Van Wensveen review of Garcia Dignidad Ethics Through Hispanic Eyes

Dignidad: Ethics through Hispanic Eyes. By Ismael García. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997. Pages, 190. Paper, $16.95. ISBN: 0687021340

Reviewed by: Louke Van Wensveen

In Dignidad, Ismael García interprets the moral language of Hispanic Americans and offers his own critical perspective as an Hispanic Christian ethicist. The book follows in the footsteps of his earlier work, Justice in Latin American Theology of Liberation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), with a substantial chapter on justice (chapter two) and a consistent focus on the themes of oppression and liberation. However, in Dignidad the scene moves to the United States, where we find a diverse Hispanic community trying to carve out a place of dignity. García joins pioneering ethicists such as Anthony Cortese and Ada María Isasi-Díaz in providing a theoretical articulation of this distinct praxis.

In Chapter one, “Hispanic Styles of Moral Reasoning,” García shows how Hispanic moral reflection arises in situations of multiple oppression to take shape in an eclecticism that brings richness as well as tensions. Using the characters from the movie Mi Familia as examples, García highlights the role of the principles of benevolence, utility, and autonomy in Hispanic ethics (32-44), as well as the role of “character ethics” (44-53) and the “ethics of recognition and care” (53-64). García maintains a critical perspective by evaluating each style of moral reasoning in light of the others and in light of widely shared Hispanic values, such as a sense of family and community, and especially a sense of dignity.

The second chapter of Dignidad locates Hispanic struggles for emancipation in the political, social, and cultural spheres. García shows how within each sphere Hispanics affirm the notions of freedom, equality, power, community, order, and justice. However, political activists, social activists, and cultural activists tend to interpret these terms in very different, often antagonistic ways. García suggests that this undermines the Hispanic struggle for emancipation. He proposes a move towards greater solidarity based on a vision of “creative agency,” marked by such Christian emphases as other-regard and a priority of being over having (110-114).

The Christian emphasis comes fully to the fore in the last two chapters, where García shows how Hispanic moral reflection is and can be rooted in theology and the church. He integrates the key ethical themes of dignity, care, and justice with the doctrines of God, creation (especially anthropology), and sin, as well as with Christology and pneumatology. Permeated by the priorities of liberation theology, the discussion culminates in a description of the church as a community of resistance. Within this community, Hispanics resist privatization, individualism, overinstitutionalization, cultural imperialism, and dehumanizing servitude, even as they cultivate a spirit of hospitality that honors the dignity of all.

With Dignidad, Ismael Garcia offers at least two gifts to the Hispanic community in the United States: attentiveness and creativity. Where many other ethicists prefer simply to build their own theories, García engages in a serious effort to interpret the lived ethic of his community, an effort that starts with attentiveness. In the process, García faces the challenge to honor diversity while discerning communal identity, as well as the challenge to balance what he sees with his own vision (as a community member) of what he would like to see. García recognizes these challenges and handles them with admirable creativity. The result is an eclectic but rooted ethic that issues in a recurring insight: Hispanics can make a unique contribution to church and society in North America. This insight in itself testifies to the sense of dignity Garcia wants to articulate.

Garcia responds diffusely, however, to the challenge of recognizing how his articulation of an Hispanic ethic also bears some marks of Western (mostly Anglo) ethical theory. The three Hispanic styles of moral reflection he articulates in the first chapter mirror very closely three major areas of current debate in Western academic ethics: principles, character, and care. Scant footnotes, easily missed by less diligent readers, acknowledge links with the first two areas of debate (175, notes 8,9, and 11), but the significant parallels with Carol Gilligan's groundbreaking work on the ethic of care would remain invisible to readers who are not already familiar with it. This obfuscation of Anglo-American and European sources may diminish the book's effectiveness for empowering Hispanic American readers (especially women) in their search for the keys to affirmation, insight, and solidarity.

Readable and engaging, Dignidad should stimulate both personal identification with the arguments and characters portrayed, and critical reflection on the moral dimension of Hispanic life. Pastoral agents, theologians, and church study groups who identify with mainstream Protestantism are likely to find the greatest degree of affinity with the book. Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and also feminist theologians will find it a helpful but somewhat limited resource. Dignidad is a useful text for college as well as graduate level courses in theological ethics, systematic theology, and pastoral ministries.