Regardless of native land, Hispanic Americans call ‘Pope Pancho’ their own

March 16, 2013

For many Hispanic Catholics in the Washington area, the stunning news from the Vatican in recent days can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama.

As in, the election of the first Latin American pope has been as electrifying for Hispanic Catholics here as the election of the first black president was for African Americans.

“For us, it is like the world has changed,” said the Rev. Jose Hoyos of St. Anthony’s in Falls Church. “When Obama was elected president, you could see the African American community was so proud to have someone at the top of the political system. People are saying, ‘We have a pope who looks like me, who sounds like me and understands my culture.’ ”

And not just Catholics. Even non-church-going Latinos in the region, most of whom come from Central America, have embraced the ascension of a South American prelate to what some consider the highest religious job on the planet as a victory for “one of us.”

“They were really going crazy this morning,” said Pedro Biaggi, host of a daily radio call-in show on El Zol (107.9 FM), a Spanish-language station. His usual chatter shifted from pop culture to pope culture after the white smoke appeared over Rome. “Catholics, non-Catholics, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans — people are just overwhelmingly excited that he’s one of ours.”

National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters discusses the selection of Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio for pope. Bergoglio has chosen Francis as his name, which reflects his simple lifestyle. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

After the much-touted role of Latino voters in putting Obama in the White House for a second term, and the subsequent progress on immigration reform, having a native Spanish-speaker in the Vatican makes this feel like a Hispanic moment, Biaggi said.

“We elected a president, and now we have a pope,” he said. “Hispanics are feeling like our power and importance are becoming more relevant. Maybe people will start to look at us differently now.”

After the initial euphoria, local Hispanic Catholics are absorbing the emerging biography of Jorge Bergoglio, a man few had heard of before his appearance on the Vatican balcony Wednesday.

After Thursday’s Spanish-
language Mass at Alexandria’s Good Shepherd Catholic Church, parishioners said they have been enthralled with the stories of Pope Francis’s austere habits and his devotion to the poor. They identify with the story of his origin, a humble childhood in Buenos Aires and immigrant parents.

“Most of us are from that same background,” said Mario Coca, 34, a Volvo mechanic in Alexandria. “The reason we came to the U.S. is that we had nothing. He came from nowhere. He understands us.”

Geimy Montoya, 30, nodded. “He shows his poor heart.”

Biaggi said some of his younger radio-show callers were wary of then-Archbishop Bergoglio’s fierce opposition to same-sex marriage when Argentina legalized it in 2010. But among the faithful at Good Shepherd, the new pope’s social conservatism was neither surprising nor objectionable.

With the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have broken Europe's long stranglehold on the papacy.

“Argentina, Brazil, the United States — they have become too liberal,” said Eugenio Acevedo, a Mexican-­born carpenter, adding that the church should stand strong against abortion and same-sex marriage. “I think God picked this man because he had his eye on the Americas right now.”

More complicated for Latino immigrants, many of whom come from conflict-torn parts of Central America, is the still-unclear role that Bergoglio played during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s and ’80s.

For many who fled military death squads in El Salvador and Honduras, the Catholic priests espousing “liberation theology,” sometimes at the cost of their lives, were seen as heroic protectors.

Various reports have characterized Bergoglio as either standing aside or abetting Argentine forces in their actions against leftist clerics. The Vatican has dismissed the accusations. And Hispanic Catholics here seemed eager to give the new pope the benefit of the doubt.

“It is hard to choose sides in these things,” said Coca, who grew up in El Salvador during the civil war. “Whatever happens, it is always the poor who suffer, and we know this man cares about the poor.”

About a third of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center, but among younger Catholics, nearly half are Latino. Many of those younger churchgoers arrived more recently, fleeing economic — rather than political — strife.

But even some veterans of the Cold War-era clashes seemed more interested in the pope’s stands against exploitative capitalism than in his position on long-ago conflicts.

In the 1980s, Francisco Pacheco fought with leftist guerillas in the jungles of El Salvador. He cites Oscar Romero, the San Salvador archbishop who was fatally shot at the altar, as his hero. But the Capitol Heights resident, who works for an immigrant aid group, said the new pope seems like a good man for the job. At least, so far.

“We don’t know his story, but I’m looking to the future,” said Pacheco, a Catholic. “I think he will be better for the poor than for the rich.”

For now, Hispanic Catholics are eager to revel in good feelings that the Rev. Luis Quinones described as half a millennium in the making. “We received the faith from Europe 500 years ago,” the Colombian-born priest said during Thursday Mass at Good Shepherd. “Now we send back a pope.”

In that context, dark-skinned mestizos from the tropics seem to have no problem embracing a pale Caucasian as their representative Hispanic. National borders, so stark during wars and soccer tournaments, are for now invisible. Many have begun calling him Pope Paco or Pancho, affectionate nicknames for Francisco in the Spanish-speaking world.

Pro-pope outpourings have been reported throughout the hemisphere. But Latinos in the melting-pot United States say this transcend-your-nationality phenomenon comes especially easily to them.

“In this country, you meet so many people from Latin America, you forget where you are from,” Coca said. “We all speak the same language. We all love each other. We all love the pope.”

Church officials hope that transnational appeal will lure back some wandering Catholics. Hearing the Mass celebrated in native Spanish will be a powerful moment for many, said Leah Tenorio, Good Shepherd’s director of Hispanic ministry.

“For people in this country, language is always such an issue,” she said. “Knowing that he speaks the same mother tongue makes him feel very close.”

Hoyos, the head of Hispanic outreach for the Diocese of Arlington, was encouraged to hear from a former congregant the day after Bergoglio was named. “He was moved,” Hoyos said. “He said it was like seeing his family again.”

Fast-growing evangelical congregations, which fiercely compete for churchgoers, are on alert. More than 40 percent of Hispanic evangelicals converted from Catholicism, according to Pew surveys. And 83 percent of them say they came to their new faith out of a desire for a more direct and personal experience with God. Now, having a Hispanic as the pope may give them a reason to look back to the Catholic hierarchy.

“I do think some will go back, no question,” said Mac Coyoy, a pastor at Centro Evangelistico in the District.

Coyoy, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, acknowledged that having a Latin American pope was “awesome.” But he was planning Bible lessons for Sunday to remind his flock that their relationship with Christ was bigger than the appeal of any one man.

“Yes, they have stepped up their game,” the 26-year-old evangelical said. “We are going to have to step up our game, too.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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