NEW MEXICO November 2005
Soon America’s Hispanic community is expected to make up a quarter of the population with a thousand billion dollars of spending power. But still many millions are living in poverty without citizenship or many of their basic needs met. And there’s where America’s missionaries step in.
A couple of hours before the sun began its afternoon decline, with the huge New Mexican sky already bruised with tints of orange, I looked through a dust cloud thrown up by a passing pick-up truck, hoping that when it cleared, the local activist who’d asked us here would suddenly – as if by magic – appear.
She didn’t, and after forty minutes of waiting, I sensed we’d been stood up.
The name of this place was Parajito Mesa just outside of Alburquerque, a vast desert scrubland stretching towards the foothills of mountains, with no power, electricity, sewage, paved roads – yet it was where hundreds of mainly Mexican immigrant families had ended up living.
We were in New Mexico to look at America’s Hispanic community after a series of surveys predicted that over the next generation it would become the biggest community in the country – and one moving from impoverished migration to that of political and economic powerbroker.
On influential academic, Samuel Huntingdon, had caused a stir by arguing that the persistent flow of Hispanic immigrants threatened to divide the United States into two peoples – because America had been built on Anglo-Protestant values.
A battered van spluttered over the brow of a hill. ‘Can I help you guys at all?’ asked the driver.
I hesitated, not sure if he could. Then he pointed proudly. ‘Down there, see that’s our Church.’
Through the sun haze, there was a stark biblical image. Three crosses made of tree branches bound together, and held upright by mounds of freshly-turned earth. Just back from them was a cream-brownish structure.
‘That’s a church?’ I asked incredulously.
‘Sure. Come and have a look.’
Stupidly, as we drove closer, I was assuming that our new guide Juan Houlguin was a Catholic. But the Protestant church turned out to be two shipping containers with a sheet roof between them and an old wooden table pushed up against the side as an altar.
There was a barren pragmatism about the whole scene.
A few years ago, it might have meant little. But in today’s America, Protestant evangelism tends to be linked to the right, a blending of religion and politics which makes many uneasy.
‘Ah here’s Pastor Larry,’ said Juan looking at dust swirling under the wheels of an approaching saloon car bearing a President Bush bumper sticker on the back.
Pastor Larry Scott was a tall, intelligent, weather-beaten man who was with the Church of the Nazarene, and he took us off to see the Quezada family, about a mile away.
The Quezadas came to America illegally thirteen years ago. They still have no papers and run a scrap metal yard of wrecked cars and live in a couple of trailers. Their electricity comes from a bank of car batteries. Water is trucked in in tanks from the city.
The family income, of about five dollars a day each, is way below the official poverty line – which means that the family matriarch Josephine Quesalda scours local churches for food and supplies.
When asked about her religion, Josephine shrugged. ‘We live how we can,’ she said.
Larry Scott was working out his Thanksgiving gifts. He wanted to abandon turkeys and hand out propane gas cylinders instead.
‘This is missionary work,’ he said. ‘People here are living at subsistence level. I enjoy it.’
‘But they’re mainly Catholic,’ I said awkwardly. ‘And you’re…’
‘We have the same Jesus,’ he said. ‘The difference is that the culture they come from is very authoritative. We aim to change that.’
It wasn’t until later, when we visited a local Hispanic charity, that it became clear just how highly charged this issue was.
‘After 9/11 the government stoked the fire fear,’ said Maria Lopez, who has been helping Hispanics for years. ‘They are trying to make terrorists out of Mexican workers. But we will stop it. Hispanics are now getting into every tier of government. We have Hispanic judges. Hispanic chiefs of police. There’s a feeling that our time has come.’
Not all Hispanics are immigrants. Many millions are descended from the Spanish conquistadors, their bloodlines running back to the Sixteenth Century. Loretta Armenta is one, a multi-millionaire who runs New Mexico’s telecom company.
Talk about US policy towards Hispanic immigration and she bristles.
‘No-one ever complained when immigrants came over from Europe,’ she said. ‘The Irish, the Germans, the Italians. They were applauded. They didn’t have problems with papers. What’s the difference between them and people from Latin America. Tell me that. They’re human beings, too.’
How much is policy driven by the religious right? I asked.
She swallowed hard, thought for a moment, then said softly. ‘It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to our country. I don’t carry my faith as a Catholic into my business. Nor should they. When you have a faith-based organizations, it’s very difficult for the general public to understand what’s behind it and any time there’s a hidden agenda, it’s not safe.’