Occasionally, I want to open this space up to fellow travelers/colleagues/friends/brethren–and in this case, una hermana, a Tejana whose roots in the Pentecostal movement makes her voice unique and necessary–Erica Ramirez is a Ph.D student at Drew University, is quite an accomplished singer, and as I hope you’ll agree–one of the future stars in our constellation of Latina/o religion scholars… Bienvenidos Erica
Iam a third generation Pentecostal woman, a Latina born in San Antonio. I grew up riding around in my dad’s El Camino, near a softball field, listening to the Bee Gees and loving it. I can still remember how summer twilight brought the echoes of baseball announcers and bike rides with my cousins to our little corner store, while my neighbor’s peacocks eavesdropped in on the ghost stories we told and retold each other. Atardecer is one of my favorite Spanish words. The evenings of my childhood days cling to me.
That decade, the eighties, I went to a Spanish-speaking church that was more the size of a mission, thirty to sixty people, depending on the time of year. Templo Bethania was on the West side, a bit of a drive from the southern limits of San Antonio, where I lived with my mother, a teacher, and father, a firefighter. I was the oldest of three girls. Every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Tuesday and sometimes Thursdays, too, we would go to church. Bethania was part of the Concilio Latino Americano de Iglesias Cristianas (CLADIC), founded in 1923 by Francisco Olazábal, but all I knew was that it was filled with people around the same age as my grandparents, who all spoke in Spanish. The service was nearly three hours long and entirely in Spanish. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t dare complain.
I was six when my maternal grandmother died, and the way I imagine it now, that was the beginning of our departure from CLADIC. But in reality, it took three more years, right up until the end of the decade, really, for us to move to El Sendero de la Cruz, an Assemblies of God church, part of its Latin American District. El Sendero was much bigger than Bethania; my mind’s eye counts five hundred people in a Sunday morning service, but it might have been only three hundred fifty. No matter. There were children’s programs and I made friends. Church was in Spanish and in English. There were expensive cars in the parking lot. To my ten year-old mind, it was the definition of better.
My family didn’t stay long at El Sendero, which was not as nice as it appeared. In the two years, at most, that we were there, my youngest sister fought for her life and lost that fight- despite the many prayers for, and prophetic declarations of, her healing, despite the agony of my parents and my own deepest desires. We buried Traci in 1991 and moved on, too quickly: to another side of town, to another church, to another life.
I spent my adolescence at Westover Hills Assembly of God, in the Northwest side of San Antonio, completely immersed in the life of the community there. I sang in the choir and was part of the youth group. I went to camps and conventions because I wanted to. I imagined there: I imagined myself whole, I imagined the world meaningful; I envisioned a future for myself that replicated the most healing experiences I have had in my life- I would lead worship I would help people. It was simplistic, but it was a safe space to be, emotionally. I could remake myself in the space of that church and people would, people did help me. When I left for college, the choir I joined when I was a broken, sad girl sent me away with a basket full of snacks and magazines. I wrote my thank you note for “the most important basket in the world.”
I enrolled at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, in Waxahachie, Texas, under the conditions that I had to return, two years later, to Trinity University, in San Antonio, a school with a sterling reputation and my mother’s alma mater. It’s clear to me now I had no real intention of returning. I was, in Pentecostal parlance, sold out to my calling. I would not be turning back.
It was the most independent decision I had ever made and, newly self-possessed and full of religious zeal, I entered the modest cafeteria on my first day of classes to find myself in a novel and perplexing situation. All the Hispanic kids, they sat together, on their own, at a table on the right hand side of the cafeteria. Segregation?! I was totally unprepared to make the decision: where does one sit in the cafeteria, when in my entire life, I had never seen anything like that cafeteria set-up?
(Almost never. There was the one time, at youth camp, that it seemed like some kids from East Texas were curiously to themselves during the gladiator style camp games, but it was just a hunch. It hadn’t presented itself as clearly as this all brown table to my right.) I didn’t actually know any of the students at the table, but it was the first day of school, so I thought I would make friends.
I was quickly frozen out. It was subtle, of course, but unmistakable. All the kids at that table knew each other. They had spent all their camps and conventions together, singing in Spanish, listening to preaching in Spanish. I was a stranger and somehow, I did not know how at the time, I was estranged.
The way I write this essay now, it seems obvious. All that upward mobility- from Southside, to the Northwest side, then the North side was from the Spanish only district, to a bilingual district, and finally the English only district- it is easy to trace the contours of class that strongly shape my story. But there was also a seamlessness to the transitions, a blending of worship styles and sentiments, disciplines and freedoms of the body, habits of the heart and mind, that Pentecostalism (as I lived it) achieved, softening the edges of my perceptions. Pentecostalism is so versatile, incarnating itself in this “indigenous” setting, and again in a fiercely capitalistic, first world context with ambidexterity. That fluidity kept me serenely comfortable in what might have been much more upsetting transitions across town and class levels, but it was also the reason I was so naïve about the cafeteria that day.
I think about class and ethnicity and history a lot these days, as I pursue a doctoral degree in religious studies, specializing in sociology of religion. I work hard toward becoming aware of the realities that I was slow to recognize. I see that Pentecostalism can be a poiesis of resistance, an opiate and ideology, and the religion of the would-be rich. I see all of this in my own history, but Pentecostalism transcends all of this analysis and remains a second-nature, the way of life I learned from my mother and her mother; the music I hear in between the rhythms of my own breath. I sold out along time ago.