Redefining home: Challenges and opportunities in Latina/o youth ministry

Sticky Faith in multicultural contexts

Marcos Canales Image Marcos Canales | Jun 29, 2016

Photo by: Vincent Guérault

This article is part of a series on Sticky Faith in multicultural contexts, born out of a recent think tank with leaders from Asian American, African American, Latino, Urban, and Multiethnic ministry contexts. The goal of the gathering and subsequent research is to help ministry leaders better understand and respond to particular cultural realities of these groups, as well as to help leaders within culturally-specific contexts adapt Sticky Faith principles and practices in authentically contextual ways. Stay tuned for more in this series!

As I sat at the dinner table, I sensed Josue’s resentment.

He resented his mother for what he experienced as abandonment right after his parents got divorced, when she decided to immigrate to the US. Now that he had joined her here, he expressed his homesickness for Bogota, the only place that felt like home, and for the care of his grandmother who had raised him.

At the same time, I knew of his mother Gabriela’s enormous sacrifice over the last ten years as she worked up to three jobs, often in 14- to 16-hour shifts, to save enough money to bring Josue to the US. Josue would have preferred to remain in Bogota, but Gabriela had been desperately looking forward to reuniting with her son. Six months had passed since Josue had immigrated to the US, and although he found support in Gabriela’s church community, he still felt out of place, lonely, limited in his English, and relearning how to live with his mother in a foreign culture.

Responding to Gabriela’s call to come have a conversation with her son was more than simply a pastoral visit—it was an invitation to facilitate reconciliation and to explore the levels of trauma caused by migration. This conversation represents the realities and challenges present in accompanying Latina families in our ministries. Although not all Latino youth migrate to the US, the dynamics present in this story are part of a series of core issues imminent to Latino youth ministry.

A Latina congregation seeking to minister to Latino youth, their families, and the surrounding community must always take into consideration the following core issues:

1. The power of La Familia

Latino youth are torn between seeking their own good as individuals and the good of la familia (the family). For Latino youth, “unless mi familia is well, I am not well.” Phrases such as “No te olvides de donde eres!” (Remember where you came from!), or “Tú eres un Ramirez, y los Ramirez siempre…” (You are a Ramirez, and we the Ramirez always…!), further reveal the constant interdependence that shapes a Latino’s construction of self. Latino youth often find themselves caught between the message of the dominant culture, which promotes the self as a free agent, independent, autonomous, and private; and a more fluid, interdependent, relational, and embedded self defined by its relationships and contexts.

Latino youth often sense this tension in relationship to education. For example, Ruth was an exceptional student in her senior year who applied and was accepted to San Diego State University. Ruth’s parents were undocumented. They had migrated from El Salvador and they worked in janitorial services. They valued higher education as a path towards social and economic mobility, and they were very supportive of Ruth’s pursuit to become an engineer. Yet when Ruth considered moving to San Diego (only 2 hours away from Los Angeles), she began sharing with me the various issues that she was considering. Geographical distance would limit her availability to look after her younger siblings or to help her parents financially with her part-time income. For Ruth, studying full-time in a city two hours away presented limited immediate benefits for her family, so she started considering alternatives closer to home. Ruth decided that finding a full-time job while attending community college in the evenings would have a more immediate impact upon her family’s income. While in community college, Ruth heard about the recruiting efforts that the US armed forces were conducting locally and she began to explore the option of enlisting, primarily because she learned that her decision could grant a migratory status to her hard-working parents. Ruth’s story encapsulates this tension of the construction-of-self in constant connection with la familia.

Another layer of this tension is found in connection with the usage of language between first generation (Spanish dominant) and second generation (English dominant) Latinos. More precisely, the language difference between parents and youth of Latina families has revealed a role reversal in the parent-child relationship. Since Latino youth tend to be more English proficient, they tend to be the intermediaries between parents and teachers, parents and doctors, parents and police, parents and the utility company, etc. Since parents are dependent upon their children for translation, the young take on adult roles and responsibilities, often experiencing a sense of loss of childhood and/or adolescence, especially if these roles are not balanced with age-appropriate activities and interests. At the same time, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier argues that once this balance is found, Latino youth may use their roles as intermediaries as a platform to discern vocation, gifts, and a vibrant spiritual life.”

Latino youth ministry and the broader Latina church must seek to accompany Latina youth in the process of individuation through the discovery of their God-inspired vocation and gifts, while at the same time affirming and celebrating communal/familial life.

2. The complex reality of migration

Latino youth ministry often encompasses both US-born Latinos as well as youth who have migrated from Latin America. Although the first group may not have experienced migration on a first-hand basis, US-born Latinos are impacted by their family’s migration story. In some cases, Latino youth pastors and leaders have to walk alongside teenagers whose parents are undocumented and live under the constant fear of deportation. Often leaders step into family dynamics where an older sibling is undocumented and a younger sibling is a US citizen.

There are other times when Latino youth ministry becomes the place where a recently-arrived young person from Latin America finds the familiarity of the culture, language, and traditions that they miss so deeply and there receive a “cultural map” to navigate a new context. The reality of Latino youth ministry is that a youth group may be made up of all of the aforementioned situations and cases. This makes it imperative for a youth ministry leader to listen well and identify the unique migration stories impacting a local youth group.

Ultimately, these migration stories involve trauma and crisis for young people on multiple levels, including psychological, sociocultural, economic, spiritual, and educational impact. Latino youth ministry demands knowledge of various community immigration resources for awareness and advocacy before local, state, and national institutions.

It is worth noting that Latino youth, through the complexity of migration, inhabit a transnational reality in their relationships, consciousness, and cultural identity. This means that Latina youth continue to be connected to Latin America—via family members, media, music, entertainment, and consumption patterns—while at the same time engaging Latina culture and the broader dominant culture in the US. It is common for Latino youth to listen to corridos, bachata and hip-hop all in the same playlist; to watch El Mundial (World Cup) with as much excitement as the Super Bowl; to enjoy a novela in Univision while waiting for American Idol; and to travel between Los Angeles and Guadalajara, Washington, DC and San Salvador, New York and San Juan, or Miami and Bogota every other summer.

3. Leadership dynamics

Latina youth leaders are frequently unpaid church members. Paid youth pastors are few and far between, and those who are paid tend to be bi-vocational. This creates a different dynamic in the programming, development, and sustainability of a local Latino youth ministry. However, it does often allow for the strengthening of lay leadership and the expectation of involvement by the whole church body. This also models and allows youth to participate in various ministries at a very young age. It is common to see youth involved as members of the worship team, children’s ministries, and various forms of volunteerism throughout the church.

Although the Latina church is typically mobilized by the work of lay leadership, it continues to be impacted by patriarchy and hierarchy. More specifically, female Latina leaders often are spearheading the mobilization, organization, and execution of the church’s ministry. Yet I have heard of multiple occasions in which female leaders are given a preaching/speaking dress code when addressing the entire congregation, are invited to speak only to other Latina women and youth, and if married, are required to ask for permission from their husbands before accepting a speaking engagement. Interestingly enough, in the National Survey of Latinos in 2009 conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, when Latino youth between the ages of 16 to 25 were asked “if the husband should generally have the final say in family matters,” 61% of second-generation Latino respondents disagreed with this statement. Hence, Latino youth frequently point to the discrepancy of gender roles lived out in everyday life versus the context of a Latina church. During a week, a Latina teenager may see her mother’s entrepreneurial and managerial skills shine in the running of a small business, while on Sundays, she may see her mother’s church leadership role questioned or unsupported by male leaders.

Lastly, since el pastor (a senior pastor) holds so much influence and power in a congregation, Latino youth ministry regularly needs the blessing and support of a senior pastor to partner with parents and older church members. This is a key to the implementation of a Latino youth ministry fitted to engage, empower, and reach Latina youth while at the same time honoring the older generations.

4. Identity formation

Latina youth both inside and outside the church struggle to determine their cultural identity. On one hand, the threat of assimilation calls for the embrace of imposed categories that promote pan-Hispanic identities and narratives so that one’s mestizo diversity is not appreciated. On the other hand, the process of acculturation continues to give room for Latina youth to determine their own cultural identity so that the process of “code-switching” and inhabiting multiple cultures is done with a sense of self-worth.

As Juan F. Martinez suggests, the Latina church has a critical role in strengthening the identity of Latino young people as both Christian and Latino. Martinez affirms that the Latina church can create liberating spaces where young people are exposed to positive representations of Latino culture, while at the same time forming citizens of the divine Kingdom in a globalized world. As a result, Latino young people grasp their role as subjects (rather than simply objects) of mission both within and beyond the Latina community and church.

Recognition of the cultural identification processes and tensions present within Latina youth underscore the urgency for the Latina church to re-imagine and re-envision its present (and future) missional agenda. As Melvin Delgado notes, the development of an “integrative identity,” a bicultural and bilingual identity, allows for Latina youth to “socially navigate their way though life in an increasingly multicultural society.” This ultimately reshapes the agency of Latina youth not only within the Latina community and church, but also beyond.

It is important to note that this is not an either Spanish-only or English-only question—it is a both/and reality. Bilingualism is a reality lived among the Latina household. The church should create space for and affirm this reality. I have seen the liberating power of bilingualism so that the entire Latina family can worship together, while at the same time allowing a hospitable space for other cultures to engage in communal worship.

In part 2 of this series, we will explore practical suggestions that may address these critical issues present in the lives of Latina youth. We will also draw connections to Sticky Faith principles that are relevant in the context of the Latina church or in multicultural contexts involving Latino youth.

Action Points: where to begin

1. La Familia: “Que van a decir de nosotros o de ti?” (Saving face) is often the cultural value that gets upheld in Latina families. How much is the “que van a decir…” mentality a guiding force within your youth ministry?

2. Migration: What are avenues that you and your ministry can use to begin to listen to the migration stories present in your youth group?

3. Leadership: What leadership model is practiced within your ministry context? What leadership model will make more sense given the make up of your youth group?

4. Identity Formation: How much room is there to ask questions within your church and youth ministry about the ways culture navigation and code-switching impacts young people’s sense of identity?

Race & Culture Youth Ministry Posts

1. Throughout this work, I use the terms Latino and Latina interchangeably. I acknowledge along with Juan Martinez that Spanish is a gender-specific language and that the problem of gender inclusivity is not solved by this choice. However, unless otherwise noted as female or male, Latino and Latina will be used to refer to all people of Latin American descent. Juan Francisco Martínez Jr., Los Protestantes: An Introduction to Latino Protestantism in the United States (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011), Kindle Locations 63-64.

2. Joan Koss-Chioino and Luis A. Vargas, Working with Latino Youth: Culture, Development, and Context (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 60-63.

3. The name of the student has been changed for the sake of privacy.

4. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Listen to the Children: Conversations with Immigrant Families (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011), 55-56.

5. Ibid., 56.

6. National Council of La Raza: ; Catholic Legal Immigration Network: ; World Relief:

7. Pew Hispanic Center, "Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America" (Washington, D.C., 2009), Report.

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Marcos Canales Image
Marcos Canales

Marcos Canales, originally from Costa Rica, has been pastoring amongst the Latina community of the greater Los Angeles area for more than a decade. During this time, he has also worked with non-profit community organizations in the areas of youth development, mentoring, and immigration advocacy. He has also been a leading strategist for the Center for the Study of Hispanic Church and Community (Centro Latino) at Fuller Theological Seminary and an adjunct professor at various theological institutions. He received his Master’s of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and he loves to integrate Christian discipleship, social justice and Latina theology. Currently, Marcos is the pastor of La Fuente Ministries- a bilingual, intercultural, and intergenerational congregation of Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene. He is married to Andrea, who is a clinical psychologist, and they are raising Elias, their son, in the city of Pasadena, California.

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