What’s right with this picture? Young Latinos take the lead

In the Pews
Young Latinos are changing the face of Catholic youth ministry.

Rey Malavé noticed the nervous teenager who had been chosen to say the Our Father at a diocesan youth rally in central Florida a few years ago. The kid was quiet and a little jittery. The veteran youth leader assumed it was stage fright and tried to assure the anxious 17-year-old. But it quickly became clear the problem was much more serious. The teen revealed that he had worried about this moment all night. In fact, he hadn’t slept. And as the emotions welled inside and spilled over, the frightened boy began to cry.

As his moment to say the prayer approached, the young man confessed he didn’t know how to say the Our Father in English. He was fluent in the language of his adopted country, but like many young Hispanics raised within Catholic households in the United States, he only knew how to say his prayers in Spanish.

Malavé, a father of two grown sons and a national leader in the Hispanic youth movement in the U.S. Catholic Church, gently advised the boy not to worry. Just go out there, he told him, and say the prayer the way you know it.

“I felt just like him,” says Malavé, who was born in Cleveland and raised in a devout Puerto Rican Catholic household. “I started analyzing myself: ‘Geez, I do know the Our Father better in Spanish.’ And some of the concepts of church that I know in Spanish I even struggle getting them out in English. You start talking about the Virgin, and I have to switch to Spanish.”


That bicultural sensitivity saved the day, turning what could have been a traumatic moment into an enlightening one. The young man not only said the prayer in Spanish, he also gave a testimonial about his experience, how his ethnic upbringing had suddenly made him feel so isolated and different. The multiracial, multicultural group rose to give him a standing ovation.

It’s time to step up

This minor but revealing incident underscores a major issue facing the Catholic Church in recent years—how to serve the surging population of young Hispanics within its flock and still remain a united faith. The church is at a crucial crossroads. With Hispanics already accounting for more than half of the U.S. Catholic population under age 25, the church’s very future, some say, depends on how it meets the challenge of reaching out to its fastest growing constituency: Hispanic youth.

“I think we are at an important juncture,” says Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto. “I think we will either bear the fruit of making good investments in our young population, or we will suffer the consequences of not taking advantage of this very significant moment in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.”

Alarm bells were sounded five years ago when researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released the results of the largest survey ever conducted on the spiritual attitudes and mores of American youth.


Catholic teens in general, not just Hispanics, “consistently scored lower than Protestant peers on most measures of religiosity,” concluded the study, titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press), by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. For example, Catholic teens were much less likely than their Protestant peers to have experienced a definite answer to prayer, witnessed what they considered a miracle, or made a personal commitment to live life for God.

At the same time, the study confirmed that Hispanics represent a much larger proportion of teens within the Catholic Church than in any other religion. For example, Hispanics represented a mere 2 percent of teenagers surveyed within mainline Protestant denominations. By contrast, Hispanic teens comprised 28 percent of Catholics surveyed, although they were still significantly undercounted and, according to other demographic studies, the proportion actually exceeds 50 percent.

In short, the U.S. Catholic Church is on track to becoming increasingly Hispanic and increasingly young.

In 2006 Hispanic youth groups went a long way toward making their voices heard within the church. They staged the First National Encounter for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry, which involved more than 40,000 people in a national process that led to a landmark conference at the University of Notre Dame. It was organized by La Red: The National Network of Pastoral Juvenil Hispana, a peer-oriented ministry run by and for Latinos in the United States.


Although Hispanic youth ministry officially falls under the auspices of each diocese, the groups often operate under the radar of pastors and directors of parish youth ministry. But that milestone meeting put Hispanic youth on the map.

“A lot of times our [Hispanic] youth ministries were in their own little worlds and sometimes didn’t even know that there was a regular [official] youth ministry in their parish,” says Malavé, a past president of La Red and the national coordinator of the 2006 gathering, also called the Primer Encuentro. Those working in Hispanic youth and young adult ministries “were strangers to each other. So one of the things the Encuentro did was that it allowed them to discover each other, and made everybody aware that they need to be brought together.”

Del dicho al hecho hay un buen trecho. Easier said than done.


(Graphic: Erin Drewitz; Click here to view larger image.)

Lost in translation

The cultural divide between Hispanics and other Catholics leads to misunderstandings that often begin with the very first interaction between the church and newly arrived immigrants, who in recent years have been surging into parishes where they had never been before, throughout the South, Northeast, and Midwest.


Even the definition of the term “youth”—jóven in Spanish—can cause confusion. In Latin America as well as among U.S. Hispanics, a single person in his or her early 30s can still be considered a jóven. The term is used both for youth and for young adults. Young adult Latinos still take part in their parish’s pastoral juvenil with much younger members.

In the United States teens generally become “adults”—legally and culturally—once they turn 18. They not only tend to leave home but also move out of the ranks of youth ministry. Pastoral juvenil, by contrast, encompasses both youth and young adult ministry.


The problem is much more than semantic. The concept of a community of jóvenes has clashed with policies aimed at protecting teenagers and children in the wake of the sex abuse scandals, requiring members to be fingerprinted and trained in safe practices once they turned 19.

“When safe environment came on board, they [Hispanics] were freaking out,” says Armando Cervantes, the director of youth ministry in the Diocese of Orange, near Los Angeles. “Well, this is our community. You can’t just cut us out, just because someone’s 19. You can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not part of this community anymore.’ ”

At the very epicenter of the culture gap is a difference in the spirituality expressed by Hispanics active in youth ministry compared with their non-Hispanic counterparts. While the National Study of Youth and Religion survey detected a troubling level of apathy among average Hispanic Catholic teens, those who take part in pastoral juvenil exhibit a heightened sense of spirituality and religious commitment, according to Hispanic church leaders.

The culture gap is not just a matter of different traditions or rituals, church leaders say, but of a different approach to youth ministry.


Pastoral juvenil has a significantly higher vocational and evangelical and mission-oriented feeling than the Anglo youth ministry,” says Carmen Cervantes, co-founder and executive director of the Instituto Fe y Vida, a nonprofit in Stockton, California specializing in leadership formation for Hispanic youth within the church.

“That is one of the reasons why many of our young people are very reluctant to be integrated into the other non-Hispanic ministry. They just don’t feel it. So when you try to put them under a youth minister who doesn’t understand the values of pastoral juvenil, many of our young people just get pissed off and never come back.”

Latino youth see themselves as protagonists, or jóvenes protagónicos, says Cervantes. They even act as missionaries, venturing out to other parishes to evangelize and set up new groups.

Israel Hernandez, 26, an organizer for pastoral juvenil, serves as regional events coordinator for 23 parishes in traditionally Latino East Los Angeles. He works full-time in the food industry, takes courses at a community college, and devotes his spare time to the youth ministry.

Strengthening his spirituality helps him mature as a person, Hernandez says at an event he helped organize for a new pastoral juvenil group at a Boyle Heights parish. He believes his faith gives him the foundation to “go forward in other parts of my life,” such as pursuing a career in physical education.

“There’s an openness or an ease about expressing one’s faith that Anglo youth quite frankly just don’t have,” says Soto, who for decades has been a leader of pastoral juvenil in California. “At a Latino event, you would immediately start out with some very heavy, pounding Christian music, and you’d see all the Latino youth get up and move and start singing along. Whereas the Anglos are sitting there thinking, ‘What in the world is going on?’ So there is that kind of disconnect.”

Ghost ministry

Over time in some parishes, that disconnect has created two parallel ministries, separate and unequal. Unlike their counterparts in non-Hispanic youth ministry, those involved in pastoral juvenil are typically not represented on parish councils. Often they don’t receive funds from the parish or diocese. Their events don’t even get mentioned in some parish bulletins. And one of their biggest battles is finding a room in the parish where they are allowed to meet.

Carmen Cervantes calls it a “ghost ministry.”


“Formally, at the parish level, pastoral juvenil does not exist,” she says. “It’s a ministry that still needs to be validated, in the sense of being formalized within the church, so that it can be formally recognized.”

The church has not entirely figured out how to reconcile the two groups and bring them together. But it also resists keeping them apart. Separation, especially along ethnic lines, is seen as segregation by some church officials. Why does a church need two youth groups? Aren’t we trying to be one united Catholic faith community?

“There is always a tension as to why the Hispanics don’t want to be integrated,” says Carmen Cervantes. “Youth ministers often want to have everybody together under one roof, under one model. But that’s their own model of youth ministry, and it doesn’t work.”

Signs of hope

This may appear to be an impasse. Yet some advocates see a dialectical approach to resolving the dilemma: Let a new unity emerge by strengthening the differences.

“It’s not that one culture is better than the other,” says Arturo Chávez, president of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas. “Both have great strengths, but they also have limitations. But I’m a big believer that for our Latino kids to enter into efforts that build unity in diversity, they have to know who they are first. They have to know and love and own their culture, to be able to be at the same table with others.”

Sitting at the same table is more than a metaphor to Joe Martinez, 30, the bilingual parish director of youth ministry at Nativity Catholic Church of El Monte, a blue-collar community east of Los Angeles. The parish is predominantly Hispanic with a significant Vietnamese population, and both groups are active in the youth ministry.

“This may sound really silly, but it’s the food, honestly,” Martinez says of the most effective way to get the groups together. “I joke with them, but there’s truth behind it. Where else are you going to find your Vietnamese kid eating your chorizo burrito in the morning, or your Mexican kid eating your gum chin, while at the same time being able to sit at the same table together?”

It’s the culinary lure that opens the door to deeper cultural understanding, Martinez says, as youth come to realize that they share certain cultural traditions, such as respect for elders and the authority of strict fathers at home.


“I use that as a tool, like, ‘Hey, your family does the same thing our families do; let’s embrace that,’ ” Martinez says, as teens play pool and socialize in a room next door to his church office. “Yes, embrace your culture, but also embrace someone else’s, and learn from that, too.”

Though the church has a long way to go with Hispanic youth, leaders see strong signs of progress in recent years.

Nine Hispanic church leaders, including Chávez and Carmen Cervantes, have contributed to a book that assertively addresses the challenges posed by the North Carolina survey findings. Pathways of Hope and Faith Among Hispanic Teens (Fe y Vida) spells out comprehensive pastoral strategies for the future.

To start, all agree that the church must invest more resources in youth ministry. The NSYR study found that the Catholic Church spent significantly less on its youth programs than did other denominations.

Other goals include hiring more bicultural—not just bilingual—youth ministers at the parish level and encouraging youth groups to be more inclusive and sensitive to the culture. “If the church is going to continue to be a significant, life-giving force in Latino culture, it has to respond by being culturally competent, to be able to appreciate that people have different values,” says Chávez, who also serves on the advisory council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

On that front, things are looking up. Bishop Soto, for example, has noticed an increase in Hispanic representation among the leaders of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, the Washington D.C.-based umbrella group for which he serves as U.S. Catholic bishops’ liaison. And Malavé sees greater awareness of Hispanic issues among non-Hispanic youth ministers, who have now fully engaged in the dialogue.

“I’ll be in meetings, and now I don’t have to be the sole voice (on the issue) just because I’m the Hispanic,” says Malavé. “I don’t have to always be the one to say, ‘How are we going to take care of the Hispanics?’ Now everybody says it. The issue is on people’s minds already, and that’s a drastic change.”

Progress inevitably means growing pains. There’s bound to be “a certain amount of pushing and shoving,” in Soto’s words, as Latinos begin to take more active roles within their parishes and others have to make room for them.


“There comes a phase,” Soto says, when Hispanic youth are “going to say, ‘Hey, how come you gave the hall to them and you didn’t give it to us? How come you didn’t let our choir sing at that Mass?’ So the pastor says, ‘Oh, God, what a headache!’ I try to encourage pastors to realize that’s a fight worth having, and I urge them to see it through. If you don’t ever get through that phase where people learn to negotiate and compromise and work together, you’ll remain a parish divided.”

The teenager who fretted about saying the Our Father shows what is possible. He might have been forever alienated from the church if he had not expressed his faith in his own way and in his own language. Instead, his inclusion became an inspiration for the entire group, a source of healing.

“I think we all have more things in common—our faith, our problems, our challenges,” says Malavé, “that should bring us more together.”

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 76, No. 3, pages. 12-17).

Image: Tom Wright