Migrating Faith

Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century

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Daniel Ramirez
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     306 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Daniel Ramirez provides an alternative “topography” in Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century that conjures both landscapes and soundscapes. Although the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 is often the recognized as the site that catalyzed this new form of Christianity, Ramirez contends that few scholars have attended to the specific and significant development of Pentecostalism at the US-Mexico borderlands, which also reveals the impact of this region onto the wider US American national identity. The book “charts the patterns and flows” of the movement using as metaphor what Ramirez calls the “hydrological basin” that shapes the course of the Rio Grande and Rio Bravo Rivers (3) to “trace the evolution of a major tributary”—Apostolic Pentecostalism, “through the first six decades of growth and examines the construction of transnational circuits and webs that bolstered subaltern responses to macro evens and prejudicial actions of nation-states and dominant cultures” (8). Indeed, Ramirez offers an imaginative and spacious engagement of the complexities found in the connection between this region and religion. 

The introduction he provides gives us a glimpse into the kinds of provocative, creative themes that Ramirez investigates—testimony and protest—both of which are nicely exemplified in the opening hymn, “Aleluya, Aleluya al Señor” (1). The rest of the book maps out the growth of this movement starting in chapter 1 on the relationship to other religious “precursors, competitors, and sponsors” that shaped a distinct ethnic and gendered self-understanding. Chapter 2 looks regionally at central Northern Mexico and southern Texas from 1914-1930, especially fleshing out the dynamics of the continued emergence of Apostolicism within the context of nationalistic sensibilities. Chapter 3 recovers the life histories of repatriated Pentecostals and chapters 4 and 5 extend this ground by examining how liturgical practices, such as music-making, give rise to “the value of transborder alliances,” despite having to contend with “primitivist-pragmatist tensions” (81)— these transnational identities enacted a form of resistance. The final chapter concludes that an exploration of the lived experience of Pentecostals offers a useful and productive rethinking of “rubrics and genealogies” (17) which meaningfully shapes how we might understand religion and politics, religion and identity, and more broadly, American religious history. 

Ramirez’s book is vibrant, but it seems to come alive in chapter 5 when he surveys the musicality of the movement—the analysis of the hymnody, context, lyrics,  and transmission and reception are insightful when it comes to engaging the social, political, and historical significance of Apostolicism as a cultural force not only in that region, but on a global scale. It was at this point that I anticipated a more thorough phenomenological approach to the music of this Pentecostalism that would complement the ethnographic descriptions—for example, while the section on “Sentimeiento” in the last chapter does gesture toward an affective “reading” of these sonic texts (192), it was only a glimpse. However, overall Ramirez illuminates the unique contributions of a borderlands Pentecostalism by showing how this particular region provided fertile soil for shaping culture—and meaning—in relevant ways. I found the book to be especially instructive in a variety of ways as a wonderful example of American religious and cultural history—first, Ramirez offers a way to configure our expectations of the kinds of historical data, that is artifacts and archives, that might be used to shape a contextual history that goes beyond the textual. Second, in highlighting “Pentecostalism’s centrifugal penchant for division and decentralization [which makes for] recurring or overlapping cycles of revival-sect-church” (163), the book underscores other marginalized identities outside of the white-black paradigm—indigenous, non-English speaking—as well as the challenges of a “gendered apostolic identity”—what that looks like and what the material implications mean in the larger analysis in terms of piety and purity aesthetics. Finally, I read the emphasis on territoriality and regionalism—simply, borders—as a challenge to constantly recognize the relationship between positionality and origins, and how we understand the originary site as evocative of legitimacy, credibility, and authority while other “iterations” are viewed as peripheral and diminutive. Regions, languages, and borders impact narratives, as well as identities and relationships, and I read in Ramirez’s work a method of theorizing within and beyond postcolonial or post-hemispheric structures. In a time when borders and identities are regularly being contested we need more “historical” (musical, literary, artistic) resources that can help us to speak to the complexity of life on the borderlands given that these conflicts are still persistent today—especially “illegal” gospel songs like “The Undocumented Ones” that “through a lyrical melancholy and yearning express the questionable efficacy” of the “American Dream”: Of a country that Christ had prepared, With no hungers, pains nor sadness, That was the land of which I had always dreamed, Hopeful, I converted to the gospel, And I hope to share it one day with my parents, When I return to my land I hope to see them, And to tell them about Jesus Christ and his love (192). 

I would absolutely recommend this book for every course on American religious history as its narrative style is easily accessible to the undergraduate student and challenging and stimulating for the graduate student.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mihee Kim-Kort is a doctoral student in Religion in the Americas at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Ramirez is associate professor of religion in the school of arts and humanities at Claremont Graduate University.


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