Hispanic Heritage Month: Interviews give insight into joys, challenges for Hispanic Catholics here


In observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed in the United States from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 each year, The Catholic Missourian is conducting interviews to shed light on the experience of being Hispanic, Catholic and American.

“Hispanic” generally refers to people who came from Central or South America or the Caribbean, or whose ancestors did so, and who speak Spanish as a first or main language.

Their collective heritage spans numerous nationalities, cultures, dialects and places of origin, encompassing roughly two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere.

Here are synopses of two of the interviews:


Out of the many

Erick Chinchilla, 29, has always felt right at home in Milan in northeastern Missouri, where he moved with his parents as a child.

He remembers little about life in Honduras, where he was born.

He does not recall the transformation of St. Mary Parish in Milan from a small rural parish made up mostly of descendants of its Irish founders, into a multiethnic community after the opening of a large food-processing plant nearby.

“In Milan, both sides have united, and that has been very special,” said Mr. Chinchilla. “To me, it’s one! There really is no distinction. To me, it’s just Catholicism. That’s one of the things I find really beautiful.”

Within that unity is a mixture of cultures.

“Whenever we have a picnic, you have people bringing food from different countries,” he said, pointing to the diversity of nationalities and cultures that are known as “Hispanic.”

“Hispanic culture is such a big umbrella,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Mr. Chinchilla is working as an intern with the Jefferson City diocese’s Office of Faith Formation, through the University of Notre Dame.

His father, Deacon Jeronimo Chinchilla, assists the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Milan.

Mr. Chinchilla talked about how Catholics have been baptizing cultures all over the world ever since Jesus said, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations.”

“The Catholic Church is always incorporating what’s good about any culture,” said Mr. Chinchilla.

This, he noted, has strengthened the Church while benefitting millions of Hispanic people all over the Western Hemisphere.

“The truth is, the Church gave us a lot,” he said. “And here in the United States, Hispanic culture can help bring back the idea of communal, family-oriented values that have been cherished from the beginning but now seem to be disappearing here.”

At the same time, Hispanic Catholics in this country have access to robust teaching and catechesis that appeal to the mind as much as the heart.

“From what I’ve seen, many Hispanic adults here benefit from developing a more mature understanding of their faith,” said Mr. Chinchilla.

He finds it interesting that as long as he can remember, St. Mary Parish has been evenly Anglo and Hispanic.

“Pretty much half-and-half,” he said. “But now, you’re seeing a large influx of people from (the Democratic Republic of) Congo in Africa. So now, it’s getting to be one-third, one-third, one-third.”

“And isn’t that beautiful!” he said. “I hope we can minister to them, as well. It’s essential for us to help them keep their faith. That’s hopefully something we as Hispanics have learned from our own experience.”

He noted how many children of Hispanic immigrants in this country have not studied Spanish and now speak it as a second language, while their parents often speak it as a first language.

“I would say that if I’m blessed with children, I would love to have them be able to speak English and Spanish,” he said. “For me, being able to speak and understand Spanish has opened so many doors.”

But that’s not what’s most important to him.

“The thing that is so wonderful about these Hispanic countries is that their faith is such a big part of their culture,” he said. “Our culture really is founded on our faith. It’s that simple.”

“If that is ever lost, it would be truly upsetting,” he said.

That’s another place where he sees Anglo and Hispanic cultures benefitting from each other.

“In many Latin American countries, people are often Catholic out of culture, out of tradition,” he said. “But many of the people who are Catholic here in the U.S. are Catholic out of conviction.”

“The people who have chosen to remain Catholic here have done so because they recognize the veracity of Catholicism,” he stated.

Mr. Chinchilla sees an opportunity to help Hispanic Catholics hold onto and grow more deeply in their faith, by giving parents more learning opportunities.

“They’re the ones who take the children to church, who are teaching the faith to the kids, who are answering their kids’ questions when they come up,” he said.

He recalled that while he was growing up, his parents were filled with faith but were not equipped to answer some of the serious questions and doubts that he eventually brought to them.

“It’s not that they didn’t want to answer my questions,” he said. “But they could not give answers that they had not first been given.”

“We can’t just depend on, ‘Of course, my children are going to be Catholic,’ anymore,” he asserted. “We know there are many other options for them — including the option to decide to have no faith at all.”

Mr. Chinchilla is convinced that no one would leave the Catholic Church if they really understood the truth that it upholds with its teaching.

“We have it all!” he said. “We have the truth. We have Jesus! Who would rationally give that up?”

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Mr. Chinchilla suggests praying for greater unity throughout the Church, “for us becoming one, just as Jesus and the Father are One.”

“A unity that doesn’t erase our identities but celebrates them,” he added.

“I am going”

Alma Sandoval was driving from Marshall to Kansas City in a snowstorm for an appointment regarding her immigration status.

“If I missed this meeting, I could lose my employment status, my job, everything I’ve worked for,” she recalled.

She plodded apprehensively through falling snow and the slushy slop on Highway 65 while 18-wheelers flew by.

“There was a lot of fear and apprehension at that point,” she recalled. “I was driving like a turtle.”

Then she remembered the prayer her mother would pray in Spanish whenever leaving home: “In the name of God, All Powerful, may we get to our destination well and return well.”

“It was a lightbulb moment,” Ms. Sandoval recalled. “I felt covered in warmth. I felt like she was there with me. I even looked over to the passenger seat to make sure.”

Ms. Sandoval’s mother, Alma Quinteros, who had brought her to the United States as a toddler out of fear for her safety, had died this past February.

“I don’t feel like myself anymore,” said Ms. Sandoval, age 26. “My mom was such a big part of my identity. She was my best friend. It’s been very hard without her.”

El Salvador’s bloody civil war had ended several years before Ms. Sandoval was born in 1996, but the effects were still evident.

Her parents were working in public-safety roles when they started getting anonymous threats against them and their daughter.

“Mom was the first to jump,” said Ms. Sandoval. “She wanted us to be safe ... for me to be safe.”

Ms. Sandoval’s mother didn’t have everything she needed in order to obtain a visa and flee to the United States.

“She used to tell me how she prayed,” said Ms. Sandoval. “She prayed the night before she went to the consulate: ‘If something is going to happen to my daughter if we stay here, please let us leave, please grant me the visa so that I can take my daughter to safety.’”

The next day, she applied for and was granted a visa.

“She immediately started arranging for her and my grandmother and me to move to the United States,” said Ms. Sandoval. “Because in her eyes, that was God’s way of telling her, ‘Yeah, your daughter’s life is in danger.’”

They settled in Los Angeles but didn’t stay there.

“There was a lot of open gang activity back then,” Ms. Sandoval noted.

The day after a gang-related shooting outside Ms. Sandoval’s grade school, her mother started planning to move again.

They knew some fellow Salvadorans who had settled in Marshall in north-central Missouri.

“They helped us move,” said Ms. Sandoval. “I turned 8 here that year.”

Her mother became active in the community and in St. Peter Parish, spending much of her spare time and energy helping people file their immigration paperwork.

“My mom loved helping people,” said Ms. Sandoval. “My mom loved helping the community. That was her personality. That’s who she was.”

Together, they proudly represented El Salvador in local and diocesan multicultural celebrations.

“Mom made the costumes for everything,” said Ms. Sandoval. “She was active in a lot of stuff, and I used to be with her.”

In adulthood, Ms. Sandoval bought a house, invited her mother to live with her, and convinced her to retire due to declining health.

One night, Ms. Sandoval was leaving for work when her mother had a sudden asthma attack.

Ms. Sandoval called 911 and did everything she could to help, including CPR.

“She told me three times between breaths, ‘Estoy iendo’ — ‘I am going,’” Ms. Sandoval recalled.

“I think she was ready,” Ms. Sandoval added. “Even though it hurts, I tell people I’m grateful because she’s not suffering anymore.”

Amid bouts of anxiety, Ms. Sandoval pulled back from her community.

“I haven’t been active in church,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t believe,” she quickly stated. “I just don’t feel like myself anymore. I feel like I’ve lost my purpose.”

She longs for the spiritual certainty that was her mother’s lifeline.

“Mom always had the biggest strength in believing,” she said. “Everything she ever did, she entrusted to God.”

For Hispanic Heritage Month, Ms. Sandoval suggested that everyone pray “for everything you currently have, for everything you ever fought for, everything you ever struggled with and saw your way through — to keep that in your life.”

“Be grateful for your family, for friends, even the most meaningless little items that bring you joy. Be grateful!” she advised.