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Spring 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 1 · pp. 47–56 

Hispanics in California: Myth and Opportunity

Juan Martínez

The growth of the Hispanic (or Latino) community in California continues at an unprecedented rate. It is estimated that by 2020 the Hispanic population of the state will double from 5.7 to 11.9 million and will constitute 32.3 percent of the population (Reich 12, 26).

. . . it will be necessary to be flexible in models and methods of outreach.

Only a small percentage of the Hispanic community is evangelical. No one has done an extensive census, but according to most estimates Hispanics in California are less than 5 percent evangelical. This compares to approximately 16 percent in Chile and 11 percent in Brazil (Johnston 294, 296). In spite of the strength of the evangelical movement in the United States, Hispanics are not being reached here in numbers that compare to many of their Latin American counterparts.

The reasons for this are complex, yet many of them are tied to assumptions made about the Hispanic community in the United States. This paper will review five presuppositions that have tended to limit the effectiveness of evangelical churches in reaching the Hispanic community. {48} This review will then serve as the basis for a series of suggestions as to how Mennonite Brethren can minister in the Hispanic community in California into the 21st century.


This article uses the term “myth” because it aptly describes the five presuppositions to be delineated. Though often considered true, they do not have a basis in reality. Each presupposition will be examined in two sections: first, how it affects ministry to Hispanics, and secondly, why it is in fact a myth.

Myth #1 “Hispanics Will Soon Assimilate into U.S. Culture.”

The Melting Pot theory has greatly affected how many evangelicals view Hispanics. Because of it many in the majority population assume that Hispanics will rapidly assimilate into U.S. society or, at least, that they should.

This myth has affected ministry to Hispanics in several ways. Churches and ministries have often been developed assuming that the developing group would soon integrate into an existing Anglo congregation. This pattern has been rejected by most Hispanics, and those churches that have used it have found their ministry to Hispanics limited.

Also affecting strategy is the belief that language is the only reason for a separate “Hispanic” church or ministry. Once “they” learn English “they” will no longer need or be interested in having their “own” churches. Yet growing numbers of Hispanics choose to be a part of Hispanic congregations several generations after they no longer “need” a separate language church. Differences between Hispanics and the majority culture are much deeper than language.

There have even been cases of “forced” assimilation. A Hispanic church is encouraged to close and join forces with an existing Anglo congregation. Though there are cases where this method has worked, often the results have not been positive. In many situations Hispanics have become disenfranchised and there has been a loss of effectiveness in reaching the Hispanic community. When this happens God has often raised up new Hispanic congregations to reach the community more effectively. {49}

This myth also tends to cause difficulties for those Hispanics who are drawn to an English language congregation. Many of them feel lost in such a church because it is often assumed that if they become a part of a predominantly Anglo church it is because they want to assimilate into Anglo society. Though this will be true for some, many want to be a part of a multiethnic community where they can share who they are and enrich the community through their participation.

This first myth can be challenged at several levels. In fact, the long history of Hispanics in the U.S. has not been one of assimilation. Most have acculturated (they have chosen to participate in U.S. culture), but only a small percentage have completely assimilated (lost a clearly defined separate identity). Ever since the U.S. conquered the Southwest there have been different attempts to assimilate the Hispanic population (not unlike the efforts taken in relationship to the Native Americans). These efforts have been unsuccessful so far and there is no reason to believe that the majority of Hispanics will accept assimilation in the foreseeable future.

Even if one assumes that Hispanics are following an assimilation pattern similar to earlier European immigrant groups (and there is no agreement as to whether this is happening), it is important to remember several things in this regard. One is that most of the European immigrants were Caucasian, removing race as a barrier to fairly complete assimilation. The majority of Hispanics are not Caucasian. Another is the fact that the assimilation pattern progressed over several generations. Even if Hispanics follow such a pattern one cannot expect it to be complete for several generations. The last factor is that the assimilation process tended to speed up when there was no more significant immigration of that group. As stated earlier this is not likely to happen soon with the Hispanic population.

These last two factors are very important. They highlight the uniqueness of the migration pattern between the U.S. and Latin America. The two areas share a common border and are strongly tied to each another economically and politically. This nearness means that immigrants can maintain close ties to their homeland throughout their lives. It also means that there is a constant influx. Though the new immigration law will tend to control immigration from Latin America there is every reason to believe that it will continue at a significant rate {50} into the foreseeable future.

In addition to race and a unique immigration pattern, another reason Hispanics are not assimilating rapidly has to do with Spanish language maintenance in spite of pressure to do otherwise. Though the public school system tends to encourage a language switch in Hispanic children, the 1980 census showed that 65 percent of the Hispanic population speaks Spanish in the home and that 76 percent of the population uses at least some Spanish in the home (Statistical Abstract 36). Hispanics’ interest in the Spanish language is also clearly reflected in the continuing growth of Spanish language mass media.

The issue of language has caused a great deal of controversy. There are conflicting studies showing that Spanish will or will not be maintained by Hispanics in the U.S. What most do agree on is that as long as there is a continual immigration the influence of Spanish will continue to grow. Also it seems clear that the learning of English will not necessary mean the abandonment of Spanish. A growing number of Hispanics are choosing to be bilingual to maintain cultural and familial ties, but also because it is an economic asset in this world to speak two languages. About 20 percent of Hispanics do not speak Spanish, but the great majority will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Also the number of people who speak only Spanish or use Spanish as their principal means of communication will continue growing.

A final reason for the continuance of Hispanics as a distinct group has to do with the fact that we now live in a global village. The concept that a country is to be defined by one principal ethnic or racial group is rapidly disappearing in our world. We do not live in a Melting Pot where all the diverse racial and ethnic groups are merging to form a new “American” race and ethnicity. Our country is more like a Stew Pot or a Mosaic. We are building a new unity that accepts the reality of our diversity.

Since the Hispanic community as a whole will not soon assimilate (if ever) the Evangelical community must develop patterns of ministry which are not based on this myth. Southern Baptists stated it succinctly when they said that it is the job of the Church to evangelize, not Americanize. {51}

Myth #2 “Most Hispanics Are Christians.”

This presupposition is based on the fact that most Hispanics are at least nominally Roman Catholic. This places many evangelicals in an uneasy situation. Many are seeking closer rapport with Catholics and they are not sure they should be evangelizing people who are at least nominally Catholic. The key question is whether Hispanic Catholics have a clear understanding of the Christian gospel.

It is outside the focus of this paper to deal with such a theological issue. Yet it is important to note that traditional Hispanic Catholicism has been very syncretistic. Many Hispanic Catholics have only a very limited understanding of the Christian Gospel. But there is also a sense in which the question is moot because the great majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are not practicing Catholics. Though most call themselves Catholic, that usually means very little in daily life. Though there are no hard numbers, it is estimated that in the Hispanic community 15 percent are practicing Catholics, 5 percent are Protestant of all stripes, and 80 percent do not practice any religion. The great majority of Hispanics in the United States do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

According to Catholic priest Jose Maria de Lachaga, Hispanics in the U.S. have been alienated from the Catholic Church. One of the principle reasons is that traditionally the Catholic Church in the United States has followed a model of assimilation. Hispanic Catholicism has not always found acceptance in the American Catholic Church, and in some areas the Church has attempted to Americanize Hispanics. Lachaga believes that Hispanics in the U.S. will become largely Protestant if the Catholic church does not change its outreach methods in relationship to them (Lachaga 1982: 186, 187).

This combination of circumstances makes it clear that the presentation of the Gospel in the Hispanic community is desperately needed. If evangelicals can present a living gospel without the agenda of assimilation many Hispanics will be open and many more people will enter into the Kingdom.

Myth #3 “Hispanics Are a Fairly Homogeneous Group.”

This is one of the most confusing myths in relationship to Hispanics. There is a tendency to assume that Hispanics are {52} fairly similar and that if a certain outreach method is working with one group it will also work with others. The result of this assumption is that there is often considerable success in some areas and considerable failure in others.

One of the principle reasons this myth exists is because most ethnic groups in the U.S. trace their history to one country (such as Italian-Americans) or to one racial group (such as Black Americans). But Hispanics are very different. The great majority of Hispanics speak Spanish and have many cultural similarities. But there are also some key differences. These include the following:

  1. Hispanics trace their lineage to 22 different countries, including those who have been in the U.S. for many generations and those from Puerto Rico who are U.S. citizens by birth. The largest groups come from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba though there is a growing number of people from Central America.
  2. Hispanics can also be differentiated by their level of participation in U.S. society. Some have assimilated into U.S. society and no longer see themselves as distinct or are rapidly moving in that direction. At the other end are a significant number of people who participate in American society at only the most minimal levels. The majority are somewhere in the middle. They are bi-cultural, maintaining their Hispanicity while at the same time living and working within U.S. culture.
  3. Hispanics can also be from almost any racial or ethnic background. They are Black, Native American, Caucasian, Mestizo, Mulatto, or Asian. Also, though most Hispanics trace their history through Latin America to Spain, a significant minority traces its heritage to other countries like Italy, Poland, Germany Japan, or China.

Recognizing the diversity of the Hispanic community will help to emphasize the need for diverse outreach strategies. Methods that work very well in some segments of the population may actually be detrimental in others. What is important will be to find the method that works best within a specific context.

Myth #4 “All Hispanics Are Foreigners and See Themselves as That.”

It is true that immigration is an important factor in the Hispanic community in the U.S. A significant percentage of its {53} growth is due to a constant immigration, both legal and illegal. It is also true that many Hispanics maintain strong ties to their countries of origin for several generations after migrating to the U.S.

Yet anyone who would work with Hispanics needs to remember that they have a history in the U.S. and that the majority are U.S. citizens. They are Americans who have a different view of what the U.S. should be like, a view not shared by the majority population. But they are not foreigners and do not wish to be treated as such.

The majority population has chosen to ignore the history of Hispanics in the U.S. For example in California the original U.S. state constitution was printed in both Spanish and English. Also there was an official Office of the Translator which was not eliminated until the turn of the century. Outreach will be enhanced as evangelicals are willing to recognize the past and present contribution that Hispanics have made to the United States. It will mean the recognition that Hispanics have a unique contribution to make to the understanding of what it means to be an evangelical in the U.S. today. The Northern European and Anglo-Saxon influence on church and society in the U.S. is not the only one that has a valid place in defining what it means to be a Christian here.

Myth #5 “Hispanic Churches Cannot Grow.”

This is a particularly Mennonite Brethren assumption. Because most of the Hispanic MB Churches were started in small agricultural communities, the potential for growth has been somewhat limited. Also, because a middle class model of the Church was often assumed, the Hispanic churches developed patterns of dependency when they could not sustain such a structure. Consequently, many M.B. tend to assume that Hispanic churches will by nature be small and dependent on economic assistance. The result has been that while Hispanic churches and other ministries to Hispanics are flourishing throughout the U.S., many M.B. are still wondering whether the denomination should attempt further Hispanic ministry outreach.


The future offers great opportunity but also great challenge {54} in respect to the Hispanic community. The diversity that is reflected today in California will continue to manifest itself in the foreseeable future. The key question for Mennonite Brethren is whether the denomination will build bridges to the Hispanic community or will build fortresses to attempt to insulate itself from these changes.

If Mennonite Brethren are to minister in the Hispanic community of California in the future it will be necessary to be flexible in models and methods of outreach. This flexibility will need to manifest itself in existing congregations and in the beginning of new churches.

Existing English language congregations can reach the Hispanic community in several ways:

  1. There are Hispanics in the community who have assimilated and can be reached by existing churches; there merely needs to be an evangelistic effort to reach out to them.
  2. There are many bi-cultural Hispanics who could be reached for Christ by an English language congregation. The key here is to encourage cultural diversity and not assimilation as the model of outreach and participation in church life. To reach such people the church will need to work openly toward this diversity in its worship, outreach, and expressions of community. This will be exciting for many people, but it will also mean making changes that may be threatening to others.

But there is also a need to develop many new separate ministries. These separate ministries will need to express flexibility in language and cultural expression and in types of ministries. In the area of language and cultural expression M.B. will need to develop the following:

  1. Mono-cultural Hispanic churches: Particularly in large urban areas, and in areas where there has been a significant amount of recent immigration, there will be a need for congregations that look very much like their counterparts in Latin America. Both U.S. Hispanics that maintain strong ties to Hispanic culture and recent immigrants will usually feel most comfortable in such churches and will most easily be reached for Jesus Christ in this context.
  2. Bicultural Hispanic churches: The majority of Hispanics are bi-cultural in some way and many feel most comfortable in congregations where they can express the fact that they live within two cultures and languages. Most in present Hispanic Mennonite Brethren churches are in this category. Such {55} churches will often be bi-lingual at some level or other.
  3. All English Hispanic churches: There are many Hispanics who feel more comfortable with English, yet maintain a very strong Hispanic identity. This type of church will tend to be like the Black Churches in America. The congregation may use a variant form of English and will tend to strongly reflect its Hispanic culture in worship and outreach methods.
  4. Multi-cultural congregations: This will tend to be one of the most difficult types of churches to plant, yet it is very much needed in mixed neighborhoods where people of different racial and cultural backgrounds live and work together. These congregations will need to experiment with new methods of outreach and worship which reflect the new mixes that will manifest themselves in various communities.

The Mennonite Brethren will need to be flexible in the types of ministries they develop. The type used will need to be determined by the specific ministry needs of the population to be reached.

  1. New Church Planting: There is a great need to begin new churches in areas where there are large Hispanic populations. In most areas where there is a need for separate congregations the number of existing churches is grossly inadequate. Mennonite Brethren need to commit themselves to starting many new churches using models that will be reproducible in the Hispanic community. This will mean that many may use rented facilities or that their pastors may be bi-vocational. M.B. will need to be ready to accept these non-traditional churches as sister congregations, not merely “mission outposts.”
  2. The Hispanic Department: This model assumes a separate ministry subsumed under an existing congregation. It will be useful in areas where there is only a small Hispanic community and the possibilities of a strong congregation ever developing are very limited. In this model the existing church helps support a new outreach that usually uses the existing facilities.
  3. The Two Congregation—One Church Model: This is a variation of the previous model. In it a Hispanic congregation is developed using the facilities of an established church. This is a positive way to demonstrate the love of Christ in the community. It is also a very useful model in areas where a neighborhood is becoming Hispanic. Both congregations work together until gradually the Hispanic group becomes the principal group. {56}
  4. Two Churches—One Building: This model recognizes that many Hispanic churches will be stronger if they have a separate identity. Yet both groups use the same building and work together in different efforts. Particularly in urban areas where land is very expensive a strategically located building can support two or more churches as the need arises.


The M.B. in California need a vision for growth that recognizes the growing diversity of the state. The California of the future will reflect an ethnic and racial diversity where Caucasians will be only one of many minorities. Some may feel that these changes will be detrimental to the state. Yet the reality of our Christian life and witness will be reflected in our ability to reach out to this new emerging California. If we have a vision of what God wants to do through us and if we seek to build the unity of the body without expecting uniformity, we will be able to reach the Hispanic community with the Gospel in the power of the Spirit. The Lord has placed a great mission field at our doorstep.


  • Johnstone, P. J. Operation World. Kent, England: STL Books, 1978.
  • Lachaga, Jose Maria de. El Pueblo Hispuno en USA. Bilbao, Spain: Desclee de Brouwer, S.A., 1982.
  • Reich, Kenneth. “Doubling of US Latinos by 2020 Forecast.” Los Angeles Times, September 26:1, 12, 26. 1986.
  • Statistical Abstract of the United States. Department of Commerce United States of America. Glenn W. King, Compiler. 1985.
Juan Martinez is Director of the Pacific District Hispanic Bible Institute and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

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