When worlds collide: Culture clashes coming to a parish near you

When Gary Riebe-Estrella, S.V.D. was a new priest, he had one heck of a time hearing Confessions from Mexicans and Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles. He was taught in the seminary that he could not give absolution until he had learned exactly what penitents had done and exactly how many times they had done it: This was called the “matter” of the sacrament.

When the Mexicans came for Confession, however, what they did was tell stories. A mother would come in, let’s say, and tell about her daughter, whose marriage wasn’t working out very well, and the mother was feeling nervous about that. “It took me forever to realize,” Riebe-Estrella says, “that those stories were the matter. What they were talking about to me were their relationships, which is how their world was mapped.” When a woman talked about her daughter’s troubled marriage, she was actually talking about what she had not done to prepare her daughter to be a good wife.

If you’ve ever felt you needed a road map when crossing into another culture, you’re already halfway toward understanding why Riebe-Estrella, vice president and academic dean of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, says cultures are whole worlds of their own. An associate professor of practical theology and Hispanic ministry at CTU, he has written and spoken frequently on the role of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. church, multiculturalism, and the Mexican religious imagination. He co-edited Horizons of the Sacred: Mexican Traditions in U.S. Catholicism (Cornell University Press) with Timothy Matovina. Being half German and half Mexican, you’ve got a foot in both worlds.

How did you end up working primarily on issues of the Hispanic community?

A good deal of my interest actually reflects my own personal journey. My dad’s family is German, and my mom’s family is Mexican, but I’m fourth generation in the U.S. on both sides. The last generation that really spoke Spanish was my grandmother’s, and they mixed it with English, mostly when they didn’t want the younger ones to know what they were talking about. Although I grew up around my mother’s family, my brother and I never learned Spanish at home, and we could pass, racially, in either direction.

I was in my 20s when the Chicano movement came of age in Southern California, and that presented us with a choice: How would we identify ourselves? Through very different paths, my brother and I each decided to identify ourselves as Mexican Americans.

After I was ordained, I began my own journey to learn the language and the culture by spending summers in Mexico. I ended up assigned to a college in Iowa, where I connected with a Mexican community in the Quad Cities. Those people really loved me into understanding myself as a Mexican American. It was a rediscovery, and I was like a sponge, soaking up everything I could learn.

Did your family face discrimination in California?

So much so that when my mother’s family got enough money to get out of East Los Angeles, they changed the pronunciation of their names to the anglicized version of Estrella. In fact, my grandfather used to call my grandmother “Irish.”

You’re kidding.

Not at all. I remember asking her one time, “Why does Grandpa Phil call you Irish?” and he answered, “One day she was out in the backyard doing something in the garden and I called to her, ‘Hey, come on over here, you chili picker.’ And she said, ‘Don’t you ever call me that again.’” From that day forward, he called her “Irish.”

So even inside the family, there was this love/hate relationship with the culture. We were one kind of people out in public and a different kind of people when we were home, depending on which set of relatives we were with. As a result, I grew up sensitive to the layers of culture that were playing themselves out in the different people in the family and in myself.

In coming back to your Mexican roots, did you experience homecoming or a feeling of conflict?

I think Mexican Americans have a very small social space. Most of the world is either Mexican or American. If you’re Mexican American and you go to Mexico, you’re an American. If you’re in this country, you’re a Mexican. So what you learn to do is hang out with your own kind.

We don’t usually feel terribly at home with Mexicans because their Spanish is much better and the culture is much different. They don’t identify themselves primarily with this country in terms of national attitudes or history. Don’t forget we were on different sides of the Mexican American war.

There’s a bit of schizophrenia that you learn to negotiate when you’re a U.S.-born Latino, which is quite different from the world of immigrants. That plays itself out in church situations, for example in formation for religious life.


Unfortunately the church in this country, because it is used to dealing with immigrants, tends to look at U.S.-born Latinos as immigrants. It tries to use with us the same strategies, such as devotionalism, that it used with European immigrants. Then church people become pretty frustrated when those strategies don’t work with U.S. Latinos. Also, because Latinos born in the U.S. are more aggressive, the church gets even more uncomfortable with us.

Why do you say aggressive?

Two reasons. One, the U.S. culture is more aggressive, meaning it is not as “soft” as Latin American cultures are.

But also it’s because at least a section of the U.S.-born Latino population is more sensitive to its U.S. roots and therefore its U.S. rights. In other words, we are not “visitors” in somebody else’s church. This is our church as much as anybody else’s, and therefore we tend to stand up for ourselves more, which is not usually appreciated by church authorities.

I remember once in my own order we were doing formation with some Mexican candidates as well as some Mexican Americans, and one of the priests asked, “Why can’t the Mexican Americans be like the Mexicans? We never have any trouble with them.” That led to a long conversation, to say the least.

In the U.S. what’s been called Hispanic ministry is really mostly ministry to Latino immigrants. It is then simply applied to ministry to U.S.-born Latinos, who are almost two thirds of the Latino population in this country. The church spends most of its Hispanic-ministry personnel, money, and programming on what is really just a third of the Latino population.

We have no plan for what happens when this third acculturates and becomes Mexican American. We’re not developing models of ministry to second-, third-, and fourth-generation Latinos, who religiously stay far closer to their roots than the church perceives.

Why would they stay closer to their roots in that one area?

Our view of this has changed. Back in the 1970s, people who studied culture used to think that acculturation proceeded on what we imagined as a straight line. Let’s say on one end is Mexican culture, and on the other U.S. culture. The “ideal” was that you were in the center: You speak both languages and you have the best of both cultural worlds.

There is no cultural anthropologist in the world today who believes that was ever even possible. Culture isn’t a buffet. People don’t sit down and say, “I think I’ll select the Mexican sense of family, the U.S. sense of time, and the Mexican sense of shame, and mix it all up and put in two teaspoons of skin color, and I’ll end up a Mexican American.” It doesn’t work that way.

Today we see that there are many areas of people’s lives that are related to culture: work ethic, food, music, family organization, and religion, for example.

Studies show that people adapt at different rates in different areas of their lives. They acculturate in language skills most easily and quickly because that’s just acquiring technical skills. With food they change less quickly, as with work ethic. Music preferences, on the other hand, tend to change fairly quickly. You have Mexican American kids eating tacos but listening to Afro-Brazilian music. In religion, people tend to acculturate the most slowly of all.

So what does that say about how the church should try to reach young people who are Latino?

When I used to work in East L.A., which was 95 percent Mexican and Mexican American, we had only one Mass on Sunday in English and all the others in Spanish. But the teenagers’ and children’s primary language was English: in school, at the movies, even their music. They all knew Spanish because they had to speak to their parents, but otherwise they spoke English.

So if they went to the Spanish Mass on Sunday, they didn’t understand half of what the priest said in the sermon because their Spanish was only “kitchen Spanish,” about things of the home and family. Also, the liturgy was in a very traditional Mexican style, which these kids were trying to get away from, because they associated it with their parents and all their restrictions. These kids were trying to figure out who they were as Mexican Americans.

Their other option was to go to the English Mass in the next town over. But all the religious symbols and images of God there were from the dominant European American culture, and they’d come out of Mass saying, “I don’t feel like I’ve been to church.” In the long run, they stopped going anywhere.

For us as a church, the longterm consequences of principally ministering to immigrants and pretending they are the majority are going to be horrific. We’re going to end up with folks who will have to unlearn their negative religious experiences before you can bring them into a new experience. That’s twice as much work as if you had just taken care of them right from the start.

What would ministry to U.S.-born Latinos look like?

It would mean developing styles of prayer and liturgy that might operate in English but in which the religiosity underneath is still predominantly Latino. You would draw on the stories of our culture, which embody a different worldview of God’s relationship to this world and our relationship to God.

As for religious education programs for kids, you’d have to create materials for Latino kids in the U.S. Right now the English program uses books written for the dominant European Catholic culture, and the Spanish programs often use books from other countries. You’d also need more family involvement, because Latino culture speaks about a communal sense of self. If the rest of the family is still around, you know that the grandmother will try to undo all the doctrinal input you just did with the kids on Saturday morning. So how do you get the grandmothers involved? How do you prepare kids, gently, for the fact that someone will try to undo what they’ve just learned in class?

Youth groups, too, tend to be divided by language, and this goes back to what I always say are the two myths in this country: First, that language equals culture, and second, that folklore equals culture.

So what actually makes up culture?

Let me start by saying I think folks in the U.S., by and large, don’t do very well with culture because we don’t know much about it. Partly it’s because of our geographic isolation. Most of Canada is culturally very similar to us, and then we have this country to the south with whom we’ve not had such great relationships, and we keep trying to close the border.

Compared to Western Europe, for instance, we live in relative cultural isolation. Most U.S. folks don’t know very much about how culture works, period.

We tend to identify language with culture, thinking they’re the same thing. Underneath that are two assumptions: first, that the only thing that makes this population different from the dominant U.S. population is that they speak Spanish; second, and far more insidious, is that if you can teach them English, they’ll be just like “us.”

This is the assumption on which the English-only movement is based, and the fear is that we will not have a uniform culture in this country, which of course we have never had, because it was either German or Irish or whatever group dominated. When suburbanization took that away, we saw more Asian immigrants and Latino immigrants. So we’ve never had a homogeneous culture—that’s a myth.

Can you give us the 90-second course on culture?

It’s helpful to think of cultures as worlds, in a sense. They contain different elements: prescribed behaviors; social systems, like how the family is organized; and primary values, things that are absolutely important in one cultural world. Each of these elements gets its meaning from the way it is related to the other elements that make up that world. When we bump into someone from another culture, we collide with a piece of their world, usually a behavior. We pull it out of their cultural world and put it into ours, where it will always look somewhere between quaint and aberrant, because it doesn’t fit into our system.

What would this collision look like in parish life?

I often use the example of the infamous 7 p.m. parish meeting that takes place in a Euro-American and Latino parish. A fly on the wall would see that all the Euro-Americans were there “early,” and all the Latinos were there “late”—or at a different time.

Look at the language: Instead of describing the behaviors and asking, “Why do these people come at 7:45 instead of 7 o’clock?” we say, “Why do they come late?” We’ve taken a behavior out of their world and put it into our world, where it is called “late,” but it’s not called that in their world. And they do exactly the same thing with our behaviors. Behind all this is the fact that cultures understand the human person differently. The U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand tend to see the human person primarily as an individual who lives in a world of freely chosen relationships. We call this culture “egocentric”—note that it’s not “egotistical” because it has nothing to do with selfishness. It’s just the way people think about their world and organize it. The rest of the planet tends to embrace the sense of a world made up of relationships in which the individual person exists, known sometimes as socio-centric.

So why do these two groups arrive at parish meetings at different times?

Half of intercultural disasters are over senses of time. If my world is primarily about relationships, time exists in my world in order to serve those relationships. If I’m a Latino and I’m about to leave for the parish meeting and a friend stops by, I would invite him in, make some coffee, find something to eat, and we would sit and talk. I’m not allowed to surreptitiously look at my watch or run and make a phone call so he can hear me say, “I know I’m late for that meeting, but I’ve got somebody here.” Then when he leaves, I’ll go to the meeting, and all the people from the socio-centric cultures will understand.

An egocentric culture sees time as belonging to you. It’s for your benefit, rather than for relationships. People are indoctrinated into the notion that if you use your time well, that’s a mark of maturity. If you don’t, you’re immature. Notice that in English we use all the same verbs to talk about time that we use for money: We spend it, we waste it, we save it, and—interestingly, because it’s so unchristian—we even talk about my time, as if I were in charge of time.

And the people who came late to the meeting are “wasting my time.”

Exactly. That’s the reason there’s so much tension when the meeting finally gets going at 7:45. Because according to the Euro-Americans, the Latinos have not only been personally irresponsible by not using their time well, but they have abused time that belongs to the other folks. That’s what they’re really angry at: “If they can’t figure out how to run their lives, that’s their own problem, but don’t take my time and waste it.”

Not only are our worlds organized differently, but we have emotional investments in the correctness of our own world: “There ain’t no way like my way.”

But in a world that’s made principally of relationships, truth is a matter of telling you what the relationship will bear, because the primary things valued in this world are the relationships. I’m actually being far more responsible and mature by keeping the relationship intact than I would be by giving you information that would in fact damage our relationship.

I always say that the great problem in pastoral ministry with Latinos is, When does sí mean yes, and when does sí mean no? Because the person has no other option but to say sí.

So how do you begin to deal with these clashes in a parish? First, you can certainly give people some cultural education about one another. That’s the easiest thing to do because it’s disarming, and people are curious, and you can make it fun.

But you also have power relationships at work in the parish, which need to be identified and sorted out. Even if you understand the other culture really well, you might still think, “Well, we’re still in charge.” It’s not a matter of intellectual insight, but rather a question of “How are we going to balance this parish?”

Also, how do we deal with prejudice? You might know all about someone’s culture and still not like them. We’ll also have to figure out how we create reconciliation in this parish. Have there been run-ins that go back a long way? How do we reconcile those? Finally a parish has to decide what it means to be a community. While this is theological, it has practical implications. Does being a parish community mean we all do the same things the same way? And do we still have a parish if we have a Polish Mass at 8 a.m., a Spanish Mass at 10 a.m., and a Vietnamese Mass at noon? Then where is the community?

Which of those dimensions are the toughest to deal with?

Power, reconciliation, and what the parish is all about. This is where things get really difficult, say on Christmas Eve. What kind of celebration are you going to have at midnight Mass?

It’s interesting that people don’t object when you do a Christmas Eve celebration for families at 5:30 p.m. and then a midnight Mass, but it does tend to bother people if you separate the celebrations by language or culture.

It also comes up during Holy Week-I’ve been in parishes where we came close to killing one another over what kind of celebration we were going to have on Holy Saturday, where by church law you are allowed only one service. I knew one pastor who had two: two paschal candles, two vigil Masses. He said, “This is the best I can do.” I’m sure the bishop didn’t like that.

Where have you seen it done well?

Some parishes have been successful at the dreaded multicultural liturgy because they did a lot of education and preparation for it—they didn’t just announce in the bulletin that it was going to happen. They figured out ways not to make it a three-and-a-half hour extravaganza with everything repeated, which everyone hates.

I went to one Mass where the pastor told me they had decided that there was really no good way to do a multilingual Liturgy of the Word, which is when the “lingual” is most important. So they had three Liturgies of the Word in different languages at the same time in different places: one in the church, one in the hall, one somewhere else.

They weren’t split by ethnicity, but by language. So if you were a Latino and you wanted to hear the readings in English, you went to the English gathering. Then they had people process to the church, which was an interesting symbol of the fact that they were comfortable in linguistic communities but coming together as one community for the Eucharist. I thought that was very clever. And everyone prayed the Lord’s Prayer in their own language at the same time.

Some parishes are comfortable with the idea that a parish is more a community of communities. Most people live in a smaller community and worship in a smaller community than the parish, and occasionally the whole parish comes together around something. Not every Sunday Mass is made for everybody, and that’s fine, as long as our communities have some relationship to one another. That’s one theology of church, but it’s not the common one, in which unity is uniformity: Unless we all do it the same way, we’re not in the same church. I think there’s another way to think about church.

 This article appeared in the December 2004 (Volume 69, Number 12) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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