“Burnished Brown Skin” – an Indigenous Latina in the ELCA -Inez Torres Davis

ThomasLinda sittingInez Torres Davis has long been a voice in the church’s efforts to deal with racism  – especially in her own denomination, the ELCA. But her own story has many intersections, too – be it her indigenous, North American blood, her status as a woman of color in the church and society, the fact that she is a Latina who doesn’t speak Spanish, and as a prophet. But wherever she goes, she always brings spirit and life to the marginalized and vivid judgment to those who oppress, and her musings are piquant and memorable. Read, share and comment!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


I was asked to write and share “my” Latino experience with you.  My experience is that of an Indigenous Latina. The race-related experiences I had as a child that were both explicit and implicit; they were jarringly hurtful or mysteriously coded.

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For the first two or three years of professionally doing anti-racism education, I would trot out my wounding stories. A racial wounding story is one that makes us less, unwanted, or erased by White privilege. We all have these. Soul-wounding is one of the twisted fruits of oppression *and* privilege.

I would tell my Band Aid story and dirty hands story with drama. I would speak of my racial wounding to get White women to hear and care about the injustices I suffered.  Some of them wept. Some fell toward me. Some fell away. When I decided to stop baring my wounds White women came to me clamoring, “Oh, please! Tell us your Band Aid Story!”  To which I did then and do now respond, “No.”

I stopped telling my wounding stories because they made me an auto accident on the side of the road; a whole lot of rubber-necking would take place but everyone expected the Jesus ambulance (if they expected anything) to come and take care of my wounds. So, no, I do not myself, nor do I ask other people of color to stick a pin through their own thorax to make like a bug in this cultures’ collection of those gravely wounded by White privilege.

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Hence, in this writing of my Indigenous Latina experience there are no stories to make you tear up, or sigh deeply. If this is what you are hoping to read about, you can stop reading now….

Still here?

Let me introduce myself. I am a senior citizen who watched much of the Civil Rights era unfold on television as a young maiden locked away in my father’s house. My father was a strict man out of Michoacán, Mexico. Daddy claimed Aztec, Mayan, and Spanish roots. He was handsome and the color of burnished wood.

My mother is a beautiful White-skinned mestizo from Texas whose father was the son of two star-crossed lovers who succeeded. Grandmother Inez came from Spanish nobility. Grandpa Francisco was from a much lower station. In the only photo we have of her, Inez is white-skinned with thin lips and nose and luminescent blue eyes. Secretly wed, they fled to the New World.

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Chirichihua Apache women, circa 1890.

Mother’s mother, Frances Robles (nee Rodriguez) was indigenous of Chiricahua Apache lineage. Her parents were from two different tribes. Her grandfather Guillermo Rodriguez was from an important Chiricahua Apache family.

My Indigenous Latina experience values family, la familia. Perhaps we evolved in this way because we mestizos are the intimate unification of conquered and conqueror. The Spanish conquerors encouraged the co-habitation and inter-marriage with the indigenous; so, we carry in our veins the blood of those who fought and lost and those who fought and won. Perhaps family became the locus of our strength because we were/are repeatedly “othered” by structural White privilege. Racism is what white privilege looks like in the lives of people of color.

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The first documented Spanish-Nahua/Aztec couple – Malintzin (known commonly as La Malinche – pointing, center) and the conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortes (center, seated).

Another unique feature of my experience as a red-brown woman in a White privileged world and denomination is that I am not part of the Latino leadership in the ELCA because they are big on speaking Spanish as often as they can and I do not speak Spanish. I was criticized and chastised in my first six years in the ELCA for this perceived lack on my part.

In the early 1990s I was once accosted in a restroom at an ELCA function by a young, white-skinned Spanish speaking Latina who told me, “You will never know who you truly are until you learn to speak Spanish!” to which I replied…

“Oh, I know me. I just figured the language of one conqueror was enough.” 

This was all said in English.

I get my sass from my mestizo mother who speaks fluent Spanish beautifully.

Only my two oldest brothers spoke Spanish when they entered the public school in small town, USA. My parents were violently taught that English was the language of opportunity at that time. The rest of us children are English-only speakers.

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The women of Michoacan, the land of my father.

When I did my two month immersion in Mexico in 2007, I picked up a smattering of Spanish. Just as importantly, (or more importantly?), I encountered the pueblo, the people that looked like me and my father. They are a rich, burnished brown, short and strong, the women often rounded, with eyes the color of onyx, wide, somewhat flat faces with the warmest smiles, possessing a great joy for life.

They were also poor, ostracized, and labeled.

Watch any telenovela to see how the White-skinned Latinos are the stars and the Indigenous Latinos are the house servants and gardeners.  The fact that people of color have internalized racism as much as White people have internalized their privilege is not limited to the United States. Still, White-skinned Latinos have their own catalog of challenges; they are often not considered people of color because they are White.

This White privileged world historically divided and currently divides people of color among and from ourselves.  The value of White skin in a White privileged world has caused many light-skinned people of color to, on the one hand, hide their identity or, on the other, to become quite passionate –and in some cases even militant–about their racial identity.

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Finally, it is impossible for me to talk about the realities of being an Indigenous Latina in a White male clergy privileged denomination and White male privileged country without talking about the structural and internalized White privilege that continues to be practiced over my head and across my soul and body. White male privilege linear thought and processes control all of us and while these are not always malevolent, they habitually neglect the least of these, including women, LGBTQIA and, of course, people of color.

The church birthed European White privilege in the 15th century through the Doctrine of Discovery, unleashing European conquest upon indigenous peoples of all continents. In the U.S. White privilege was first codified in the late 17th century in the first two colonies Virginia and Maryland.

Recently in the ELCA I hear White Lutherans admitting their White privilege as though admitting it is some kind of significant threshold when it is only the first wee step.

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Pew Research studying showing that the ELCA is the whitest church in the United States (second from the bottom on the chart).

“Good Lutherans are wildly confessant and minimally repentant – thinking the doctrine of grace gives them a pass,” is how one of my anti-racism core co-trainers lately described this White response to racism in this church.

The resilience of resistance keeps many Whites at the shallow end of the racial justice continuum. Affiliations to and within earthly structures are far too important for many Whites to risk their significance in this world or church for the sake of authentic community or transformation.

I am an Indigenous Latina. Sexism and racism intersect within my days. It is grace that makes it possible to push back at my own internalized oppressions of sexism and racism; at the same time, it is this gift of grace that fills so much of my life with love, precious relationships, and joy.

If living with joy and love is a reward, I am well rewarded.

Namaste.


Inez.jpgInez Torres Davis is an Indigenous Latina working within and for the whitest religious affiliation in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as Women of the ELCA’s core racial justice/anti-racism trainer – having worked in this capacity since January of 1997. She is also rostered Word & Service lay professional of the ELCA and currently serves on the World Day of Prayer USA Board, is an Illinois State Commissioner for Guardianship & Advocacy, and she sits on the ELCA’s Theological Discernment table. If this wasn’t enough, she’s also a blog writer (for WELCA and her own blog page), a spiritual director, a wife, mother, grandmother, gardener, writer, and painter, as well as a Reiki master and creator of sacred spaces.

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