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Grafting new branches: The Central Valley

In his journey Ortega met fellow Apostólico migrant workers in the Central Valley churches scattered in far-flung outposts and with no operative network. However, the vicissitudes of farm labor and migratory patterns created the conditions for the effective evangelization of the Central Valley. The word “evangelista” [evangelist] entered the institutional vocabulary of the leadership as a designation for itinerant preachers; it should be of no surprise that preachers of the Central Valley assumed this title, as they felt compelled to preach and teach at various new intensive-labor crop farms opening up in the northern valleys (Ortega 1998, 155). Such a title suggests that despite the ver)' uncertainty of where one would go next for work, one thing was certain: that they would interpret the migratory labor patterns as the will of God. Beyond cold, hard, economic greed or the forces of agribusiness, they interpreted their fate through the lens of the “human and suprahuman forces” that allowed them to make homes and cross boundaries” (Tweed 2006, 54). As with the people in the valleys of southern California, Apostólico congregations in northern California blossomed where intensive-labor crops grew.

Apostólico churches flowered in patches across the Central Valley starting in the late 1920s paralleling the shifts in agribusiness in the Central Valley from non-intensive labor crops to intensive-labor crops. No sooner than Paul Taylor published his findings on Mexican Labor in the United States, another significant statewide demographic shift began to take place. In 1928, the California Department of Agriculture discovered that “Mexican workers were unrivaled both in numbers and in the degree to which they fulfilled the fundamental desire of farm employers” (Daniel 1989, 67-69). Now the demographics shifts of the Central Valley began to mirror those that had occurred a decade earlier in the Imperial Valley. Indeed, by the late 1920s it seemed to many that agriculture in California would see no end until every last acre of its fertile soil had been tilled. Denominational rosters in the early 1930s would later reflect the shift to the north and the creation of a “Northern District,” that is, churches north of the Tehachapi Pass where the families of Jesus Valdez, Pedro Banderas, Juan Amaya and Epifanio Cota planted the earliest churches in migrant labor camps and towns. These churches relied upon the work of women to finance the building of temples (Barba 2018, 313-317).

The Los Angeles-based denomination continued to grow in California in the face of mounting financial pressure of the Great Depression and mass repatriation of 2 million Mexicans, many of whom were US citizens. The number of repatriados reached an all-time high of 138,519 in 1931 (Hoffman 1974). Under financial pressures, the budding AAFCJ was forced to occasionally cancel its annual general meeting from 1931 to 1933. This larger national crisis did not halt evangelization efforts. Churches in Mexico reaped the benefits of the repatriation, as “hermanos repatriados” rode US government’s wave of repatriation efforts and evangelized disparate parts of Mexico (Ramirez 2015, 154). Perhaps, on a larger binational scale, the repatriation from 1931 to 1933 proved to be a partial transplantation of the movement’s constituencies rather than a deracination.

Throughout the state, congregations offered community and stability' to evangelists and laity, riding the unsteady' wave of migration stirred up by macro-economic forces. Co-religionists from the Imperial Valley during the summer harvest would fill Los Angeles and Central Valley churches beyond capacity. Churches located in communities where summer harvest crops abounded fully expected growth during those months. This migratory labor phenomenon, described by Paul Taylor as a “surge northward” and a “pour[ing] over into the great Valley of California,” was also noted by Apostólicos (Taylor 1983, 5).16 They developed a parallel economy of sociability and accountability, and a protocol of issuing letters of recommendation for transient saints to deliver to pastors of new sites of work, guaranteeing them a sense of community upon arrival (Ramirez 2015, 132-133).

The “surge northward” of saints led at times to the creation of new sites of worship as well as to the conversion of non-Apostólicos. An empowered laity took the initiative to erect their own makeshift temples to begin converting others. One eyewitness recalled that even if no temple stood “they wouldn’t waste time; they would get together and have church wherever they could”.17 This became true of the makeshift tents (carpas) set up in the fields. Another eyewitness recounts how the hermanos from Calexico would arrive in Patterson (near Modesto), and lacking a temple, would set up a large tarp on poles and gather for services. These outdoor services were not restricted to members of the church, and often attracted outsiders. After working the fields in Heber, CA (northwest of Calexico) for five years, Aniceto Ortiz found himself among Apostólicos in the fields of Patterson in 1950. In his first day in Patterson, a fellow field worker invited him to join fellow migrant for a worship service in carpa. Devotees hailed from Mexico, and the border states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as from across California. As one of many converted farmworkers, Ortiz spent the remainder of his years in the fields ministering to Bracero workers in the Central Valley towns of Patterson and Grayson.18

As the Mexican population of workers migrated from one field the next, the planting of new churches assumed rather democratic characteristics that relied on both pragmatic considerations of where would work next as well as a primitivist belief that their journeys had been divinely guided.19 For these reasons, impromptu outdoor religious gatherings at times turned into full-fledged churches over time. Journeys from southern California to found churches in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley areas from the 1920s to the late 1940s include the Amaya, Cota, Banderas, Del Muro, Marin, Marrufo, Montes, Moran, Rodríguez, and Valdez families. Together these families, along with an evangelizing laity founded no fewer than thirty obras.20 With the succor of ministers from southern California, the small field worker congregations of the valleys came to form their own distinct geographical region.

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