It is my contention that these many Latina/o Christian social justice pioneers form what may be called the Brown Church: a prophetic ecclesial community of Latinas/os which has contested racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States for the past 500 years.
As such, “Brown Church” is a multivalent category, encompassing ethnic, historical, theological, spiritual, and socio-political dimensions. In every instance of racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States over the centuries, the Brown Church has arisen to challenge the religious, socio-economic, and political status quo. Collectively, the Brown Church has challenged such great evils as the Spanish Conquest and Spanish colonialism, the “sistema de castas,” Manifest Destiny and U.S. settler colonialism in the Southwest, Latin American dictatorships, U.S. imperialism in Central America, the oppression of farmworkers, and the current exploitation and marginalization of undocumented immigrants. The Brown Church has done all of this in the Name of Jesus. It’s also worth noting that the Brown Church has been comprised of an ecumenical body of Roman Catholic and Protestant followers of Christ who have worked both in cooperation with, and in prophetic witness to, official ecclesiastical authorities and institutions.
As a natural outgrowth of its prophetic advocacy efforts and praxis, the Brown Church has developed a unique and consistent body of theology based upon the Christian Scriptures. I call this Brown Theology.
Latinos are Brown. Not necessarily literally and phenotypically Brown, but Brown in terms of our racial and social positioning in United States history. Some, like myself, are literally Brown, but we Latinos come in all colors and hues—some are “moreno,” some are “güeritos,” some are subtle in between shades, and quite a few, like myself, are even Asian. In this sense, “brown” is symbolic of the cultural and biological mestizaje, or, mixture, in Latin America. In the U.S. context, brown also symbolizes the racial liminality experienced by Latinas/os as betwixt and between that of “white” and “black.” According to Asian American theologian Sang Hyun Lee, liminality “is the situation of being in between two or more worlds, and includes the meaning of being located at the periphery or edge of a society.”
Historically, most Latinas/os have lived on the margins of white American society and have experienced de jure and de facto racial segregation and discrimination. A few of us have always been granted token acceptance by white majority culture (think Ted Cruz), but in the language of settler colonialism theory, most of us have been excluded as the “exogenous other.” At the same time, our marginalization has often been less than that of our Black brothers and sisters. Our experience has been neither White nor Black--It’s been Brown.
As a metaphor for racial, cultural, and social liminality, brown should be considered a fluid “space” as opposed to any body of static, essentialized cultural characteristics. In this sense, “brown” is an apt descriptor for many cultural and ethnic groups in the United States—such as Asian Americans, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, and the fast growing race mixed race community-- who also find themselves in the liminal space somewhere betwixt and between that of Black and White. Brown is also a process, and certain cultural groups such as Italians, Greeks, Poles, Ashkenazi Jewish migrants, and Irish who have historically occupied this intermediate racial space have subsequently transitioned into whiteness, to one degree or another.
Brownness is a liminal social, legal, political, and cultural space which U.S. Latinas and Latinos have inhabited since the U.S.-Mexico War and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848. In exchange for the benefits of land (nearly half of Mexico), the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo reluctantly granted U.S. citizenship to former Mexicans, and with it, an implied “whiteness.” At the same time however, through legal and social convention ever since, the United States has denied full and equal membership to Latinos within the American polity. We have been wanted for our land and labor, while at the same time rejected for our cultural and ethnic difference. When economic times get tough, we become the disposable “illegal alien,” and are scapegoated and deported. We are wanted and unwanted. Necessary, yet despised. We are brown.
In the era of Jim Crow, for example, though we were legally defined as “white,” and therefore, technically exempt from segregation, our families and communities were nonetheless still segregated and rendered unequal through legal loopholes and unwritten social conventions. Our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers have experienced this social and political liminality for more than a century. Though officially U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president and have no equitable representation in Congress. Their political fate lies in the hands of a Congress in which they have no vote. They are “brown.” Wanted and unwanted at the same time.
In the present moment, though many of our families have lived in the United States for multiple generations, or even long before this land was the United States, we are painted by politicians and the media as a “Latino threat,” “unwilling or incapable of integrating, of becoming part of the national community. Rather, [we] are part of an invading force from south of the border that is bent on reconquering land that was formerly theirs (the U.S. Southwest) and destroying the American way of life.” According to the Latino threat narrative, we are perpetual foreigners, even if we were born in this country, and regardless of our citizenship status. This hateful narrative fuels white nationalist violence, and it inspired the El Paso massacre—the worst mass slaughter of Latinas/os in modern times.
As the Brown Church, we take solace in knowing that Jesus, our Lord, was also “brown.” As a working class, young adult, Jewish man living in the colonized territory of Galilee, he also occupied a space of social, political, cultural, and religious liminality.