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The creation of the border

The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 ending the US-Mexican War led to dramatic alterations in the lives of Los Angeles’s inhabitants. Mexico was forced to cede 55% of its territory to the United States, including much of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Mexican landowners whose properties were now located in the United States were given only vague promises that the titles to their land would be respected under American laws. The exact location of the current US/Mexico border is fairly arbitrary, having been drawn based on certain geographic markers rather than the presence of historic communities with a shared identity based on a common language, history, and ethnic makeup. As is true of other border regions around the globe, the arbitrariness of the international boundary between Mexico and the United States precipitated a long litany of grievances that culminated in the 1960s Chicano/a Movement.

The gradual hardening of the border between the United States and Mexico disrupted a border culture that had existed for generations. The current fortification of the US/Mexico border is an assault on the identity and way of life of the 20-25 million people who live directly along it. San Diego area United Methodist minister Rev. John Fanestil puts it this way:

To the extent that someone felt blessed by the fluidity of the border, it has been tough for that to be disrupted. In the 1980s there were no lines at the border crossings, making it easy to live on both sides. In 2000 it cost $250 for an immigrant to get from Tijuana to Los Angeles. It was such an ordinary journey that people went back and forth routinely. Now the cost is much higher and financial burden of crossing falls especially on the poor.1

Today, a heavily fortified fence intersects the US/Mexico border space. According to Chicana feminist theologian and poet, Gloria Anzaldua (1987), the increasingly fortified 1,950-mile fence that separates people living on the United States side from those on the Mexican side is like an open wound upon the land, “es una herida abierta, where the third world grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again. The lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country-a border culture” (Anzaldua 1987, 25).

The border fence now separates a mestizo/a people who are the descendants of centuries of intermarriage among people with mixed indigenous blood and those of Spanish descent. According to Anzaldua, this mixing led to the creation of a new reterritorialized people whose homeland, known as Aztian, straddles the US/ Mexico border, including portions of the southwestern United States and northern portions of Mexico, which had historically been inhabited by indigenous peoples (Anzaldua 1987).

Layered border spiritualities

The presence of diverse border spiritualities within Southern California is the result of multiple historical trajectories. Some spiritualities are indigenous to the region, while others arrived as a consequence of the shifting political and economic fortunes of countries to the south of the US border. While large-scale migration to the United States has partly been propelled by the allure of a better life in El Norte, more often it is motivated by deteriorating prospects for a flourishing life in Mexico and Central America. Since migration to the North has now spanned multiple generations, the spiritualities that accompanied these varied migratory streams are layered, with earlier spiritualities acting as sediment upon which subsequent layers settle. The older spiritualities do not necessarily vanish, but instead become the terra firma upon which recent spiritualities settle. Indeed, many younger Latino/a activists are reviving older indigenous spiritualities, as evidenced by their participation in such gatherings as the annual Mesoamerica Meetings.2

Despite the fortification of the physical border between the United States and Mexico, immigrants continue to live binational and bicultural lives, carrying their sacred traditions with them as they cross borders. Yet, the border crossing also exposes migrants to new ways of being and thinking, which engenders a gradual reshaping and intermingling of cultural practices, including spiritual beliefs and practices. As immigrants resettle within the border spaces, they selectively integrate new cultural and religious practices into their pre-existing ones. In some cases, they may choose to discard older spiritualities as they adopt new ones more suitable to their circumstances in the United States. According to Rev. Walter Contreras of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, this describes a growing number of Latino migrants who are abandoning their Catholic faith in favor of Latino evangelicalism? Younger Latino activists are embracing traditional indigenous spiritualities that were passed down through family elders as well as the remaining Chicano/a Studies Programs, which sought to intentionally revive ancient Mesoamerican spiritualities.

There are also elements within migrants’ sacred traditions that are not life giving. This is especially true for many Latinas. Thus, as one examines the roles played by various spiritualities in the struggles for justice, one must remain alert to the oppressive elements that are also embedded within traditional spiritualities. For example, the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to ordain women priests has undoubtedly contributed to a denial of women’s leadership roles within the various Latino/a activist movements.

The remainder of this chapter explores forms of spirituality that were central to a series of transformative rights struggles and solidarity movements, which have contributed to reshaping the character of Southern California. Over the last several decades, this region has largely been transformed into one of the most politically progressive regions in the United States. While this chapter focuses on Latino/a forms of spirituality, it is important to recognize that elements of these spiritualities have been incorporated into contemporary work done by a wide array of interfaith justice organizations. Many of these spiritualities are local and particular, shaped by the lived experiences of people whose roots lie deep within ancient indigenous beliefs. Over time these ancient traditions have also been enveloped into the praxis of larger, more global religions, creating yet another set of hybrid spiritualities.

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