On the Sunday before Independence Day, Oscar Faria bears testimony at his LDS chapel in South Salt Lake. He stands at the podium in the congregation hall, a room the size of a large boat, with a ceiling of polished wooden beams curving upward. Faria, at the fore of this ark, recounts the years leading up to his conversion from Catholicism to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a transformation that coincided with his migration to the United States from Venezuela.
Unlike many Anglo members of the church, Faria, along with a growing number of LDS Latinos, believes that his personal exodus fulfills a larger Mormon prophecy.
Seven years ago in Venezuela, after Faria’s successful business fell through, he ran into a friend who was visiting from his new home in Utah. Faria described his hardships, and the man urged him to join him in the United States. Faria mulled over the advice in the following days. One night, in meditation, he envisioned a man who moved his arm across his chest to gesture toward a foreign city, saying, “You are going to live in a place like this.” Three months later, Faria and his wife and small child moved to Salt Lake City.
Walking downtown two days after his arrival, Faria halted when he passed Temple Square, recognizing it as the city of his vision. From that moment, Faria received images and messages with alarming frequency. One night, he dreamed he should call Juventino, a buddy from work. He did, and Juventino came over with a copy of the Book of Mormon for Faria. At the end of their visit, the two recited a prayer and a picture flashed through Faria’s mind of an old, bearded man, dressed in rose-colored robes with a small round cap, like a Jew’s yarmulke. The old man stood surrounded by people who stared at the golden sphere in his hand.
After Juventino left, Faria opened the Book of Mormon to page 6, where he saw a picture identical to the image he saw during the prayer. Later, he learned the man was Lehi, believed by Mormons to be the first Israelite to set foot in the Americas before Christ, who would follow later. The gold sphere was the Liahona, the compass that Lehi and his family used to traverse the ocean. Faria recognized Lehi as his ancestor, and this was enough for him to join the fold.
Faria believes that his crossing into the United States, a beacon of spirituality in the LDS faith, is part of a biblical prophecy. In 2004, there were 8.4 million undocumented Mexicans and Latin Americans in the United States, 55,000 to 85,000 in Utah alone, said Armando Solorzano, who teaches ethnic studies and family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, citing a 2004 Pew Hispanic Center Report. That wave of modern immigration is a sign of God’s gathering of the Children of Israel, Faria said.
“The people who come here to the United States, the people who come to Utah, are the chosen people,” Faria said. “They come here looking for the church and they don’t know it. I am an example of this.”
The LDS Church holds that the Book of Mormon tells the history of an indigenous people of the Americas in the time before Christ, in essence explaining the heritage of modern-day Latin Americans like Faria. The lineage stretches back to the 12 tribes of Israel. Events in the Book of Mormon begin in 588 B.C., when Lehi, a descendent of the house of Israel, and the man in Faria’s vision, came to the Americas with his family. Two of his four sons, Laman and Nephi, gave rise to two warring nations on the continent. The Lamanites initially rejected the Gospel and were separated from the Nephites and “cursed” with black skin for their iniquity. Eventually, the Lamanites grew in righteousness and triumphed over the Nephites. The remaining Nephites assimilated into the Lamanites, the primary ancestors of the indigenous people of the Americas. In A.D. 34, Mormons believe, Christ appeared in the Americas and those who acknowledged him flourished. The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas nearly 1,500 years later gave rise to the mestizos, a mix of Amerindian and European heritage.
LDS doctrine predicts a fast-approaching cataclysmic Second Coming of Christ in which the world as we know it will transform entirely. This will be preceded by two key gatherings of the righteous. The first will be in the Americas, likely Independence, Mo. The second will be in Jerusalem.
The LDS Church views the United States not only as the center of church leadership and the forecasted host to the Second Coming, but also as a beacon of liberty. BYU church history professor Richard Bennett explains that for some, the LDS emphasis on freedom underscores the importance of living in a free nation. Since Latin America houses some of the globe’s deepest inequality, church members might make the decision to immigrate to the United States. Eight percent of Latinos in the United States are LDS while 16 percent of Utah Latinos are LDS, according to a study by Solorzano. He said that in the ’70s, LDS Latin Americans came to Utah because of political unrest in their homelands and personal religious fervor; the LDS Church was instrumental in getting Latinos visas, rallying for their status as political refugees. Today, he said, Latinos of all faiths say economic factors bring them to Utah. Bennett, however, said that the church encourages members to stay in their home countries and “build Zion there.” Latino immigration to the United States, LDS or not, isn’t traditionally interpreted as the gathering of Israel, he said. Solorzano agreed that there is no scriptural foundation for this belief; rather, it originates in the popular folklore of Utah’s LDS Latinos.
Arturo de Hoyos left Mexico to attend BYU where he became a professor of sociology, now retired. A friend and mentor of Faria, de Hoyos recently founded Provo’s Universidad Hispana, a private business school for Latin American immigrants with high school degrees. He and his wife serve a mission at Faria’s ward, coordinating English lessons for Spanish-speaking members and guests. De Hoyos’ mission, part of the church-driven Iniciativa Hispana, or Hispanic Initiative program, is a response to the reality that Spanish-speaking church members likely will outpace English-speaking members in the near future.
Today, Latinos are converting to Mormonism faster than any group on the planet. There are 102 full-time missions in Latin America, said de Hoyos. The church numbers 3,681,000 Spanish-speaking members, with 952,950 in Mexico alone, fulfilling the prophecy in the Doctrine and Covenants, an LDS scripture, that “â€¦ the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose” in the latter days, or the epoch leading up to the Second Coming. “The Latinos are joining the Mormon Church tremendously. We believe that it is because they are beginning to remember who they are,” de Hoyos said.
Lamanite heritage is linked to indigenous land rights throughout the Americas, according to church member Abraham Tapia. He traces his roots back to the Aztecs, to the Yaqui tribe, one of the few to retain pure indigenous blood after the Spanish conquest. Following high school, Tapia worked in the fields of Southern California’s Imperial Valley alongside his Mexican father, picking tomatoes, watermelons and sugar beets. Today, Tapia baptizes people into the church, a right, he said, that comes from his role as an Aztec priest.
Tapia believes that the Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatal is Jesus Christ. He says the entire continent is a promised land for indigenous Americans, and that in the latter days their land will be returned to them. “Yo soy Americano,” he said, “There is a song: I am American. We are all Americans. There is a feeling of unity.” Tapia points to Latino government figures in the United States as a sign of the forthcoming repossession of this continent’s indigenous land.
Solorzano said some LDS Latinos understand immigration to the United States as a return to origin rather than a gathering of Israel. Some Mexicans, he said, believe that the Aztecs who created Mexico began their pilgrimage from Utah and today return to their homeland when they cross back over into the United States.
Tapia evokes the days when the indigenous could travel freely between what is now the United States and Mexico. Immigration is an issue the United States created; before, there was no border, he said. Today’s illegal immigration echoes the biblical epoch, he said. “A lot of people that come from Mexico are called â€˜wetbacks’ because they swim across the river to get into this country. The Jews left Egypt and they had to pass through the water. There is religious symbolism in this.”
De Hoyos, too, speaks of illegal immigration as a historic and biblical impetus. “When Moses sent the people out of Egypt, they entered the Promised Land illegally. When the Mayflower came to the shores of the United States, the pilgrims came here and entered illegally. There are many migrations, illegally. Why? It’s a part of the process of life,” he said.
De Hoyos has created a booklet on illegal immigration, which he sent to U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett as well as local lawmakers. It details proposed requirements for a working permit and later permanent residency, including at least five years stateside, a GED certificate and a mandatory monthly payment of $200 to the U.S. Treasury, varying by length of time in the country. As social benefits like driver licenses and in-state tuition at Utah’s public colleges and universities are rapidly closing off to illegals, and with anti-immigrant groups on the rise, de Hoyos still believes, “[Latinos]eventually will turn out to be a very powerful force of good, especially as they join the Mormon Church.”
Faria said that the discord of illegal immigration in the United States is part of God’s plan. “There are fabulous things coming for the immigrants,” he said, “but for this to happen, they have to suffer. In their path, there must be opposition. Everything exists in opposition. The night for the day, the darkness for the light. We don’t know what good is unless we know what bad is. We can’t know success without failure.”
Oscar Garcia, who came to the United States in 1997 on an LDS mission, began studying at de Hoyos’ Universidad Hispana in May. He was the first member of his stake in Mexico City to serve a foreign mission. His great-grandmother was one of the first LDS Church members in Mexico, and he attributes his family’s accomplishments to his faith. As a first-generation Latino in the United States, Garcia views the immigrant’s struggle as a gateway to a glorious future. “God said that we will be a generation of Latinos that will suffer because we are not legal here, because we are not born here or born from the people who populated this area many generations ago. We will have poverty and racism, but it’s because our children, who are born here as U.S. citizens, are the people that God will prepare for his future plans.”
Garcia said that as Lamanites come to the United States, the second generation will become fortified. His three children, he said, are living examples of how the Lamanites are increasing in righteousness in the latter days; God is finally taking the ancient curse of black skin for iniquity from this generation of Lamanites, Garcia believes. “My children are turning white and they are Lamanite descendents. My daughter is a white Mexican,” he said.
Bennett says that he has never heard Garcia’s interpretation. “The understanding of the scripture of the Book of Mormon is as the Lamanites increase in righteousness, they will become â€˜white’ in the sense of having their sins perfectly cleaned out of them. They become purified as a white and delightsome people but not in the connotation of pigmentation or racial expression,” he said. “Righteousness isn’t a matter of color, it’s a matter of heart.
Garcia finishes up computer class at Universidad Hispana on a Saturday. His Brazilian wife and three U.S.-born children nestle on the couch in the lobby, waiting. De Hoyos, the university president, greets the family in Spanish as Garcia gathers his backpack. The five of them walk out of the door and into the Provo sunshine. “We are like the pioneers of the Latino people,” Garcia said.