faith in action

The impact of American foreign policy: A reflection for National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month

We're nearing the end of National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month. The Rev. Jose Luis Villasenor, pastor of Fiesta Cristiana in Apex, North Carolina, shares part of his story.

National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) is a month when we celebrate the people in the U.S. who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Church and Society joins in honoring the presence and incredible contributions of more than 56.5 million Hispanic/Latinx people in the U.S.

We lift up the beautiful ways Hispanics and Latinx influence our congregations and communities through a strong commitment to faith, family, education, hard work and service. We give God thanks for the contributions of so many Hispanic/Latinx leaders in The United Methodist Church.

While we celebrate a tapestry of many cultures, ethnicities, sabores y ritmos, we also lift up stories of struggle and perseverance. Generations of Hispanic/Latinx people have overcome significant hardship as a result of a challenging and complicated American history.

When I first met Rev. Jose Luis Villasenor, pastor of Fiesta Cristiana in Apex, North Carolina, we discussed the challenging and complicated history of migration from Mexico and Central America. He shared my belief that we, The United Methodist Church, needed to improve our efforts at uncovering some of the histories that may not regularly get told.

Today, as United Methodists whose faith calls us to seek justice, it is our faithful duty to learn from the history, recognize how the injustices and inhumane actions are still present in our society, and let the Holy Spirit lead us into action for a Kingdom of God where love and justice rule.

That’s why I’ve asked Villasenor to share a bit of his story. You can read it below. As we wrap up Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, reflect on this story and pray how it might inspire us to justice the entire year.

Rev. Villasenor’s story

“In 2015, the news media broadcast stories of Central American children arriving into the U.S. unaccompanied. The truth is, however, that the problem did not begin or end in 2015. While many blame bad parenting or individual Latin American governments, the root problem is much more complicated: decades of disastrous U.S. foreign policy. These polices are tied to Cold War theatrics and global economic interests, which have instigated violence and poverty throughout Central America, leading children to have no choice but to flee.

“Many Americans assume that migrant children are El Salvador’s problem and that it is El Salvador’s (or Guatemala’s or Honduras’s or Mexico’s) responsibility to deal with them. However, could it be that the U.S. and other global forces are the reason that these children are showing up here in the first place?

"I grew up during the Salvadoran Civil War.  We lived on Juan Pablo II Boulevard, a main street through a poor area of San Salvador, El Salvador, the country’s capital. Some of my earliest memories include standing outside our home, watching people marching through the streets: peasants in their sombreros, grieving mothers dressed in black, university students, church leaders. They carried pancartas reading “stop the oppression” as they cried out for basic human rights:

  • for the ability to work and to feed themselves and their families.
  • for the government to stop kidnapping their loved ones.
  • for an end to fraudulent elections, for a start to real democratic change.
  • for the United States to stop sending military aid and weapons to El Salvador’s violent military regime that was enforcing all of this oppression.

"El Salvador is about the size of Massachusetts, with a population of only about 5 million people. Despite it being such a tiny nation, the American obsession with communism led to a hugely disproportionate increase of military aid to El Salvador in the 1980s.  In the name of fighting communism, the U.S. propped up a military government that kidnapped, tortured, and often killed any potential dissenters, including my brothers. They engaged in fraudulent elections and quietly massacred entire villages. (The Massacre of El Mozote is one of many villages which Salvadoran government forces, supplied with American weapons and training, discretely eliminated and sought to cover up.)

“Eventually, the U.S. was sending $1 million a day to my little country, even while Archbishop Oscar Romero, head of the Salvadoran Catholic Church, wrote letters to President Carter, begging him to stop.

“In the end, the U.S. government ignored the church’s pleas to stop the repression, a decision which resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

"Any civil war breeds poverty, violence, and dislocation among the most vulnerable, but gang violence made postwar El Salvador even more unstable.  Gangs were exported from the U.S. to El Salvador, and the postwar country of El Salvador was not ready. The gang (MS-13), formed by teenagers who fled the U.S.-funded Salvadoran Civil War, began in the barrios of Los Angeles during the 1980s. As the 12-year war ended, the U.S. government sent young Salvadorans with criminal records back to El Salvador.

"The newly formed Salvadoran National Police, organized after the 1992 Peace Accords that brought relative peace to El Salvador, had never before dealt with gangs. The country was not prepared for the influx of gang members from the U.S.. The fledgling government had no way of processing criminal records, and there was certainly no systematic means of addressing the psychological trauma that these young adults had experienced.

“After a war the U.S. had a hand in creating, no one sent aid for reconstruction or engineers for societal recovery. Instead, the MS-13 was unleashed into the streets, and violence continued as before. To this day, El Salvador is as violent as it was during its Civil War — if not, more.

"Why would a child cross a desert, risking being kidnapped, raped or killed to come to the U.S.? Why would a parent send a child on such a dangerous journey?

“It is impossible to explain what it is like to live in poverty and violence like the kind that I experienced in El Salvador. I wish that I could say the right words to make people understand the fear and hopelessness that would cause a parent to send a child to the U.S. alone. The best I can do is to say that children wind up at the border because there is no other option.

“And Christians are leading the effort to send these children away.

"Poverty and violence are systemic issues caused by global forces. The problem of unaccompanied children attempting to enter the U.S. is not an isolated issue but rather the consequence of a cycle of global political decisions. Either we choose to perpetuate the cycle by sending children back to the violence of their home country, or we can take steps toward change.

"And so, the question I want to leave you with is this: as unaccompanied children risk their lives in an attempt to enter into our country, what should be our response?

“As Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40).”