Author’s Note: To my abuelas whose powerful-selves, including their voices, no quedan en el cajon de los recuerdos (are not in the box of memories). This writing does not intend to speak for the experience of all the abuelas and comunidades living in the liminal spaces of the dominant culture. Rather, this writing departs from the particularities of those of us doing theology Latinamente as it provides insight to the wider community and theological discourse. I have intentionally used a change of language from English to Spanish to highlight the language of the heart. The use of Spanglish is intentionally used as a metaphor of the in-between spaces that some of us live in our ordinary lives. I miss you abuelitas, con todo mi corazón.  

No señora mi’jita, no se me entristezca…usted me hace el favor y sigue adelante![1] Said one of my abuelas[2] with an affirming and strong voice every time it was not a good day at school. Even now, she still mentions those words when I speak to her on the phone for one-on-one teaching and reflections on life lessons or teologia del día a día.[3] Yes, teología de lo cotidiano![4] Because when I think about the first people who taught me about God’s love, my worth and voice as a woman of faith and my responsibility to act in love and justice in this world, I think of my abuelas. Loida Martell-Otero talks about abuelita theologies as the “theologies that we have inherited from our abuelas, madres, comadres, and tías[5]—that is to say the wise women of our faith communities.”[6] Oh, my abuelas. How much I miss them as much as I miss home, mi tierra de origen.[7] I can say that I have three abuelas. One of them is abuelita Ceci. She is my mom’s mother and I truly believe that she is in heaven and part of la comunidad de los Santos,[8] who pray for us in our journey. She is one of the most loving and genuine women I have ever known. The second is abuelita Nena. She lives in Bogotá and she is my father’s mom. I have never met someone with such strength, coraje y resistencia en esta vida.[9] She is the author of the words I mentioned above, as well as the most amazing sopitas de la abuela.[10] And the third is abuelita Anita. She also lives in Colombia. She is my tía-abuela, my father’s aunt and Abuela Nena’s Sister. Every time I go to Colombia with my husband and young daughter, she spends hours cooking the most elaborated and beautiful meal for us that always concludes with el rezo del Santo Rosario.[11] I look forward to hugging them one day again.

Abuela’s communal dimension of lo cotidiano, central to Latina theology

My abuelas represent not only part of who I am and where I come from, but their understanding and living out of lo cotidiano (the everyday life) is a “communal process” that is critical as a Latina doing theology within the dominant culture. In her text, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, Ada María Isasi-Díaz says that “our lived experience has pointed us in the direction of being theologians…we do theology because of, for, and with other [Latinas] Hispanic women with whom we participate in the struggle for liberation. Those with whom we engage in the process of accountability.”[12] Abuelas’ doing in the world is a process of accountability because of, for, and with those whom they actively participate in the everyday life. My abuelas are those who paved the way for “us,”[13] but also those who hold us accountable as we live out the everyday and build our work in relationship.

Thus, every time I start losing a sense of who I am or I get lost in the noise of the dominant culture, I think how much these women have had the power to hold their communities, so their people can find a place and name themselves in the world. These women have actively engaged con lucha en lo popular y lo sagrado de sus comunidades (with strength in the popular and sacred of their communities). “While their teaching were our starting points,”[14] they have led their communities “to critically discern aspects of [their] inherited traditions that have been colonized.”[15] Some of these aspects are their narratives, dichos, historias,bendiciones, oraciones, altarcitos, devociones, recetas[16] and other practices that powerfully happen in the arena of the unofficial and sometimes invisible spaces.I think that sometimes the name abuelita has been romanticized, isolated, and forgotten in some cases. I believe that my abuelas are sacred and also active agents and cornerstones in community building and the ongoing work around the table, la sala de la casa, las calles, la iglesia domestica, la oficina, la plaza de mercado,[17] and other places that have been transformed by the presence, the action and la voz de la abuela.[18]

My abuela (Circa 1982)

All of this is not strange to Latinas doing theology within the dominant culture. “The everyday is an important epistemological and hermeneutical category”[19] explored by Latinas and mujeristas doing theology. Martell-Otero calls the everyday “teología del hogar y desde la calle, a theology of the home and from the streets,”[20] because it is constructed upon the lived experiences of the people in the everyday. Ivone Gebara, claiming daily life as critical in the historiography of women, describes the lived experiences as “the fight to live today, to look for work, to do the cooking, to bathe children and do laundry, to exchange the gestures of love, to find meaning in life.”[21] In this sense, the daily practices of ordinary life, named as lo cotidiano, has become the locus theologicus of those doing theology Latinamente. The “theologies and philosophies “of the kitchen” are the center of Latina spirituality. We will not find Latinas’ stories in the great theological treatises of Christian history or the official ecclesial documents of the church. Instead we find them in their devotions, everyday spirituality and lived religious experiences.”[22] This everyday spirituality has been taught to their children and grandchildren with much love and remains alive in the sacred and invisible spaces of the heart.

Abuela’s communal dimension of lo cotidiano also has to do with mujeristas and Latina theologians’ questions of “ultimate meaning and survival.”[23] The reflection on the basic categories of life that calls for “more humane living.”[24] Every time I go to my abuelas’ homes in Bogotá, they ask me: mi’jita, ¿ya comió?[25] Before I respond they quickly make sure there is a place for me to sit and fully participate in the banquet[26] of their table. The dining and kitchen’s table represent the spaces where the most powerful and challenging discourses have been composed in the book of our families. For Mujerista theology, “survival has to do with more than barely living. Survival has to do with the struggle to be fully.”[27] Survival is to claim our own identity and “one’s vocation or historical mission”[28] in the world and to be an active participant of daily life, that through the lenses of my abuelas, to be fully, is to be an active participant of their tables.

Participatory-Action with Young Latinas

I have met las abuelas cubanas, dominicanas, puertorriqueñas[29]and many more in my own research and pastoral work with young Latinas and Latinos within the university setting in South Florida. I began listening to the faith identity and spirituality among college-age Latinas who self-identify as Catholics. I found that their faith was not separated from las historias de vida[30] or the social context of their resilient mothers and grandmothers. In my own research with Latinas who were born and/or raised in the United States, la familia,[31] particularly mothers and abuelas, played an important role as they shaped their identity as women of faith and as first-generation Latinas attending higher education.

Listening to the voices of the young Latinas as active participants, I learned more about the critical role of the abuelas in the teaching of the faith. At the same time, I learned that las abuelas were critical in young Latinas’ Catholic imagination as they associate their faith as Catholics with la abuela’s prayers, devotions to Mary and the Saints, and other symbols and rituals taught at home and unique to their countries of origin. I understood that they self-identify as Catholics not because they necessarily attend a local church or affiliate with parish life. Their identity is rooted in the practices of the daily, mostly learned and lived out at home, and in the ordinary, thus, these practices represent Catholicism. In addition, all of the participants mentioned that the religious attitudes, devotions, and practices taught by their mothers and abuelas come to mind in times of sorrow or need; moments when la voz de la abuela se hace presente (when the voice of the abuela is fully present). “My grandmother would take me to church with her, she would take me to any procesión [procession], she would always take me and teach me, teach me her beliefs, teach me how to pray. We always shared the same love for God. She was the first one to encourage me to always go to God as the first resource…always!”[32] Said Rosa remembering how much her abuela taught her about God. Milagros highlighted not only the importance of la abuela’s blessing but also how much she taught her to be fully at the service of her comunidad: “My grandma says always, ¡Que el Divino Niño te proteja! [May the divine child bless you!] what you have, you share it with the other!”[33] Candelaria also talked about the importance of memoria historica (historical memory) and resilience when talking about her abuela: “…The women in my family have always been very matriarchal and very powerful. She was one of them. She was a Cuban poet and she wrote me un soneto [a sonnet]. She knew that she was dying…she called me and said: Ya yo no puedo esperar más, ya yo me tengo que ír [I cannot wait any longer, it’s time to go]. I feel a lot of times that she is with me…”[34] Candelaria’s beautiful narrative on her abuela, along with the stories of the young women that I worked with, showed me there is also a sense of responsibility and duty when referring to las abuelas. Life journey is not live out in isolation but rather, it is the communal fruit of family prayer, efforts, and prayers of a matriarcado[35] that came before them and the larger community.

In the practice of participatory-action research, the one-on-one dialogue and conversation was enriched by a transition between English to Spanish, particularly when naming the religious practices, devotions, and dichos (sayings) that they learned from parents and abuelas. Spanglish, more than a colloquial term, becomes in this case a symbol of the spirituality of these young women and the language of a new category of theological reflection. The work with Latinas as active participants led me to explore language as an incarnational dynamic and cultural memory that embodies a deep spirituality, carrier of recuerdos (memory), and the lived experiences of a larger community. “The stories of our mothers and grandmothers are remembered and lived in our spiritual lives.”[36] While English becomes the primary language in the public sphere, the stories and narratives taught in Spanish have become the language of the heart, for Latinas that is the language of prayer. “Spanish means my roots, my home. There are so many words that I cannot translate in English. We speak and pray in Spanish at home,”[37] said Aparecida reflecting about the category of language beyond semantics. “Quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta [one who has God, needs nothing]. It helps me and I repeat it, even in the car…because sometimes I feel that God is not there…and todo me falta [I need everything].”[38] These are the expressions that Rosario remembers when quoting the words of Santa Teresa de Ávila taught by her abuela. “My Abi used to always say this expression when I would ask her for advice. Even now after her passing, I still have that expression when times get rough or just when I think of her. I constantly read the beautiful prayer of Santa Teresa de Avila every morning.”[39] Other dichos mentioned and inherited from art, music, religion, a combination of cultural memory of our tierras (places of origin) are: ¡Libertad!; si Dios quiere; la vida es un carnaval; más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo; cada persona con su cruz; se dice el milagro, pero no el santo; Dios sabe porque hace las cosas; anda con Dios; al mal tiempo, buena cara; quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta, solo Dios basta; Dios te bendiga. Los dichos! (the sayings) that are recorded in the ordinary events of our families.

“Abuelita Theology”: The story continues beyond the margins of this text

Participation-action theological research with Young Latinas did not end. The conversation and my lived experience with my abuelas, the sources from Latina/mujerista theology and the voices of young Latinas in the university setting, have opened new spaces for ongoing theological reflection and participation-action. One of the initial spaces was the Abuelita Theology Series in the campus ministry setting. Each semester we invited one of our students’ abuela as the guest scholar on faith and lo cotidiano. The day of the talk, we converted the physical space of the campus ministry lounge as la sala de la casa (the living room). Each of the symbols were intentionally re-created, including the meal that we served and that was prepared with much love by some of the students’ mothers and abuelas. Oh! And the flan!the flan that we never missed from la abuela cubana, who was not only the first speaker of our inaugural series, but also who blessed the bread that we broke and the food that we shared on that evening. Abuelita Theology Series touched the heart of the students who participated beyond the Latino/a audience as it became a space for communal prayer, reflection, and remembrance. This campus ministry grassroot initiative has been one of the most transformative experiences for me as a theologian and during my journey ministering with and among young students in Catholic higher education. Gracias Doña D!…Gracias Doña Nena, Gracias Doña Anita, Gracias Doña Ceci. Your cuentos (stories) and narrative continues beyond the margins of this text.

Con todo mi amor y admiración,

Su Nieta Claudia Helena.

[1] My daughter, do not be sad…do me a favor and keep onward!

[2] Abuela’s translation in English is grandmother. This name will be used in Spanish throughout the text.

[3] Theology of the day by day.

[4] Theology of the everyday.

[5] Mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts.

[6] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Introduction: Abuelita Theologies,” in Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins, ed. Loida I. Martell-Otero, Zaida Maldonado Pérez and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 2.

[7] My place of origin. Tierra does not represent just the physical space, but the stories, narratives, and cultural memory of a people.

[8] The Community of Saints.

[9] Courage and resilience in this life

[10] Abuela’s soups.

[11] The prayer of the Holy Rosary.

[12] Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1988), ix.

[13] In this text there will be an intentional use of the word “we” and “us.” This is supported in the statement of Michelle A. Gonzalez who refers to the work of Latina theology and Latina’s spirituality not as an isolated work. Gonzalez notes that “who we are cannot be reduced to an isolated “I” but instead must be understood as an “I” that is organically linked to a collective “we.” Also, the author makes an intentional account of the persona “we” in order to highlight the critical role of self-identity in Latino/a Theology. See Michelle A. Gonzalez, Embracing Latina Spirituality: A Woman’s Perspective (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009), xiv.

[14] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Introduction: Abuelita Theologies,” in Latina Evangélicas, 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Sayings, stories, prayers, blessings, home altars, devotions, cooking recipes.

[17] The streets, the living room, the domestic church, the places of work, the marketplace.

[18] The voice of la abuela.

[19] Loida I. Martell-Otero, Liberating News: An Emerging U.S. Hispanic/Latina Soteriology of the Crossroads (New York, NY: Fordham University, 2004), 135.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ivone Gebara, Out of Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation, trans. Anne Patrick Ware (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 77.

[22] Michelle A. Gonzalez, Embracing Latina Spirituality: A Woman’s Perspective (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009), 19.

[23] Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango, Hispanic Women, 4.

[24] Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, “Participatory Action Research,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Press, 2012), 235.

[25] My daughter, have you eaten?

[26] Banquet in this case represents more than the food that they prepare with so much love (y que nos alimenta), even if it is only a plate of soup with rice. Banquet means the conversations, the risas (the laughs), the interchanging of cuentos (stories), and all that happens around the table.

[27] Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango, Hispanic Women, 4.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Cuban, Dominican and Puerto-Rican grandmothers.

[30] The stories of life.

[31] Family.

[32] Claudia H. Herrera-Montero, Understanding Contemporary Practical Latino/a Theology Through the Lenses of College-Age Latinas in Their 20’s: A New Marianismo? (St. Thomas University, ProQuest Dissertation Publishing, 2017), 178. For the purposes of confidentiality and also to keep the consistency with participation-action, Latinas who participated in the research named themselves with names of Marian devotions or Saints from Latin America.

[33] Ibid, 182.

[34] Ibid, 183.

[35] Matriarchy.

[36] Gonzalez, Embracing Latina Spirituality, 7.

[37] Claudia H. Herrera-Montero, Understanding Contemporary Practical Latino/a Theology Through the Lenses of College-Age Latinas in Their 20’s, 261.

[38] Ibid, 262.

[39] Ibid.

Photo by Raul De Los Santos on Unsplash

One thought on “Mis abuelas y la Teología [My Grandmothers and Theology]

  1. Bellissima, riflessione profonda e nel contempo prattica su le radici culturali e famigliari della FEDE …la fede che nasce e si rinforza nel nucleo famigliare Latino con ” nuestras abuelas ” Come protagoniste di evangelizazione.. il loro seme di FEDE che cresce e non rimane solo al interno del proprio nucleo famigliare ma che trova il suo vero valore al interno della comunità. Trova spazio nel nostro rapporto con gli altri…congiuge, figli,colleghi,amici,fratelli nella fede. GRAZIE CLAUDIA HELENAH


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