Since moving to the United States from Mexico in 1979, Carmen M. Cervantes has earned a doctorate in education, served as a researcher and pastoral minister and become an author. Today, Ms. Cervantes’s work and leadership in Hispanic ministry has been widely recognized and honored. Her success has come in part, she said, from the ability to learn from her mistakes. She still recalls how an early attempt at a cross-cultural exchange at one parish ended with hurt feelings on both sides. “Some of my mistakes in my ministry really were just a lack of knowledge about the culture, but they ended up being considered insults,” she said. Yet she believes that when given the chance to gain insight from her mistakes, she was able to grow. “If you are not allowed to make mistakes and learn from them you are never going to be empowered,” she said.
Since 1994, Ms. Cervantes has served as executive director of the Instituto Fe y Vida, a national nonprofit institute that helps empower young Latinos for leadership in the church and society through formation programs, research and advocacy. She works to ensure that young Latino Catholics have a chance to grow in their faith, offer their many gifts to the church and, when necessary, to learn from their mistakes. Ms. Cervantes spoke with America by phone about her work.This interview has been condensed and edited.
What do you think it means to be empowered within the Catholic Church?
It is the recognition of the gifts that God has given you by people who are in power and who then allow those gifts to develop and to be put in the service of the community. I still appreciate the different people that recognized something in me. Somebody in a position of power needs to recognize you and value you and give you the opportunity to develop your gifts and to serve.
Sometimes you can try to do these things from a prophetic stance, from the margins. But too often you end up—this has been the case in my life on many occasions—considered a troublemaker. And sometimes you achieve what you want, and sometimes you burn yourself out. At those times, the power that you have may even disappear if you don’t deal with it in an appropriate way. It is like we say: How do you take up the cross without being crucified?
You learn to be more diplomatic in your prophecies, so that you are not alienated. One of the difficulties many Hispanic women face is that for years they have been obedient or diminished by men, by people in power. So when a Hispanic woman wants to be up front, people don’t know how to deal with it. It can be men; it can be Anglos; it can be Latinos; many times it’s the priest. They don’t see women as equals. So you have to really jump, and sometimes that becomes an awakening for the other side. But sometimes it is alienating.
That emphasizes the importance of the work you are doing to create those leadership roles. Ideally, you’re helping put more people in leadership who will understand what other people are trying to do who don’t yet have the power.
Yes. And over the years I’ve seen changes on the side of the women who are developing in their own ways and are continuing to grow, and I’ve seen changes from the perception of the people who are giving these Latino women more opportunities than in the past. So it is a two-way street. You cannot be empowered if there are not people who already are empowered who allow you to put your power in service.
Some of the structures in the church are impediments for Latino women, but in some cases it’s for Latinos, period. Racism is real, and so is ethnocentricism. People in power think: what we do and what we have been doing, that’s the only way it goes. For example, many times Catholics ask for alternative models of ministry, to do something that responds to the signs of the times. Often suggestions from a person from the mainstream culture are welcome. But sometimes when we respond creatively to serve our community with our own needs, it is interpreted by others as dividing the church. So there are macro issues that still must be dealt with in the church in relation to the presence of a very significant number and proportion of Latinos in the Catholic Church.
In what ways does your work help empower Hispanic women in the church in particular?
In many of our youth ministries we work with equal numbers of men and women, which is in contrast to much of the catechetical environment, where women most often outnumber the men. Because of this gender balance, we can work on the relationship between men and women. And because of the age level at which we focus our ministries (20s and 30s) and for which we train other ministers, our work for the church also serves as a really good effort to balance the roles at home, to eliminate the traditional machismo and to help families form a healthy way and to educate their children in different ways.
What are some lessons that come from the experiences of Hispanic women in the church that the church at large could learn from?
I would say their model of commitment. Many come from a very strong faith and a very strong conviction that God is calling them—an awareness of vocation and of the mission, the awareness is that they have been called by God to do X, Y, Z—even when they don’t have too much space and they need to try to open the spaces. I think that’s the most important part, and that has been the struggle of the immigrant church. For many years immigrant groups struggled to have a Mass in their language in the main church, to move the Mass from the additional room or from the basement into the main church, and then to start something for the religious education of their children.
From the perspective of the immigrant, you arrive thinking that the church is your mother. That’s our belief, and for us the church is universal. But when you arrive in this country, many times the church is not universal. It often feels like the church doesn’t want you or doesn’t allow you to be, and so you struggle just to be church, just to be considered as equals. This feeling has been strong in Hispanic women. But a similar feeling has also grown in the Mexican-American community. Many of their voices have not been heard, and so many of those personalities ended up becoming extremely introverted and often very much hurt inside, or very passive or even very angry.
In Latin America or in other countries, people are dying because people are killing them, but here it’s a psychological killing, a spiritual killing. You destroy the person if the person cannot be himself or herself. And I think that has been the experience of the Latino community, but that recently has changed for the better. I can see that in the 30 years that I have been in this country that in some environments, like here in California and many other places, that has changed. But in places where the presence of the Latino is just beginning, what we experienced here 30 years ago they are experiencing now. Culture shock is still a problem. I think that the effort of the Cultural Diversity Secretariat in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to try and foster skills for intercultural relationships is very, very important because in certain ways you become hypersensitive and sometimes even though the other person doesn’t want to hurt you, you are hurt.
How do you see the role of Latinos in the church continuing to grow and change in years to come? And how, in particular, might women play a role in that?
In the Latino community many of the people who work in ministry and have advanced studies are men who went to the seminaries for some time. They didn’t finish their course work or they didn’t get ordained, but they got all the formation in the seminary. So formation at the professional level is uneven in women and men in the Latino community. More women are studying, but it is very different than in the United States, where the religious sisters really pushed themselves in their training after Vatican II.
In our programs, young people work to empower other young people, which provides interesting challenges. The work often involves weekends or overnight trips. It’s a heavy load. So what happens is that many women, when they have the second child, disappear from leadership positions.
It is very difficult to have young women with children succeed in positions where they work with their peers. Many choose catechetical or liturgical roles at that point. It’s easier to balance the home and children in those roles. When they are older adults, they have more time, but at that point it’s difficult to return to ministry with young people.
As more women continue their studies and more positions are open that allow women to work for the church and balance that with their home situation, their presence will be higher. In some areas, like small faith communities, social action, visiting the sick, a lot of women are participating, so it really depends on the areas.
One of the very important things, and that people continuously say to us women who are teaching courses or who have a leadership role, is, “We really appreciate that you are in front of us.” Just the presence of somebody that has similar challenges and has children and has been in a similar situation and that continues to be in a position of power allows other women to see that and say, “Okay, I can do it.” And if they cannot do it at a certain time, they can say, “I can return.” I think that is very important, and that’s why we try hard to maintain gender balance among our trainers. It’s not always easy.