The San Juan Islands were named by Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza for Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.

Cascadia is a progressive paradise with a race problem.

The genius and self-awareness of the television show Portlandia clashes with our region’s secret history of covert racism. If we look at Portlandia’s representations of regional culture, we’d think we live in white country! The truth, however, is much more complex.

The journal Christ & Cascadia finds itself caught in these very same dynamics and, as we try to break them, the question is how? How do we characterize “Cascadian culture” while keeping a decent level of multiculturalism and complexity?

Matthew Kaemingk (2014), for example, has argued that there are common trends that characterize what he has called “a Cascadian Spirituality.” Among them, a preference to break off tradition and seek the divine in nature—the lone hiking mystic wearing REI robes. Yet this characterization, along with what we currently understand as a “Pacific Northwest faith” reads as very specific; one that stems mostly from European-American and privileged sensibilities.

To be sure, Kaemingk recognizes this limitation himself and introduces his argument as “the beginning of a conversation.”[1] As such, the conversation is a worthy one and, as Kaemingk and other contributors have argued, it needs to be expanded to account for the myriad of different traditions and interpretative communities that makes up the complexity of our bioregion.

Yet, how do we go about expanding this dialogue?

Toward a More Complex Cascadia

It is one thing to call for diversity, but any attempt at multicultural representation that involves culture as a hermeneutical key, presents its own set of challenges. Any discussion of “Cascadian culture” needs to recognize that this is a deeply complex and diverse place.

  • How do we speak of the different interpretative communities converging in our region without falling into reified aggregations of “Latinos,” “Asians,” Europeans” and so on?
  • Moreover, once—and if— we agree on what community we are talking about, how do we account for class, education level, gender, and citizenship within that tradition?
  • Furthermore, we must deal with the problems of defining “Cascadian culture” within the dynamics of globalization and post-colonialism (yes, I grew up in Chile but I do know who Zach Morris is, for crying out loud!).

Looking at this place and these questions we find ourselves constantly pulled by the forces of cultural essentialism and generalizing universalism. In what follows I will introduce a couple of considerations, directions, and words of caution for any hiker who attempts to explore the trails of Cascadian “culture.”

What I offer comes from my own position as a Latino immigrant academic researching the religious narratives of suffering of undocumented women from Central America. Therefore my account comes from trying to understand the Latino migrant experience in the Pacific Northwest. It is from this position—the Latino migrant experience—that I will speak about some challenges that are likely to come up in the journey that is “to love and know this place.”

Why Diversity?

Hardly anyone would disagree with the idea that diversity is good. In fact, diversity gets tossed around as essential and desirable in many a church conversation. Diversity, however, is not a mere ideal. The concept is historical and as such it expresses something about the state of ethnic relations in our context.

Paying attention to the historicity of diversity reveals two important points: First, diversity is not a progressive principle but a response. The self-legitimizing European-American narrative represents itself as “standard,” taking the “the immigrant” and “the Latino” experience as “new,” “emerging,” or “foreign.” Thus diversity becomes a necessity in the face of a homogenizing narrative.

Case in point, while there are records of Mexican explorers in the Puget Sound dating as far back as the 17th century, much of the history of Cascadia has been told from a European-American perspective often omitting the presence and influence of migrants and settlers from Latin America.

This tendency is replicated in the historic accounts of the City of Seattle, according to the Latino Heritage in Southeast Seattle Narrative Report By Irene Sanchez (2011). Thus, the history of the Latino influence in the region is written under the subsections of “migrants,” “immigration,” or “borderlands,” while the stories of European settlers are considered mainstream. Years have passed but this dichotomy continues to be replicated in the analysis of the “Cascadian Church.”

The second point is that the European-American narrative negates the fact that diversity invites us to recognize, which is the intrinsically hybrid nature of our communities in a globalized world. With the exception of Native Americans, we all arrived here—and continue to arrive— from somewhere. Therefore, our conversation about culture stands more at the center of a river delta than on firm land, with a myriad of river flows converging in one place.

And as we name this history, we feel ourselves falling under the same spell of cultural essentialism: “The White People” vs “The Brown People.”

So how do we acknowledge the brutal history of racialized power differentials without falling into reified cultural dichotomies?

A Proposal

I want to propose that a more diverse representation of Cascadia (that honors both the complexity and the power dynamics involved in our analysis) hinges upon our understanding of the word “culture”—a very imprecise term in its own right.

A helpful consideration comes from Jaan Valsiner, who observes that one can consider culture as a tool or as a container. As a container, we look at culture as a closed circle where we group “The Mexicans,” or “The Norwegians,” spending our energies in boundary and privilege policing, deciding who belongs and who has more street cred. This way of looking at culture carries little significance in a globalized world marked by constant migration, global media, and increasing income gaps.

On the other hand, when we consider culture as a tool, we focus on the ways in which we draw from our tradition(s) in order to relate to our neighbors in every day encounters. These encounters take place in locales that are fraught with power relations at the systemic and intimate levels. This view renders a more fluid and flexible analysis that has room to integrate collective narratives and social positions.

It is crucial, therefore, that our representations involve a reflection on the relationship between culture and selfhood in a globalized world, and more specifically, the role of power in the interaction between the two. As we will see in Part II, power deepens the conversation from the level of representation into a reflection of missiological and ecclesiological import.

As we reach the end of this article we realize we are just scratching the surface. In Part II I will focus on the analysis of ideology and power dynamics in the experience of one of the local groups that are currently being subject to a brutal amount of oppression—the undocumented members of the Church. For the sake of clarity and rigor I will focus particularly on undocumented members of the Latino Church in the Pacific Northwest, drawing links between their experience and ours highlighting the ways in which our journeys are inextricably connected.

Hopefully by the end we will see that the “us & them frameworks” of “white/brown,” “immigrant/citizen” are as evil as they are useless. Back to our dear Portlandia, for example: how many of us knew that Fred Armisen is half Latino? We have been around all along. We all just need different eyes to see ourselves as neighbors.


  • Maria-Jose Soerens

    Maria-José Soerens, MA, is a graduate student at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, UK, where she conducts research on the religious narratives of suffering of undocumented women. She is the founding executive director of Puentes: Advocacy, Counseling & Education, a nonprofit devoted to walk with undocumented migrants and their families by mobilizing mental health resources. She organizes for the Evangelical Immigration Table, and currently teaches at the MA in Theological Studies at Centro de Estudios Teologicos Interdisicplinarios. Maria-Jose migrated from Chile and lives with her husband Tim and their son in Seattle.

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