Reflections on The Church in the Barrio
Ten years into a career in Houston’s public schools at age thirty-eight, I packed my few possessions and drove off to California to start life anew as a history graduate student at Stanford University. My Ph.D. quest was deeply personal. It turned out to be a gratifying journey of self-discovery but occasionally I questioned that life-altering decision. One of those times was when I got the go-ahead to start my dissertation research. Anxiety gripped me when I began to think I wouldn’t be able to research something directly out of my own life, a dissertation topic that would satisfy the hunger for self-knowledge that had led me to doctoral study in the first place. Quite unexpectedly, I found the answer in a dissertation about Catholicism, which became the book The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
Some things only make sense in retrospect. The choice to study Catholicism didn’t make sense to me at first. After discussing other topics with my mentor Albert Camarillo, I floated an idea firmly tied to my own past, Mexican-American Protestantism. Baptized in the Texas Mexican Presbyterian Church, I was reared in a church-going home. As a family we had always belonged to a Presbyterian congregation, though at times the distance from our own church and the disruptions of moving led us temporarily into the pews of other Protestant churches. Growing up I became comfortable with Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Baptist worship services, and made friends at Presbyterian summer camp as well as in Mennonite vacation Bible school, in a Baptist basketball league, and as an undergraduate at Houston Baptist College. I remained in that familiar Protestant-Presbyterian world well into adulthood.
Some of my earliest musings about history had been about the ever-present importance of religion, so as I cast about for a dissertation topic it made sense to propose a study of Mexican-American Protestantism. Such a project would address a gap in U.S. historiography and, though I didn’t pitch it this way, it would nourish the connection to my own past. My mentor’s initial reactions encouraged me. He agreed that historians, including his own cohort that pioneered Chicano history, essentially had ignored religion’s role in Mexican-American history. Even church historians’ treatment of religion among ethnic Mexicans didn’t reveal much about race and ethnic relations, class and gender inequalities, and other social factors that had shaped Mexican-American history. I expected a green light from Al after his comments; instead, he redirected me to Catholicism.
But where was the connection to my own life? I had never set foot inside a Catholic church, or even a playground; Catholicism, I thought at first, was foreign to me. But after more thought I began to realize that Catholicism had always been everywhere around me. My paternal grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins—all muy católicos (very Catholic)—had been a large part of the daily nourishment of my early life, providing companionship, knowledge, emotional comfort, and much delicious food and fun. I began to realize that living next door to my grandparents and being inseparable from my cousins—except on Sundays—had significantly molded my childhood. As I shaped the dissertation project I thought back to those happy years and recalled things I had long wondered about—the ever-present images of la virgencita (Our Lady of Guadalupe) that adorned calendars and the flickering votive candles on neatly arranged altarcitos (home altars); the earnestness with which my cousin scratched a crucita (little cross) into the dirt where we found someone’s lost nickel, insisting that our luck would be repeated at that very spot some other day; the automatic reflex of making the sign of the cross in certain situations; my grandfather’s stories and everyday sayings imbued with Catholic imagery and language. These ruminations formed my research questions and led me to understand more about myself, Mexican Americans, and American society. Thank goodness for wise mentors!
The Church in the Barrio thus satisfied a deep need to wed the professional with the personal in my research. To my relief, fellow historians and other scholars found my arguments sound and judged the book a worthy contribution. I’ve also been gratified over the years by many positive comments from students and other scholars. Even a few general readers have expressed their appreciation for the book after a public talk; oftentimes, their comments clearly derive from a sense of affirmation the book gave them, as it did me. Despite the positive feelings I associate with The Church in the Barrio, I regret not having thought deeply about Houston’s southern heritage as I crafted my story. Not that I was completely oblivious: I had described Houston as a city “situated in the East Texas borderlands between South and West,” and one “predicated on a Southern Protestant ethos” (7, 9). I even wrote that “the Chicano experience has not been monolithic, either in terms of region or religion” and cautioned that “we should be alert to the nuances the interaction of these two factors may produce” (8). Unfortunately, these were afterthoughts; they occurred to me during the very last rewriting for the book’s introduction. Foremost in my mind at that point was to build a strong case for studying “new Chicano communities” like Houston (as opposed to more familiar cities rooted in the Spanish and Mexican Southwest). That worthy goal could have been made more forcefully had the idea of Houston’s southernness percolated earlier in my thinking as I revised the main chapters.
For example, attention to the relevance of place would have enriched my discussion of the racialization of Mexicans and other immigrants whom Americans considered neither black nor white, such as Asians, Cape Verdeans, and southern Italians who migrated to the South. Highlighting the Italians, I wrote that “Americans … denigrated them as ‘kinky-haired Africans’ because of their ‘swarthy’ complexion and the fact that they were from the mezzogiorno, the part of Italy that is the hottest and closest to Africa.” I pointed out that ”in the black and white South of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the guardians of the color line tried to keep Italian children from attending white schools and sometimes lynched adults who violated southern racial protocols by working and socializing with blacks,” adding that “Anglos treated Tejanos in much the same way and for very similar reasons” during the same era. I also observed that “in constructing their racial views, whites emphasized Mexicans’ alleged savage Aztec Indian background,” an “added twist” that set them apart” (84). But even though I drew a strong historical parallel and pointed out how those experiences were also different, I didn’t elaborate on how geography might explain those similarities and differences.
Surprisingly, only one reviewer raised the question of what Houston’s location might mean. In The Western Historical Quarterly historian Todd Kerstetter praised the book as “a magnificent stride toward explaining the significance of religion” in the lives of Mexican Americans, and highlighted its utility for those interested in ethnic, religious, and Texas history. Then he astutely asked: “What about those interested in the American West? To an extent, that depends upon whether one believes Houston rests in the West or in the South.” Happily, for me, Kerstetter went on to say, “In a larger and more important way, though, Treviño adds information critical to understanding the West’s longstanding relationship with Mexico, which is rapidly becoming a national phenomenon rather than a regional one.” 1 That sentence took some of the sting out of a legitimate criticism. More importantly, his important question affirmed the direction my thinking had begun to take.
The publication of The Church in the Barrio coincided with an emerging literature engendered by heavy Mexican and other Latin American immigration into the South and reflected in the catchy phrase the ”nuevo New South.” In that context I began planning a new project about religion and the Chicano movement, but now more purposely considering the interpretive potential of Houston’s geographical setting. That process reminded me that determining whether Houston is best studied as part of the South or of the West is no simple task. As historian Ty Cashion cleverly observed, the “distinctly western characteristics” of parts of Texas dictate that ”stories of cowboys and Indians and the great cattle drives, the buffalo hunt on the southern plains, Texas Rangers and border bandits … are better told over a margarita than a mint julep.” 2 But what about Houston? Early in my research, native Houstonian Bishop John McCarthy insisted that Houston is a southern city. When you leave the Bayou City and head west on Interstate 10, he explained, somewhere before you get to the Alamo City the South ends and the Southwest begins.
For me the question of Houston’s southernness or westernness isn’t either-or, but both. I see Houston as a borderland, a place whose history has been shaped by influences emanating from both the American South and the Southwest. Houston is an in-between place; in the symbolic language of the U.S. civil rights movements, it’s where Selma meets Aztlán. As I re-read documents about the lives of religious men and women I had written about in the book’s chapter on the movimiento in Houston, things that had seemed irrelevant before now suggested new implications, especially for an inter-racial framework for the study: a bishop who had been immersed in a Mexican setting before becoming the driving force of black-and-white interracial dialogue in Houston; a priest who had stood in solidarity with African Americans in Selma before getting involved in Chicano causes; a Chicana nun who had joined civil rights activities in Alabama before jumping into the movimiento in Houston; and others with overlapping black and brown experiences. I hammered these ideas into a conference paper titled “Aztlán Meets Selma: Regional Elements, the Catholic Church, and Houston’s Chicano Movement,” which hypothesized,
The Chicano movement in Houston arose in the context and under the influence of Houston’s southern roots, which included a large and long-established African-American population with its own civil rights tradition. For most of its history, Houston had been a black-and-white city. But by the 1960s the city had become racially tripartite—black, white, and increasingly brown. Thus, Houston’s Chicano movement would draw inspiration and be shaped by elements associated with both the South’s Black Freedom Struggle and the Mexican Americans’ Southwestern heritage, particularly their Roman Catholicism and their own tradition of resistance that had become apparent from Texas to California by the mid-1960s. I suggest that these twin influences—southern and southwestern, Selma and Aztlán—alternately constrained and propelled the movimiento in the Bayou City. While regional factors at times impeded the Chicano cause for social equality, ultimately they also provided a timely confluence of leaders who—because of their personal experiences and ministry among both Mexican Americans and African Americans—recognized the shared nature of the oppression these groups faced, and worked to overcome it. 3
That embryonic essay illustrates how The Church in the Barrio can be a point of departure for research that would further the understanding of religion in the South. The tripartite racial landscape that forms the book’s backdrop implicitly challenges the usefulness the black-white binary model for examining religion and civil rights in the South’s westernmost fringes. Clearly, the Chicano and African-American movements in Houston would be best examined with awareness about how each community’s presence in the city affected their contemporaneous struggles, not as isolated developments. In a similar vein, the book reminds us that southern inter-racialism becomes more complex when religious space is shared by ethnic Mexicans and African Americans. What more might be learned about the role of religion in race relations when it is examined in a place like St. Raphael parish, where forty percent of the parishioners were African Americans and the rest of Mexican origin? Lastly, the book’s epilogue introduces Houston’s increasingly larger and more complex Latino make-up after the 1970s. In those closing pages I suggested that even with the large influx of other Latinos Mexican ethno-Catholicism remained vibrant in the early twenty-first century. But has that changed? In sum, the implications of Houston’s ethno-racial and religious pluralism are key to a fuller understanding of the South’s largest city.
I leave most of these ideas for research for others. In retirement I find my interests strongly arching back to the personal again, and I am pursuing a family history project I never had time for before. Ultimately, The Church in the Barrio achieved my personal goals as well as some important professional ones. Fundamentally driven by a need to better understand myself and Mexican Americans as part of the mosaic of the human family, the book also contributed to our understanding of Mexican-American history in Texas, enlarged our view of “American” religious history, and to some degree illuminated the history of the American West. Additionally, the book can be a gateway for further study of religion in the American South.
Todd Kerstetter, review of The Church and the Barrio, by Roberto R. Treviño, The Western Historical Quarterly, 38.3 (2007): 402–403.↩
Ty Cashion, “What’s the Matter with Texas?: The Great Enigma of the Lone Star State in the American West,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 55.4 (2005): 6.↩
Roberto R. Treviño, “Aztlán Meets Selma: Regional Elements, the Catholic Church, and Houston’s Chicano Movement” (paper presented at the annual Texas State Historical Association/Texas Catholic Historical Society Conference, San Antonio, Texas, March 8–10, 2007).↩