At St. Mary, Mother of the Church Catholic parish in Garner, the sanctuary wall was lined with photos of faith formation students who recently made their First Communion, an essential step in the sacramental life of young Catholics. What stands out is how different this group has become in the past 10 years or so at St. Mary as well as at most of the other Catholic congregations in the Diocese of Raleigh.
In the recent past, almost all of the First Communicants were white children with names like Joseph and Mary. Today, there are lots of boys and girls named José and María. Some days when I drive along Garner Road to Raleigh I get stopped behind a Wake County school bus near a mobile home park where it takes several minutes for the bus full of joyful Latino kids to disembark and jump into the waiting arms of their young mothers.
The huge economic-driven migration of the last 25 years has changed the face of Catholicism in the U.S. – and the ethnic makeup of North Carolina. Millions of desperate Latinos have come to the U.S. in hopes of finding a better life, the same reason why most immigrants sailed here from Europe in the past centuries, including all four of my Irish grandparents.
Many immigrants have stayed and become citizens, but unlike previous newcomers, most Latinos have been unable to secure permanent residency or citizenship. That is not the case, however, for most of those young Latino children. Born in the United States, most of these youngsters are full-fledged U.S. citizens with parents who are often undocumented.
While things right now are not going so well for their parents and grandparents, the future is quite bright for these Latino youth. Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear in the present as Latino families are broken apart by heartless incarcerations and deportations, and many of the undocumented Latina women who attend St. Mary, and who have lived with us at the Catholic Worker house, are living in constant fear of being arrested and deported.
But last week, President Barack Obama wisely announced his administration would stop deporting most undocumented Latino children, many of whom were born in Latin America but raised in the U.S. However, it is the “legal” Latino youth, many of whom are already registering to vote, who will be the pioneers in the new North Carolina, one in which the Latino power base will continue to expand and achieve unprecedented influence.
Things will likely get worse for Latinos in the near future, but, there is also a bright light flickering at the end of this long tunnel of oppression and despair. Prejudice and hatred are not quickly forgotten, and the young Latino kids who attend St. Mary, and the scores of others attending Wake County schools, will join with their sisters and brothers throughout North Carolina and beyond to change things forever.
It won’t be long before today’s Latino youth become tomorrow’s leaders. Town halls, county commissions, state legislatures and Congress will soon include lots of elected Latinos who will never forget how their families were treated by the once-white majority.
Republicans, many whom strongly oppose Obama’s humane initiative, may find themselves losing permanently the support of Latino voters just as they have lost African-American support. If the Republican-controlled General Assembly continues to pass unjust laws against Latinos there will likely be a price to pay down the road..
As legislators contemplate their next moves, it would be wise to recall the words of the great champion of justice, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Don’t be caught again on the wrong side of history.
Patrick O’Neill is cofounder of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House.