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Maria Eugenia Cornou on the Myth of Hispanic Culture

Maybe you want to welcome Spanish speakers into your church community. If so, then don’t stereotype people who identify as Hispanic or Latino as all belonging to a single monolithic culture.

Maria Eugenia Cornou is program manager for international and intercultural learning at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The U.S. now has the world’s second largest number of native Spanish speakers. In this edited conversation, Cornou talks about the startling diversity in Spanish-speaking countries and cultures.

Why do you advise against using the term Hispanic culture?

Before I moved from Argentina to the U.S., I had never been labeled as a Hispanic. But Hispanic is not a culture. We just share a common language. And we don’t all use our common language in the same way. In Argentina, Italian immigration is so high that those of us from Buenos Aires speak Spanish with an Italian accent—and other Hispanics make fun of our porteño pronunciation. [People from the port city of Buenos Aires are called porteños.]

It’s completely different to plan a worship service with Cuban Americans than with Mexican Americans, or a church with Spanish speakers from 17 nationalities. I visited a congregation where worship regularly includes a mariachi band. The band played beautifully, and most attendees, who were largely Mexican or of Mexican descent, seemed to really enjoy this. But perhaps this option may prevent Hispanics from a different cultural background from feeling like they can fit in.

Can you say more about differences among Spanish speaking countries and cultures?

We all have some things in common, but we don’t have the same food, demographics or history. South America is the most urbanized continent in the world. For example, 25% of Argentina’s 42 million people live in metro Buenos Aires, where I grew up. So Grand Rapids, Mich., seems rural to me. But to someone from La Mosquitia [tropical rainforest in Honduras and Nicaragua], Grand Rapids might seem like a big city.

Music is completely different between the Caribbean, Central America and South America. A typical Dominican bachata dance band uses different guitars, bongo drums and güira [metal scraper percussion instrument]. A South American carnavalito dance band uses quena and siku (winds), charango (strings) and bombo (percussion).

Which parts of their birth country’s culture do Spanish speakers want to keep?

Different histories mean that some Hispanics are very attached to their national culture, and they want their kids to speak Spanish and stay in the culture. I lived in Florida for a few years. Cubans in Florida are so proud of their heritage.

It’s much more complex in other places. Where immigrants have been discriminated against, people are ashamed of being identified as Hispanics. They speak English with their kids and try to assimilate to have more success in U.S. society. Someone told me about a church in Tucson, Arizona that started a Spanish service. The pastor asked some of the bilingual people in the parish to move from the English to the Spanish service to help get it started. They objected, because they preferred to worship in English.

What else affects cultural integration?

Some scholars and researchers say that with groups like the Italian and the Irish, when new immigrants stopped coming, then their ethnic group became more integrated. Since new Spanish-speaking immigrants are still coming, it is easier for the second and third generations to keep the language—because most are still always in contact with first-generation Spanish speakers.

But there’s also tons of research on how second generation immigrants live between cultures. They are of Hispanic descent but often consider themselves Americans, even though others might still treat them as immigrants.

What Hispanic population trends do you see in the United States?

I love numbers. My first career was in accounting. According to the last national census, we are near 50 million Hispanics in the U.S., not counting some of the undocumented population. The states with the largest number of Hispanics are California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. The states with the fastest growing Hispanic populations are Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota. 

In 2012, I did a research project for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship of Hispanic churches in Kent County [where Grand Rapids is]. There were at least 80 (and the number may be approaching 100) Hispanic churches, though some were very small. These facts show us that our neighborhoods are changing or will be changing or could be changing. And our new neighbors won’t all be Hispanic. In 2014, the largest number of immigrants to the U.S. was Chinese, not Mexican.

What mistaken strategies might churches try if they think there’s such a thing as a single Hispanic culture?

Don’t assume that you should start an all-Spanish worship service. In 2000, the largest group that drove immigration change was new immigrants. Now the largest growing bilingual group is the second and third generations. First generation Latino immigrants that come as little kids very easily move into English but still keep Spanish. The third generation usually loses their Spanish speaking ability but still understands some basic Spanish. You can talk to them in Spanish, but they answer in English.

Another phenomenon interesting for us as churches is the mixed family. The numbers of families with people from two cultures will grow. The first generation tends to marry inside the immigrant community, but the second and third generations tend to, in growing numbers, marry outside the Hispanic community.

Bilingual worship is a way churches can build bridges. We need to speak loudly about reconciliation and building bridges among all different kinds of communities.

How can churches look for and receive the gifts present in various Hispanic cultures?

Many churches in the U.S. are shrinking and losing touch with youth. Conversely, many Hispanic churches in the U.S. are full of kids and young adults. These churches often have strong lay leadership and wonderful youth ministries. Lots of church musicians are teenagers and young adults. Partnering with Hispanic churches could help revitalize other churches. And worshiping together can help people from different cultures mutually experience each other’s gifts, extend reciprocal hospitality, learn from each other and model Christian fellowship.

Meet Maria Eugenia Cornou at the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship, where she will present on intercultural worship, Catholic and Protestant worship in Latin America, and Hispanic and Latino worship in North America. Read more about diversity in Walk with the People: Latino Ministry in the United States by Juan Martinez, vice president for diversity and international studies at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.