Latin American Liberation Theologies

An essay I wrote on liberation theology and its importance in Latin American culture. This is the basis of all my classes and hands-on learning excursions in Mexico. Sorry about any mistakes!

Latin American liberation theologies are integral, but sometimes overlooked, components of Christian theology that realize the important of salvation in life and demand action to overcome oppression of all peoples on Earth; liberation theology therefore provides global society with necessary lessons about inherent human rights and the value of all life. Latin American Theologies first began to take shape as a result of the violence and oppression, especially towards people of indigenous descent, that was plaguing Latin American in the twentieth century. Civil wars, dictatorships, and United States military intervention were all catalysts for the human rights atrocities committed over many years against Latin American people. As a result of the Spanish Conquest four hundred years prior, the Catholic Church had a powerful role in Latin American society as these various atrocities were being committed in modern times. Many priests and other members of the Catholic Church were doing very little and sometimes nothing to combat the violence and save the lives of those being slaughtered and oppressed. The message that many received was that the Catholic Church simply did not care about society’s most oppressed people occupying the lowest social classes. However, some priests, nuns, and laypeople began to have serious moral misgivings about the Church’s neutrality (and sometimes support) of the violence; at the same time, the Catholic Church was facing huge amounts of criticism that on a global scale, it catered to the wealthy and supported archaic social ideals. As a result of the criticism coming from both inside and outside the Church, the Second Vatican Council took place from 1962-1965 to uncover ways in which to make the Catholic Church applicable to modern people dealing with modern social problems. The Medellin Council followed in 1968, and set out a plan that demanded that all Christians work for to end oppression and fight for the rights of all people.

At their core, Latin American liberation theologies believe that God loves the poor and wants them freed from their oppressed and impoverished lives on Earth. Because God made the Earth for everyone, every person has an equal right and responsibility to use and protect the gifts that the Earth has to offer. This means that a poor person in the developing world deserves to use the land in the same way that a wealthy person in the developed world chooses to do. In “Resisting Imperial Peace,” Hopkins writes that, “…since the same God made everything and everything made is both part of God and part of each other, then stewardship suggests an equal participation in all of creation” (Hopkins 13). There are two important points in Hopkins words: the first that God made everything, including every human being; the second that God expects an equal participation with what He has created. Because of oppression, this equal and shared participation with the earth is not possible and is therefore not allowing the earth to fulfill its purpose. The situation seems dire, but another important part of liberation theologies is the belief that Scripture advocates taking action against this oppression. Therefore, this oppression and unequal allocation of the earth does not have to be accepted.

Liberation theologies advocate action against oppression, as long as this action occurs within Christian boundaries. Furthermore, the action must lead to eradicating oppression and poverty and realizing the equal value of all human life. Before liberation theologies, there were many religious laws that had to be followed if a person were to have any chance of achieving salvation after death, which means a life of happiness in the presence of God for eternity. However, many of those laws did not take into account the situations that people were facing and the decisions they had to make within them. This was a large part of the criticism that the Catholic Church received before the Second Vatican Council. Padre Angel said, “When religious thinking does not take into account human conditions it becomes a law that is unchristian.” (Padre Angel Sanchez 29/09). This is a fundamentally important idea to liberationist theologies, because there must be an understanding of the social environment to understand the people within them. For example, it is not Christian for the Catholic Church to condemn abortion as a mortal sin when a woman terminates her pregnancy because she is starving and does not want her own child to be a victim of starvation. The real sin in the situation is why that woman is being denied a fundamental human right: the right to nutrition and health. According to both Gutierrez and Padre Angel, Christian action is the most important part of being a Christian. So in the example of the starving woman, people have a responsibility not to condemn that woman, but to discover the root causes of that hunger and take action to eradicate that problem. It is not enough to have faith in God; you must also take action to support and act out that faith, which according to Gutierrez is a commitment to the lives of other human beings. By reading Scripture through a liberationist lens we now know that God wants people to fight back against oppression so that all people may live a fully human life.

Liberation theologies are important because they go beyond the abstract idea of salvation after death. They do not lock people into the idea that they must suffer for their entire lives in order to someday live a happier life once their physical lives have ended. Before liberation theologies, many impoverished people believed that this is what God wanted for their lives. As a result, many of the people living within the most difficult physical situations on earth also had to emotionally deal with the idea that they had somehow earned the difficulty of their life. In other situations, women were convinced they deserved to be beaten or raped, because that was God’s plan. Xochitl Ramirez talked about how this ideology was a large part of her family and community, and was used to advocate her family not supporting her when she left her abusive husband. There existed a general acceptance in her community that God had made women to serve men, and part of that was accepting whatever treatment men gave to their women. However, this means that God intended that for some women, they should suffer throughout their lives. Liberation theologies showed people that God never intended the world to be a place where their lives were meant to consist of unending suffering. “For Christians, Jesus came so that all can have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10)” (De La Torre 11). An abundant life should consist of more than feeling oppressed by society at large. A truly abundant life should allow people to make decisions for themselves and their families, to receive an education, to be healthy, and to be recognized by all people that they are fully human.

Once action has been taken in order to fight for equal rights, the theology of the liberation must begin. Reflection on one’s beliefs and actions is required for liberationists, and is a key component according to Gutierrez: “Theology is a reflection – that is, a second act, a turning back, a reflecting, that comes after action. Theology is not first; the commitment is first. Theology is the understanding of the commitment, and the commitment is action” (Gutierrez 24). To me, this self-reflection is one of the most impressive and powerful components of liberation theologies because it acknowledges that society and its people are constantly being reshaped and changing as a result. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he questioned and challenged and pushed them in order to help them fully understand and grasp their own beliefs. Liberation theology does the same thing today – it forces us to observe and act and then figure out if that action was right. This is why liberation theologies are different; every situation requires a different response. “Whatever liberation looks like, it can only be determined by he people living under oppressive structures” (Gutierrez 47). It makes us analyze the world, and our actions that affect the world and the people in it. Therefore, liberation theologies continue the work that Jesus himself did. However, liberation theologies have a specific goal, and that is liberation: “Although the common starting point of theological reflection is the existential experience of the marginalized, the ultimate goal remains liberation from the reality of societal misery” (Gutierrez 47). This is also reminiscent of the work of Jesus, whose major goal was to show everyone the love of God and bring salvation to the earth. Again, a goal of liberationist theologians.

One of the biggest questions that often leads to the greatest criticism of liberation theologies is if God is for the poor and oppressed, does he hate the wealthy and privileged? I think that a superficial study and understanding of liberation theologies could easily lead people to that conclusion. However, after studying liberation theologies for the past few weeks I do not think that God loves the wealthy any less than he loves the poor. However, I do think that the Bible, specifically the Gospels, focus on the actions that Jesus believes human beings should take in regard to those less fortunate than ourselves. I believe that Jesus calls people, especially the wealthy, to recognize their privileged place in the world and treat all others with respect. Gutierrez writes, “If faith is a commitment to God, and human beings, it is not possible to live in today’s world without a commitment to the process of liberation. That is what constitutes a commitment today” (Gutierrez 25). I think that this is ultimately the message that Jesus wanted to send to people – you are only truly a Christian if your actions advocate for the equal treatment of everyone on earth. It is therefore what a person possesses, whether they are wealthy or poor, but the choices that they make in regard to the lives of others are important. In American schools, we are taught about times in history when one group of people decided that another was less human, or inferior. Personally, when I was taught about inequality in school I learned about the original American colonies, slavery/the Civil Rights Movement, and the Holocaust. While the treatment of people in all of these situations was atrocious, the attacks and genocides on people in Latin America were no less horrific. Therefore I hope that more Americans learn about the events leading up to the birth of liberation theologies, because only learning about atrocities against Western people propagates the idea that the Western world and its people, culture, and histories are most important. Liberation theology is therefore so important for all people to understand, because it values the lives of all people, regardless of differences.

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Favorite Photos (so far)

Sunrise outside my bedroom window in Cuernavaca

Sunrise outside my bedroom window in Cuernavaca; couldn’t think of a better view to wake up to

Clouds in Cuernavaca when Hurricane Rachel was on the Pacific Coast

Crazy clouds in Cuernavaca when Hurricane Rachel was on the Pacific Coast. We got heavy rains and frequent thunderstorms, but no damage

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The colorful base of a church in Puebla

The colorful base of a church in Puebla

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Young girl playing in bubbles on a street in Puebla

Dona Irene, an extremely strong woman living in Amatlan, sharing her life and work with us. She farms her corn field herself and makes homemade tortilla with the corn she harvests each year

Dona Irene, an extremely strong woman living in Amatlan, sharing her life and work with us. She farms her corn field herself and makes homemade tortilla with the corn she harvests each year

The mountains surrounding the village of Amatlan

The mountains surrounding the village of Amatlan on all sides. Creative project when I’m home: creating a panoramic photo of Amatlan’s mountains

A different type of mountain - an ancient volcano framing one part of the city of Puebla

A different type of mountain – an ancient volcano overlooking one part of the city of Puebla

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Sitting on top of an ancient pyramid in Teotihuacan

Sitting on top of an ancient pyramid in Teotihuacan. How are these crazy amazing structures still standing?!

The colonial city of Taxco - full of Spanish influence and silver goods, watched over by a statue of Jesus

The colonial city of Taxco – full of Spanish influence and silver goods, watched over by a statue of Jesus

Lucky shot - a man happened to be driving by me while I was sitting on the ground with my camera and both the light and relflection of the motorcycle hit the water just right... How often does that happen?

Lucky shot – a man happened to be driving by me while I was sitting on the ground with my camera and both the light and relflection of the motorcycle hit the water just right… How often does that happen?

Colonial Spanish influence abounds in Taxco

Colonial Spanish influence abounds in Taxco… Am I in Mexico or Europe..?

All churched out - snapped this outside of yet another church (while I was probably supposed to be analyzing the art inside of it); playing with light and shadows

All churched out – snapped this outside of yet another church (while I was probably supposed to be analyzing the art inside of it); playing with light and shadows

The light, the colors, the detail of the benches... Couldn't resist sneaking out of class into the courtyard

The light, the colors, the detail of the benches… Couldn’t resist sneaking out of class into the courtyard

Another shot of something I found beautiful in the church courtyard

Another shot of something I found beautiful in the church courtyard

The columns and hand-carved wooden doors of the church... Moroccan influence possibly?

The columns and hand-carved wooden doors of the church… This is my version of analyzing church art

Seen in Amatlan - beautiful gate and beautiful flowers

Seen in Amatlan – beautiful gate and beautiful flowers that totally made my day when I lived with a family my second week in Mexico and could barely say “Me llamo Rachel” (essentially my name is Rachel)

Street art, not graffiti, in Cuernavaca. The street art is often political or extremely creative, and usually striking in its colors.

Street art, not graffiti, next to beautiful flowers in Cuernavaca. The street art is often political or extremely creative, and usually striking in its colors.

Flowers in a church - they were everywhere and I was in love

Flowers in a church – they were everywhere and I was in love

Couldn't stop looking at this striking, colorful church and took too many pictures to ever possibly go through

Couldn’t stop looking at this striking, colorful church and took too many pictures to ever possibly go through

Sunset on the beach, never wanted to leave

Sunset on the beach, never wanted to leave

Another lucky shot - How I was able to capture a little boy's hand going for a perfectly shaped bubble is beyond me

Another lucky shot – How I was able to capture a little boy’s hand going for a perfectly shaped bubble is beyond me

It's all in the details

It’s all in the details; seen streetside in Puebla

"In Your presence, I will live"

“In Your presence, I will live”

Reflection

“The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Viktor Frankl

There are times here in Mexico when I struggle. I am past the point of trying to convince others (and myself) that life abroad is constantly enjoyable and easy and never really a challenge. For me, living and studying in Mexico has been one of the greatest challenges of my life thus far, but one that I am so grateful for as it is opening my mind and heart and forcing me to question and acknowledge things I had never needed to confront before. The newest and biggest struggle – the color of my skin. I constantly struggle with the privileges that the color of my skin has granted me and so harshly denied to others. I have never been in a place where I am so clearly the minority, and I have never had to come to terms that in many places in the world, white skin is a representation of ancient and continuing violence as well as extreme social privilege. Although I did not request my race, the actions of people that came before me have great bearing on the way I am viewed here and force me to reexamine my own actions in this new community. Learning about the legacy of the Spanish Conquest and the political relations between my home country and Mexico has forced me to take a greater responsibility for the choices I make on a daily basis. So, all in all, I consider this struggle an opportunity for me to grow as a human being and to form connections with people I would not have otherwise known.

Some days, I find myself wishing that I didn’t have to hear about so much violence and aggression, about such long-lasting intolerance and dominating misogyny. But, even with challenging coursework and eye-opening excursions, the one thing that I hope to never lose sight of is how fortunate I am to be here, learning about things that were never taught to me in school. I never knew about the massacres of indigenous people, or the US-backed death squads in El Salvador, or political relations between the United States and Mexico. Even though it never becomes any easier, at all, to learn about the violent human-rights abuses that have occurred and continue to plague Latin America, I find strength through the experiences of others and hope for a more tolerant future.

Other frustrations are less difficult but nonetheless a daily challenge. There are days when I can’t understand a word in Spanish that I understood the day before, and other times when I come across words that are said to me every single day that I just can’t seem to remember. At some meals I have a thousand things to tell my Mexican grandmother, and at other meals I would rather crawl into bed and be alone for hours. Thankfully, the support system I have here is truly amazing. The staff at the house has never failed to say hello when they see me, my professors go above and beyond to make sure that I am healthy and happy and learning well, and the other students share in all the adventures. I have also been strengthened and blessed by the times when we have heard the stories of men and women here in Mexico who are passionately working for justice. There have been many times when, while listening to someone’s story, I have been overwhelmed by the strength they have displayed and I am re-motivated to join in their fight for a just society. In a Christian Base Community that we visited, the women told us that they share stories of both struggle and joy with one another because it is a way to strengthen the community individually and as a group. Participating in talks and gatherings like these have shown me that this is true.

Through all of these things, from dealing with the color of my skin to some difficulties learning Spanish, I am so incredibly grateful for my experiences living in Central America and the endless opportunities I have been given to learn and change and grow. I have given myself a daily challenge in Mexico, a challenge to find beauty in the little things. First, because I am so fortunate and truly grateful to be here, and this is a small way of giving back. And second, because I want to remind myself every single day how amazing it is to be a part of a community in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico; a place I did not even knew existed six months ago.

I will admit, when I first arrived in Cuernavaca I was extremely taken aback by the extremely narrow streets clogged with cars and the garbage filling the streets in the morning. The smells of this new city coming from the ravines during the afternoon heat were entirely different from New York’s smells, and everywhere I walked it seemed congested with people or animals or cars. When these differences begin to overwhelm me or I miss home or I lose touch with my reality here because I am so focused on returning home, I remind myself of the challenge I have given myself.

Tomorrow I will share some of my favorite photographs from life abroad thus far.

Much love, Rach

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Here in Mexico, I’m taking four classes – Spanish I and II, Latin American Liberationist Theologies, and a Women’s Studies course. Monday – Thursday I have Spanish class for three hours each morning. Twice a week, I have either the theology or the women’s studies class in the afternoon, but we also have mandatory excursions or a speaker or a discussion in the afternoons as well. I’ve really enjoyed this set-up and method of teaching, even though my brain sometimes feels as though it’s going to explode from trying to retain so much info, because I feel as though I’m still learning so much but I don’t just have to sit in a lecture hall. And everything that we read, discuss, listen to, and actually experience all connects and relates back to the themes of the program – social justice in Latin America.

One of my favorite excursions was to the botanical garden here in Cuernavaca. I still wasn’t entirely comfortable being here yet, but the garden really reminded me of home and it was so beautiful and peaceful. Dad, I was thinking of how much you would have loved to see all the plants! They were beautiful! I don’t think that any picture could really capture the garden’s atmosphere, but here are some of my favorite pictures that I took that day:

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Scary thorns that I kept my hands far away from

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With my roommate, Emily!

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I also have walked to the main market a few times, which has been another crazy experience here in Cuernavaca. I learned after my first trip that the weekends are probably not the best time to go to market if I value my sanity, which I do. The amount of people was truly overwhelming and combined with the sheer amount of stuff surrounding me, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. But I have bought some amazing fruit at the market, and I love seeing all the different foods spread throughout. The meat section of the market was especially shocking the first time because the meat was so open and on display. There were massive pig heads all over (I had no clue pigs were so large), and all the meat was being handled in the open. I don’t have any problem with this, it was just a huge change from the very ordered, completely pre-packaged products of American supermarkets. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of the meat (that is on my list of things to do when I go back), but I did get some pictures of the dry food and fruit.

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On the topic of food, someone please go to the Big One and eat a small coffee ice cream in a plain cone in my honor, I haven’t found ice cream nearly as good here (but let’s be honest, there’s no ice cream like the ice cream in the Shire). Tomorrow we leave Cuernavaca to go to a rural homestay for a few days in preparation for our four-week homestay which begins next week here in Cuernavaca. I will most likely not have internet access, but will be sure to update the blog as soon as I’m back in Cuernavaca.

Much love,
Rach

Cuernavaca – Where I Live

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First things first – I thought, in order to give more context to my experiences and what I’ll be writing about for the next few months, that I should post some pictures of where I live. So, here are some pictures that I’ve taken while starting to explore Cuernavaca over the past two weeks. Cuernavaca is a really vibrant city, with a lot of people and music and culture and very cool architecture. Needless to say that I’ve been having a blast taking photographs! The city doesn’t seem to have much of an “urban plan;” often I lose my sense of direction because of the winding streets and plazas that seem randomly placed in the middle of streets (fortunately I’m at the point where I recognize buildings and stores, so I can get around). The streets are narrow and remind me of Italy sometimes, so on busy streets there’s a ton of noise from the cars and it feels very small. I find the streets that are typically less busy so charming and a lot of fun to just walk along. At times I feel like I’ve taken a few steps back in time, especially when I think of Cuernavaca in relation to New York. There’s a lot less emphasis on technology (it’s very refreshing) and the buildings retain a sense of time and culture. There also doesn’t seem to be any sort of emphasis on needing the newest car models, so that gives the city an older sense to me as well. On the other hand, there are taxis everywhere, which is exactly like New York. But without further ado, some pictures of the city:

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-This picture is the view looking out from one side of the bridge that we cross to get from our neighborhood into Centro, which is the center of town. I love the mountains in the background and the bright colors. The homes continue into the ravine, which you can’t see, but it is a sign of wealth to be at the top of the ravine.

this is our "front yard" - the white door has a keypad that we use to open the door and off to the right there are tables and chairs. It's a shady, calming spot and always a great thing to see when we walk to the university for Spanish class in the morning

this is our “front yard” – the white door has a keypad that we use to open the door and off to the right there are tables and chairs. It’s a shady, calming spot and always a great thing to see when we walk to the university for Spanish class in the morning

This picture shows a shrine to Mary that was built into the rock. Shrines like this are really common throughout the city, as Mary is venerated by Mexican Catholics, and is considered a powerful role model for Mexican women

This picture shows a shrine to Mary that was built into the rock. Shrines like this are really common throughout the city, as Mary is venerated by Mexican Catholics, and is considered a powerful role model for Mexican women

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This is the statue in the middle of one of the most bustling squares in the city

This is the statue in the middle of one of the most bustling squares in the city

this is just a building in Cuernavaca, but I loved the colors and the lighting and the architecture :)

this is just a building in Cuernavaca, but I loved the colors and the lighting and the architecture 🙂

This is a building for the local government in Centro (the downtown or center of the city). I think the columns are so beautiful with the walkway underneath

This is a building for the local government in Centro (the downtown or center of the city). I think the columns are so beautiful with the walkway underneath

This is one of the really busy streets because on either side, under the overhangs, there are stores lining the street. It's thought of in kinda the same way that we think of a mall in the US. Because of the amount of people walking up and down combined with the amount of cars, I try to avoid this street.

This is one of the really busy streets because on either side, under the overhangs, there are stores lining the street. It’s thought of in kinda the same way that we think of a mall in the US. Because of the amount of people walking up and down combined with the amount of cars, I try to avoid this street.

 

All the pictures below are of the cathedral in Cuernavaca. There are actually three churches in the cathedral “compound” (for lack of a better word), and they are all so striking. I haven’t learned the entire history of the cathedral or why there are three structures, but I do know that for many services, the indigenous people weren’t allowed within the church during the service or had to go into a different church than the one in which the Mexicans of European descent were in. This racism within Mexico is one of the themes of my program and a huge focus of our classes and discussions. The racism towards indigenous peoples is one of the effects of the Spanish Conquest in Mexico, and is proof of how far-reaching certain events and ideas can be: the Spanish conquest occurred 500 years ago, but the racism exhibited then resonates today.

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The rest of the pictures are of some of the streets and things that just stood out to me when I was walking around. Everything here is so colorful! I love it!

 

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My roommate and I had our first scorpion visiter the other night. I’m very happy to report that no one was injured and I have extremely kind classmates who dealt with this situation since I was terrified just looking at it.

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