In Latin America, black Catholics often feel invisible and ignored

[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The fifth can be found here.]

SANTA FE, Argentina – Sister Maria Suyapa Cacho Alvarez, long considered the Catholic voice of black Latin America, is certain of her purpose in the world: “God set me free so that I could help my brothers and sisters.

Outside of Brazil and the Caribbean, people of African descent in Latin America are largely ignored, despite numbering around 134 million.

According to a 2021 report by the United Nations Pan American Health Organization, in many Latin American countries they face profound disadvantages:

  • In Ecuador, the maternal mortality rate for women of African descent is three times higher than the overall maternal mortality rate. In Colombia, the rate for women of African descent is 1.8 times higher and in Brazil it is 36% higher.
  • In Uruguay, the proportion of Afro-descendants with limited access to drinking water (42%) is almost double that of non-Afro-descendants (24%).
  • In urban areas of Nicaragua, 81% of people of African descent have limited access to water, compared to 35% of non-Africans.

Enter Suyapa, whose goal is “for all to work together so that we can eradicate racism from humanity, but also from within the Catholic Church,” she said. Node.

Regarding “racism” in Latin America, she said she was not just talking about discrimination against people of color, but also against indigenous people. However, Suyapa pointed out, inside the Church there is at least a growing awareness of the need to address the “original peoples”, with numerous initiatives, pastoral letters and even a synod bishops aiming to do just that.

The nun was one of the most popular speakers at the Latin American Church Assembly, held in Mexico last November. Suyapa was not afraid to denounce ecclesiastical discrimination against the black populations of this region of the world, descendants of slaves brought from Africa.

Suyapa is Garifuna, a mixed race people from the Caribbean coast of Central America, primarily from Honduras, where she was born.

For the 57-year-old nun, a nun for 34 years, the assembly was just another step in her long struggle. All her life, she says, she wanted to help the poorest, “touched to the heart” by the message of John Paul II on the “Civilization of love”.

Preparing for the assembly, Suyapa said: “I have traveled to many Garifuna villages and many people have said to me: we are children of the Church, but she often acts as if she is not ours. mother ! Latin American blacks do not feel welcome as they are. Because of her indifference, they feel that the Church is a mother who rejects her children.

Sr. María Suyapa Cacho Álvarez de Hoduras, speaking to the press at the Church Assembly in Latin America, November 2021. (Courtesy of CELAM.)

As if presenting evidence in a courtroom, she said Node that today only one priest celebrates Mass in the Garifuna language, a mixture of French, English and other languages. Other Garifuna seminarians never finished their studies because during their training they felt “unappreciated, marginalized, deprived of the opportunities offered to others”.

“Priests, bishops, missionaries…there is a lot of indifference towards us,” she said in a Zoom chat Thursday, January 27. And moreover, “if they want to evangelize us, they must do so taking into account our roots and our cultures, otherwise only the veneer will eventually come off.

The Garifuna and other black peoples of Latin America have a lot to contribute: “values ​​of joy, solidarity, unconditional acceptance,” she said. These are veritable “germs of the kingdom of God” which should be preserved and which inculturated evangelization could contribute to maintaining.

A member of the Latin American Ministry of Afro-descendants, Suyapa did not hesitate to speak of racism when approached by the Assembly. Too many people of color, she said, believe they are not “accepted as and for who they are, and at all levels – from the national conference to the parish council; blacks are not taken into account. And it has caused too many wounds that can only begin to heal if we recognize that the problem exists.

She is convinced that after her presentation in Mexico, many members of the Church in Latin America understood that racism is systemic. “People are despised because of their color, but also because they are treated with structural indifference.”

Proportionally, she says, the number of bishops of African descent in Latin America does not match the number of faithful or even well-educated black priests.

Suyapa said she did not personally feel rejected by the Catholic Church, but too many of those she spoke to to prepare for her presentation did. The Church Assembly, like the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, included a process of continental listening. She said that the proof of the rejection towards the Garifuna and other black communities in Latin America is the fact that “there are too many priests who do not know of our existence and, as such, they fear our spirituality, thinking – again – it’s demonic.

On the other hand, she said, “many of our brothers and sisters within the Church come to realize the richness of our spirituality, and that we are in fact children of the Church in full right, not his bastard children”.

Ignored by the global church

Suyapa read “the magisterium of the Church,” including the writings of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, but also those of CELAM, the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops’ Conference: Aparecida, Puebla, Santo Domingo. Many speak of helping the poor, of putting those who are on the margins of society at the center of the Church. “Yet at the diocesan level, when it comes to walking the talk, the Church fails.”

And the “people with whom I have contacts, those with whom I spoke for the Assembly, they are humble people, who have not read these texts”, she says. This results in a feeling of exclusion in their dioceses and parishes, as well as by the popes and CELAM.

“As someone who knows these documents, I have the moral and religious authority not only to listen to this people, but also to present their words to those who need to listen.”

Garifuna spirituality, she said, is “like a treasure” from “pre-colonization.” Communities “no longer feel threatened” and now dare to show the world their beauty. Suyapa emphasized that she is rooted in the principle of mutual aid: “You for me and me for you. You are my brother and I love you unconditionally.

She regrets that to date, Pope Francis has not really referred to the black peoples of Latin America. The clerics have gone so far as to call it “a dream” that the pontiff sends them a specific message, as it would not only give hope to these communities, but also open the eyes of others who do not yet realize how much the Afro-descendant footprint is on the continent.

Since the pope is particularly concerned about marginalized people, Suyapa understands why he has spoken so much about indigenous peoples. However, she said, “our luck is a lot like theirs, or maybe even worse when it comes to being ostracized and ignored.”

Black women suffer even more

“Black women suffer even more exclusion, both in society and within the Church,” she said.

“Where there is accompaniment for women in religious organizations, black women are the least welcomed,” she said. “It’s like we’re constantly waiting for our turn. The turn is still coming, but it would be important for that turn to come sooner rather than later.

It’s a painful reality, she says, but she doesn’t want to stay hidden.

At the Latin American level, she said, there is a need to make communities of African descent visible. Despite the fact that one in four people in Latin America is of African descent, many countries on the continent ignore or ignore the fact that they have communities descended from slavery.

Despite great advances in the past decade, people of African descent are still overrepresented among the poor and underrepresented in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors.

Therefore, the eradication of poverty and the creation of sustainable well-being in the region will depend to a large extent on the social inclusion of people of African descent.

“As a Church, we are called to join the age-old struggle of the peoples of this continent so that we can indeed achieve the full life that God and our ancestors dreamed of for all,” Suyapa said. “The synodal process is an opportunity to unite us because it is God’s dream – that we recognize each other as brothers and sisters so that we can love and respect each other for the ‘simple’ fact that God created us with one equal dignity. He did not make one superior to another, no one is lowered by God.

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