We are the Americas

Distinguished Alumna Address by Daisy L. Machado

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Read the introduction by Santiago O. Pinon, "Daisy Machado, Spelunker"

The Alumni/ae Council presented the Distinguished Alumna Award to Daisy L. Machado on July 11. Ms. Machado is Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary. She earned her PhD in 1996 from the University of Chicago Divinity School as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar.

The award commends her, “For excellence in teaching in and beyond the classroom; for tenacious, transformative leadership in theological education; for inspiring and guiding emerging scholars, especially through the Hispanic Theological Initiative; for wise advocacy for Latino/a faculty members; for advancing the historical and conceptual study of borderlands; and for courageous dedication to those who are forgotten and pushed aside, to Las Desaperacidas.”

I am deeply honored to be the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Alumna Award. I am aware of the cloud of witnesses that surround this event today and of the colleagues who went before me, so let me say to all who made it possible for me to stand before you, ¡muchas gracias!

Since this award recognizes “the varied forms of service and ministry” I’d like to share with you a bit of the story of my journey that has led me to this place. To share our stories is to build bridges, as Chérie Moraga, Chicana writer and activist, reminds us. So let me begin: I was born in Cuba, raised in New York City, more specifically in “Crooklyn” as Spike Lee has called that large and interesting borough.

I am not part of the first great wave of Cuban refugees that began arriving in the early 1960s at the port of a then small insignificant southern city called Miami. My father and mother did not flee Castro but fled poverty and unemployment and government repression. And like the millions of immigrants from Europe before them, they believed that in the United States life would be different and perhaps even better.

I am also not Roman Catholic. I am a second-generation Protestant. My parents chose to leave the Roman Catholic tradition and became Protestants, specifically Pentecostals, as a result of the great waves of missionary work done by many North American denominations in the Caribbean throughout the early to mid-twentieth century. They represent that early generation of new “converts” to Protestantism becoming part of what many missionaries called the “spiritual harvest” that resulted from the great missionary enterprise that began in Puerto Rico in 1899 right after the Spanish-American War. But there is more.

I was ordained in 1981 in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where I have belonged since 1972. Through the decades, I have actively participated in that community called the Latino or Hispanic Disciples, and I consider the Disciples of Christ to symbolize my denominational identity.

Yet I am also representative of the ever changing and diverse world in which the Disciples (and all other church bodies in the United States) live where church membership has become extremely fluid. So, even though I profess to belong to a U.S. denominational body, I was not born in the United States. Even though I claim the Christian Church as my religious home, I was not raised a Disciples.

As a matter of fact, my father's mother practiced santería, which is the modern-day Cuban expression of the ancient Yoruba religion of the West African slaves who were brought to the Caribbean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (which I think complicates the current mainline interreligious dialogue that does not include or even consider Afro-Caribbean and other indigenous religions).

I have taught at two Disciples seminaries and served as academic dean in one of them. Through the years, I have served as a member of various national and regional boards of the Christian Church and even managed to preach at a General Assembly. However, I have always ministered in the margins of my denomination.

That is because I have always ministered in an urban context, which is not the place where Disciples were formed or where they have historically served. I have ministered to the economically disadvantaged and neglected communities of Latinos in Spanish Harlem, New York, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in southeast Houston, and in the north side of Fort Worth, Texas—all places that have been historically marginalized in our denomination and have been mostly invisible despite their demographic reality.

My ministry has taken place amongst people many of whom did not speak English; some who lived on public assistance; received food stamps; had children who belonged to urban gangs; had family members who were victims of urban crime; many could not read; others were considered “illegal” by the federal government; some were migrant farm workers; some came to this country fleeing the Contra Wars in Central America in the 1980s; most lived on salaries that were well below poverty level.

The congregations I have served struggled to keep open their doors, not because they were “dying” or losing members, but because the income levels of the people were not always sufficient to cover the expenses of an inner-city church. Most of these congregations occupied buildings that were abandoned by Euro-American Disciples congregations who wanted desperately to leave communities that were changing racially and ethnically.

Having given you this brief glimpse into my journey let me ask you a question: What does my story tell you about me and my community? If you have listened carefully you will have noticed that the history I shared with you is about belonging and not belonging; about centers and margins; about national identity and national rejection; about how others see me and my community and how they interpret our existence.

Fernando Segovia, New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University has described this reality of Latinx life in the United States as being “the eternal Other.” The Latinx community in this country is both citizen and foreigner, it has been conquered and colonized. The Latinx community in the United States is an imagined community, and by this I mean a community that has been created or imagined by those outside our community.

Let me provide a perfect example of what I am saying: The term “Hispanic” as a racial category was developed in the 1970s for purposes of the census. It is a political creation, a way to describe difference in race and culture. Prior to the invention of the term “Hispanic” all persons living in the United States who came from a Spanish-language culture/nation were categorized as “Caucasian.” But now all this has changed and as a result of the creation of this new category by the federal government the only place in the world where “Hispanics” exist is in the United States.

And so, while it is true that Latinx are a mosaic of pigmentation and racial mestizaje, while it is true that there is a distinctiveness to our cultures, once we enter the shores of this nation we are imagined by the dominant culture in particular ways that make us into an undefined mass—cactus or palm tree, we are all the same.

As a result, while the history of the Latinx community is in many ways similar to the story of all immigrants, it is also very different in particular ways. In reality, Latinx never stopped being “foreign” to the Euro-American citizens of this nation and this was made remarkably clear during this last presidential campaign.

It is this very paradox of belonging yet not really belonging where the history of Latinx can begin to be understood, not just nationally but also within our own denominational history. It is also where we need to begin our analysis of what this paradox implies for the future of the twenty-first century United States and for us here today, what this means for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as well as for our Disciples seminaries and Disciples-related colleges and universities.

This analysis is crucial for our denominational and our educational leaders for the following important reasons: 1) because a seminary-trained Latinx pastor will bring to the congregation a social capital that will help those congregants to better understand the culture and society in which they live ultimately benefiting the wider community; 2) because if we as Disciples pastors and educators are to provide a serious response to the reality of the Latinx presence throughout this country and in our denomination, we cannot ignore the pressing need for seminary trained ministerial leaders for that community; 3) Disciples-related colleges and seminaries have been called to serve the community through education which means that to value and promote inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality are ultimately issues of justice and stewardship.

The pressing need to fully engage and to include the Latinx reality in the work we do whether in the congregation, or in a national/regional office, or in a seminary classroom, requires that we make some conscious shifts. One has to do with how we talk about race, which must now mean to talk about more than just the black and white racial dichotomy that has become normative but is useful given the great diversity of the nation.

What this also means is that to talk about nationhood and citizenship now requires that we also analyze how the Latinx community has been historically imagined by the dominant culture as foreign or marginal and thereby made invisible while being exploited for its labor. And we must also consider and ask why still today this community rarely sits at the table where structural/institutional decisions are made.

I suppose it is this very marginal reality that makes it necessary for Latinx living in the U.S. to engage in daily border crossings. This is not only how we learn to survive but also how we are able to be who we really are and this is because these border crossings are not only about geography, but are also about language, culture, race, and religion.

Because the work of Latinx theology understands the diversity of our communities as normative and as an asset, our theological task is one that must seek to balance reason or skill development and social justice—it is faith and it is praxis. And this faith and praxis are intimately connected to the economic deprivation found in our barrios; it is intimately connected to the reality of mulatez as a racial category not yet understood in the discourse on race that goes on in this country; it is intimately connected to the critical examination of the true meaning of citizenship and the protection such citizenship offers.

This makes the Latinx scholar a border crosser, moving between the demands of her/his scholarship and the need to acknowledge and articulate the faith of our people, a deep and vibrant faith that has sustained and nurtured our communities despite the history of colonization, despite the poverty, despite the marginalization, despite the racism, despite the violence, despite the imposed status of alien/other.

I am glad to report that there are now several generations of Latinx scholars in theology who are claiming this voice as they share to their experience and the faith journey of their communities as an integral part of their academic work and of their contribution to the academy. We claim this right because we understand that if the theological education found in our seminaries has as its goal to prepare students to live, to teach, to minister in a diverse and multicultural world, then the experience, worldview, and faith journey of over 57 million Latinx cannot be ignored or kept in the cubby hole designated for “special problems courses.”

I truly believe that the Latinx community of the twenty-first century is in a very unique place in its historical journey. We are no longer a people who do not know and so we are using the learnings from our collective journey to begin to imagine ourselves.

If knowledge is indeed power, and history, as historian Joyce Appleby says, “exercises that power by awakening curiosity, stretching imagination, deepening appreciation, and complicating one’s sense of the possible,” then the Latinx community is boldly taking possession of that knowledge of who we are as a people by recovering the diversity of the history of both Americas, the one to the North and the one to the South. This recovery is really about the issue of power, the important power to imagine ourselves, the power to name and define ourselves, the power to embrace diversity as a gift and not a deficit.

By daring to free ourselves from the restrictions imposed by the ideological imperatives of an idealized history which has imagined us as the eternal outsiders, we will be able to overcome one of the most daunting hurdles of our journey as Latinx living in the U.S. By daring to imagine ourselves and refuse to be imagined by the dominant group, we will have contributed to our own liberation and we will have begun to establish a foundation upon which the coming generations of Latinx will build their identity and claim their self-worth.

It is this theological task that drives me, this is what fills my heart, and this is what keeps me doing what I have done for over thirty years and will continue to do whether in an inner-city church or in a seminary classroom or as I am now doing as the director of the Hispanic Summer Program.

Yes, there is still a long road ahead and I hope to continue to contribute and to collaborate with the many colleagues and friends in the Latinx communities around this nation who are raising their voices to say: We are more than illegals and political exiles. We will no longer remain invisible. We are the Americas. In our veins can be found the blood of people of all the colors and races of the Americas. We will not be defined as marginal, as other, as foreigner. 

¡Nosotros también somos Americanos! [We too are Americans.]

We are the Americas.