Latina social justice exemplars to talk about in your next Bible study
Can I confess something?
When I led a young adults ministry group, I learned that Gen Z students are more engaged when Scripture comes alive—when the characters feel authentically relatable, the stories get messy, and its stories speak to issues young people are passionate about.
That’s true for me as well. This is why I experience disappointment when the stories of women like Miriam are overlooked and glossed over in Bible teachings.
The stories we tell, and the way we tell them, matter. The biblical narratives, the narratives of our cultures, our ancestors, our family, and our own life are all important for our personal, spiritual, and cultural identity formation. Consider the stories of characters whose roles and contributions tend to be diminished.
Given that Gen Z is the United States’ most diverse generation to date, and considering our nation's current cultural moments and movements, it’s little wonder one of the topics Gen Z is deeply invested in is social justice.
So perhaps we should think about how the context and the drama of marginalized biblical characters’ stories are relevant and empowering to the lives of your Gen Z students.
Ever wondered, “What are good Bible study topics for youth?”
Social justice issues are core concerns in Scripture. Thus, as we plan our youth Bible studies around today’s students, we can draw from plenty of narratives and characters who lived on the margins of their context. Miriam is a great Old Testament example.
Let’s look at the story of the Prophetess Miriam in Exodus 1 and 2.
Egypt is under the rule of a suspicious and tyrannical pharaoh, who has enslaved the Israelites and wants all newborn Israelite boys killed. He orders two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the baby boys they help deliver. But Shiphrah and Puah disobey and lie to him. Pharaoh orders genocide by having his people drown every newborn Hebrew boy in the Nile. We can imagine that some Hebrew families experience the pain of having their sons taken from them. Others, while trying their best to hide their sons, live in constant fear of being found out. Jochebed, a Hebrew mother, reaches a point of desperation when she is no longer able to hide her three-month-old son; so, she puts him in a basket along the reeds of the same river where other boys are being killed.
Enter Miriam, the boy's older sister. And what a sister! This girl is an accomplice to disobedient midwives and her law-breaking mother. She watches intrepidly over her infant brother as he floats on the riverbank of the Nile. Then, she intervenes audaciously as Pharaoh’s daughter sees her brother. Speaking directly to Pharaoh’s daughter, she cleverly offers a solution for the hungry baby. She goes back home and brings her mother to feed her brother. Miriam, a young, marginalized, and oppressed Hebrew girl persuades Egyptian royalty to trust her, and to trust her mother as a wet nurse—and her mom ends up getting paid by Pharaoh’s daughter to nurse her own son! This Hebrew boy Pharaoh wants dead now has Pharaoh’s protection and money. In this short part of the story, Miriam, a seemingly inconsequential Hebrew girl, brings disobedience, betrayal, and doom into Pharaoh’s very household.
Miriam’s prophetic acts of civil disobedience protect her brother’s life, ensure that he learns of his ethnic and spiritual Hebrew identity, and birth a new narrative for the people of Israel. A narrative of liberation.
Later in the story, as Miriam is reintroduced with the title of prophetess in Exodus 15, we get some information about what she’s been up to in the meantime. In the Bible, the main role of a prophet is to be a messenger for God. Miriam, Aaron, and Moses—this sibling trio are representatives of God, community organizers, and worship leaders! After the siblings and tribe leaders get Israel out of Egypt, Miriam and Moses lead the people of Israel in a jubilant song of praise and dance.
Miriam collaborated with her brothers and other Israelite leaders as they followed God’s plan for Israel’s liberation. She suffered the systemic oppression Pharaoh created, hoped for a better future for her people, was a prophetic messenger, and acted out of her God-given dignity.
3 Latina leaders to teach your students about
But Miriam’s example is not just a story in Scripture. There are women and men throughout history and in the present day coming together to work for social justice in many contexts. Drawing from my own cultural context, here are three Latinas who, like Miriam, acted prophetically, and whose examples can teach your students about Latinx history and social justice in the US alongside the story of Miriam.
The year is 1917. The setting is the US/Mexico border between Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and El Paso, Texas. Scared by a typhus outbreak in the region, the US Public Health Service establishes mandatory disinfection at the Santa Fe Bridge border facility. Mexican men and women who cross the border daily for work are humiliated and harassed by being forced to strip, be examined, and be sprayed with substances like kerosene. The chemicals used are so toxic that 27 people died from exposure while in a detention center in 1916.
Tired of inhumane treatment and other abuses, a young 17-year-old woman who worked as a maid named Carmelita Torres organizes fellow travelers to remain on the trolly that shuttled them across the border. Quickly, hundreds of travelers seize three other trollies and are joined by onlookers. The demonstration lasted through the next day as the protesters, most of whom were young women, demanded humane treatment. Unfortunately, this act of civil disobedience was not enough to end this inhumane and humiliating practice. US customs continued exposing Mexican travelers to dangerous pesticide baths for decades—until the 1950s.
Yet Carmelita’s act of civil disobedience reinforced her God-given dignity and that of her fellow travelers. Young women and men can affirm their human dignity at any age.
Engage your students
- What are your initial reactions to the stories of Miriam and Carmelita?
- What similarities do you see in the stories of Carmelita and Miriam?
- Where do you see injustice in these stories?
- Where do you see God working in these stories?
Before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education declared public school segregation to be unconstitutional, a precedent was set with Mendez vs. Westminster. In 1944, 8-year-old Silvia, the daughter of a Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother, was denied enrollment at an elementary school in Orange County, California. Silvia’s parents unsuccessfully appealed to the principal and school board.
In 1945, Silvia’s parents and four other Mexican-American families filed a lawsuit against Westminster and three other segregated school districts in Orange County. In 1946, the judge ruled in favor of Mendez and ordered those school districts to stop segregating students. As a result, later that year the state of California outlawed segregation in all its public schools. Influenced by her parents, Silvia later became an activist after retiring from nursing, teaching others about her story.
Engage your students
- What similarities do you see between Sylvia and Miriam?
- Think about the desegregation of public schools: how do you think your school experience would be different if schools were still segregated? Have you benefited from the activism of Silvia’s family?
- Sylvia’s activism consisted of telling her story. Think about the practices of witnessing or giving testimony: How are these two practices similar? What social justice story might you be a witness to or give a testimony about? (It does not have to be personal; it can be something you have seen or heard about in the media.)
- Do you think Miriam’s song can be considered a testimony?
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s gave us incredible social justice leaders in more than one sphere of activism. Some were church leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., community organizers like Dolores Huerta, writers like James Baldwin, and some led with music. One of the prominent folk singers of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was Chicana activist Joan Baez. During a time when singing about justice and freedom was not safe, Joan chose to stand for civil rights and in solidarity with those suffering injustice.
Baez sang at Dr. King’s March on Washington, stood with farm workers asking for fair pay in California, and was influential in desegregating the South. In 1969 she founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, which evolved into what today is the Resource Center for Nonviolence. Even after retiring from music, Baez continues to spread the message of activism. She now paints portraits of social justice leaders and donates part of the proceeds to various nonprofits.
Engage your students
- How are Miriam and Joan similar?
- What part can music play in social justice?
- Listen to Joan’s famous protest song, “We Shall Overcome.” What do you think this song inspired in people, or what do you think it was a response to? What do you think Miriam and Moses’ songs inspired in the people of Israel? What were they responding to?
- What song or music has influenced you, or your community or culture, in a positive way?
Engaging Gen Z students
Engaging Gen Z students may bring about more questions than answers. What is Gen Z passionate about? How ethnically diverse is Gen Z? What does Gen Z find relevant? Will Gen Z change the world?
Yet when young people’s ethnic and cultural identity is honored—and they are taught about social justice in the Bible and in history—they will grow in the awareness, prophetic imagination, care, and courage to live into their identity as faithful social agents for change.
Tweet this: Biblical narratives, the narratives of our cultures, and our own life are all important for young people’s identity formation. Read about 3 Latina leaders whose prophetic examples can enhance your Bible teaching with students.
Photo: Joan Baez, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 1963
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