NEW YORK -- José Espinal first settled in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Williamsburg in 1965, surrounded by other people who, like him, were born in the Dominican Republic. A devout Catholic, he’s looking forward to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States on Tuesday, partly because Espinal sympathizes with the new pope’s message of compassion for undocumented immigrants.
“I have the same respect for him that I have for the previous popes, because they’re all doing the same work,” Espinal, 75, told The Huffington Post after mass at the Transfiguration Parish. “But obviously, considering that he’s Latino, we’re a little bit closer to him,” he added, with a playful smile.
As Francis prepares to make his first U.S. trip since taking the reins of the Catholic hierarchy, his visit will be watched especially closely by Latinos -- and not just because he’s the first Latin American to hold the office.
He will give most of his speeches in his gently Italian-inflected Argentine Spanish, allowing him to connect at a more visceral level with recent migrants and Spanish-speaking Americans, who also speak English. He will meet with immigrants in New York City, including people like Christian Contreras, one of more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors to cross illegally into the United States over the last three years, seeking refuge from the violence of Central America. Francis will canonize Junípero Serra, who worked as a Spanish missionary in California in the 18th century and will become the first American Hispanic saint.
But just as importantly for many Hispanics, the first Latino pope will likely deliver a series of messages that embody a popular strain of Latin American progressivism rooted in the application of New Testament teachings to tackle social problems.
Francis has captured the world’s attention with his compassionate messages, which have allowed priests more latitude to forgive some acts the church views as serious transgressions, like abortion. And also to take steps to embrace the LGBT community -- though stopping short of abandoning the biblical definition of marriage being between a man and a woman. Francis has personally cast off some of the symbols of wealth traditionally associated with the church, urging the hierarchy to adopt an attitude of humility more consistent with an institution designed to serve the poor.
And perhaps most important to Hispanic Catholics like Espinal, Francis has emerged as an international champion of immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, whether Syrian or Central American.
“It’s marvelous,” Espinal said . “He supports our immigrant brothers who don’t have papers, whom people here call 'illegals' -- something I don’t agree with."
"They call them 'illegals,' but they’re coming to make a living here fairly and to work for the well-being of their families. Why call them 'illegal?' I don’t ... I’m very much in agreement with our Holy Father about that," he added.
It’s not just the pope’s common ancestry that appeals to Hispanics, but his message of compassion. Jackie Cruz, 47, who grew up in the same South Williamsburg neighborhood as Espinal and is also of Dominican heritage, said she feels his presence more strongly than that of previous popes because of his humility and eagerness to connect with everyday people.
“He’s bringing a beautiful message of peace,” Cruz told HuffPost. “He’s an example of unity.”
Though Francis rarely makes overtly political statements, many Latino religious leaders hope his defense of immigrants will drown out the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that was stirred up during Republican primary campaigning. Several GOP candidates have embraced hardline immigration positions and called for the elimination of birthright citizenship.
Current frontrunner and billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, in particular, has angered Latino leaders by painting Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as "rapists" who bring crime and drugs to the U.S.
“Thank God the pope is coming because the pope is going to rebuke the living daylights out of Donald Trump,” evangelical Pastor Samuel Rodríguez, who heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told HuffPost. “He won’t do it explicitly, by name, but I am almost certain that he will speak about the image of God in every human being and the dignity of immigrants, that immigrants are a blessing and not a curse.”
There’s little question that whatever the pope says, many Latinos will listen. Eighty-eight percent of Hispanic Catholics view him favorably, according to a poll released in March by the Pew Research Center -- figures that easily top those of his predecessor.
However, Hispanics have in recent years drifted from Latin America’s deep Catholic roots, often joining evangelical churches. Some 55 percent of Hispanics identified as Catholics as of 2013, according to a Pew study released last year. That figure marks a precipitous decline from from the 67 percent of Latinos who identified as Catholics in 2010. Over the same three-year period, the share of Hispanic Protestants jumped 4 percent.
It's in this context that journalist María Hinojosa has asked whether Francis’ apparent radicalism may have more to do with the Vatican’s attempts to market itself to a world where the church’s future is increasingly tied to U.S. Latinos, Latin America and other regions of the world where the church’s solidarity with the poor resonates.
“The cynics would say, ‘this is pretty incredible marketing,’” Hinojosa said in a segment of Latino USA that aired Friday. “And it’s about, really, bottom line, making sure that more people are becoming Catholic and more people are remaining Catholic.”
Diana Richardson-Vela, CEO and president of the Catholic Association of Hispanic Leaders, said she thinks the pope will draw more Latinos back into the flock precisely because his concern for the issues they care about is genuine.
“He’s going to address us on issues that are extremely important to us as Latinos,” said Richardson-Vela. “He’s going to be talking about immigration, he’s going to be talking about family life, about taking care of the elderly, taking care of the poor … All of these are very important to Latino life."
“It’s refreshing,” she added. “We couldn’t have a better representative.”