On March 10, 2016, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University was fortunate to host Sujey Vega, an Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Arizona State University. Prof. Vega works at the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and religious communities. Her current work explores the experiences of Latino members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon) in the politically charged atmosphere of the Arizona borderlands. Her lecture for the BYU Redd Center, entitled The Desert Diaspora: An Exploration of Latino Latter Day Saints and Their Ethnic Religious Belonging, can be viewed below in its entirety. To help offer more context for her work, she was kind enough to participate in a short Q&A, posted below, her current projects in Arizona and recent monograph, Latino Heartland: of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest (NYU Press, 2015). Questions by Brenden W. Rensink and responses by Sujey Vega.
Tell us how you came to this research project. Your previous work dealt with similar communities and issues, but in the upper-Midwest. How is this Arizona story different?
My first book, Latina/o Heartland: Of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest (2015), focused primarily on Latinos in non-traditional settling locations – or what some would call “new” sites of settlement. It centered on what they faced as a relatively small community of Spanish-speakers in an Anglo-dominate space like Central Indiana. It also spoke to a particular moment in immigration politics (2006) when the nation was focused yet again on scapegoating Latinos and undocumented immigrants. So the book looked at the lived impact of the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the ground, how the political speeches and pandering to fear trickled down into the ways that people were treated and interacted with one another on the ground. It also examines how Latinos responded and made their own claims of home, especially through religious practices and ethnic networks. Moreover, the book begins with a historical perspective on Indiana’s migratory pasts (from Indian displacement and settler arrival to the KKK’s political influence at the turn of the 20th century) to compare that history to its Latino present.
All that to say that the current work in Arizona provides a completely different geographic location in the US Southwest, one that is seeped in a historically present Spanish-speaking population (indeed Arizona was once part of the Mexican nation-state). Here too I focus more closely on religion and the specific experience of Latino LDS members. Similar to the first book, I trace the history of this location and document the first Spanish-speaking Branch (later Ward) in Mesa, Arizona that dates back to 1918. I also look at ethnic belonging (how Latinos assert a kind of ethnic sense of belonging that does not require they assimilate into Anglo culture) to understand how Latinos are experiencing their unique position both in the state of Arizona and within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The state of Arizona is important here, because like my previous work it too has gone through intense immigration politics and that certainly has influenced the way Latino families (citizens and immigrants alike) live out their daily experiences here. In addition, I explore the importance of the Relief Society as a gendered support network for women in the Church.
How are the borderlands integral to the story you are telling in this research? What impact does physical proximity to the U.S.-Mexican border have?
Absolutely, the borderlands, as a real space and theoretical concept, have played an integral part in all that I do. Even in my work in the Midwest I explored how the border could be thought of as operating as far away as Indiana. Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of the Mexico/U.S. border as an open wound “una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” She’s referencing how there is tremendous conflict, exploitation, and antagonism in the spaces where two worlds meet. Importantly, Anzaldúa also speaks to the tremendous potential that arises out of this joining of peoples and spaces. In other words, there is blood, but there is also atonement or reconciliation where hybrid beings can emerge better equipped to meet the demands of an increasingly complex society. So in my work I explore the realities of the physical border and where Arizona is located in the journey of migrants who find themselves literally dying to enter the United States only to be persecuted and heavily policed once they survive. But I also explore the aspect of reconciliation, of what is possible for Latino families who can successfully juggle their faith, their ethnicity, and their belonging in Arizona’s LDS landscape.
Are there conceptual social, cultural, ethnic, or religious borderlands and boundaries that inform and shape this work?
Yes, the border manifests itself in so many different directions in this work. Just in terms of LDS scriptures and the ties to Latinos as Lamanites. Incidentally, the Mesa Temple was once considered the Lamanite Temple because it was the site of the first time Temple ordinances were available in a language beyond English. Thus, the Mesa Temple operated as a hub for Spanish Saints for decades until those Spanish services expanded to other temples in Latin America. But returning to borders, yes the sibling rivalry itself between Nephi and Laman can absolutely translate to borders or barriers between what it meant to be considered a Nephite or Lamanite in the Church. Language can also create certain barriers with some members feeling resentment for having to accommodate to a different language, assuming that assimilation to English should be the goal. As I note in my work, this fight between maintaining Spanish Wards or enforcing English-only expectations has historical precedence. In 1978 Utah University professor Dr. Orlando Rivera advocated vehemently for the need to “to plan for and administer and do things in our own way, for our own selves, completely independently.” Indeed, I’m sure not everyone approves of having ordinances, sacrament meetings, or general conferences in Spanish, but when we’re talking about faith and one’s spiritual capacities there should be no barriers, linguistic or otherwise, to one’s path to spiritual enrichment. These variations in language, ethnicity, culture, and social interactions can lead to distances between members who are unwilling to see those differences as a gift. As I say to my students all the time, it’s not difference alone that leads to conflict, it’s the way that we perceive of difference that creates so much animosity.
Who are you hoping to reach with your research, both in terms of the public(s) and scholarly communities? Are there specific gaps in public understanding you want to inform? Likewise, are there specific historiographic lapses that you seek to fill?
I hope this work reaches a broad audience of both LDS and non-LDS folks, of academics and non-academics. Putting my professor hat on, I think I would love for my colleagues both in Latino Studies and in Women and Gender Studies to understand this community beyond a curiosity with the peculiar. I hope this work begins to open up people’s knowledge and appreciation for this experience beyond a fascination that borders on exoticism. That is, there is a general acknowledgement that Latinos are not all Catholic, but when one mentions Mormon Latinos there’s immediate confusion as to WHY a Spanish-speaker would convert to a faith group typified by its White membership. There is certainly not enough attention on how some Latinos have been Mormon for generations and that there complex reasons for conversion, not the least of which is direct relationships with the scriptures. Moreover, even within gender studies there those who work on women in the LDS Church but who may not necessarily operate through an intersectional analysis of what it means to be a Latina, Native American, or Samoan woman in the Church. How might race, immigration, nationality, or class status also create different vectors of experience entangled with gender? What does that history and present context look like and how might these intersectional variations differ from say traditional work on Women in the Church?
So you could say that my audience is not just academic, but also the LDS community in general. I would love for Spanish-speaking members in the Church to rejoice in seeing their experience delved into in my work. As a daughter of once undocumented immigrants myself, I hunger for the next generation of Latino Saints (US born or raised) to rejoice in their specific ethnic/cultural experience without feeling pigeon held to one particular way of being – some have expressed feeling like they must assimilate to the mainland English-speaking Church while others are expected to join the Spanish branch simply because they have a Spanish surname. Feminist scholarship references this tug as the “either/or” dichotomy where one has to choose one way of being over another, but borrowing on Patricia Hill Collins I hope folks can realize that being Latino LDS is a both/and experience. That is, rather than choose one identity, Ward, or language over another LDS Latinos find themselves at the precipice of not having to locate themselves in only one realm. Even if they attend an English Ward, that doesn’t mean they see themselves as less ethnically Latino. Other times this means that they are not only ethnically Latino and may attend Spanish-speaking services, but are also equally comfortable in English spaces. I think Anglo missionaries who come back from doing a mission in Latin America can relate somewhat to this embrace of the both/and as an option, but (and this is important) the access to fluidity between English and Spanish Wards that missionaries to Latin American enjoy is not the same as what a Latino Saint might go through. Their experiences are different by sheer recognition that they hold different places in national, ethnic, and even Church-related systems of hierarchy.
To that end, I think my audience is also English-dominate LDS members who may know Spanish speakers, respect them or may be uncomfortable with them. This work is also for them, so that they may come to know their Spanish-speaking brethren in a new light and appreciate them not just for their food, culture, or their commitment to family, but for what they can offer as skillful active members who approach scriptures through deep prolific knowledge.
From what I’ve observed, LDS members are very active in genealogy and tracing their lineage to Nauvoo or original settlers in Utah. Famed last names are handed down and carry currency for Saints across the Deseret diaspora. But Latinos don’t have that privilege, they can’t trace back their family past to covered wagons and as such they might exist at a certain distance from the celebrated Mormon dynasty. But what folks may not understand is that Spanish-speaking members today are the pioneers for their progeny, years from now LDS members might trace their names to the Sezates from Mesa or the Tamez family from South Texas. As present-day forbearers of the faith for generations to come, Latino Saints are as leaders not just within their Spanish wards, but are prolific contributors whose wisdom can be shared with the entirety of the LDS Church. Some may not be comfortable with these fundamental changes in the Church and to them I say recall, remember for merely a second what your ancestors went through and how they were persecuted for being different, for being outsiders within a national imaginary. Remember that you may one day face these relatives and will be called to explain your feelings toward all your brethren today.
Can you suggest any supplementary readings for people that want to dig further into this topic?
First and foremost, I would advocate on much more work done on the Latino Mormon experience, both historical work as well as contemporary analysis needs to be published on this front. For those living in or visiting the Salt Lake City area, I would first suggest a drive to Provo to visit the Museum of Mormón History of the Américas (previously the Museum of Mormon History in Mexico). It is rich with documents, images, and books that explore the Latino LDS experience from a local and global perspective. In terms of readings, if one is interested on the Latino LDS experience or how Latinos engage religion more broadly I would suggest the following:
- De La Torre, Miguel A. and Edwin D. Aponte. Introducing Latino/a Theologies. Orbis Books, 2001.
- Díaz-Stevens, Ana María, and Antonio M. Stevens Arroyo. Recognizing the Latino Resurgence in U.S. Religion: The Emmaus Paradigm. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1998.
- Dormady, Jason H.;Tamez, Jared M., Just South of Zion. University of New Mexico Press, 2015.
- Embry, Jessie L. In His Own Language: Mormon Spanish Speaking Congregations in the United States. Provo, Utah: Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1997.
- Embry, Jessie L. “LDS Ethnic Wards and Branches in the United States: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Language Congregations. Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium. Volume 26; Issue 1. 2000.
- Gomez Paéz, Fernando Rogelio, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Lamanite Conventions: From Darkness to Light. Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en Mexico (available at the Museum of Mormón History of the Américas)
- Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. God’s heart has no borders: How religious activists are working for immigrant rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
- Iber, Jorge. Hispanics in the Mormon Zion 1912-1999. College Station, Texas A&M Press. 2000. Print.
- Rivera, Orlando. Mormonism and the Chicano. In Mormonism: A Faith for All Cultures, ed. F. LaMond Tullis, 115–126. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1978.
- Tullis, F. LaMond. Mormons in Mexico. Utah State University Press, 1987.
- Vega, Sujey. Forthcoming. From Comadres to Hermanas: Latina Female Leadership in Arizona’s LDS community. In Race, Gender, and Power on the Mormon Borderlands (eds. Dee Garceau, Andrea Radke-Moss, and Sujey Vega).
- Wilson, Cathering E. The Politics of Latino Faith: Religion, Identity, and Urban Community. NYU Press, 2008.
- Yukich, Grace. One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.