They do ‘much of the day-to-day service’ — why Latinas represent the future of the LDS Church

Researcher highlights their growing influence in the faith globally and locally, but discovers the women still sometimes run into racism from fellow members.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Dancers in “Luz de las Naciones: A Home for All” (“Light of the Nations”) practice choreography in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. Research shows how Latinas are exhibiting a growing influence in the church.

Latinas are the future of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, argues an anthropologist who recently completed nearly 70 interviews with women in this group — a part of the membership she says often goes overlooked and underappreciated for their contributions to the faith globally as well as in their local congregations.

Brittany Romanello, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, has spent three years poring over data from the church, Pew Research Center, Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess’ “Next Mormons Survey” and other sources, plus conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with Latina immigrants living in the United States. All told, she estimates Latinas make up at least 20% of the global church’s 16.6 million members.

“Their presence,” she said, “is often the primary source of new growth in the U.S. church.”

Numbers tell only part of the story, however. To fully understand the impact Latinas have, Romanello said, you have to examine individual congregations, where these deeply committed women can often be found performing much of the day-to-day service for their faith communities.

“Culturally,” she said, “they are a huge part of the church.”

As a Ph.D. student, Romanello has been laser-focused on better understanding the experience of Latter-day Saint Latina immigrant mothers living along the Mormon Corridor — a labor of love for the west Salt Lake City native who grew up attending Spanish-speaking congregations.

To date, she has interviewed 69 women living in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Southern California, in addition to attending church with many of them. We sat down with her to talk about some of the trends she has observed in the process.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What questions drive your research?

(Courtesy of Brittany Romanello) Anthropologist Brittany Romanello, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, is studying Latina influence in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I had three coming into graduate school. The first is what motivates Latina immigrant mothers to join or stay in the LDS Church. I also wanted to know about their motherhood experiences. For example, what expectations do they have for themselves and how are those aligned with or challenged by the cultural aspect of U.S. Mormonism? And the last thing that really drives me is what experiences have made them feel included or excluded, and how we, as an ever-globalizing faith community, can be more inclusive.

What are some of the consistent narratives to emerge from your research?

Latinas do a lot of labor and service in the church. They carry a lot of the active membership in Spanish congregations, and they love the church. By far the majority, probably 60% to 70%, are converts. They love the gospel and they love Jesus Christ.

What about the church and its teachings do they seem to appreciate most?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Performers from the production “Luz de las Naciones: A Home for All” (“Light of the Nations”) in 2019. Research shows the influence of Latinas in the church is growing.

They love the emphasis in the LDS faith on eternal families and the fact that we don’t really believe in hell, something many of them described as being used to inflict shame or judgment growing up in their other faiths.

They really like the community aspect of the LDS Church, the fact that they can move from Venezuela to the United States, for example, and still experience that same sense of community. That consistency, knowing you have a network of people you can rely on, especially as an immigrant, is really special.

They really loved the gender-specific programs like [women’s] Relief Society. For them, that was a place they could go and build themselves up, develop speaking skills, and serve one another.

Finally, a lot of women just thought the church was a really great place to raise their children — that it taught really solid values they agreed with. One mother specifically said, “I finally came to a Christian Church that I saw behaving as Christian,” meaning that people were serving one another and concerned about each other’s welfare. I had quite a few women who immigrated as single mothers, and they could depend on a brother at church teaching their kid how to tie a tie. Something I heard probably 30 or 40 times during my interviews when women spoke about their Spanish-speaking congregations was “es un sentido de familia” — it’s a sense of family.

What were some other trends you observed?

Women much preferred going to Spanish-speaking congregations. When I asked why, the answers weren’t about language, though. A lot of it was, “I don’t feel comfortable around white Americans.” A lot of what I heard specifically had to do with instances with white women in particular. And I want to preface that sometimes English-speaking congregations are pretty diverse. But for the women I was speaking with, most of the women in the English-speaking congregations they were interacting with were white.

For example, I heard a lot of stories about how difficult it was to coordinate events with Relief Society presidents in English-speaking congregations and to get the women from the Spanish congregation included. It was hard to get people willing to bring translators or provide translating devices. A lot of women expressed just not getting invited to things. There were instances of women bringing food to activities and other women making comments like “that food looks dirty.”

Quite a few women said they tried to go to an English congregation because they wanted their kids to learn English or they wanted to improve their own English and people would make fun of the way they spoke.

Why is it important for those trying to understand the LDS Church to hear these stories?

(Photo courtesy of The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latina Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and a native of Nicaragua, speaks at General Conference on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

Most people outside the church don’t know how diverse it is, don’t realize that at least 40% of the global church would fall under the categories of Latinx, Latino or Hispanic. And I’ve done a lot of calculations, and it’s hard to say for sure, but about 1 in 5 global members are Latinas, whether that’s mono- or multiracial. And yet they represent 0.05% of the institutional leadership.

We have so many powerful women who are creating new ways to think about immigration and faith and experience in the church who are full of so much wisdom and survived really difficult things. There have been some interviews that I’ve come out of that I feel physically sick afterward when I’ve heard some of the things these women went through in their marriages, crossing the border, and the way they’ve been abused in the workplace.

One woman I spoke with was in elementary school when her family was forced to flee Argentina in 1976, when U.S. forces helped overthrow the democratically elected government and supported a new authoritarian regime. The transition to the United States was hard. There was little money, familial support or resources available to immigrant children like her. She faced racism at church and youth activities. There was one bright spot, though. She had a bishop who showed up with his family at her house on Argentina’s Independence Day with a cake and shirts in the country’s national colors. That gesture made her feel seen and appreciated.

These stories deserve to be heard. And there were so many women I talked to who said, “I have been here 20, 30 years and no one’s ever asked about my conversion story. No one’s ever asked about why I came.”

And we need to listen because they are the future of the church. Bicultural, biracial folks are the future of the church — they’re already the church. We need to listen and change our approach, because saying that harmful things don’t happen doesn’t actually prevent them from happening.

What changes would you suggest?

Greet people. It sounds small, but a lot of women said in their interaction with American members, it was very “frio” — cold or distant. No one greeted them, spoke with them or acknowledged them — even in passing.

Be kind and patient with their language skills. Many mothers I spoke with felt shamed by questions like, “Why don’t you speak English? This is America.”

Don’t assume nationality, ethnic background or legal status. Many expressed that American members erased individual ethnicities, or would make homogenizing comments like, “You must love tacos,” or “You look so exotic.” Instead, find genuine opportunities to get to know people.

Be solution- and service-oriented. Many may not know about a resource that is available or know how to access it. Some don’t know they can ask for a translator or language accommodation in places like hospitals or schools. They may not know about a scholarship program or tutoring or dance classes. They may not know that Brother So-and-So in the ward is a plumber or a lawyer.

Don’t just offer information. If you have a genuine connection with someone, offer to go with them, help call and get information, offer a ride. I’m not saying be pushy or invasive, but be thoughtful. This may seem like common sense, but we have really strong LDS networks and many immigrant communities rely on these knowledge networks to find opportunities. Showing support and care goes a long way, it shows you’re invested in their experiences.