It would be understandable for pastors of Hispanic churches in the United States to worry about new data showing that Latino identity is fading across generations. Wouldn’t that ultimately portend membership declines for ethnic congregations as fewer and fewer self-identify as Hispanic?
Not necessarily, says Ruben Ortiz, a Cuban-born pastor who serves a Florida church.
While some younger Hispanics are distancing themselves from the national origins of their immigrant parents and grandparents, as a new Pew Research Center has reported, they are at the same time fusing U.S. and Latin cultural heritage into a shared identity.
“It’s a blend — it’s a pan-ethnic Latino identity,” said Ortiz, pastor of La Primera Iglesia Bautista de Deltona in Deltona, Fla., and Latino field coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Ortiz said he’s seeing evidence of that shift in his own congregation and in the churches he visits from the Carolinas to Texas.
But the Pew study, which does not deal directly with issues of church and religion, suggests that major changes are ahead for Hispanic culture and identity in the United States.
Pew announced this month a tendency for Hispanic identity to wane as generations become distanced from immigrant roots.
Continuing rates of intermarriage and years of declines in Latin American immigration also are contributing to the trend, Pew said in the Dec. 20 survey titled “Hispanic Identity Faces Across Generations as Immigrant Connections Fall Away.”
“But another 5 million … do not consider themselves Hispanic or Latino,” the research organization said.
The closer those adults are to their immigrant roots, the more likely they are to identify themselves as Hispanic.
But the inverse is also true.
“And by the fourth or higher generation … just half of U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry say they are Hispanic.”
Pew added that there are challenges in studying the issue, including terminology.
While “Hispanic” and “Latino” have often been used interchangeably, their use and understanding can vary across different groups.
According to Ortiz, “Hispanic” is increasingly inaccurate because it refers to those descended from Spanish-speaking Americans. Portuguese speakers, who bring their own cultural and spiritual traditions, are omitted.
“Latino” is a better word because it includes all of those influences coming together in the U.S.
And most churches currently considered Hispanic should be able to adapt to that nuance in identity because they already demonstrate such flexibility in other areas, Ortiz said.
In his travels for the CBF, Ortiz said he has seen many congregations adjust to demographic circumstances. That includes using more English, or less, in worship depending on the setting. Latino congregations also seem adept at putting social justice issues ahead of theological differences.
“We are open to change and to adapt our culture to the actual needs,” he said.