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The binational branch: Mexico's borderlands

Romana Carbajal de Valenzuela carried embers from the waning Azusa Street Revival fires and sparked a new religious movement in Mexico. The circumstances that impelled her to flee the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution for Los Angeles were not unusual; what was unusual is that she left Mexico as a Congregational lay member and returned as a Pentecostal missionary. In 1912 she joined a small band of Mexican Pentecostals for home prayer meetings where she received the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of glossolalia (Gill 1994, 43). In 1914 Valenzuela traveled back alone to convert her Catholic and Congregationalist family in her hometown of Villa Aldama, Chihuahua. The prospects of founding a church and much less a movement seemed bleak given the various unresolved conflicts of the Mexican Revolution under Victoriano Huerta’s sanguineous regime. Initially, her family rejected her newfound faith as heretical in belief and practice. The doctrine of tongues quickly proved distasteful to her family from the Congregational Church. But a key transitional moment broke when converted her nephew Miguel Garcia, a devout Catholic and assistant to the local priest. She insisted on baptizing Garcia and the rest of the family, but feeling unqualified to do so, sought out a Protestant pastor to perform their baptisms in the name of Jesus. In this endeavor she converted Methodist minister Rúben Ortega, taking him to El Paso to be baptized by an African American minister from the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.13 Both baptisms occurred in the context of geographical, linguistic, gendered, and racial border-crossings.

Valenzuela’s earliest converts founded new churches on both side of the border. Located at the southeast corner of California, the Imperial Valley is geologically part of a larger contiguous valley divided only geopolitically by a border with Mexico’s Valle de Mexicali (Mexicali Valley). The arrival of Miguel Garcia (Valenzuela’s first convert and nephew) and his assumption of the pastorate of the church in Westmoreland symbolized a moment of reverse missions. Garcia pas-tored three congregations in Mexico (the missionized nation) and later reversed the role by evangelizing and pastoring in the United States (the missionizing nation) (Gill 1994, 49). In this move, we can trace how Valenzuela’s efforts resulted in a transnational coalescence of revivals and churches.

Transplanting a movement: The Imperial Valley

The growth that the movement had experienced in the United States to this point would soon pale in comparison to what lay ahead once growers in the Imperial Valley began to tap the deep diversions made to the Colorado River along the Imperial Canal, making that valley arable for large-scale agribusiness. After several engineering and environmental disasters, engineers properly rerouted water sources and the valley’s fecund soil lay ready for new roots, both agricultural and social (Andrés 2015). Nativists lamented the flourishing of the latter. One Imperial Valley Press editor bemoaned “[tjhe importation of hordes of undesirable people and the creation of troublesome social problems.”14 By the mid-1910s the region saw a convergence of whites, African Americans, American Indians, “Hindoos” (the misnomer applied to many Sikh immigrants from the Punjab region of India), Filipinos, Japanese, and Mexicans seeking work. Few ethnic-Mexican workers arrived in the earliest years of agricultural development likely because the earliest type of crops in the Imperial Valley from the years 1901 to 1910 required non-intensive labor workers. The influx of so many workers posed a challenge to organizing efforts; pitting ethnic groups against one another was an easy way to break strikes. Centered in Calexico and Mexicali, the movement experienced its most significant phase of growth in a contiguous valley on both sides of the border.

The expansion of intensive-labor crops (melon, cantaloupe, cotton, and lettuce) in the Imperial Valley directly correlated with the growth of the ethnic-Mexican population and the earliest successes of Apostólico congregations. The demand for intensive-labor crop workers had increased with the outbreak of World War I, and 1917 marked the first year that California growers relied on ethnic Mexicans as their primary source of migrant labor. The total acreage of intensive-labor crops in the valley rose from 13,500 in 1913 to 93,000 in 1918. In 1920 the total amount of cultivated acreage reached a new high of 153,000 acres. From 1910 to 1920, the percentage of Mexican-born Imperial Valley workers increased by 339% and the acreage of intensive-labor crops reached a record high of 152,828 acres (Taylor 1928, 9-16). It was during this period of rapid development that the Mexican Pentecostal evangelists enjoyed their earliest success in the migrant labor communities, and planted congregations throughout the

Imperial Valley, the Mexicali Valley and the Gila Valley in Arizona. A combination of federal laws and grower interest with the founding of various churches in the Imperial Valley shed light on the migratory labor patterns and the symbiotic relationship between Apostólicos in Mexico and the United States.

The groundswell of landless Mexicans seeking permanent residency in the United States grew in the wake of land loss. During the regime of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz - known as the Porfiriato (1876-1910) - the Mexican government launched an aggressive initiative to privatize communal lands (ejidos) and advance modernity through industrialization and foreign investment. Ultimately, Diaz sold 135 million acres of public land to private companies. Now landless, the former ejidatarios became wage workers on industrialized plots they themselves had once owned and worked (Guerin-Gonzalez 1994, 27-28). With few prospects for regaining land or acquiring work sufficient to sustain their larger families and with the enticement of higher wages in the United States, the push-and-pull factors overwhelmed emigrants. The Mexican Revolution beginning after Diaz was exiled in 1911 further exacerbated the large-scale emigration.

Since most emigrants had prior experience in farm labor, growers idealized them as perfect workers for their agricultural empires. As with every group before them, Mexicans were believed to be docile, unlikely to organize. But unlike these laborer groups, Mexicans were never expected to permanently settle, especially if they were never offered permanent work. Growers falsely believed them to be “birds of passage” (Guerin-Gonzalez 1994, 24-31).

Migrants’ propensity to remain and seek work in other valleys fueled Apostólico growth. By 1924 the budding denomination boasted five churches in the Imperial Valley in the towns of Calexico, Brawley, El Centro, Westmoreland, and Holtville, all communities whose farms relied upon intensive field labor to harvest the cantaloupe fields that abounded in the region. The concomitant growth of intensive-labor crops and Apostólico congregations was also evident in the Coachella Valley. Such evangelism and rapid movement into other developing valleys came from a strategic move to empower the laity to “move about liberally to preach to their compatriots” (Cantú and Ortega 1966, 76). The 1925 ministerial roster from the Apostólicos first general convention revealed that at least 15 of the 20 representatives hailed from towns or cities that subsisted on agriculture, pastors and evangelists from churches in the Imperial and Coachella valleys accounted for half of the delegates at the first convention.

In 1924, the budding denomination purchased its first temple in the United States in Calexico, a transaction rich with inter-ethnic exchange and subaltern migrant trajectories. The temple had been built by the Disciples of Christ for the growing number of African Americans pouring into the Imperial Valley to assume jobs in agriculture; however, the outbreak of World War I precipitated this labor force’s departure from the region. Before turning to Mexican labor, Imperial Valley growers had recruited Black southerners to pick cotton.'1 The Disciples of Christ’s official history alludes to the circumstances surrounding the sale to Apostólicos:

Churches were once alive and seemingly prospering in Niland, Seeley, Imperial, and Calexico. Appeals were made by each of these churches for assistance at various times, but all of them faded out of the picture and in some instances property was sold to other religious bodies ... after a long struggle the church disbanded, the property was sold by the State Society in 1924 to a Spanish-speaking church.

(Quoted in Ramirez 2015, 221 fn. 45)

This transaction highlights efforts by subaltern groups to create and maintain a cohesive social structure amid poverty. For at least the following decade, ministers would continue to undergo training in the Imperial Valley before being sent out to evangelize. The efforts in the Imperial Valley, however, did not play out in isolation.

The building of the Colonia Zaragoza temple was part of a larger trans-border revival that extended into the Valle de Mexicali. The denomination’s official history records that “in 1922 there was a great revival of such proportions that the message passed into the Mexican side, to Mexicali and Colonia Zaragoza” (Cantú and Ortega 1966, 9). Indeed they believed that “in the work of God, there are no borders” (Cantú and Ortega 1966, 20). In 1927, after the church had witnessed such revivals in the Imperial Valley area, particularly in Calexico and Mexicali, leaders held their third general convention at the revival fires of Colonia Zaragoza’s new temple. The constituency of the Colonia Zaragoza temple reflected the growth of the body of believers; as an agrarista community it was comprised almost entirely of agricultural workers (Ortega 1998, 20).

One such agricultural worker offers us extensive written records of his path up and down the network of rural valley churches in both countries. Illustrating his own borderlands circuits and conversions from Catholicism to Methodism and ultimately to Pentecostalism, after a long day of work, the weary itinerant preacher and laborer José Ortega penned the words to the hymn “Los Caminos de Dios” [The Paths of God]. Appropriate to the life trajectory of the various borderlands migrants who moved from one valley to the next, saving money from one day to the next, the title to Ortega’s hymn cannot be decoupled from the borderlands paths that had taken him through his conversion in the San Juan Valley, pastoral mentorship in the Central Valley, and finally leadership training in the Imperial Valley (Ortega 1998, 78-79), Ortega’s autobiography (titled Mis Memorias) offers us a glimpse into the earliest churches in California’s northern valleys, a region heavily influenced by clergy following the crops from southern California.

 
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