When I graduated from Duke Divinity School in 1997, I was appointed to start a United Methodist Hispanic ministry in Durham. In order to gather support for the ministry, I was encouraged to visit and preach at churches all over the Durham area. My biblical text for those visits was Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” I do not remember why it was that I settled on that text, but with the opportunity to reflect years later, I consider the choice providential. Every journey begins with a destination. Indeed, it is the destination that distinguishes a journey from a wandering. How fitting, then, to begin ministry at the end, to preach the gospel from back to front. The goal of my journey of ministry was ultimately not a Hispanic congregation, but that sanctified assembly out of every nation, tribe, people, and language. My destination was and is a mestizo community called heaven.
The Problem and Promise of Mestizaje
The Spanish word mestizo means “mixed.” It was used to describe the children born from the traumatic encounter between Spanish conquistadors and Amerindian women. The biological and cultural mixing that occurred was known as mestizaje. For the Amerindians, the mestizo was a living memorial to a lost way of life. For the Spanish, the mestizo represented an opportunity, a cultural and linguistic bridge that could be exploited to cement the conquest. In either case, the result was alienation; the mestizo did not really fit into either world.
In the 19th century, the concept of mestizaje was enthusiastically embraced by political elites in Latin America in their quest for national identities that would unite the diverse peoples inhabiting the continent. Expanding on its original usage, Simon Bolivar, the George Washington of South America, stretched the concept to include the contributions of Africans to the formation of the Americas. The nationalist appropriation of mestizaje is on display at the Plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico, the site of a climactic battle between the Spanish and the Aztecs. The monument to the event reads: “August 13, 1521: Heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell to the power of Hernan Cortes. It was neither a triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of the mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.”
Mestizaje became Latin America’s alternative to the vision in the United States of e pluribus unum. As Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos argued, the mestizo (not the Yankee) was the true American, the prototype of a new humanity, the forerunner of a cosmic race that would integrate all other races into a harmonious mixture. Yet for all the popularity of mestizaje in certain intellectual circles, the term and what it represents elicits resistance from others.
Some fear that mestizaje will corrupt the existing ethnic stock. The title of Alfred Schultz’s 1908 treatise says it all: Race or Mongrel? A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Races of Earth: A Theory that the Fall of Nations Is Due to Intermarriage with Alien Stocks: A Demonstration that a Nation’s Strength Is Due to Racial Purity: A Prophecy that America Will Sink to Early Decay unless Immigration Is Rigorously Restricted. Fear of racial mixing has fueled much of the history of immigration policy in the United States. Such fears are by no means a thing of the past. Both Victor Davis Hanson’s 2003 book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming and Samuel Huntington’s 2004 book, Who Are We? The Challenge to America’s National Identity, warn readers of the dangers presented by Hispanic immigration for the integrity of the American story. For some, a United States that is increasingly mestizo is a horror story, a world populated by Frankenstein-like creatures whose bodies and identities are a patchwork stitched together from the corpses of their ancestors.
Others fear that mestizaje is simply another word for whitening. Indeed, in the Latin American quest for national unity, mestizaje privileged whiteness and Europe to the detriment of other forms of identities. In the mind of the political elites of South America, typically the mestizo national identity was constituted by Spanish brains, brown land, and black work. To this day, mestizaje as a means of racial advancement is deeply embedded in the Latin American psyche. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I often heard parents encourage their children to marry lighter-skinned people so as to mejorar la raza (to improve the race).
In spite of these challenges, I still find mestizaje a useful term in the vocabulary of Christians interested in ethnic reconciliation. Other substitutes (multiculturalism, transculturation, hybridization, etc.) are too abstract. They draw our attention to mixing, but not to the painful history that led to the mixing. Mestizaje evokes an unfinished tale of violence, rejection, and alienation in need of reconciliation. It points to both the problem and the solution. There is a saying in Spanish, un clavo saca otro clavo (one nail drives out another nail). The ethnic hostilities that led to and from mestizaje can only be reconciled by mestizaje with Christ in the church.
Mexican-American theologian Virgilio Elizondo was the first person to bring mestizaje into a theological register. I cannot do justice to his reading of the gospel story in these few pages, but in a nutshell, for Elizondo, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus illumine and transform the experience of mestizaje. Thanks to Elizondo and others, I believe that mestizaje belongs to the very essence of the church. Mestizaje is a corollary of the church’s catholicity. The inclusion of Gentiles into the Jewish community of believers in Christ is nothing less than a sign of a new humanity. Incorporation into the mestizo body of Christ, the church, means not mongrelization or whitening but rather the purification and perfection of all peoples. The waters of baptism do not wash away ethnic particularity. We do not lose our accents in heaven, but our speech is refined so that we can join the mighty chorus out of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation in praise of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Mestizaje marks the church’s journey through history. The cross-cultural transmission of the gospel (celebrated by missiologists like Andrew Walls) is only possible by mixture resulting from the crossing of borders. The Nicene Creed is inconceivable without the mestizaje of Palestinian Christians with Greco-Roman Christians. For the church, borders are not places of separation but of encounter. Of course, throughout church history some of these encounters have been violent. Even then, however, God’s design is not thwarted by human failures, because, as the old saying goes, God is able to write straight with crooked lines.
Section Rehearsals: Necessary and Provisional
I have often wondered if the waves of immigration that the United States is experiencing might be used by God as a wake-up call for the church to remember its roots and rediscover its mission. If the destination of the Christian pilgrimage is a heaven of mestizos, then our life now should be anticipating that heaven. And yet, although our future is symphonic, we spend our present in section rehearsals.
Now section rehearsals are important. I remember my first section rehearsal. I first joined a choir when I attended college. I did not know anything about reading music or different parts, but after hearing me say a few words, the conductor instructed me to sit with the basses. I did fine during the warm-up exercises, but I became completely lost the moment the choir started singing in parts. Try as I might, all I could hear was the melody line carried by the soprano voices. After a little while, the conductor instructed the basses to go downstairs with the accompanist for a section rehearsal. In a small space where we could hear each other well and without the distraction of other voices, our part was played note by note until we learned it. When the section rehearsal was over we rejoined the rest of the choir and sang together. Thanks to the section rehearsal I found that I could now sing my part, but only by standing next to a strong bass who really knew the piece and by turning a deaf ear to the sopranos. The real proof that I had learned my part was when I left the security of my section and sat next to sopranos, altos, and tenors. I discovered that my singing was better in tune when I learned to listen to the other parts.
Much is required before we can leave the safety of our ethnic section rehearsals and come together in symphony. For many of us section rehearsals are all we have ever known. In the United States, one part has been dominant for so long that the other parts have only been preserved through section rehearsals. It is not easy to sit mixed together when one section blasts its part out of an exaggerated sense of importance. The truth is, it is hard to be in tune with Christ when have tuned each other out for so long.
Needless to say, our ethnic section rehearsals usually started not in order to nourish a diversity of styles but in order to exclude other voices. At the origin of our section rehearsals lies sin; their ending requires confession and repentance–and end they must. The future is symphonic. Heaven is mestizo. Section rehearsals are at best provisional.
Hope of Heaven
For the past 10 years or so I have been part of a congregation that has sought to leave the safety of the section rehearsal for the challenge of symphony. At times it has seemed like a bit of heaven below–ethnically and economically diverse membership, multicultural and bilingual worship. At other times it has seemed like foolishness. Mestizaje too easily turns into a lazy celebration of diversity that short-circuits repentance and transformation. The cost of reconciliation is high, higher than I realized when I first started preaching about the destination of the Christian journey.
Why bother? Because in Christ we have a living hope. Hope pertains to a future good that is hard but possible to attain. The mestizo future that God promises us is very good; it is better than the little white rural chapel, the gentrified urban congregation, or the postmodern suburban multiplex. Yes, it is difficult to attain; the dangers of syncretism, ethnocentrism, or just old-fashioned Pelagianism are very real. And yet the goal is attainable with the divine assistance of Jesus. I close by citing a hymn written by Justo Gonzalez for the 500th anniversary of the painful birth of the Americas; a hymn that expresses in verse the hope I have for the mestizo church.
From all four of earth’s faraway corners,
flows together the blood of all races
in this people who sing of their trials,
in this people who cry of their faith;
hardy blood that was brought by the Spanish,
noble blood of the suffering Indian,
blood of slaves who stood heavy oppression,
all the blood that was bought on the cross.
From all four of earth’s faraway corners,
from the flowering meadows of Cuba,
from African coast and all Asia,
from Borinquen, Quisqueya, Aztlán,
God in secret has long been designing
to this moment so blessed to bring us,
bind us all to the same destination
and a kingdom create of us all.
In all four of earth’s faraway corners
sin is building embittering barriers;
but our faith has no fear of such borders,
we know justice and peace will prevail.
To all four of earth’s faraway corners
we’re a people who point to tomorrow,
when the world, living sovereign and peaceful,
is united in bonds of God’s love.