The Hispanics Next Door

by Orlando E. Costas

Dr. Costas, a Puerto Rican clergyman in the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, is Thornley B. Wood professor of missiology and director of Hispanic studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

His article us adapted from his forthcoming book, Christ Outside the Gate (Orbis)This article appeared in the Christian Century August 18-25, 1982, p. 851. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When we look at the contemporary Latin American world, we see an oppressed people bearing an affliction as painful as that of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. They need our response.  Only through concerted church, agency and individual leadership can that response be effective.

During 1980-81, Protestant denominations in the United States focused their mission study programs on Latin America -- that is, on the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations south of the border, and the Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean (Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). But with more than 20 million Hispanics living in the United States, Latin America cannot be defined solely in geographic terms; many Hispanics have been born and reared within U.S. borders. In fact, some come from families that have been here longer than many Anglos; this is particularly the case in the southwest.

Despite their geographic home, the overwhelming majority of U.S.-born Hispanics have cultural roots in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Hence, in reflecting on Latin America, North American denominations cannot exclude those who represent that world inside the U.S.; U.S. Hispanics constitute the fourth largest Spanish-speaking population pocket in the hemisphere.

When we look at the contemporary Latin American world, we see an oppressed people bearing an affliction as painful as that of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. God has raised many prophets among them who have dared to denounce their oppression and have announced the coming of a more equitable and peace-loving society. At certain points in Latin American history, these prophets have been catalytic agents in mobilizing those who have accomplished intermediate goals in building that new society.

But what about the Hispanics who live next door? Do we not hear their cry? Of course we do, but the mass media, our cultural institutions and the government make sure that we don’t hear it too often: all one needs to do is to read any major newspaper over a monthlong period to see how stingy the U.S. print media are in coverage of Latin America. Once in a while one of the TV networks will broadcast a documentary on Latin America, especially if a revolution has taken place. Occasionally Latin America makes it to the headline of a major daily newspaper or the 6 o’clock national newscast -- as during the recent Falklands crisis. Churches, mission boards and ecumenical organizations try, intermittently, to interpret Latin American developments. And so in one way or another the news gets through.

The question remains, what are we going to do about it? Let me offer several concrete suggestions.

First, we should seek to understand the content of our neighbor’s cry. In this society we are conditioned by the media to hear and see suffering without probing deeply into its content.

Our neighbor’s call is above all for justice and liberation. For the past 150 years Latin America has been controlled by economic oligarchies and military forces. Externally, it has put itself at the mercy of international capitalism, becoming a dependent region with an industry, a labor force and an agriculture developed as a function of the North American and (to a lesser extent) the western European metropolis. Internally, Latin America has been dominated by the culture of consumerism. Its language, literature, music, visual arts, educational institutions and mass media are, with a few noble exceptions, either a reflex of the U.S. consumer society or a protest against it and its local economic and political subsidiaries. Therefore, the entreaty of Latin America is for liberation from cultural domination, economic exploitation, military regression, social marginalization and political imperialism; it is an appeal for fairness in international trade and the establishment of a social order that promotes human dignity, respects democratic institutions and guarantees an equitable distribution of wealth.

The cry of our neighbors is likewise raised for truth -- social, personal and theological. The facts of Latin America’s social condition have been largely hidden from the eyes of the world by Western social scientists. Their departments in the major universities of North America and Europe have failed, for the most part, to elucidate the concrete social situation behind the economic and political statistics.

The distress of our neighbors is both social and personal. The religious world of the West has largely assumed that Latin America has already been evangelized. The fact is that the majority of Latin Americans have not had the opportunity to consider the gospel. Their evangelization is still to be completed, and the first church to recognize that reality has been the Catholic Church. At most, 20 per cent of Latin Americans are practicing Roman Catholics. Latin America is a continent of mission. Its people are on a quest for personal meaning that in the perspective of Christian faith can be solved only with a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Latin America also wants theological truth. The Word of God has been hidden in the barrels of imported theologies from Europe and North America. These imports have until recently given the churches little opportunity to develop their own theological ideas. Latin Americans’ beginning indigenous reflections have called down an avalanche of reaction from the halls of Western academia. Latin American Christians demand the right to think through the faith in the light of their own situation, to set their own theological agenda and work out their own responses to the questions of the region.

Second, we should respond by acknowledging our share of responsibility. We need to recognize that our neighbors’ hardship has been created, in part, by the U.S.

The U.S. is responsible economically for the poverty of Latin America. Soon after the wars of independence, the economy of Latin America began to be shaped as part of its northern neighbor’s. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) was the mechanism created to protect U.S. interests in the region. Latin America became the provider of raw materials and cheap labor and a market in exchange for North American technology and capital.

In the past two decades, parts of Latin America and the Caribbean have become new financial zones. Panama and Puerto Rico, in addition to the Bahamas and Grand Cayman, have become banking centers -- tax havens. U.S. bank investments in the region have been extraordinary. By 1975, 61 per cent of U.S. bank subsidiaries were concentrated in Latin America. While banks inside the U.S. could pay dividends of only 5.75 per cent and up to 10 or 11 per cent on long-term savings, their subsidiaries in Latin America have been paying 15, 20 and in some places as much as 30 per cent interest.

Latin America has become the most profitable market for the U.S. For every dollar that U.S. companies invest in the region, three dollars come back in profit. Miami, Florida, has become the region’s financial capital. Thanks to a high inflation rate and the commercial genius of Cuban exiles, Miami is now getting the business of the Latin American middle classes.

U.S.-controlled agencies such as the International Monetary Fund set the financial policy, which must be strictly adhered to by countries that wish to receive its low-interest loans. A few years ago Peru was forced to hike prices by 80 per cent overnight, a move that inflicted a tremendous social wound on an already impoverished land. Jamaica was practically destabilized as a result of IMF policies. In consequence, its socialist-democratic government was not re-elected. Today Jamaica has a conservative government developing a fiscal policy corresponding to the demands of the IMF.

The U.S. government is also politically responsible for the misery of our neighbors. This country’s foreign policy has been run by corporations that have a history of intervening in the political processes of Latin America.

In 1954 United Fruit Company managed to enlist the collaboration of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles, then chief of the CIA, to mastermind a plot to overthrow President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. The Dulles brothers had been company lawyers for United Fruit. The same company has intervened in Honduras. International Telephone and Telegraph is known for its intervention in Chile, and Gulf & Western, in the Dominican Republic.

The economic aid that came with the Alliance for Progress was made conditional on the purchase of U.S. goods. As author Penny Lernoux has noted: “When the Alliance for Progress was finally buried at the end of the 1960s, about the only thing that the Latin American countries had to show for it was an enormous foreign debt: 19.3 billion dollars compared to 8.8 billion in 1961 when the program was launched” (Cry of the People [Doubleday], p. 211).

The withdrawal of aid has also been used as a weapon against countries whose politics do not respond to U.S. interests. Economic censure was wielded in Chile against Allende, in Guatemala against Arbenz and, more recently, in Nicaragua against the Sandinista government.

U.S. policy toward Latin America has fluctuated between open support of dictatorships and hostility toward movements of liberation, and advocacy of a “restricted democracy,” in which a limited amount of political space is allowed so long as it does not rock the boat too much internally and in the hemisphere. This was the (unsuccessful) model proposed for Nicaragua in the last days of Somoza, and it is the rationale behind the current support of the military-civilian junta in El Salvador.

The U.S. is militarily responsible for the travail of Latin America. There is a history of direct and indirect U.S. military involvement in its internal affairs. Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico have undergone armed intrusion. The entire region has seen more subtle forms of indirect intervention. Since 1947, when Latin and North American nations signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the U.S. has had a Military Assistance Program (MAP). One of its fundamental objectives has been the influence of the region’s future military leaders in order to maintain a favorable climate for the network of U.S.-oriented military officers who in recent years have become the political bosses of Latin America. As Lemoux states, “Between 1950 and 1975 the U.S. trained 71,651 Latin American military personnel, including eight of the region’s current dictators, and in addition supplied 2.5 billion dollars worth of armaments” (Cry, p. 56).

Iberian-rooted culture has also been a victim of Anglo-Saxon hegemony. The Spanish and Portuguese languages have been looked down upon by the largely monolingual English-speaking world. One of the goals of Manifest Destiny was to demonstrate the superiority of the English language over Spanish. Portuguese and French in the Americas and to establish its dominance in the hemisphere.

From 1900 to 1930, English was imposed in the Puerto Rican school system. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico remained a Spanish-speaking island. In the southwest, Spanish was banned in the educational system. In Dade County, Florida, Spanish was officially recognized several years ago as a second language, a factor that is generally agreed to have brought the area enormous economic advantages. But Spanish has now lost its legal status as a result of an Anglo backlash.

The most influential offensive against Hispanic languages and culture in the hemisphere has been U.S. consumerism. U.S. products, from hot dogs to movies, have effected fundamental changes in the language and way of life of Latin Americans.

Dominant Anglo sectors remain resistant to adopting Spanish as a second language. Such an attitude not only reflects an unwillingness to recognize that Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people share with English speakers a legitimate partnership in the Americas; it also demonstrates a cultural intolerance that militates against peaceful coexistence inside the U.S. As white racism has created a state of hostility between the dominant Caucasian population and the color minorities, so English monolingualism and Anglo-Saxon cultural chauvinism threaten to impair relations further between the growing Hispanic minority and the Anglo majority.

Latin America has also been a market for North American religious movements. Approximately 50 per cent of the missionary force of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and Canada is concentrated in Latin America. More than one-third of the missionary force of U.S. and Canadian Protestant churches is in Latin America, though less than 10 per cent of the world’s population lives there.

Two factors may account for this phenomenon. First, Latin, America has been able to absorb a lot of the troubled missionary market’s surplus workers from other parts of the world. After China closed its doors to foreign missionaries, a great number were redeployed to Latin America. Second, the region attracts missionaries because it offers instant numerical success. Anything grows in Latin America: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, eastern religions or independent Protestant groups. It is much easier to be a missionary in a region where people are open to religious change. Hence Latin America has become the most popular mission field in the past 50 years. One can be grateful for the missionaries who made a significant, sacrificial contribution to the gospel during this period, but the fact that Latin America has become a market of missionary consumerism is upsetting. Indeed, it represents a denial of the Christian mission, insofar as it makes the desire to be “successful” missionaries central motivation. Such a phenomenon represents an evasion of the tough challenges of a religiously pluralistic world and further increases domination over a weak neighbor.

Something similar has occurred in theology. Latin American theological reflection was until recently largely dependent on European and North American thought. Protestant publishing houses have done a remarkable job of disseminating and popularizing North American theology, especially its conservative brands. Schools have been shaped in the image of Bible institutes, colleges and seminaries in North America. To the extent that they remain faithful to the thinking of their North American supporters and their Latin American constituency (which has been theologically conditioned by North American mentors), these publishing houses and institutions continued existence is guaranteed. But let one of them depart from “the script” and begin to theologize, write and publish on issues of the Latin American reality and pressures, criticisms and open opposition begin to emerge. Latin American Protestant seminaries, theologians and publishing houses have a relatively limited space in which to move, work and think -- in part because of the financial and ideological pressures of North American Christian churches, mission boards and societies.

In the past 15 years Latin America has given the world church much creative theological thought. After an initial fling with some of the better-known expressions of this thought, First World academicians dismissed it . -- on the ground that it was faddish and not academically serious. North American publishers other than Orbis, Fortress and Eerdmans are showing little interest in the avalanche of theological literature that has been produced in Latin America -- because it has a limited market. Mainstream theologians have failed to take Latin American theologies seriously because the new work does not fit standard criteria of theological inquiry. Accordingly, few rank-and-file First World theologians engage in dialogue with Latin American colleagues.

To respond with integrity to the claims of Latin America, we need to acknowledge our share of responsibility in its suffering and oppression. That done, the next step is to begin paying our debts. I do not mean that we should now start paying reparations for all the damage done to Latin America during the past 150 years. That would be politically and economically unrealistic.

The New Testament, however, speaks of an “evangelical” debt. The apostle Paul considered himself under obligation to Greeks and barbarians, the wise and the foolish, to preach the gospel (Rom. 1:14 ff.). As Christians, we owe Latin America the gospel: the good news of liberation from the power of sin and death, a message that has meaning only in the context of justice. To proclaim the gospel is to declare in words and deeds that in Jesus Christ God has declared himself to be forever on the side of the destitute of the earth, setting women and men free from selfishness and greed and calling them to the obedience of faith. To believe in the gospel is to commit oneself to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8) in the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ.

To say that we as Christians owe Latin America the gospel is to affirm our responsibility to work for the liberation of this region of poverty and oppression. Concretely, it means responding with actions commensurate with what our neighbors desire and with our share of responsibility for it.

Economically, we owe Latin America advocacy of fair trade. Latin America does not need favors; it needs just treatment of its products. That means support of the quest for a new international economic order and willingness to share generously the tremendous profit the U.S. has been getting out of the region -- sharing through substantial financial aid for public works, food, education and housing projects.

Politically, we owe Latin America support for the right of its people to organize their society in whatever way they consider correct. Relations with Latin America should not be based on what is politically expedient for the U.S. As Christians, we should lobby for international and public morality. The Carter administration came into office with high moral standards in foreign relations. It became a strong advocate for Latin American human rights. But when the crunch came in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the administration assumed a contradictory stance, falling into the temptation of political expediency -- for fear that doing what was right might contribute to a form of political organization that would not please the U.S.

Now the Reagan administration has begun to back any government so long as it protects U.S. interests. It does not matter whether a government represents a brutal dictatorship that opposes American political and judicial principles and constitutes a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. What matters is the protection of U.S. business and political interests. Hence the renewed friendships with repressive governments like that of Chile, the blanket endorsement of the unpopular former military-civilian junta of El Salvador and the quiet support of the current right-wing government, and the cutting off of all economic aid to Nicaragua. We should challenge such a policy by every democratic means at our disposal.

Militarily, we need to help accomplish the disarmament of Latin America. Arms buildup and the business deals that go along with it are responsible for the destruction of our neighbors rather than their protection from “the menace of international communism.” A case in point is that of military aid to El Salvador. This small country is caught up in a massive wave of terrorism, much of it conducted by government security forces and by organizations with ties to the government. By giving it military aid, the U.S. is enabling the Salvadoran regime to sponsor more indiscriminate killing.

We further owe Latin America advocacy for cultural pluralism in the Americas. This implies a close scrutiny of North American cultural networks and endeavors. It demands the empowerment of ethnic minorities, the promotion of Spanish and Portuguese as major hemispheric languages and the support of institutions dedicated to the stimulation and defense of Latin American cultural values. It means supporting international agencies like UNESCO in their efforts to promote more equitable cultural development.

On the religious side, we owe Latin America cooperation for ecclesial indigeneity, partnership in mission and contextual evangelization. We must let the church become itself rather than forcing it to be a carbon copy of something else, as has happened to many churches that are the product of Protestant mission work. Partnership in mission implies a willingness to collaborate with Latin American churches in the fulfillment of the mission God has given them rather than doing things for them, as Protestant mission boards have too often done. Contextual evangelization means letting the evangelistic approach be decided upon in the light of the actual situation and not simply according to the perceptions that U.S. churches have of it -- or worse yet, in terms of the North American situation.

In order for our actions to be credible, we need to start with our nearest neighbor. It is usually easier to respond to the far rather than to the near. We are challenged to start with those countries that are psychologically and geographically closest to us: Central America, the “hot spot” of the hour and the backyard of the U.S.

El Salvador has been designated by the Reagan administration as the place to draw the line in the struggle against international communism. We are in danger of making El Salvador a new Vietnam. We should strongly lobby for cutting off all military aid, all military advisers and all foreign-military-sales credits to the Salvadoran junta, and insist on a political settlement -- with the participation of all sectors of society.

We should also lobby against any form of military assistance to Guatemala and Honduras, given the systematic violation of human rights being committed by security forces in both countries. By the same token, we should demand the resumption of economic aid (without political strings) to Nicaragua and increased economic assistance to Costa Rica. Those two countries, each in its own way, constitute the most hopeful signs for a peaceful Central America: Costa Rica in its democratic sophistication, and Nicaragua in its efforts to bring about a revolutionary process with a human face.

In addition to Central America, we should give priority to Puerto Rico. This small Caribbean island has been a territory of the U.S. since the Spanish-American war. After almost ten years of North American maneuvering, the U.N. Committee on Decolonization declared the island a colonial territory (over the protest of the U.S. and most of the island’s population -- who argued that in 1953, when Puerto Rico became a so-called “commonwealth” as a result of a popular election, it ceased to be a colony and became instead a “free associated state”). There is no question that Puerto Rico today is a political hot potato. Not only are its people more polarized than ever over Puerto Rico’s status question -- whether to become a sovereign nation, become a state of the U.S. or stay as it is; it is the most impoverished North American territory, with an external debt of over $7 billion, an unemployment rate of more than 20 per cent, 65 per cent of its people on federal food stamps and 38 per cent who have an income below the poverty line. Thirty years ago mainland corporations were offered economic incentives to establish textile industries and oil refineries in Puerto Rico. This industrialization has backfired, resulting in air and water pollution, almost total destruction of the island’s agriculture and a host of social ills -- such as crime and drug addiction -- typical of industrial societies. Vieques, an adjacent island-municipality, is practically in the hands of the U.S. armed forces. Its fishing industry, the sole livelihood of the majority of the population, has been nearly driven Out of existence by the U.S. Navy.

It is a fact, nevertheless, that most North Americans know only what the media tell them about Puerto Rico: it is the place many Hispanics in the northeast come from and a beautiful winter paradise easily accessible by air, with wonderful beaches and luxury hotels.

Most mainline Protestant churches in Puerto Rico, with the exception of the recently autonomous Puerto Rican Episcopal Church, are institutionally attached to their parent bodies, functioning as if Puerto Rico were already a state. U.S. Christians and churches should reflect critically on the Puerto Rican situation. They should inquire into the ideological role that churches and mission boards have played in the enculturation of the island. Above all, churches, denominational agencies and individual Christians should demand the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from Vieques and monitor the way dissenting Puerto Ricans are being treated by the Department of Justice and the federal court system.

Responding to our nearest neighbor also implies dealing with the Hispanic community living inside the continental U.S. There are those who express concern for Latin America while callously neglecting the Hispanic minority on their own turf. They follow the example of those who express concern for Africa and the Afro-Caribbean community but fail to demonstrate a similar concern for their black brothers and sisters in this country. This selectivity can no longer be tolerated. Our credibility in Latin America must be judged by the way we deal with the North American Hispanic and black communities.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the continental U.S. Their numbers have officially increased nationwide by 61 per cent in the past decade, and the unofficial count by probably twice that amount. In the next decade Hispanics will be the largest minority in the country.

Hispanics are not only numerically significant; they are also one of the most economically depressed minorities in the nation. A “windshield” survey of such areas as New York City; Jersey City and Camden, New Jersey; Chester and Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago; Detroit; East Los Angeles; New Mexico; and South Texas immediately reveals a socially marginated people. The overwhelming majority of Hispanics have been condemned, along with the majority of blacks, to be the permanent underclass of North American society. In the case of Hispanics, the harsh social and economic picture is further aggravated by their lack of communication skills in the dominant language -- and the illegal status of an impressive number.

Hispanics, like blacks, are a very religious people. Indeed, their churches constitute one of the few institutions in society in which they can be persons. Nonetheless, the Hispanic church does not surface in North American religious consciousness. Hispanics can be Catholic or Pentecostal, mainline Protestants or conservative evangelicals. But they do not seem to count very much when it comes to the interpretation of North American religious experience, church attendance, theological education and missionary commitment.

If the dominant North American Christian community is really interested in responding to the cry of Latin America, it should start taking notice of brothers and sisters in the ghettos of our cities and the ranchos of our rural communities. Christians should begin to lobby for the legalized status of the more than 8 million undocumented migrants, the majority of whom are Hispanics. Churches should advocate educational programs that will enable Hispanics to study in the language they know best, thus strengthening their access to professions heretofore closed to them. Christians should work for social programs that will improve housing conditions for Hispanics and their participation in industry, labor and the arts. Above all, churches should ask for justice from religious institutions that continue to ignore Hispanics’ existence: monocultural denominational and ecumenical agencies; theological institutions that refuse to hire Hispanic professors (and even discourage Spanish-speaking students from working toward doctorates); religious journals and magazines that fail to publish materials dealing with the life and faith of Hispanic churches; and mainline churches that do not make an all-out commitment to ministry among Hispanics.

The petition of our oppressed neighbors is loud and clear. If we but look around us we can easily detect means that are available for response. Only through concerted church, agency and individual leadership can that response be effective.

Answering our neighbor’s hunger and thirst is not a take-it-or-leave-it affair. We are our neighbor’s keeper. Therefore the cry of the Latin American world puts at stake the integrity of our U.S. Christian profession of faith.