Cruz Review of Nanko-Fernandez Theologizing en Espanglish

Carmen Nanko-Fernández. Theologizing en Espanglish: Context, Community, and Ministry.  Foreword by Gary Riebe-Estrella, SVD. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010. Pages, xx + 188. Paper, $25. ISBN: 9781570758645.

Reviewed by Jeremy V. Cruz

Theologizing en Espanglish: Context, Community, and Ministry is a tour-de-fuerza synthesis and advancement of Latino/a Christian thought on ministry and theology, two “inextricably intertwined” communal enterprises (xviii). Several chapters are reworked from earlier published articles by Carmen Nanko-Fernández, yet these updated writings complement the book’s newer material, offering greater unity of content than is typically found in a scholar’s reader of essential writings.

Nanko-Fernández explores several implications of her recognition that experiences of life together en lo cotidiano [in daily life] constitute the revelatory sources for, and context of, theological reflection—its locus theologicus. She challenges theologians to critical awareness of the contexts and relationships within which we are embedded and implicated, and which unavoidably shape the content and horizons of our thought. She finds this critical awareness lacking, for example, in the distant and linear See, Judge, Act method of theologizing. Further, Nanko-Fernández argues that recognizing lo cotidiano as the source and context of our theologizing also demands our making lo cotidiano a hermeneutical lens and epistemic principle within our theologizing. Accordingly, lived faith en lo cotidiano is the thematic and methodological tie that binds her seemingly disparate discussion topics: ecclesial and academic politics, theological method, theological anthropology, béisbol ethics, im/migration, and the “preferential option for the poor” in U.S. middle class contexts.

In “exploring the implications of taking daily lived experience seriously,” Nanko-Fernández examines popular culture, a category inclusive of religious expressions often ignored by individual and private understandings of religion (xv, cf. 29). Recognizing culture’s religious and social relevance enables her critique of the privatized concerns of many pastoral and practical theologies and complements her rejection of the notion that any legitimate theology would require the adjective “practical” or “pastoral.” Influenced by liberation theologies and postcolonial cultural theories, Nanko-Fernández promotes the “reconceptualization of practical and pastoral theologies as public theology” (23). She articulates a prophetic ministerial and theological vision that supports dialogue, not for its own sake, but for the sake of convivencia, living together justly, which produces the intimacy out of which all vivencia is possible. This communal telos is confirmed in the promotion of “coalition building across marginalized communities in order to secure justice” (71). Nanko-Fernández fosters convivencia among marginalized communities, thus cultivating the conditions through which excluded communities might affect their own inclusion and full participation in society.

The medium es el mensaje as Nanko-Fernández writes in Spanglish and skillfully employs her accented identity construction Latin@́. She writes in non-italicized Spanglish, aware that it provokes cognitive disruptions in those who forget that they themselves do not speak the Queen’s English. This is one of her many efforts to de-exoticize latinidad or “bring the edge to the heart of the center” (114). Her construction, Latin@́, undermines homogeneously essentialized, oversimplified (hyphenated), and inaccurate constructions of latinidad that have been produced primarily by the dominant members of U.S. and Latin American societies. The term’s @́ makes inclusive the patriarchal term Latino while ‘accenting’ the core anthropological insights expounded throughout the book: that all human identities and theological productions are inescapably located ‘at’ a complex geopolitical and autobiographical context, that our identities are mediated by globalizing rapid electronic communications that acutely characterize our contemporary context, and that contextually-rooted identities nevertheless maintain a fluidity analogous to one’s shifting movements through cyberspace. Nanko-Fernández names herself with this term, a fundamental expression of human agency, while offering it to the Latin@́ community as a more accurate symbol of ourselves in our complex, diverse, fluid yet intersecting identities. Yet we might further consider: Can Latin@́s construct (and do we desire) a non-Eurocentric identity term, analogous to more particular constructions like Xicano (Chicano)? What would be the pan-ethnic correlative of Xican@́?

Nanko-Fernández demonstrates that there is no “typical Latino” and that one is not primarily a “phenotypical Latino,” while still acknowledging the relevance of the construction of race on Latin@́ bodies. Instead, her attention to language, Spanglish, places complex racial latinidad within a broader discourse concerning power and cultural symbolization. Latinidad is a complex cultural construction that encompasses the interrelated concepts of language, race, class, religion, (trans)nationality, generation, sexuality, and gender. This expanded vision of hybridity contrasts with the narrower, more static, and colonial ethno-racial category mestizaje that has long been employed as a hermeneutical lens in Latin@́ theologies. Thus, Nanko-Fernández makes an important contribution to recent attempts to shift Latin@́ Christian discourse away from its earlier use of mestizaje toward a more complex, fluid, and liberating account of cultural hybridity.

Interestingly, Nanko-Fernández acknowledges the limits of Espanglish as a hermeneutical metaphor for complex and fluid hybrid identities. She draws on her experiences with deaf Latin@́s to critique images of dialogue that are binary (oral/aural) and strictly lingual, even if bilingual. This call to expand our images of theological dialogue fits well with Jean-Pierre Ruiz’s critique of the colonial reduction of literacy to text-based language, Roberto Goizueta’s discussion of “symbolic realism” and “the word” as an interpersonal performance, and broader cultural shifts en la epoca de Youtube and cellphones, which elevate visual communication and treat “text” as an interactive verb (texting) rather than a distant object. Thus, speaking Espanglish is not proposed as the perimeter or essence of “real latinidad” but rather as a metaphor for hybrid identities that are constructed via communicative hybridity, that is, multi-lingually and often sin lenguas.

Given its topical breadth, this book will likely engage scholars from a variety of social disciplines, undergraduate and graduate religion students, and ministers. Its methodological, doctrinal, moral, and missiological wisdom influences my work in theological ethics, as I seek to further specify its ethical implications. If ethno-cultural communities and their members ought to have the social space to name themselves and their experiences of the divine, as Nanko-Fernández argues, then they similarly ought to norm themselves, regulating their behaviors and participating in the construction of cross-cultural moral and legal norms according to their self-understandings. Lacking a formal conclusion, this book’s abrupt ending is an ellipsis that invites responses from the various disciplines and contexts that it addresses, both within and beyond Latin@́ Christianity.