Between Two Cultures: How Latina Christians Approach Leadership
With nearly 58 million Hispanics residing stateside and one in every four children born in the United States being Hispanic, the US Census Bureau identifies the Hispanic population as one of the nation's fastest growing groups. Given that 60 percent of Hispanic evangelicals are women, new ministries have emerged that are solely focused on equipping these bicultural women. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) has recently established one such ministry with a commitment to creating a safe space for Latina Christian leaders from different generations to gather. This ministry—which represents mothers, mijas (a term of endearment used in the Hispanic community that translates as “my daughters”), hermanas (sisters), tias (aunts), abuelas (grandmothers), and nietas (granddaughters) alike—seeks to empower, equip, and encourage Hispanic female leaders to reach their God-given potential.
Yvette Santana spearheads this new bilingual and bicultural ministry in her role as chief women’s ministry officer for the NHCLC. She also serves as women’s discipleship coordinator for the Church of God, Southwest Region. “The NHCLC’s division for women’s ministry desires to create a community for these fabulous women to connect and share and celebrate our role in the church,” says Santana. “We want to create a network for Latina pastor’s wives and lead female pastors, as they have such a unique role in the kingdom.”
Andrea Ramirez, executive director of the Faith and Education Coalition of the NHCLC, interviewed Santana on her unique work.
Can you give us a specific example—an anecdote about a particular woman you’ve worked with—that illustrates the power of the gospel to transform individual lives?
In our last pastorate, we had a ministry to the homeless. We picked them up from areas where we knew they lived, offered them a meal after service as well as help to get to shelters, help to look for jobs, etcetera.
We met a woman named Linda who was a meth addict, just out of jail, who had lost her children due to her state. To look at her, you'd want to wrap your arms around her. She was thin, wouldn't look you in the eye, and seemed frightened all the time. Fast-forward a year: She was clean, had a job, a place to live, had regained the trust of her family and, via the courts, had regained custody of her children. God did that! She completely turned her life around by the power of God and a community who loved her, believed in her, and showed her the way to make God the center of her life.
What unique opportunities do you see for Hispanic women in the church?
The greatest opportunity for Hispanic Christian women is that if they are bilingual, they can reach two worlds. Can you imagine being able to reach everyone who speaks English and everyone who speaks Spanish with the saving, encouraging message of Christ? What a privilege, opportunity, and responsibility.
What do you wish non-Hispanic Christian sisters better understood about Hispanic Christian women?
First, that we are all so much more alike than we are different, and I feel this is the case for most women regardless of our ethnicity. We all want to love, be loved, belong, and feel that our lives have meaning beyond ourselves. We love to nurture our loved ones and do all within our power to ensure our children are safe and that they have every opportunity that perhaps we didn't.
That being said, what I can say about my Latina sisters is that we are hard workers. For most of us, Christianity is not passive. We do. We serve by doing. In our smaller Hispanic churches, I know of countless church remodeling projects and purchases of properties [that are] due in no small part to the efforts of the women in the church coming together and cooking, having yard sales, etcetera, as a means to raise funds.
What has your experience as a school counselor taught you about the challenges experienced by young women, especially Hispanic women?
I absolutely loved being involved on high school campuses and being “in the trenches” with students. It gave me a front-row seat to the issues facing our young women: apathy, no compass for right-versus-wrong, over-hyped sexuality, sexual confusion, the effects of drugs, gangs, and violence, and body image issues. It also gave me an opportunity to see how bright, capable, understanding, empathetic, responsible and kind they can be. I feel this is the case in general and not just for Hispanic students.
What is unique to Hispanic students is their home life. If parents are not assimilated to “American” culture, there is a great disconnect that occurs with their student. There is a lack of understanding of the pressures their children are facing at school, most of it peer pressure to belong. Ironically, what may have most provoked parents to move to the United States—an education—can become the cause of a slipping apart between parents and children. I can't stress enough how great a conflict this can cause. Teen years are turbulent, anyway. Add to it the pressure that students feel in an environment they may not completely understand, and the pressure from peers, teachers, and from home ... It can be very overwhelming. It was difficult for me not to take these girls in—to provide a buffer for them between the pressures from home of strict Latino parents and those from teachers and peers and “American” culture.
To that point, what is essential for those of us in the church to know?
Our Hispanic girls need mentors. They need women who are willing to stand in the gap and provide direction. They need to hear things they may not like but that are true and intended to make their path better, easier.
You’re essentially doing discipleship of young women. In that context, how does faith factor into your work as you seek to renew, restore, and equip?
Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Discipleship is about faith and relationship. You build a relationship of mutual respect, love, and care, and while you build the relationship, you believe God can do through his Holy Spirit what only he can do—bring maturity, faithfulness, fruit, and all the things Colossians 1:28 references. You believe God will do a supernatural work in those you disciple.
If you could talk to yourself at 21, what spiritual advice would you share?
I'd say, don't be afraid to fail. As an obsessive-compulsive people pleaser (that's a mouthful) I've had to learn to live in grace, to abide there, to really and truly live inside of the grace that God provides to me. Fear of failure has crippled me in ways I hate to admit. Just now, in the last ten years or so, have I learned to just say yes! If I fail, so what? I've learned something. I'll do it better next time. I'd tell my 21-year-old self to enjoy the journey, say yes as often as you can, and learn from every experience. Perfection is not the goal. Serving and loving and living in a manner that brings a smile to God’s face is.
What’s next for the NHCLC? As you think about the organization’s part in the broader, global church, what are your goals for the next five years?
I would like to see our women’s ministry initiative create a safe space for all women to gather, so they can be equipped and encouraged to do the work of ministry. I would like to have helped form a network for lead pastors’ wives. I am particularly burdened for pastors’ wives. I understand the challenges they face and how sometimes this ministry can be very lonely. I want to create a sisterhood for them, a safe place to connect and create friendships with other women who understand them. I fully believe God never intended for us to be isolated in ministry. We are better when we serve together.
Is there a specific passage or story in Scripture that encapsulates the work you do or that inspires you in your ministry?
I have two that continually remind me why I do what I do. One is Colossians 1:28–29, which says, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” The other is Galatians 6:9, which states, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Andrea Reyes Ramirez, PhD, is executive director of the Faith and Education Coalition of the NHCLC. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two young daughters.