Review: Latino Pentecostalism in America

Néstor A. Gómez-Morales

Néstor A. Gómez-Morales is a doctoral student at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology.

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Néstor A. Gómez-Morales, "Review: Latino Pentecostals in America," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Gastón Espinosa. Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. xiii + 505 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-72887-5.

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Gastón Espinosa’s Latino Pentecostals in America is a new contribution to the study of Pentecostalism that gives a voice to Latina/o Pentecostals. Even though the Latina/o population is the largest minority in the United States, Latina/o Pentecostal history and trajectory have been pushed to the margins since their origins. Espinosa argues that “Latino Pentecostals have struggled over the past 100 years to exercise voice, agency, and leadership in the Assemblies of God, in Latino Protestantism, and in American Public life” (13). Thus, the book “seeks to help this gap in the literature by providing a history of the Latino AG [Assemblies of God] that can also serve as a case study and window into the larger Latino Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Protestant movements along with the changing flow of North American religious history” (2).

This "case study and window" traces the origins of the Latina/o Pentecostal Assemblies of God (AG) movement in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, beginning with followers of the African-American preacher William J. Seymour in Los Angeles and Charles Parham’s movement in Houston. In the Azuza Street Revival in October, 1906, two Mexicans, Abundio and Rosa López gave evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit. Espinosa demonstrates that from its origins and throughout the history of the AG, many Latinas and Latinos were actively involved in preaching the Gospel, teaching the Bible, planting and opening new churches and biblical institutes, and doing social work, among other ministerial activities.

Many Euro-American missionaries attribute to themselves the origin and expansion of the U.S. Latina/o Pentecostal AG movement, but Espinosa challenges this narrative. Though H. C. Ball and Alice E. Luce have been considered the founders of the Latina/o Pentecostal movement in the Southwest, Espinosa demonstrates that prior to Ball’s work and to the first convention of Latino churches that he organized in 1915, many Mexicans from Seymour and Parham’s revivals evangelized, preached, and planted independent Pentecostal missions that later joined the Assemblies of God.

Many Mexican pastors advocated for an independent district and a Latino leader because of hegemonic administrative and leadership controls, discrimination and mistreatment by Euro-Americans, and the fast growth of the Latina/o Pentecostal AG. Though the Springfield-assigned superintendent H. C. Ball had good intentions and passion for reaching out to the Latina/o community, he clashed with most of the Mexican ministers. The Latin American Council of Christian Churches (CLADIC) was established in 1923 as the first indigenous U. S. Latina/o Pentecostal denomination, with the first Latina/o Bible school in 1922 in El Paso. Demetrio Bazan, the second superintendent, became the first Latino superintendent in 1937.

The author also describes the exponential growth of the U.S. Latina/o Pentecostal AG movement after 1960, including in Puerto Rico and New York. Espinosa affirms that Pentecostalism in the Isla del Encanto was initiated, organized, and developed by Puerto Ricans and not by Euro-America missionaries. This growth was due to commitment and work in evangelism, church planting, education, prayer and indigenous leadership. Furthermore, the Pentecostal movement’s emphasis on divine healing and spiritual warfare as well as its cultural adaptability and malleability fit properly with Spiritualism and Spiritism. In New York, the Latina/o Pentecostal movement began in the Puerto Rican diaspora and through the work of the AG Spanish Eastern District (SED).

The last chapters in the book condenses significant information about the role of the women, Latina/o Pentecostal AG engagement in social work, and political participation. Women have struggled to be ordained in ministry, but they have exercised agency and influence through Bible schools and lay ministry. Latina/o Pentecostals AG have developed faith-based action for social change and their political participation is explained by Espinosa as Nepantla-oriented, or “betwixt and between the polarities of American public life” (363). These last chapters also relay Latina/o Pentecostals, AG, and all Latina/o Christians’ opinions on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, spiritual disciplines, and political participation. Over all, Pentecostalism has given the U. S. Latina/o community a place of refuge, empowerment, and agency in the midst of social, economic, religious, and political struggle.

In spite of its title, this book does not offer the history of Latina/o Pentecostals in America; instead, it is the history of the Latina/o Pentecostals Assemblies of God in the territories mentioned above. The book says nothing about Colombia, Argentina, Cuba and other countries in América, and it also does not mention the history of other U.S. Pentecostal denominations, such as the Foursquare Church or International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), for example. Espinosa clarifies that the book’s title “was selected by the publisher and is much broader than the originally proposed title. Despite this fact, the book focuses almost exclusively on Latino AG, and for this reason it does not tell the story of all Latino Pentecostals” (2).