The Silent Transformation:
Spanish-Speaking Catholics in the U.S.
DVD (transcript online below)

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Silent Transformation: Spanish-Speaking Catholics in the United States 


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Raul Santiago           



43 Minutes
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Around the year 2000, half of the Catholics in the United States will be Spanish-speaking. Is the Church ready for this momentous change? Find out by meeting two articulate and outspoken members of the Hispanic Catholic community of Waterbury, Connecticut: Raul Santiago, a married layman with three children, and David Burgos, a Puerto Rican Catholic priest, and through their eyes see what is happening, what is coming, and what the Church can do about it.

Format: Interviews and music and songs.

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       David Burgos

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Online Transcript:

My name is Raul Santiago. I come from a small town in the center of Puerto Rico called Guallava. I can’t recall going very much to church, but we were Catholics. You got baptized and it was taken for granted, whether you went to church or not. Everyone was Catholic. At the age of 14 I came to this country. I came right here to Waterbury, CT, to a new culture, basically a new language, a new school system. That’s where I had my first problems – with the school. When I came here I would probably go to Mass at Easter or Christmas, or maybe once in a while to check out the girls with the guys when I was a little older, but that was basically the contact I had with the church until I was almost 20 years old. I had what I called my conversion experience. At the time I was heavily involved in the drugs and the street, and something happened to me. I still call it a trip. I was on some drug at the time, and I thought it was the drug, but basically the whole experience was a religious experience where I was able to remember the things I had learned as a kid. After that experience my life did change. Not too long after that I took a trip to Florida. When I came back I wanted to work, I wanted to make a man of myself, and not too long after that, probably weeks after that, I went to church and I noticed a difference. As I sat upstairs and listened to the priest, I couldn’t get enough of his preaching. The preaching of the Word of God appealed to me, and I wanted it more. I started going like a fanatic. I couldn’t get enough, and that’s when I started reading everything I could about the church, the sacraments, about God, the Bible. I started going out of town to different towns for Bible classes. I slept. I ate. But I would be thinking about the church. Out of that experience came my interest in the church. I wanted to study more. I even thought about becoming a priest at certain times of my life. I guess every Catholic who has an experience like that automatically thinks like that. I don’t know. I even had a chance to go to a Catholic college for a year, and I did study some courses in theology. So I did learn more about the church. Also I started noticing the difference between the Anglo culture, the Anglo Catholic church, and the Hispanic church, or the Puerto Rican church, which is where I was going where at least at the parish where I was going, the Masses were in Spanish, but I had contacts with other people. I had contacts with other parishes. Normally as an example we would have most of the Anglo English-speaking Masses upstairs in the main church, and we would go to a place like Meridan and they would have the Spanish Mass in the basement. I believe that in the process a lot of the values that we brought from my own country, like Puerto Rico, those values, like I was saying before, even though I didn’t have the official teaching of the church I considered myself a Catholic and I carried a lot of the family values, for example, we were taught to say, "la bendición" to our elders, which is, "Bless me." I would ask my mother, my father, anyone who was older than I was, to bless me, and they would say, "May God bless you." "May God go with you." That’s just a small example. We are losing that. The respect for our elders that was part of our culture, I believe a lot of young people are losing that. And that was part of our religion, that was part of who we were as Catholics. When we came here, not only did we have a lot of difficulty adapting to the church, the Anglo church, because of culture and language, yet at the same time because we didn’t have instruction, we didn’t have the support, we were losing the good values that we brought from our own country. That’s a problem that up to today exists.

Myself I believe I have come a long way. When I talk about this again, because my own experience and the opportunities that I have had to study, to learn by myself in many cases, and also the many people I have met along the way, I have been able to communicate with a lot of English-speaking people, good people, but speaking as a Hispanic in general, seeing the struggle a lot of my own people go through, I identify with them, as a community, as a group, I believe to a point we are treated as a second class. Even though in some parishes we might be accepted by the pastors, the general community will not accept us.

Meanwhile we have other denominations who are very aggressively reaching out to the Hispanics, and they say we are losing about 60,000 Hispanics to these other churches a year. Looking at the other denominations – basically the Evangelicals, the Assemblies of God, the Jehovah Witnesses – one thing that they do is they train native Hispanics, native pastors or ministers or lay people to reach out to the community. In our church it is very difficult because in order to be a pastor you have to be a priest, and in order to be a priest you have to be single. Most of our people don’t want to be priests. The fact is we don’t have the ministers that the other churches have. Most of the ministers who do minister to the people in the Hispanic community are native, are from the same people, so they have that advantage because they know the problems, they know the language, they know the culture, they are able to reach out and bring them to those denominations. In our church we are not training our lay people, or spending enough to train our lay people, or ordaining more Hispanics. Even the program for the deacons – our late archbishop wanted to ordain more deacons so they would be more like pastors – but they became more like altar boys. He didn’t want that. I remember reading that that was not what he wanted. But a lot of our deacons are just becoming what he called glorified altar boys – doing more service in the church and less pastoring. That’s one of the elements, one of the problems where the other churches do aggressively teach and train and reach out. I think our church is waking up, but I don’t think they have fully awakened to that fact. I believe that is one of our major problems – not having our own pastors, or shepherds.

Also we have to keep in mind that it more than just the problem with the language. Sometimes the mentality is that if we teach them the language, they will become part of the community, they will be assimilated. I think there are a lot of elements which include the culture, and the values of the people. Sometimes I think the thinking is that if they learn English they will become part of the Anglo church, but I believe experience has taught us, and when we look at places like New York and Los Angeles and Texas, it is not like that. We have to take into account more than just the language, and minister to the people where the people are at in their language, in their culture, in the way that they are.

Right now I am talking to a priest friend of mine. His vision, and I believe it is my vision, and the vision of the Hispanic church – small groups, small cells, where people are able to be formed, taught within the large parish but within small cells or small groups – what they call in some places communidades de base, or base communities where people are trained and taught to be leaders and to form the people as opposed to the mentality that we have a lot of times in the American church is that the more, the better. You can fill the church and have a lot of people in church, but we sense and we know by experience that people don’t grow as much as they could grow. Even though we do need the large celebrations, people need to be formed within the small cells. I believe that is happening in a lot of places already. Even in this country I read where some parishes are trying to do that, working with the small group format. I believe that’s our vision. Again, that is where the pastors are going to come from, from these groups. I believe our priests are looking at those models, but it is going to take a long time. That’s our vision to have the large celebrations, then form the people, bring the people together in small cells. Take advantage, take what the people have, work where the people are at, take their values, take what they have to offer, and bring it to the church instead of saying, well, here you are, here it is, we are going to teach you this, take this. No. I believe we need to bring out from the people what they already have. They have brought a lot with them that we are not taking advantage of. I believe we are failing in that by not capitalizing, by not taking advantage of what God has already given these people to bring it over here. I was sharing before that a lot of us have been put into our minds for so long that we don’t have enough to offer, that what we have is no good, that we stand to believe it ourselves. That’s such a lie that we have to start reminding people that you are valuable, that you have a lot to bring with you, and it is time to share it with the whole church. I believe you do that in the small cells. That is happening. On a small scale that is happening already in our community, but not enough.

Personally my ultimate, my main dream – I don’t know if I will see it in my whole lifetime – will be to see married priests. I believe I will be the first one to apply. Right now I think I could do as a family man, with my wife, is to try to reach out and spread this message. We do meet on a small scale on a regular basis, on a weekly basis, with other people who think alike. We come together and we pray, we share the Scriptures. Usually what we do is share the message of the Mass, the Gospel, and we talk about it among ourselves and what it means to us, and we pray about it, and we help one another. That is how we are getting our formation – a very informal yet positive and strong way.

So to do more of that, also to work more with the priests, to see more of these small groups, to see more formation and training. I would like to see the church spending more resources on training people. Instead of buildings, maybe I would like to see less buildings. Waterbury has a lot of Catholic churches. Maybe I would like to see less buildings, less temples made of stone and more temples made of flesh and people and souls. We, ourselves, as a people, we need to wake up – I am talking about the Hispanics now – to wake up and see what they have, their values, all the good that they have. I tell everyone, especially the Hispanics, the church will be ours when we take possession of it. Our biggest obstacle is to get through to people that you have a lot to offer for this church, and don’t wait to be invited. Go in and do it, and most of the time you might find resistance, but if you keep on going the doors will open. Also prayer works. We keep on spending a lot of money, a lot of energy and resources on the same programs and our people are still leaving the church. I believe it is not only the Hispanics. I believe that a lot of Anglo people are going because they are finding life in these other small churches, perhaps because they are smaller, perhaps because they can devote more time to the individuals. Our church is too big sometimes. People do get lost. So I believe the obstacles are oftentimes within ourselves, to discover that I have it within me, I could make a change, I am going to take over, and I am going to make this church which they say is supposed to be mine, I am going to make it mine, and then ask our leaders, the people who are in power, to start opening up the doors and to start coming down, coming down and meeting us and become one of us, and see where we are at. You might like it. I guess that’s my invitation to the ones who are in power by the grace of God.



I am Fr. David Burgos, a Puerto Rican priest here in the archdiocese of Hartford. I have been a priest for about 4 years since 1988. My background: both my parents are from Guaguas, Puerto Rico, from a pueblo called Barranquitas. I was born and raised in Hartford, first generation Puerto Rican, first language was Spanish. When I went to school I went to special classes to learn how to speak English. The area where I grew up was a very, very low income neighborhood, and because of my exposure to the Catholic church and a particular Catholic priest who showed a great interest in the Hispanic people, I became interested in becoming a priest for the Hispanic people. I figured it was time since there were so many Anglo priests doing for us, it was time for us to do for ourselves.

The number of Puerto Rican priests in the diocese are two. Recently there was a demographic study done on the city of Waterbury where a population of about 110,000 at the moment, of which 20,000 are Hispanic, according to the study by the year 2000 half of this population is going to be Hispanic. As a result of that, the Catholic church needs to look at how is it going to address this great influx of Hispanics in this particular city, which just mirrors and resembles all the other cities where that is going to happen, and also throughout the United States. Some of the national studies reflect that half the Catholics in the United States are going to be Hispanics. I think somehow we need to be visionaries as to how we are going to address that situation. Rather than wait until the year 2000, find the Catholic church half of it Hispanic, half of it in a different language, and our hands up in the air trying to respond. Gee, ¿Qúe hacemos ahora? (What do we do now?) And trying to figure out how to say, ¿Qúe hacemos ahora? to try to address half of our Catholic church. I think that is something we really need to begin to plan, to really sit down and develop a 5-year, 10-year, 15-year plan as to how, first of all, to keep the Hispanic Catholics we have in the Catholic church, to bring back and attract the Hispanic Catholics who have left because of dissatisfaction with the Catholic church, and then once we have them, how do we sustain them and keep them within the Catholic church, to create a sense of ownership, stake-holder in the decision-making, in the growing, in the spirituality, in the worship life.

Jim: Why are we losing the Spanish-speaking Catholics?

Fr. David: Multiple reasons. One would be a coldness that they experience in the Catholic church. I think sometimes there are not many places where they can go for liturgy in Spanish, where there isn’t a music that is lively, upbeat, a little salsa mixed in with it. They feel like they have not gone to worship, they feel they haven’t celebrated. If, for instance, they visit a church and they see Fr. Smith, and Fr. Smith might be a great person, but if there is not a little fire, and the typical choir music we get, it is very nice and very mellow, that’s not going to hit the spirit of the Hispanic person, because for the Hispanic personality you have to hit and focus on the emotionalism, the emotional depth and energy that we have. That is something that needs to be addressed, and is one reason why they leave. Another reason is they feel like they are in a big, big mausoleum. They come into a church, there are hundreds of people, they don’t know who these people are, and we are very community-oriented, very extended family-oriented. So you come into a Catholic church, Anglo church that is very individualistic, privatistic. They come in and you could have 20 people in the pew, and everybody just looks over at each other and they celebrate together. For a Hispanic Catholic, they want to feel part of a family. They really want to know what is fulano’s name over there, they want to know about María over there, they really want to connect with people. A lot of times if there is a coldness they are going to go somewhere else where they can feel warmth and family and group, and they are finding that in the Pentecostal church. It is small, everybody knows each other by name, the pastor speaks to them in their own language, with some fire. Also they have a sense that they are contributing something to the worship service. They are not just there as spectators, and there is a sense of celebration, and they tap in to their own spiritual roots. Those are some of the things we need to look at, and are some of the reasons why some of the Hispanic Catholics are leaving. In some ways we have turned them off.

My vision of the church would be, first of all, small Christian communities, or another word that is going around the United States is basic Christian communities. Small groups of 8 to 10 people gathering together in their homes, sharing scripture, sharing their own faith stories at home, with some preparation like having different facilitators getting together at the parish center, they get prepared and they go out to their small groups, and they share with the people some music, some guitarra, a little singing going on, the faith-sharing. I keep on talking about the emotionalism, but I don’t want to neglect the intellectual nurturing that we need also. To have those two elements come in, and the spiritual depth and maturing process needs to happen, as well, so what I see is small Christian communities throughout the neighborhood – it could be done neighborhood by neighborhood – it could be done street by street – but I think it could be done. It would be like a little web, a community here, and they split off into another community there, and they split off into another community. And then to encourage all these people at home they worship and come together as one large community on a Sunday, on a Saturday, in which they could celebrate really as family because they all know each other. There are connections, and they come back with a spirit that is incredibly alive, with a spirit that is deep, and a spirit that is connected with their mind, their hearts, and an espíritu. All those elements are integrated, and I think we need to focus on that because sometimes we concentrate on the intellectual aspect, and other times we might concentrate on the emotional aspect, or the spirit, and we forget that these things should not be separated. They should be together, kind of melded together as one identity. That’s one of my visions.

I think also through those small Christian communities, to be a community very involved in social justice. Among the Hispanic Catholics to be a people who are no longer looked at as deficient, in need, as someone to be spoon-fed, or be given to. Rather to be a people who can offer the gifts that we do have, to tap into the talents that we have, and change the face of the church, and also change the face of politics, education and economics, utilizing some of the natural characteristics within the Latino community. That’s something that I would like to see in the transformation of the church.

Jim: Why are there so few vocations coming from the Spanish-speaking community?

Fr. David: There’s a hard one. Many different reasons. One, again, role modeling. If all you see is the typical standard Irish priest, and I hope no Irish priest will kill me for saying this, but if that model is the only one that is offered to them, then a Hispanic kid is going to think that that is the only one who can go. Second, I think they sometimes experience racism. I know I experienced some elements of that in the seminary. My seminary had a whole bunch of Hispanic seminarians, but some of the Anglo students were very resentful of the fact that we were taking our courses in Spanish. Some were resentful because they were asked to learn how to speak Spanish. It always came back to: "Why don’t you people learn how to speak English? You are in the United States now." Forgetting their own history where they grandpapa and grandmama came from Italy or France. They were offered the liturgy in their own language, and we are still very much a first generation wave, especially Puerto Rico and the United States. There is a constant flux of people coming back and forth and back and forth. It is not like there is a wave of people coming to the United States, the bridge is cut off, and then there is that commitment – that’s it, I have no more ties. There are still lots of ties, and people forget that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Whether United States likes it or not, by having Puerto Rico as part of the United States, we are a bi-lingual country whether they like it or not. They made that decision. Now they have to follow through with all the consequences of that.

In terms of other reasons, I would say also that it is in terms of the family spirit, and the celibacy issue does bother. And that’s universal. That’s not just typically Hispanic, but there is a strong sense of la familia – wanting to have the family. There is a strong sense from the parents that they want to have their little grandchildren, and therefore that celibacy issue does become a turn-off. So we talk about the racism, the celibacy issue, the coldness. I also think we need to look at some of the educational preparation. I realize that priests, or anybody working in the church, should be well prepared. We also have to realize in terms of the high drop-out rate we have among our own students, that we have to have some sort of remedial programs, at the college level, in the seminaries, or even at the master’s level, to attract people. There might be somebody who is very spiritual, very pastoral, very good with people, yet he may not be a B student in a master’s level program, but will probably make a better priest that someone who is making As on his dissertation on John’s gospel, chapter 5, verse 6. That very person who may not have the greatest grades may draw the most people back to Christ, and keep him in Christ. I think that needs to be looked at. Again, that’s a little hang-up on the mind, on the intellectualism. And we need to look at the pastoral aspects in the church, in the seminary, and make a greater focus on that. I think we need to see that many of our own people have the talents and the skills, and let them do some strong marketing. I hate to use that term, but I think that there is a lot of talk – we want more Hispanic vocations – but at the same time when they see that the church, itself, doesn’t offer a lot for the Hispanic Catholics, that person who wants to be a Hispanic priest may say to himself, "They don’t offer too much for my people. What am I going to get?" Or if he sees, for instance, that a Hispanic priest is ordained and not serving the Hispanic people, he is going to say, "Well, I don’t want to do that. I want to work with my people." Yes, the church is universal, but it is also particular. We have to address and use our talents where they can be best served.

One of the things, also, that we need to keep in mind is the very subtle remarks that people make about why don’t you learn to speak English, why should there be a Hispanic apostolate office, why should there be a Spanish liturgy, because that sometimes smacks of racism. It also does not portray the understanding of what liturgy is. Liturgy is public worship, liturgy is people speaking and communicating to God in their own language. There is no such thing that there has to be an English language in which someone communicates to God with, and if we are going to impose that on a group of people simply because it is bothersome, it is inconvenient, we have to set aside special funds, we should, because we want people to feel comfortable in their relationship with God, and we want people to speak in a language to God in which they can say their thoughts, their feelings, their emotions in the best possible way. You may find people who say, "Well, I see those Puerto Ricans speaking English." There is a difference between talking to you about a job they may have to do on the shop floor or when they go shopping, and there is another difference about the nuance about their expression of love with God, or there is a nuance about their expression of how their relationship with the spirit is. If you are going to be talking to people about, for instance, the sacrament of reconciliation and you find out there are certain things that are very, very key, and you have missed that because you don’t know that this word has a different shade of meaning, these are things that are critical and crucial. Also, we don’t want to lose people. We aren’t saying to people, you only speak Spanish and that’s it. We are not encouraging ignoring the English language. What we are encouraging is an appreciation of the gift of having two languages, and also to be able to celebrate in a language where they feel comfortable in and to have that ability, and to have the choice to do that. I think that is very, very important. They talk about assimilate, assimilate. To use another word, forget your culture, and forget your language. We don’t want to do that. You shouldn’t lose your roots, your traditions, your customs. That’s what made my father, made my grandfather, and his grandfather. That is our history as well as the history of the United States. The United States is not a melting pot. Someone said it is a salad bowl. You don’t put all the same things in a salad bowl. What you like about the salad bowl is that is all nice and rich and has all these different things. You don’t try to make it all one standard thing. I think that’s very important. So I would just say to those people, please respect the language. Don’t be frustrated. Learn to love it. Knocking on people’s doors. That’s what the Pentecostals do. That’s what we should do. We shouldn’t be a church that sits on our derrières. We should be a church that is out there, moving about, knocking on doors like Jesus did. Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to Him. He went out to them. So we already have about 25 people who are ready to be trained. First of all they are going to do the census because you have to do something very non-threatening. For the ones who are going to evangelize, you have to build up their confidence, and the best way to do it is to have them ask for simple information. "Hi. I’m from St. Margaret’s Roman Catholic church. Would you mind if I just had a couple minutes of your time, and feel very comfortable and just answer some basic questions?" Then do a second round of visits with the people who you have identified who are agreeable. They haven’t been going to church, but perhaps in the conversation they expressed some interest. So you go back and say, "Listen, I noticed the last time we were here that little José here who is now 7 years old hasn’t been baptized. This is our baptism instruction program and preparation program. We would be glad to register your child for you and introduce you to the priest in the parish and our baptism instruction team. Would you mind if we do that for you?" And hopefully you have the people say yes. Find out what their need is. For instance, if they have a child whose great interest is sports, you say, "Listen, we have a great basketball team in the parish. Why don’t you have your son join the basketball team?" We don’t say, join the parish, or come to church. Give them what they want, and let them see that there is a loving group there. And then the third visit have the evangelizer talk about his own faith experience, and then tell them we have a little group meeting down your block. They meet on Wednesday night just for an hour. Why don’t you stop by and visit us? And they have them go by and visit them, they stop by and pick them up, and then they might begin to feel part of that community, and then draw them into the larger community. It is small Christian communities, but all coming back into the larger community. So that’s the groundwork that is being laid, and I realize that that is going to be at least a 2 to 3 year project. It is going to take time to convince people, to persuade people, to make people feel comfortable with the process, but it is worth the effort.

Jim: How do you convey the reality of the Spanish-speaking Catholic church to the English-speaking one?

Fr. David: The only way of conveying that sense is asking them to recall in their own mind the best party that had ever been to, the best festival they have ever been to. That’s what celebration is all about. That’s what they would find on Sunday or Saturday or in the week at the celebration of the liturgy. I would invite them to come to a Hispanic liturgy, and trust me when I tell you, you will want to tap your toes, you will want to clap your hands, you will want to move about, and you will leave there feeling alive. That is the vibrancy, that is the sense of church that Christ imparted to His disciples, why they were willing to put their necks on the block because they felt more alive. They knew something real was happening, and I can only say the only way you can do that is to feel it and to experience it. So if you know there is a Hispanic church or celebration somewhere, stop in, because I guarantee you, you will not get a look of what are you doing here? You will be very much welcomed. You will not be rejected. You will not be ostracized. You won’t be made to feel like the minority – ever – and I have seen it again and again. But I have also seen on the reverse end the Hispanic will go, and there is a little tension. Not always. Many congregations are very wonderful, wonderful people. But when you come to the Hispanic liturgy, you sit down there welcomed. None of that look, none of those little subtle cues of this is not your place. Also you get a great sense of spirit, a great sense of aliveness, a great sense of camaraderie in the Hispanic liturgy, the Hispanic faith, and I think that is something that you want to experience. Some of you say, "I am bored." Some of you say, "I really get nothing out of this." Some of you say, "I don’t feel the spirit." If you don’t feel it, walk on over. You will definitely feel it. You will definitely feel what church is all about. It all comes from the Hispanic sense of fiesta, Hispanic culture, salsa. There is something to that because it is celebration. That’s what we are always talking about, and we know how to celebrate. So if you want to party in Christ, come on over, and that’s the best I can say in the sense of experiencing what we are all about.

Perhaps I need to say that we as Hispanic Catholics need to do that, too. We need to invite ourselves and bring our music to Anglo congregations, and we need to be more active in presenting the gifts that we have. Perhaps we stay a little bit isolated, and that’s something we need to do. Perhaps I as a Hispanic Catholic priest need to encourage the people in the congregation to do that, to go to different places and to bring that gift, to bring that sense of aliveness and spirit, as well as sometimes people are afraid to come over, so again, we should go over to them, and to make that possible. That’s what I would offer.


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