[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The fifth can be found here.]

SANTA FE, Argentina – Sister Maria Suyapa Cacho Alvarez, long considered the Catholic voice for Black people in Latin America, is certain of her purpose in the world: “God made me free so that I could help my brothers and sisters.”

Outside of Brazil and the Caribbean, those with African ancestry in Latin America are widely ignored, though they represent an estimated 134 million people.

According to a 2021 report from the United Nations’ Pan-American Health Organization, in many countries in Latin America, they face profound disadvantages:

  • In Ecuador, the maternal mortality rate for women of African descent is three times the overall maternal mortality rate. In Colombia, the rate for women of African descent is 1.8 times higher, and in Brazil it is 36 percent higher.
  • In Uruguay, the proportion of Afro-descendants with limited access to safe drinking water (42 percent) is almost double that of non-Afro-descendants (24 percent).
  • In urban areas of Nicaragua, 81 percent of Afro-descendants have limited access to water, compared to 35 percent of non-Afro-descendants.

Enter Suyapa, whose goal is “for all to work together so that we can eradicate racism from humanity, but also from within the Catholic Church,” she told Crux.

When it comes to “racism” in Latin America, she said she’s not only talking about discrimination against people of color but also against indigenous peoples. However, Suyapa pointed out, inside the Church, there is at least a growing awareness of the need to address the “original peoples,” with many initiatives, pastoral letters, and even a Synod of Bishops aimed at doing just this.

The religious sister was one of the most praised speakers to address the Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America, which took place in Mexico last November. Suyapa was not afraid to denounce the ecclesiastical discrimination towards the black populations of this region of the world, descendants of slaves brought from Africa.

Suyapa is Garifuna, a Métis people from the Caribbean coast of Central America, mainly from Honduras, where she was born.

For the 57-year-old nun, who has been a religious for the past 34 years, the assembly was just a new stage in her long struggle. All her life, she says, she wanted to help the poorest, “touched in the heart” by the message of John Paul II on the “Civilization of love.”

To prepare for the assembly, Suyapa said, “I have traveled to many Garifuna villages and many people have told me: we are children of the Church, but she often acts as if she is not our mother! Blacks in Latin America do not feel welcome as they are. Because of her indifference, they feel the Church is a mother who rejects her children.”

Sister María Suyapa Cacho Álvarez of Hoduras, speaking with the press during the Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America, in Nov. 2021. (Credit: Courtesy CELAM.)

As if presenting evidence in a court room, she told Crux that today only one priest celebrates Mass in the Garifuna language, a mixture of French, English, and other languages. Other Garifuna seminarians never finished their studies because during their formation they felt “unappreciated, marginalized, deprived of the opportunities offered to others.”

“Priests, bishops, missionaries … there is a lot of indifference towards us,” she said during a Zoom conversation on Thursday, Jan. 27. And furthermore, “if they want to evangelize the us, they must do so taking into account our roots and our cultures, otherwise only the veneer will end up coming off.”

The Garifuna and other Black peoples of Latin America have much to contribute: “values of joy, solidarity, unconditional acceptance,” she said. These are all true “seeds of the kingdom of God” that should be preserved and that an enculturated evangelization could help to maintain.

A member of the Latin American Afro-descendants ministry, Suyapa didn’t hesitate to speak about racism when approached by the Assembly. Too many people of color, she said, believe that they are not “accepted as they are and for who they are, and at every level – from national conference to parish council; the Black people are not taken into account. And this has caused too many wounds that can only begin to heal if we acknowledge the problem exists.”

She is convinced that after her presentation in Mexico, many within the Church in Latin America have come to understand that racism is systemic. “People are despised because of their color, but also because they are treated with structural indifference.”

Proportionally speaking, she said, the number of Afro-descendant bishops in Latin America is not consistent with the number of faithful or even of well-formed Black priests.

Suyapa said that she hasn’t personally felt rejected by the Catholic Church, but too many of those she spoke with preparing for her presentation did. The Ecclesial Assembly, much like the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, included a continental listening process. She said the evidence of the rejection towards the Garifuna and other Black communities in Latin America is the fact that “there are too many priests who don’t know of our existence, and as such, they fear our spirituality, thinking – still – that it’s demonic.”

On the other hand, she said, “many of our siblings within the Church are coming to realize the wealth that our spirituality has, and that we are in fact, children of the Church in full right, not her bastard children.”

Ignored by the global Church

Suyapa has read “the Church’s magisterium,” including the writings of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, but also those of CELAM, the conference of bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean: Aparecida, Puebla, Santo Domingo. Many speak of helping the poor, of putting those on the margins of society at the center of the Church. “Yet at a diocesan level, when it comes to putting words into action, the Church falls short.”

And the “the people I have contact with, those I spoke with for the Assembly, are humble people, who haven’t read these texts,” she said. This translates to a sense of exclusion in their dioceses and parishes, as well as by the popes and CELAM.

“As someone who knows these documents, I have the moral and religious authority to not only listen to this people, but also present their words to those who must listen.”

The Garifuna spirituality, she said, is “as treasure” of “pre-colonization.” Communities “no longer feel threatened” and now dare to show the world its beauty. Suyapa pointed out that it is rooted in the principle of reciprocal help: “You for me and me for you. You are my sibling and I love you unconditionally.”

She regrets that, to date, Pope Francis hasn’t truly referred to the Black peoples of Latin America. The religious went as far as to call it “a dream” for the pontiff to send them a specific message, as it would not only give hope to these communities, but also open the eyes of others who still don’t realize just how big the Afro-descendant footprint is on the continent.

Since the pope is particularly concerned for marginalized people, Suyapa understands why he has spoken so much about the indigenous peoples. However, she said, “our luck is much like theirs, or arguably even worse when it comes to being ostracized and ignored.”

Black women suffer even more

“Black women suffer even more exclusion, both in society and within the Church,” she said.

“Where there is accompaniment for women in church organizations, Black women are the least welcomed,” she said. “It’s like we are constantly waiting for our turn. The turn always comes, but it would be important for that turn to come sooner rather than later.”

This is a painful reality, she said, but one she doesn’t want to remain hidden.

At the Latin American level, she said, it is necessary to make Afro-descendant communities visible. Despite the fact that one in four people in Latin America is of African descent, many countries on the continent are unaware or ignore the fact that they have communities descended from slaves.

Despite the great advances of the past decade, Afro-descendants are still overrepresented among the poor and underrepresented in decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors.

Therefore, the eradication of poverty and the creation of sustained well-being in the region will depend to a large extent on the social inclusion of Afro-descendants.

“As Church we are called to join the ancestral struggle of the peoples of this continent so that we can effectively reach the full life that God and our ancestors dreamed for all,” said Suyapa. “The synodal process is an opportunity to unite us because that is God’s dream – that we recognize each other as brothers and sisters so that we may love and respect each other for the ‘simple’ fact that God created us with equal dignity. He did not make some superior to others, no one is belittled by God.”

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