Latinx Theology in Xenophobic Times: An Interview with Professor Machado

Categories: Union News

Amid a government shutdown and public fight over US immigration policy, we sat down with Rev. Dr. Daisy Machado, Professor of Church History at Union. In addition to the Borderlands class described in depth below, Dr. Machado’s recent courses include Eugenics, Race, Gender, and Nation: A Brief History and Religious Movements from the Margins: A Look at the Prosperity Gospel.

In addition to teaching at Union, you’re also the Director of the Hispanic Summer Program. Tell us about it.

The Hispanic Summer Program started in 1989, it was created to provide a space where Latinx seminary students in ATS schools could go for two weeks of intensive theological education with Latinx faculty. The program has continued, non-stop, for the last 30 years. It’s sponsored by 37 schools—Union has been a sponsor for 19 years.

Because of the sponsoring fees that the schools pay, the students pay $425 total. It’s amazing, they get two weeks of housing, two weeks of meals and their airfare—plus three graduate credits. It’s the best program in the country of its kind. Every year we offer seven classes and seven different professors, so it’s a different program every year. For example, in the coming year, we have a class on Latinx Muslims, we have a class on ecological justice in poor communities of color, a course on urban pastoral work.

It sounds like an incredible opportunity. What’s the impact you’ve seen on students who participate in the program?

I’ve been director of the program for six years, and one of the things that I’ve seen is that—more and more—for many students, it’s the first time they have had a Latinx professor, the first time that they thought that they could actually do Ph.D. work, because they are surrounded by 7 Latinx faculty members. And some of the students who went through the program started out as M.Divs., but now they come back as faculty.

Can you talk a little bit about the need this is addressing?

It’s creating a community. Seminaries don’t usually have a large body of Latinx students, so this offers that opportunity. There’s also a lot more mentoring that goes on, so students leave with a greater sense of clarity about their own discernment. And there’s a lot of conversation about the reality of what it means to be Latinx in this country. When I started the directorship, I started what I call the HSP Evening Lecture, where we invite a prominent Latinx scholar to talk about an issue in the community. We talk about all kinds of issues; this year the conversation was about use of the term “Latinx” and “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and what that means. A couple years ago, we invited Cornel West and had a conversation with Latinx faculty about black/brown issues in the Church, and how we can work together as two communities under siege in this nation.

Changing gears for a moment, tell us about your Borderlands class.

The Borderlands class started when I was teaching at Brite Divinity School in Texas in 1994. I started it there, because I was surprised that my white Texan students—I never had Latinx students in Texas, a profound irony—had never been to the border. Or they had only been to the border in a very ugly way, to drink. And I’ve been doing it ever since then.

When I started at Union, 11 years ago, I couldn’t do it every year because Texas is so far from New York, but now I do it every two years. I took a trip to the border this May—I had 10 students with me—and out of all the trips I’ve taken to the border, this was probably the hardest one. We had permission from Homeland Security (ICE) to visit one of two detention centers run by the federal government, the Port Isabel Detention Center. Since 2016 the number of detainees there has swelled. They let us in, and we were able to tour the facility under their very watchful eye, see the conditions, and hear the official government reasons about why people are detained, and why they are deported.

There are three immigration courts on site; they’re deporting people every day, every day there’s a constant stream of people leaving. And it’s heartbreaking! It’s really heartbreaking to see. But, I wanted students to see that—you have to see it and hear it to understand. One of the deportations we saw happened to be the deportation of four teenagers and one seven-year-old. Even the judge said to the attorney, “Where is this child going?” and nobody knew. So, the child was deported to Honduras, and nobody knew if there were parents at the other end, or what would happen. And the judge had a very difficult time making the decision to deport this child to death. He said, “Am I going to kill this child? What’s going to happen?” But the cases were the same for the teenagers as well, those fourteen to sixteen-year-olds. Nobody really knew who would be waiting for them, because so many people have been killed in Honduras.

But what I think was most difficult was the sense of constant fear. This is a very, very militarized area. Unless you go there, I don’t think people know. When I started doing this, you used to be able to sit and talk with border patrol. They’d get out of the cars, and the students could sit with them—and would—every time we’d go. But not anymore. Now they’re all in riot gear, they’re all tremendously armed. There are drones all the time, and the students were really taken aback. We drive to the border, drive to the the checkpoint near Corpus Christi, outside Falfurrias, because I wanted students to feel what it was like to go through a checkpoint—there are dogs, cameras. There was this potent sense of fear in the community. Border patrol is now using parents dropping off their children as an opportunity to arrest parents. So, the children watch their parents get arrested. Everywhere, you could feel the sense of fear and dread, it was palpable.

Were there other things different about this year’s trip?

This year we had the opportunity to meet with members of a town called Falfurrias, which is a small town near the ICE checkpoint. There’s an organization there that does forensic work reclaiming the bodies of immigrants who have died on the ranches. I met with a colleague, who’s an activist and medical doctor, and she was with a group of medical students from Loyola who had come to volunteer to do forensic work and identify bodies, to contact embassies and get those bodies back home. Folks are dying in these private ranches, whether from animal bites, scorpion bites, heat, lack of water, and the bodies are left there. About 1,500 were discovered in one year, and the man who runs the organization believes that there are probably another 1,500 who were not found. You begin to see the gravity of that and sadness of that—these folks who leave home and then are never heard from again, the desperation of families. Our students had a chance to meet and talk with the medical students, it was very profound.

What’s it like processing all of this with students?

Every evening we sit down and we talk, It’s very difficult. For me, the summer was really hard, even months after. You can’t get the images out of your head. When we met again in the fall, the students talked about how difficult it had been for them all summer to revisit those images and conversations.

What does it say about our country theologically, the way we’re treating migrants?

It’s just so unethical. It runs against the grain of all the Abrahamic religions, against what Judaism, Islam and Christianity say about how you treat sojourners. It’s heartbreaking, so callous and so far from the gospel, from the good news that Jesus preached. It’s such a void of any light that all you feel is an oppressive darkness, whatever good news you could bring, it seems to be swallowed up by a government that just hates immigrants. I never regret going to the border, ever. It’s a place that we need to be as a school, and we need to be as a community of people who profess justice and faith, but it’s not easy. However, I’ll keep going back as long as I can. You can’t unsee it. I want students to remember that, to carry that with them, and do with it what they will in their own time and in their own way.

If you’re interested in the Hispanic Summer Program and want more information, click here.