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Keeping Latino Religion Scholars Faithful to the Classroom

For now, Elias Ortega-Aponte’s doctoral dissertation—“Raised Fist in the Church! Afro-Latino/a Practice Among the Young Lords Party: A Religious Humanist Model for Radical Latino/a Religious Ethics”—is a work in progress, but it got the attention of some publishers at the American Academy of Religion, where he spent a weekend in late October shopping his manuscript and looking to land a faculty post.

Ortega-Aponte, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, knows that the Young Lords Party, a decades-old former turf and street gang turned social movement, has been a neglected topic by Latino scholars of religion and theological ethicists but that has made him more eager to bring his scholarship to the academy. For Ortega-Aponte—a self-described Afro-Puerto Rican who earned degrees in communications, continental philosophy and divinity on his way to the seminary—and other Hispanic doctoral students in religion, and in particular Latin American and Hispanic religion, the academy can be a lonely and complex place to navigate. He is the only Hispanic student enrolled at the nation’s largest Presbyterian seminary.

But since 1997, Princeton Seminary’s Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) has helped doctoral students like Ortega-Aponte build community and succeed in launching their careers. The HTI is the only academic program of its kind that brings together Hispanic doctoral students and is ecumenical, multi-ethnic and multi-denominational.

Students who participate in HTI represent a consortium of 18 academic institutions, including the Graduate Theological Union, Drew University and the University of Notre Dame. They come to Princeton at various phases of their doctoral and postdoctoral work in religion, Biblical studies and theology. They take classes, attend workshops, work with mentors and editors but earn degrees from their home institutions. This year, the nonprofit Excelencia in Education recognized HTI for its efforts to increase access and opportunity for Hispanics at the graduate level.

“The need for an integrated plan to help Latina and Latino students is evident when you study the changing demographics and religiosity of our culture,” says HTI Director Joanne Rodríguez. “The U.S. Census projects that Hispanics will represent more than 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2020. They will represent nearly 25 percent of the college-age population by 2025. Yet, as of 2008, only 19 percent earn a college degree.”

The deficit grows more glaring in religion’s faculty ranks where only 3.5 percent of professors at schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) are Hispanic. At HTI, increasing the number of Hispanic faculty is an important result. “When I started teaching in the United States in 1969, there was not one other tenure or tenure-track Latino professor at a Protestant seminary in the country,” says Dr. Justo L. González, former executive director of HTI, noting there are now more than 136 Latina/o professors working in ATS-accredited schools. Of HTI’s national Excelencia recognition, González says, “I didn’t think this success would happen so rapidly.”

HTI counts 69 graduates. Ninety percent of students who enter HTI are ordained, and the majority enter the academy after earning their doctorates, Rodriguez says. One alumna is Dr. Mayra Rivera Rivera, a constructive theologian and former chemical engineer who joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in July. Nine other graduates have become the first Hispanic dean at their respective schools. Still others who have come through the HTI are working in a variety of research, administrative and nonprofit positions.

For Rivera, one of the most important aspects of HTI was its ability to spawn collegiality, especially among Latinas—minorities within a minority when it comes to Hispanics in the field of religion. “One of the most important aspects of HTI for me was that it fostered sustained conversations among Latina scholars working in different fields. These conversations with senior and junior colleagues—many of which continue to this day—have helped me understand the distinctive contribution and challenges of Latina/o theological studies and thus shaped my scholarship.”

In 2009, HTI celebrated when President Barack Obama appointed Catholic theologian and HTI alumnus Miguel Diaz as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. Ortega-Aponte looks forward to taking his place among HTI alumni. He is passionate about giving voice to Afro-Latina/o religious discourse, which is lacking compared with discourse by and about “indigenous people,” he says. “This is my contribution.”

While HTI has helped open doors and serve as a launch pad for his scholarship, Ortega-Aponte also values “the unwritten rules and things that aren’t in the graduate student handbook,” such as the importance of showing up at informal campus gatherings, which sometimes offer networking opportunities with professors.

“I know at Princeton (Seminary), relationships are nurtured,” but students of color can have difficulty cultivating them with professors, Ortega-Aponte notes.

Dr. Gastón Espinosa, who was an HTI Dissertation Year Fellow and served as a mentor in the early years of the program, calls HTI “an invaluable program” for students, especially those entering the field of Latin American and Hispanic religion. Because this area of study is about 40 years old, a program like HTI is giving faculty and emerging scholars a forum to discuss their ideas and find support and resources with writing and publishing, says Espinosa, an assistant professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College, an HTI consortium school. He also heads La Comunidad, an ecumenical association of Hispanic scholars of religion.

But as Hispanics transform the nation’s religious landscape by their numbers, especially in the Catholic Church, of which they represent 66 percent (30 million people) of parishioners, Espinosa also wonders if there will be a critical mass of scholars in the academy who “can understand and respond to their needs.”

While HTI has been a draw and a scholarly lifeline for many Hispanic doctoral students during its 13 years of operation, Princeton Seminary has only graduated four since 1997. At three of HTI’s member institutions, the numbers are better: Drew, over that same period, graduated 10 Hispanic Ph.D.s; Graduate Theological Union, 12; and the University of Notre Dame, seven, according to Rodriguez.

“HTI,” says Rodriguez, “isn’t a quick fix” to addressing the needs of such a growing demographic or to preparing those who will teach and serve. “We are concerned with recruiting, retaining and graduating students. And in our next phase, we are looking at pedagogy and filling in the gaps once they are teaching. We want them to come back as mentors.”

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