Mexican American clergy — PADRES — to “become a star” and bring about change. In Chicago, the Young Lords’ takeover of McCormick Theological Seminary in Lincoln Park enabled Latinx clergy to make certain demands, such as a new Latinx-focused curriculum that included classes such as “The Chicano Religious Experience” and “Latino Cultural Heritage.” Hinojosa says that such courses would have been “unthinkable” before the occupation. Though the Young Lords in Chicago did not accomplish many of their goals — including investments in low income housing, funding for a legal aid office, and space for a Puerto Rican cultural center — Hinojosa tells us in the following chapter that news of the occupation spread quickly and inspired activists in Los Angeles. He tells us that MAYO activists from Houston traveled to Chicago, met with Cha Cha Jiménez of the Young Lords, and drew inspiration from the church takeover. Hinojosa emphasizes the ways these movements lingered even after they “failed,” an important corrective to traditional social movement scholarship.
Throughout the book, I was drawn to the brief references to activists’ “theatrics,” attention to their dress—the Lords, for instance, were inspired by the Black Panthers’ berets and leather vests — and their gestures, such as yanking the cloth from an altar table. Hinojosa is trained as a historian, but his prose made it possible for me as an ethnographer to notice the ritual and repetition happening across the case studies. Apostles of Change lends itself to a performance studies approach, especially given the book’s preoccupation with the ephemeral—with traces and echoes and hauntings.
Hinojosa’s descriptions of these “brief and tenuous” occupations often emphasizes their gestures and scripts, the ways they built on and duplicated previous occupations, or what Diana Taylor calls “scenarios.” Activists observed occupations in other states — and, in the case of the Young Lords, in other countries and territories — and borrowed from their set of performances and strategies. Scenarios, Taylor teaches, are sets of possibilities or “culturally specific imaginaries” that involve participants, a plot, and an intended end. They include gesture, dress, movement, dance, ceremony that can be repeated and repurposed. The occupations were undeniably temporary. But they were scenarios in that they shared a set of gestures, discourses, possibilities. Consider the following. Chicago activists described their interruption as an “occupation of love.” Católicos por la Raza called their occupation a “mass of love.”
In the introduction, Hinojosa explains that “sacred space” is “an important element” throughout the book. He describes sacred space not only as a building where salvation is found, but also a physical space to meet the community’s needs. Yet, Hinojosa does not offer a definition of the sacred (a term that, like the churches he describes, is also contested). At times, it seems like sacred space is synonymous with religious buildings; repeatedly, the author refers to sacred space as a location or point on a map—Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches. But, as performance studies and ritual scholars teach us, the sacred is made and remade through activity—what Émile Durkheim might refer to as collective effervescence, the creative potential of human assembly.
There are moments when Apostles of Change suggests that the sacred is a doing or an activity. When writing about the Young Lords’ takeover of the First Spanish United Methodist Church, Hinojosa describes how the activists’ presence and political activity transformed the place “from a stale church building into a sacred space.” Here, he suggests that it is through movement, ritual, storytelling, caretaking, and what Elaine Peña calls devotional labor that space becomes sacred. Hinojosa writes that the Young Lords made preparations to throw a party inside the church when they were alerted that the police were coming. As mujerista scholars like Ada María Isasi-Díaz insist, fiestas are sacred events or happenings, too. They disrupt the everyday.
In the end, Apostles of Change is expertly researched and written—a tribute to “short but fertile” moments that bring religion to the forefront of Latinx social movements. Hinojosa gestures towards an understanding of the sacred that does not claim church buildings as sacred by default or by nature but rather as made sacred through performance, activity, gestures, interventions. The sacred is imagined, made, contested, reclaimed, threatened—in this case, by young Latinx activists intent on saving their barrios. To me, it is not the buildings that are sacred but rather the occupations themselves. The sacred is in the doing, in the moments when “young radicals” burst through the profane or everyday workings of the church as an institution. These occupations are sacred practices because they disrupt and disorient the routine or profane. They are moments or cracks, to return to Walsh.
Hinojosa closes the book with sanctuary, another movement that occupied church buildings and created sacred space through transgressive activity. Through my own research, I have interviewed participants from the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s as well as contemporary sanctuary practitioners. Many of these activists describe the sacred as mobile, as emerging on the road and in transit. They claim their goal was never to occupy a church long-term, but to facilitate movement, to shelter people fleeing violence and to disrupt the profane workings of genocidal states. Hinojosa’s work has helped me to better understand my own, and to notice how these brief moments may “fail.” For example, the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s was infiltrated by the FBI and several activists were charged with felonies, and the “young radicals” Hinojosa describes were evicted from churches and often excluded from negotiations, but events like these leave traces and roadmaps. They show another church was— and is— possible and, as such, they spark the imagination.
Barbara Sostaita is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Mahindra Center for the Humanities. She is a scholar of religion and migration, and is currently completing a manuscript titled Sanctuary Everywhere: Fugitive Care on the Migrant Trail. This ethnographic experiment traces practices of care and refuge that disrupt and disarm border militarization.