written by Union’s Latinx Caucus
“Mama Leeeeeo, Mama Leeeeeo,” accompanied with drum beats were the calls and invocation of Mama Leo’s spirit from the Latinx and Hispanic community as two students from the Latinx Caucus unveiled a portrait of Mama Leo, by Nuyorican artist Manny Vega in the rotunda of the Burke Library on November 30, 2022. Dr. Reverend Samuel Cruz, Associate professor of Religion & Society at Union Theological Seminary (UTS), remarked, “Mama Leo was ahead of her time,” and he continued to share a dicho from her, “Los hombres dicen que son la cabeza del hogar, pero lo que son es cabezones.” In a pastoral position that is traditionally held by men, Mama Leo broke through patriarchal boundaries, while steeped in her Pentacostal tradition. Her life was a life saving force for people struggling with drug addiction and sex workers. Her lived experience serves as a role model and point of reference for upcoming theologians and scholars and her rehabilitation techniques have been modeled and standardized by other organizations on a state-wide level.
The unveiling of Mama Leo’s portrait marked the beginning of a much needed path of scholarship centered on the diaspora of the Latinx and Hispanic experiences that informs our theology. In institutions of higher education, there is typically a low number of theologians and scholars: Hispanics as an ethnic category registered the lowest percentage of enrolled students in ATS (The Association of Theological Schools) member schools, with only 6-7%; Latinos/as/xs make up 19% of all US evangelicals, 48% of US Roman Catholics, and 19% of the US population; In 2011, of 761,619 tenured or tenure-track faculty in institutions of higher education only 4.11% described themselves as Hispanic; and of the 1,299 full professors reported in 2019 in ATS member schools, only 3% are ‘Hispanic’ and only 0.5% are Latinas.”
This paucity of institutional capacity, for students who identify as Latinx or Hispanic find themselves at a loss in the formation of their theology at institutions where their experience is often not included, overlooked in praxis or rarely mentioned in conversation. On the advice and encouragement from President Serene Jones, Dr. Reverend Samuel Cruz set out to establish the Mama Leo archives, which is the first of its kind at Union Theological Seminary. The Burke Library will now be home to the Mama Leo archives, and future archives centered on Latinx and Hispanics, which will give rise to the tapestry of our rich traditions across the diaspora of the Latinx and Hispanic experiences.
While previous members of the Latinx caucus were involved in helping get the Mama Leo Lecture series off the ground, Latinx seminarians were hungry to know more about how Mama Leo’s impact is still felt in the city around us and how it is relevant to us as theologians, activists, and people wanting to be more involved in the surrounding communities. They knew that educating others on her impact would be vital towards institutionalizing a culture that reflects the neighborhood that UTS finds itself situated in: Black and Spanish Harlem. Members of the Latinx caucus decided that the most engaging way to connect with others on Mama Leo’s legacy is through the tool of social media. For the first time in UTS media history, the Latinx caucus collaborated with UTS’s Communications & Marketing team for an Instagram Takeover. On the day of the celebration, the Latinx caucus received access to Union’s Instagram account and posted a series of stories and posts throughout the entire day.
Several members decided to map out the streets, buildings, and churches that she impacted in New York City and physically went to these places and recorded footage to create short, engaging videos featuring information about Mama Leo. These videos were posted with the help and collaboration of the team on the day of the celebration alongside the series of stories that grabbed people’s attention all the way through the unveiling, the celebration and the panel discussion. The Instagram Stories, (now saved in a Highlight on both the UTS and Latinx Caucus Instagram page) feed people information about Mama Leo’s life, the endowed Lecture Series about her work, the people behind the lecture series that made it possible, and even information on the physical works and life of the Nuyorican artist that did her portrait, Manny Vega.
NYC councilwoman Alexa Avilés of District 38 was present on the day of the unveiling and shared some words:
“As a Boricua, I think it is so critically important to recognize our antepasados, the people before us, whose shoulders we stand on. Mama Leo never did it with the idea of recognition…of recognizing the dignity of human life. Boricua’s in New York City have laid incredible groundwork and I don’t think we get our due credit. And this is part of setting that history right, offering due credit to keep building that legacy so that our children—Latino children and children of color—can be proud of the work already done.”
If you walk outside of the streets of 122nd and Broadway you will encounter the history activism and social movement of Black and Spanish Harlem. The Apollo Theatre which sits at the hub of Black culture and helped Black musicians get discovered such as Marivn Gaye, James Brown, and Ella Fitzgerald. Marcus Garvey park, where UTS’s first combined graduation was held this spring since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, was first home to the Summer of Soul, a concert series held in response to the loss and incredible violence endured by various Black activists such as Malcolm X, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy. The First United Spanish Methodist Church on Lexington that was once run by the Puerto Rican gang* the Young Lords still stands in Spanish Harlem as a hub for social mobilization: La Iglesia del Pueblo and the Freedom Church of the Poor continue to use this space for recent transformational services such as Día de Muertos and Las Posadas as a way to connect to the surrounding communities. Damascus Christian Youth Crusade drug rehabilitation center, started by Mama Leo in 1957, was a grassroots rehab program that served Black and Brown who were victims to drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, and who were formerly imprisoned.
Everywhere you walk, you will be standing on the shoulders of ancestors and antepasados that have laid the work of being rooted in who they are. Latinx seminarians at Union carry experiences in their body that are unique within the diaspora and knowing more about their own history through their antepasados is vital towards their vocation and action. Union Theological’s Seminary’s first institutional recognition of a Boricua leader like Mama Leo through an Endowed Lecture series (which you can donate towards, here) is a reflection towards the commitment towards preserving the history that continues to shape our activism and protest today.
*The Latinx Caucus recognizes that using the word “gang” to describe the New York Chapter of the Young Lords Party is a mistake and inaccurately describes this Socialist Party who sought for self-determination and social change for Black and Brown Boricuas living in Harlem during the 1970s. Click here to read critical reflections by the Latinx Caucus co-chairs and an educational video.