Luisa Feline Freier, “How Our Lady of Guadalupe Became Lutheran: Latin American Migration and Religious Change,” Migraciones internacionales [Tijuana], 5, no. 2 (July-Dec. 2009)


[Luisa Feline Freier is a Professor in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the London School of Economics (LSE), an M.A. in Latin American and Caribbean studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a B.A. in economics from Universitaet zu Koeln. {} In 2009 she was a student M. A. Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison]

[Admin. note — “Nazareth” is pseudonym. Bethel of Madison, founded in 1853 by Norwegian Synod pastor Rev. H.A. Preus {where also the “Bethel Series” of bible study materials was produced in the 20th century} has this summary of its Latino ministry: “In 2002 Pastor Pedro Suárez was called to establish a Latino Ministry. More than 150 people gather each week to worship in Spanish. Bethel Community Services was born, enabling the church to expand its ministry to include an after-school elementary mentoring program for children from the Southdale area, and a ministry to Latino High School students. The Latino Ministry concluded in 2017.” Cite: “Our History,” Bethel Lutheran Church, Madison, Wisconsin]


International migration is initiating myriad processes of religious change from the level of individual conversion to the institutional transformation of religious structures and practices. An approach combining a transnational perspective and the concept of diaspora space facilitates the analysis of the diferent scales, agents, and actions involved in migration–caused religious change. The article analyzes the broadening of Lutheranism to incorporate Latino Catholic culture into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Madison, Wisconsin. Under the leadership of their pastor, Latin American immigrants in Madison are agents re–defning the understanding of the category Lutheran through the incorporation of popular Catholicism. Tough strongly contested by the Roman Catholic Church, the ELCA accepts these processes due to its institutional interest in the recruitment of new Latino worshippers.


I. Cf. Scandinavian (i.e. Norwegian-Swedish) cooperation in 1850s

What does it mean then to analyze the construction of the identity referent “Latino Catholic culture” from the theoretical approach of diaspora space? First, culture itself is understood as a process. one has to keep in mind that “the distinctiveness of a specific cultural element is itself a historical product of previous syncretisms, not a primordial principle, although essentialist discourse might represent it as such” (Brah, 1996:235). The emphasis of any sociological analysis from the theoretical approach of diaspora space should thus be on what is constructed as “custom,” “tradition,” or “value” (Brah, 1996:234).

Secondly, we must understand “Latino” or “Hispanic”6 pan–ethnicity as a social construction. Some scholars deconstruct race and ethnicity as artifacts created by states through the use of census politics (loveman and muniz, 2007; oboler, 1995; Rodríguez, 2000). others continue to stress the political, cultural, and linguistic commonalities between Latin American immigrants, while understanding the social group itself, along with its discourse, as a process rather than a fixed entity or meaning (Flores and Benmayor, 1997). Along the same lines, the framework of diaspora space sees ethnicity as a “mode of narrativizing the everyday life world in and through processes of boundary formation” (Brah, 1996:241). Ethnic boundaries are rarely fixed and impermeable, and no exclusive categories are necessary for ethnic distinctions to occur. Rather, we must analyze ethnic labeling as a multilayered identification process with overlapping and unstable boundaries and contradictory heterogeneity within the ostensible homogeneous ethnic groups (Freier, 2008).

II. Methodology


The data for this article were gathered in an ethnographic study from September 2006 to November 2007, at the Lutheran Nazareth Church and the Roman Catholic St. Patrick Church. These churches offer a unique case study because they are the two biggest Latino congregations in Madison and are located within blocks of each other on the same street. This circumstance made it possible to analyze migrants’ choice of which church to join independent of geographic location and recruitment through neighborhood networks.

Additionally, an analysis of the relationship between the two congregations sheds light on the role migrants’ Catholic backgrounds and their continuous ties to Catholic culture play in their conversion process. Human identification is based on relational “othering,” and Latino Lutheran migrants’ sense making of their conversion process is characterized by their dissociation from other Latino migrants who remain in the Roman Catholic Church.

III. Metaphor for acculturation (my word); adiaphora

The Latino pastor’s integration philosophy rests on a clear rejection of assimilation theories and the invocation of a multicultural ideology:

I think that the concept of the melting pot—the United States being a melting pot—is not a good analogy anymore because that implies that we all fuse into something. And I’m still brown, I’m not white, I’m not getting like a European type and I’m not blond. I am who I am—but—I really enjoy Thanksgiving, I really enjoy the festivities that we do here, I really enjoy a lot of the things of the system here, and I’m participating in it, but I am also enriching it with who I am. Therefore, I like the analogy more of a salad bowl—where the tomato is still a tomato, and the lettuce is still the lettuce. And in the church that’s even greater because the love of Christ is the dressing that permeates the whole salad, and it becomes a beautiful, wonderful salad. one salad, but with many ingredients.

The most intriguing aspect of the Latino pastor’s philosophy is his discursive secularization of Latin American Catholicism that occurs when he interprets it as Latino culture. His ideological stance of multiculturalism lets him incorporate Roman Catholic tradition as cultural elements into his Lutheran Latino sermon during which some of the migrant worshippers then re–elevate their meaning to a religious level.

The pastor believes that there are many things in the Lutheran Church that are not negotiable, including “the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the teaching according to the Lutheran confession.” other things, including the use of icons like the portrait of our lady of Guadalupe, he describes as adiaphora, as matters not essential to the faith and thus permissible in Lutheranism. He acknowledged that some Latin American immigrant worshippers, especially mexicans, pray to the Virgin. But he explained that although he would never stop anyone from praying in front of the image, he trusted that through religious education, he could stop the “abuse” of the Virgin as an idol in the long run. However, the Latino ministry honors our Virgin of Guadalupe with a special service on the day of her apparition, December 12.

IV. Creolization (my word), Anglos influenced by Latinos

Further extending his integration philosophy, the senior pastor uses a diasporic discourse to construct a narrative of the Nazareth Church’s history that starts with the founding of the ELCA by Norwegian settlers in 1853 and ends with the arrival of Latin American immigrants today. At the celebration worship of the fifth anniversary of the Parroquia Nazareth in 2007, the senior pastor preached to the Latino congregation in English, while the Latino pastor consecutively translated what he was saying into Spanish:

I’m a supporter of this service! I see my entire family history pass by. my mother grew up in Madison, and she did not grow up worshipping in English. She was one of nine children and her father thought

That all should learn English, but he couldn’t imagine praying in English. They prayed in Norwegian. I hear you guys say the same thing: “our children should learn English!” But you pray in Spanish because Spanish is your language of prayer, like my mom’s language of prayer was Norwegian. From 1853 to 1929, for the first 75 years, the worship was held in a language completely different from English, and now another 75 years later we are back to worshipping in two languages. It is the way it was meant to be in this place. You are helping us to go back to where we began.

Only after World War i, did the Lutheran Nazareth Church see that the exclusive use of Norwegian was a serious deterrent to gaining new members, and so it gradually provided a full English worship service. The senior pastor instrumentalizes the migrant history of the founding fathers of the Nazareth Church, which is symbolized by a gigantic patchwork banner in one of the community rooms showing a group of immigrant Norwegian settlers next to a small wooden church, to create a notion of common diasporic fate among Latin American and Anglo–American worshippers.

Anglo–American members of the congregation generally accept the church’s official integration philosophy. The senior pastor knows of only one family that left the Nazareth Church in protest against the portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The majority of the approximately 6 300 Anglo–American church members seem to welcome, or at least tolerate, the culturally inclusive approach toward what is understood as Latino Catholic culture. one of the Anglo–American members explained:

See, I was just thinking this on Sunday, that the cultural and the religious, especially in the mexican experience, is so intertwined that you can’t rip the religion away from someone’s cultural things. like the quinceañera. It’s cultural, but it’s so religious, too. It’s a reaffir–mation. So, [the Latino Pastor] is trying to create a bridge to allow latinos who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church to be able to have a Lutheran Church, feeling comfortable, without feeling that there is no regard for their religious and cultural beliefs.

The incorporation of religious elements that are interpreted as Latino Catholic culture is not only accepted by Anglo–American worshippers, but it seems to increasingly influence the ways in which religious customs are carried out within the English–speaking congregation. Anglo–American worshippers expressed how much they appreciated the Latino church band and choir and that they wished the English service could incorporate a similar style of songs. more intriguingly, many mentioned their astonishment about the way the Latino congregation had influenced the Anglo congregation’s celebration of First Communion, where the girls recently started wearing “these white dresses, almost like little brides’ dresses.” The Anglo–American Lutheran congregation’s adoption of the Roman Catholic tradition of extravagant First Communion dresses shows how “religious exchange and syncretism arise out of neighborly observation of each other’s practices and out of the permeability of religious boundaries” (Rudolph, 2005:195). It is likely that increased contact between the Anglo–American and the Latino services of the Lutheran Nazareth Church will lead to the selective adoption of what are understood as traditionally more “Catholic” and “Lutheran” practices on both sides.

V. From the conclusion


The Lutheran Latino pastor solves this conflict by reaffirming the need to recognize his congregation’s identification with Latino Catholic culture. making claims based on the incorporation of this identity referent, he discursively secularizes Roman Catholic tradition and incorporates Catholic elements as an act of liberal multiculturalism. Although the Latino pastor uses Roman Catholic terminology and practices the Holy Communion on a weekly basis, the Anglo–American senior pastor of the church has developed new socioreligious narratives to include a fateful understanding of the incorporation of Latin American immigrants into the ELCA.

Apparently fixed and stable religious categories undergo constant reinterpretation. A close look at the construction of social and religious boundaries between a Lutheran Latin American immigrant congregation and its Roman Catholic counterpart, and between the Lutheran Latino ministry and the church’s Anglo–American core, shows that there are various boundary–making processes and overlapping power relations inherent in migration–caused religious change. These results suggest that we must be cautious not to stigmatize Latin American migrant worshippers as the disadvantaged minority group in the renegotiation of religious categories and practices. Indeed, we must recognize their agency in inscribing their religious memories and worldviews into the landscape of American Lutheranism.

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