The Latino Christ in Art, Literature, and Liberation Theology

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Michael R. Candelaria
Querencias Series
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , April
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the Gospels, Jesus’s question to the disciples: “[w]ho do you say that I am?” has only propagated further answers and questions. While many believe they know who Jesus is, there will always be another insight, another picture, another question. For Michael R. Candelaria, images and interpretations of Jesus are nothing but our own cultural projections and hopes. There is no tangible, graspable Jesus of history; only a Jesus of faith of the gospels, which are projections of those ancient communities’s hopes and fears. In The Latino Christ in Art, Literature, and Liberation Theology, Candeleria dismisses any claim of finding or discovering the real Christ, instead clarifying that the artists, writers, and theologians he analyzes offer their own imaginative representations of Christ, some perhaps seeming more “genuine and authentic” than others (218). Candelaria’s claim, that “the Jesus of the Gospels is not the historical Jesus, but that is all we have” (218), may seem too stark and skeptical, especially for Christian believers, but it need not distract from his interesting examination of what he calls the “Latino Christ” in the artists, writers, and theologians he selects. In an excursus in the final chapter, he explains his rational for using the term “Latino”—instead of “Hispanic” or “Latino/Hispanic”—summarizing the debate on such naming between Jorge Gracia and Linda Martín Alcoff. Candelaria admits that his choice for “Latino” in the title was due to “personal aesthetics and by utilitarian concerns” (213). This is fine, but I would have preferred that he include this section in the Introduction, especially after asking the question: “[w]hy a Latino Christ?” (1). 

Candelaria begins with Salvador Dalí whose egotistical and self-referential deification in his paintings represents a telling and complicated starting point. The paintings of Christ (and Mary) under consideration were from Dalí’s so-called nuclear, mystical period, especially “The Madonna of Port Lligat” (1949 and 1950 versions), “The Christ of St John of the Cross,” and “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)”. They are visually potent, if not strange, and Candelaria is an apt guide, explaining various symbols of the paintings. He also critiques Docetic elements in Dalí’s thinking—especially evident in “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)”—where the suffering of the cross is ambiguous, at best. Fortunately, viewers can still admire and be moved by “The Christ of St John of the Cross,” with its wonderful echoes of Diego Velázquez’s “The Crucified Jesus.” Juxtaposing both paintings reveals their strengths; though learning about Dalí seeing himself as Christ, which may be why Jesus’s face is not seen in these paintings, can expunge Dalí’s work of any lasting devotional quality. 

Candelaria then discusses the poetry of Fray Angélico Chávez, who was inspired by Dalí’s paintings above to write “The Virgin of Port Lligat,” and prodded to publish it by T.S. Elliot. I had not heard of Chávez and found his biography fascinating: he was initially a Franciscan and served as a military chaplain in Germany and the Philippines (44). He published 23 books, focusing on Hispanic American Catholicism, but later left the Franciscan order as he felt the Franciscans “treated Hispanics as inferior people” (46), though he detested being considered Mexican and showed no particular concern for Native Americans. Overshadowed by Candelaria’s robust critique of what he calls Chavez’s Catholic evangelical interpretation of Dalí’s paintings, one is left wondering about the value of giving Chávez’s work its own chapter, save for its connection to Dalí’s paintings. 

The angry, Promethean Christ of artist José Clemente Orozco (especially at Baker Library in Dartmouth College) was another new discovery for this reviewer who, unlike with Chávez, was left wanting to know more about this polarizing artist who lost one of his arms in an explosion before deciding to become a painter. Another odd and mixed quirk (evident among many of the artists in this book) is an attempt to move beyond race in many of his murals, depicting a black man, for example, at the head of the table, but not supporting indigenous art. The image of a fierce, wrathful Christ successfully disturbs, but it is not clear what this Christ is rebelling against to be considered Promethean, other than the guns in the background. Some analysis of the Book of Revelation may have helped give this Jesus some sort of (faulty) biblical grounding.

Candelaria then turns to Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, inspired by the quixotic quest of Don Quixote. Unamuno hoped, in some way, to reach a semblance of faith through an immersion in doubt, what Candelaria calls the “Quixotic Christ.” Especially insightful was the chapter on “the fictional Christ” of Jorge Luis Borges, especially in Candelaria’s analysis of the short stories, “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Gospel According to Mark,” which would be a good addition to a Christology course or postgraduate course in Theology and Literature. 

Candelaria then analyzes Richard Rojas’s “Invisible Christ,” alleging Christ’s humanity is “the meaning of Christ’s symbolism,” thus enabling the divinizing of humanity. Rojas’s investigation into Jesus’s sexuality and the deeply human reality of “sexual self-awareness” remains an unaddressed (and often uncomfortable) issue in American Christianity, as Candelaria rightly opines (158). While the book specifically mentions “Liberation Theology” in the title, the chapter on liberation theology focuses primarily on the Christ the Liberator of Claudio Boff, though it gives a helpful overview for student readers or those unfamiliar with Liberation theology. More could have been done with Jon Sobrino—especially his No Salvation Outside the Poor (Orbis Books, 2008)or recent feminist, Christological readings from a liberationist perspective. The final chapter examines the role and possible uniqueness of a hybrid or Mestizo Christ, especially as presented in the work of Virgilio Elizondo (though also rejected in the feminist work of Gloria Anzaldúa).

Ultimately, I don’t come any closer to knowing (what I consider) ‘“the real”’ Jesus after reading the portrayals and images of Christ in Candelaria’s book, but it reinforced how Jesus’s question to his disciples will never be satisfactorily answered, and how it usually reveals more about the person answering the question than it does about Jesus. Do I agree with Candelaria’s contention that “[a]ll claims about Jesus/Christ are fictions” (215), or more brazenly: “theologies about Christ are nothing more than games that grown children take too seriously” (123)? Outside of the historical references of Jesus crucified by Pilate, Candeleria is mostly correct that the Jesus of the Gospels (and Pauline epistles) is all we know. Such foundations can seem even less secure after ongoing scholarly exegesis and the unsatisfactory results of the various Jesus Seminars. As a Catholic I would add, though, that the role of living tradition, and especially the Spirit of Christ, is embodied by people, whether identifying as Christian or not, who exude light, kindness, and love. This, too, may be all we have; is it enough? It may not be, but in a world still rife with war, poverty, and hopelessness, delving into Christologies should be no mere game.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is Lecturer in Theology in the School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music, and the Coordinator of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael R. Candelaria is Principal Lecturer in the Religious Studies Program and the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of The Revolt of Unreason: Miguel de Unamuno and Antonio Caso on the Crisis of Modernity and Popular Religion and Liberation: The Dilemma of Liberation Theology.


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