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May 3 , 2005:

Cinco de Mayo and the Scramble to Meet the Needs of Spanish-Speaking Christians
by Jon M. Sweeney

May 3, 2005

Cinco de Mayo, or “the 5th of May,” is a holiday similar to St. Patrick’s Day in that it is celebrated more in the U.S. than it is in its native land—Mexico (or Ireland, as in the case of St. Patrick’s Day). Also, you don’t have to be Mexican (or Irish) to join in the fun.

Often confused with Mexican Independence Day, which is celebrated each year on September 16, Cinco de Mayo nevertheless commemorates a David and Goliath sort of battle that was vital to Mexican history and independence.

It was on the 5th of May 1862 that a small group of poor Mexican soldiers, commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, fought courageously for their freedom and won against more than 6,000 highly trained French soldiers under the command of Napoleon III. France, England, and Spain had all occupied Mexico since early in 1861 when international debt payments were halted by the local government. Within months, England and Spain had withdrawn, primarily to fight other battles elsewhere, but the French occupation continued. It was on cinco de Mayo 1862 that the Mexican people defeated the great Napoleon and his army in one of the most honored battles in Mexican history.

Celebrations in the U.S.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations are an important part of life in any Mexican-American community, large or small. They often include mariachi music, dancing, parades, and of course, food. Local Catholic churches sponsor many of the celebrations. On Saturday, May 7, for instance, St. Paul Catholic Church of San Pablo, California, is holding “A Day for Our Children,” with food, games, and a Chihuahua dog show.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations also cross denominational lines – from Presbyterians in Pennsylvania (First Presbyterian of Edgewood, May 15) to “Christian Women’s Clubs” in Florida (Naples, May 6) and Unitarian Universalists in New York City (All Souls UU, May 7).

Diversity among Hispanic/Latino Christians

Many Hispanics/Latinos are quick to point out that Cinco de Mayo is not a holiday for all Hispanics/Latinos. It is important in Mexican history, but has little relevance to the other groups that make up this growing block of Americans, which also includes people from countries such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Dominican Republic; Central American countries such as Honduras; and South American countries such as Columbia.

According to the U.S. census of 2000, out of a total population of slightly more than 281 million people, more than 35 million were counted as Hispanic/Latino (12.5%). Census Bureau statistics report that the number of Hispanics in the U.S. rose by almost 60% in the decade of the 1990s.

The Need for Resources

In many communities, however, demand outpaces supply when it comes to Spanish-speaking worship services. The Seattle Times recently ran a story (January 29, 2005) about the startling growth of the Spanish-speaking population in the Pacific Northwest and the frustration often felt due to a lack of resources for those wanting to worship in their native tongue.

“Sure enough, by 12:30 p.m., when Mass starts, the pews are already so packed that people are standing along the back wall,” explained the article. “And by the time the Rev. Michael Tyrrell begins his homily, several hundred others are standing in the vestibule and spilling out into the parking lot. It's the third parish that Tyrrell, a Jesuit priest, has visited that day to celebrate Mass in Spanish — each one drawing a large crowd.”

Over the last decade, most large Protestant denominations, in addition to Catholic dioceses, have developed programs to reach out to Spanish-speaking Christians. The United Methodist Church offers one example; their Office of Hispanic/Latino Ministries was founded in 1999 and represents the first coordinated comprehensive United Methodist effort to focus on the development and strengthening of outreach and support to Spanish-speaking members.

In an interview with explorefaith.org, Alma W. Pérez, Editor of the (United Methodist) Office of Hispanic/Latino Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee, explained: “The vision [we have] is of a church in which, as in the first Pentecost, all can hear the mighty works of God in their own tongue, which is not merely a matter of language, but also of cultural identity and family traditions.”

She continued: “Even though we have been working so hard to have resources and services available for leaders of Hispanic/Latino ministries, I think there is much more to do as a denomination and as Christians. We could do more if we as the body of Christ would embrace diversity as a fruit of the Spirit, walking united as a body of Christ, instead of doing things on our own.”

Cinco de Mayo celebrates a specific David and Goliath experience that is important in the history of the Mexican people. The struggle of today’s churches to meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking Christians in their midst may be an equally difficult challenge.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is

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