The term “Hispanic” was coined by the federal government in the census of the year 1970 and refers to persons born in a Spanish-speaking country in the Americas or those who have their ancestral origins in Spain or in Spanish-speaking territories. The term Hispanic is an ambiguous but necessary term referring to linguistic races or groups of people.
September 15 was chosen because on that date five Latin American nations celebrate their independence: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua; and also because Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence on the 16th and the 18th of September, respectively.
The Hispanic presence in the United States and their cultural and social legacy go back to times prior to the foundation of the settlement in Plymouth in the year 1620. On that date, Santa Fe was celebrating its first decade and Saint Augustíne, in Florida, was celebrating the 55th anniversary of its founding. The Hispanic settlements extended into the Southwestern territory of the United States, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and in Florida. 10% of the Hispanics currently resident in the United States relate their ancestral roots to those dates, occurrences and settlements.
The Puerto Rican population in this nation merits special mention. Puerto Ricans did not migrate to the United States. They were absorbed during the American expansion toward the end of the Nineteenth Century and later received American citizenship in 1917. Later on, the economic depression and two world wars forced many Puerto Ricans to leave the island in search of better opportunities in the United States. The current status of Puerto Rico as a free Associated State still is cause for some confusion both within and beyond the Puerto Rican community and results in indefinition concerning the status and nationality of the Puerto Ricans, who are viewed by Anglo North Americans as Hispanics, whereas they are often perceived by other Hispanics as simply North Americans.
The Cubans are also an exception to the migratory rule. Most Cubans reached the United States as political exiles following the implantation of the Communist regime of Fidel Castro in the island. Currently, more than two million Cubans reside in the United States. Among the Hispanic communities, they stand out since many of them have superior education and a greater capacity for economic productivity. The city of Miami has been enormously influenced and transformed by the Cuban presence. Their contribution has been felt in the political, cultural and academic environment of the United States.
Today, Hispanics constitute the largest minority in the North American nation (above both the Afro-Americans and the native Americans) and they contribute to the enormous social and cultural diversity of the United States through their cultural heritage in the fields of the arts, foods, music, etc., as well as their invaluable participation in the economic life as essential elements in the work force and in the general progress.
In 1950, the Hispanic presence in the United States was less than four million residents. By July 1, 2009, the population with Hispanic origins present in the United States, according to the National Bureau of Census had risen to 48.4 million; making up 16% of the total population, in addition to the four million Hispanic residents on the island of Puerto Rico. Nearly 50% of the Hispanics in the United States have their origin in Mexico. The remaining 50% come from different countries of the American continent, such as: El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. 36% of the Hispanics in the United States live in California. Several states have a Hispanic population greater than a million. These are: Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York. In other words, after Mexico, with its 111 million inhabitants, the Hispanics resident in the United States amount to, in number, the second largest Hispanic nation in the American continent.
In the political field, there are 9.7 million voters of Hispanic origin, and in the United States Congress there are two Hispanic Senators and 34 Representatives. Among the fifty states of the American Union there is one Hispanic governor in the state of New Mexico and the number of Hispanic mayors of North American cities is greater than twenty. In addition, 1.1 million Hispanics are veterans of the armed forces, one of the nine life-long justices of the Supreme Court is of Spanish origin and three ministers of the current federal government are also of Hispanic origin.
All this statistical data gives us a panoramic idea of the growth, in both quality and quantity, of the presence of Hispanic communities within the territory of the United States. One of the reasons for the rapid growth of the Hispanic community is the massive immigration that has occurred over the last two decades. Another factor is the rate of birth of the Hispanics, much higher than that of the average North American.
The rapid growth in numbers speaks for itself concerning the magnitude and importance, especially in recent times, of the phenomenon of the Hispanic presence and its effect on the United States. The weight of these numbers should be reason enough to modify the state of things within the North American society as regards the current Hispanic communities. However, the situation of the Hispanic population in the United States, in general terms, has worsened. The national debate concerning migratory laws brings to light the prejudice, discrimination, ill treatment and racism that are latent, and not always discrete or tacit.
In this panoramic view of the Hispanic presence, the Catholic Church in the United States has played an important role since the 1950s with the phenomena of migrations in general, and of the Hispanic migration to the United States in particular, as the greatest challenge to its task of evangelism, as well as pastoral and missionary responsibility, due to which was founded the first office to serve immigrants of Hispanic origin in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Episcopal Conference established a national office to respond to the needs of Hispanic Catholics. In the year 1970, Msgr Patricio Flores, of San Antonio, Texas, was named the first Hispanic bishop in modern times. From that occasion to the present time, the number of bishops of Hispanic origin has risen to 43. Currently, Msgr Jose Gomez, coadjutant archbishop of Los Ángeles, is the Hispanic prelate of highest rank in the church in the United States since the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the largest Archbishopric in the country.
The Catholic Church has sought to meet the challenge of its responsibility as “Mother” that shelters and accompanies Spanish-speaking immigrants through the difficult process of uprooting and adaptation implied in all migrations. Valiant efforts have been made by the Catholic Church, as forerunner and pioneer, in the heart of the Hispanic communities, to integrate them and help them to feel that they are an important part of the Catholic Church in the United States, inviting them into fellowship. Evidence of these efforts is seen in the convocations to the three large national consultations. The first, carried out in 1972, under the name of the First National Hispanic Pastoral Encounter. The second, in 1977, was called the Second National Encounter and the third, in 1985, entitled the Third National Encounter. The Church has organized and sponsored other historical Hispanic consultations and celebrations, such as the one carried out in the celebration of the year 2000, a year of Jubilee. Throughout the country, the Spanish-speaking world has offices dedicated to Hispanic ministry in over a hundred dioceses. There are also regional offices, pastoral institutes, language schools, etc. And we should not fail to mention the fact that today, in all the important Episcopal offices of the country, a pastor (parish or bishop) is requested to not ignore the Hispanic presence and to learn to speak the language of Cervantes in order to insert himself, preside and carry out pastoral gestures and tasks to accompany and nourish this new and rich Hispanic presence within the heart of the Catholic Church and in the North American society. In this way, priests of Irish or Italian origin, as well as those with other ethnic roots, working in the United States, have given us an example with their learning of Spanish in order to attend the Spanish-speaking Catholic immigrants.
For decades, the Catholic Church —sacrament of God's mercy revealed in Christ for the world— has struggled, shoulder to shoulder, together with the rural peasants of this nation, to reclaim their civil rights; it has become the voice of those who have no voice for undocumented immigrants and has expended great efforts to educate the children of immigrants in the parish schools. In the urban centers (especially in the ghettos) that have suffered long periods of decadence and desolation, and where all hope has been abandoned, only the church has remained with its temples, priests, schools and social services.
The Church in Spain in the past has sent more than 1,500 priests of Spanish origin to do missionary work in various dioceses in the country and every year the number of Hispanic priests increases, integrated into the clergy of the Catholic Church in the United States to attend more effectively to the pastoral needs of the Hispanic community. In addition, the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious orders among Hispanics born in this nation is slowly growing, which means that the seminaries today are training a significant number of Hispanic candidates for the priesthood. Last year the Catholic Church in the United States ordained over 150 priests of Hispanic origin.
Today, the Catholic Church in the United States faces a new reality: multi-culturalism, generating a new profile, presenting new and enormous pastoral challenges and demanding new and audacious answers for the evangelistic task in the variety of cultures. Until a few decades ago, the Catholic Church in this nation was of white European origin. Today, 40% of the Catholics in the United States are of Hispanic origin, and within a very few years, the Hispanic Catholic community will represent half of Catholicism in the country. This means that the face of the church on North American soil has changed and will continue to change, due to the strong migratory waves from Latin America, as well as from Africa and Asia. To respond in the most adequate way to these changes and challenges an office has been created that is dedicated to investigate the cultural diversity of the Church, under the oversight of the Episcopal Conference of the United States.
With the passing of time and the accelerated growth of the migratory phenomenon, especially Hispanic, to the United States, the Church is being renewed, and is seeking and discovering new answers to serve the world of immigrants and these new communities that are anchored in the heart of the Church. Among the many answers that the Church is formulating, proposing and developing we find, for example, the creation of universities for Spanish-speaking persons, such as the Mexican American Catholic College, in San Antonio, Texas and other educational centers at the superior level, established especially to serve the Spanish-speaking world. In addition, other ecclesial initiatives are emerging like pastoral centers, leadership schools, Bible study centers, etc. Publishing houses are increasingly preparing bi-lingual or Spanish publications and, in the teaching field, curricula are being created for Catholic schools or programs of religious education for Hispanics. The number of apostolic Hispanic movements is growing, as well as new organizations and associations with Hispanic characteristics.
One of these new organizations, founded by Archbishop Jose Gomez, is the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL). It was established to bring together professionals of Hispanic origin in the United States. The Church has developed a huge task among the poor, immigrants, marginalized and —due to the pressure to urgently attend to their material and social needs— has pastorally forgotten or abandoned the growing and robust presence of professionals of Hispanic origin in the United States: lawyers, physicians, accountants, professors, business men, etc. who are not identified or brought together by the Church, its pastors and its pastoral programs. Msgr Jose Gomez saw the need to reach this professional community that can contribute their talents and experience to change the tone of the public debate on Hispanic matters in the United States, for which CALL was born to be an association of professionals at the service of the Catholic Church with its teachings, in conjunction with the college of bishops in the United States and those in authority, in complete loyalty to the Holy See and to Peter's successor.
As with all historical development, this new migratory process of the Hispanic world toward the United States faces challenges within the same community or Hispanic communities, and on the outside innumerable difficulties among current events. Integration —which is not assimilation— of the Hispanic community in society, with the North American culture and with the Catholic Church in the United States faces great challenges, both inside and out, and presents both lights and shadows. The lights are seen in the warm openness of some sectors of society and of the Church in the United States toward Hispanics and the great contribution that the work of this Hispanic community has done and is doing for the progress and development of the nation. The shadows, on the other hand, have to do with xenophobic attitudes and rejection by some segments of the population that seek to explain the current social and economic crisis as if caused by the immigration policies, and in the difficulty of integrating with what is properly North American experienced by some Hispanic groups. In the midst of these difficulties, the Church can play a very important role if it lives, preaches and gives testimony to its characteristic of catholicity, that is, its universality as the foundation and destiny of humanity: treating all as equals in the dignity of being children of God called to live in evangelical fraternity.
The Hispanic community, in large measure, is responsible in the process of involvement suffered by the Hispanic migratory phenomenon at this time in the heart of North American society. We have not learned to use the tools of the North American social and governmental system for our legitimate benefit. Due to the lack of Hispanic unity and leadership for the greatest and most noble causes, we have not organized structures that effectively support the highest aspirations of the great Hispanic majorities. We have not learned to form coalitions with other groups that exercise power in the nation. The lesson left to us by the recent past is obvious: if we want to enter into the national debate as equals, we need to modify the strategy followed until now. Hispanic leadership in the political arena, with honorable exceptions, has given us very little of the arts, the public service, generosity, and concern for the common good, and therefore has little evidence to exhibit.
We urgently need a migratory reformation. There are millions of Hispanic brothers living in infrahuman conditions and in the shadows, exploited, persecuted and fearful. All of which contradicts the most elementary Christian principles and values upon which the North American nation and society were founded.
The Hispanic and Catholic presence in the United States is an injection of new energy, youth, vitality, enthusiasm, and faith. The parish temples in the neighborhoods with a Hispanic profile are filled with the attendance of the faithful, and the celebration of their faith and of the sacraments by them is extraordinary. While in the neighborhoods and the cities which lack the presence of immigrants, the communities of faith are growing old and religious practice tends to disappear, in the sectors having a Hispanic population, the vitality of the Church is growing beyond measure. Hispanics have brought to the United States an unusual religious fervor. The Catholic faith of the Hispanics, with all the baggage of popular religion and marked by the stereotype of the early evangelization in the American continent, is benefitting the United States today while enriching and renewing the Catholic Church in this nation.