Kaine: Pope’s visit is a reminder of America’s Hispanic roots

Sep 24, 2015

By Senator Tim Kaine

This week, America welcomes Pope Francis to Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Amid all the excitement and anxiety over what he will say, one thing is clear already. He arrives to a church and American population that are being rejuvenated by our Hispanic population.

The first Latin American pope’s first visit to the United States coincides with another important event: the 450th anniversary of the founding of Saint Augustine, Fla. Forty-two years before Jamestown and 55 years before Plymouth Rock, the Spanish began the process of permanent European settlement in the 50 states and planted in this nation the Catholic faith, the cultural and familial traditions of Iberia and the Spanish language.

As a Catholic and honorary chairman of the United States/Spain Council, I stood with King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia at the altar of the first American Catholic parish in St. Augustine last Friday and listened as Bishop Felipe Estevez thanked them for their ancestors’ support in bringing Catholicism to Florida in 1565.

The pope’s visit during Hispanic Heritage Month punctuates the anniversary and reminds us that our nation has had Hispanic roots from its very first days. This timing is propitious. The dialogue in the current presidential campaign too often suggests that Hispanic immigration is a new and dangerous phenomenon.

Tell that to Latino families in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado and other states who can trace their connections to this country back 10 generations or more. The U.S. is home to more than 54 million people of Hispanic background, nearly 17 percent of our population.

And the pope’s addresses — many to be delivered in Spanish — will remind us that the Spanish language has been a part of this country since long before our founding.

Recently, Sarah Palin instructed presidential candidates and new immigrants to “Speak American.” Since 1565, to speak Spanish has been to speak American — a fact I noted when I delivered a speech in Spanish in the Senate to support immigration reform in June 2013. Today, more than 50 million Americans speak Spanish and our students’ passion to learn Spanish is at an all-time high. Because Spanish and English are the second and third most common native languages in the world (after Mandarin Chinese) the increase of bilingual fluency in America is increasingly helpful in the global economy.

The American Catholic Church is deeply connected to our Latino population. Since 2007, the percentage of American Catholics who identify as Hispanic has grown from 29 percent to 34 percent. And according to a study on growth of the church between 2005-2010, nearly 40 percent of new registrants were Latinos. This makes the American Church’s embrace of a Latin American Jesuit easy to understand.

The Argentinian pope also arrives at a time when the United States is renewing our diplomatic ties throughout the Americas. Our nation has usually operated diplomacy as if it only had an East/West axis — with concerns about Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and Korea, the Middle East and China successively dominating our strategic thinking over our 240-year history.

Even in periods when we’ve turned our attention to the Americas — during the Monroe administration, the Spanish-American War or the Cold War — our focus has more often been to rebuff external influence from European nations rather than build true partnerships. But, with the growth of our Hispanic population and the opening of new diplomatic relations with Cuba, the United States is finding it easier to engage in diplomacy, trade and military cooperation throughout the Americas.

This is as it should be. We are 35 nations and assorted territories, comprising nearly 1 billion people. And we are all Americans — North, South and Central — claiming in the very name “American” a common tie to the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci who was hired by the Spanish royal family to survey the New World that Columbus found.

When I worked with courageous Jesuit missionaries in Honduras 35 years ago, it was beyond my imagination that a Latin-American Jesuit would lead my church at a time when my country was rediscovering its Hispanic roots and celebrating them.

The pope’s visit marks this convergence in a miraculous way. May we be up to the opportunity that his visit — and this remarkable moment — brings to our nation.

This op-ed originally ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 22, 2015.