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Justice activism and Latino spiritualities: Los Angeles as a post-colonial border space

Helene Slessarev-jamir

In their seminal book, From Chicago to L.A.: Making Sense of Urban Theory, Michael Dear and his co-authors examine Los Angeles as the exemplar of an emerging postmodern metropolis (Miller 2002). The chapter on religions in Los Angeles emphasizes the enormous diversity of religious practices in the region yet is surprisingly silent regarding the impact that distinctive Latino/a forms of spirituality have had on the religious-political landscape. This chapter seeks to correct those shortcomings by focusing on the importance of various forms of Latino/a spirituality that over the decades have undergirded key Latino/a social justice movements in Southern California.

In an article describing the recreation of unique forms of Mexican spirituality' in the American southwest, Ellen McCracken argues that “spirituality is one strong means of retaining one’s humanity in the face of the arbitrariness of postmodern capitalist society and it is through what might be termed a reterritorialized spirituality that many immigrant communities in the borderlands concretize the spiritual human dimension” (McCracken 2000). Given the extent to which California’s Latinos/as have been systematically marginalized in territories that once belonged to Mexico, this chapter employs a post-colonial lens to examine Southern California as an “in-between” or liminal space that is profoundly' shaped by' the presence of millions of Latino/a immigrants (Deverell 2004). The growing immigrant presence has reshaped the character of the region’s religious justice activism along with the spiritualities that undergird it.

Over the last 50 years, the proximity of Los Angeles to the Mexican border has profoundly shaped the character of religious justice activism in Southern California. I am drawing on the work of Walter Mignolo (2000), who writes,

Borders are becoming serious concerns of scholars and intellectuals. The interrelated phenomena of globalization and migration have served to highlight the borders in relation to the territory, not just the territorial borders of the nation-state but the existential conditions of migrants who are always dwelling in the borders, whether they reside in the heart of Paris, Berlin, London, New York, or Los Angeles, or in the borders that divide Europe from Africa or the United States from South America and the Caribbean (p. 192).

This chapter explores the multiple forms in which reterritorialized Latino/a spiritualities have brought sacred meaning to various struggles waged by Latino/a activists and their allies on behalf of expanded economic and social rights in Southern California. Not only are varied forms of Latino religiosity continuously recast through these collective efforts at social transformation, also religious activists have repeatedly reimagined the US/Mexico border. As will become apparent, the border itself is a critical actor in the region’s social imaginary.

Southern California seen through a post-colonial lens

Post-colonial theorizing about borders requires that we acknowledge the validity of a multiplicity of truths and ways of thinking. It acknowledges the presence of various forms of hybridity, including language, cultural, and religious hybridities that emerge as a result of the increased global exchange of ideas and media, along with large-scale human migration. As the pace of global communication and migration accelerates, so does the extent to which cultures and religions increasingly become hybrid. Thus, border thinking requires a “delinking from hegemonic epistemology' (absolute knowledge) and the monoculture of the mind in its Western diversity” (Mignolo 2000, 227).

Today, the majority of people living in close proximity to the US/Mexico border recognize it as liminal space. Many border residents speak multiple languages and have families on both sides of the border. They tend to be more defined by their personal and familial relationships and traditional cultural practices than by the side of the border on which they are physically located. From its origins as a Spanish colonial city, Los Angeles has always been characterized by hybridity. When Los Angeles was established in 1781, the present-day state of California constituted the western frontier of the Spanish empire. It was in the west and southwest of the present-day United States that the Spanish empire collided with the United States’ own imperial ambitions.

The city’s earliest settlers were of African descent and enjoyed far greater social mobility on the west coast than on the east coast. Racial mixing was more common within Spain’s North American territories than in the Anglo-dominated regions of North America where racial stratification was profoundly shaped by the presence of large numbers of African slaves (Horne 2014). Within Spain’s American possessions, those Africans and Indians who became Christians were considered part of the people of reason (Robinson 2010, 22). Thus, for the Spanish, one’s Christian identity was as important as a person’s skin pigmentation in determining their position within the social hierarchy.

In 1822, following Mexico’s independence from Spain, Los Angeles residents found themselves living in a province of the new nation of Mexico. This transition had little effect on the Spanish-speaking Californians, who constituted a multiracial society that provided upward mobility to anyone. These relatively egalitarian social arrangements were dramatically altered when the discovery of gold in California led to an influx of Anglo-American prospectors and settlers. The labor needs of western mining and railroad construction also led to the recruitment of Chinese laborers, who were initially welcomed, but as their numbers grew, they were increasingly viewed with foreboding by Anglo-Americans who came to regard the Far West as a place “inhabited by a mixed population, of habits, opinions, and characters incapable of sympathy or assimilation” (Tichenor 2002, 89). By the early 1880s, California stood at the vanguard of this nation’s legislative efforts to restrict immigration. Despite onerous federal restrictions, southwestern ranchers and farmers devised various guest worker programs that allowed them to import cheap itinerant farm laborers from Mexico. Thus, Southern California has long been a liminal space located on the “underside” of America’s standard narrative of nation building, which marks its origins with the arrival of English settlers along the eastern seaboard.

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