Mujerista criticism is the practice of analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating biblical texts from the perspective of Latinas’ religious faith and the role it plays in their daily life experiences, in lo cotidiano (“everyday life”). This critical approach, also known as mujerista biblical interpretation, is grounded in Latinas’ struggle for survival and their conviction that reading the Bible must contribute to their liberation. Mujerista criticism draws on the insights of mujerista theology—a liberation theology that uses as its theological source the lived experience of Latinas living in the United States—to explore the biblical text as a resource for Latinas’ liberation. Ultimately, the goal of mujerista criticism and mujerista theology is the liberation and fullness of life of Latinas and of all poor and oppressed people. Therefore, any interpretation of the Bible that does not contribute to this goal is not accepted as valid, and any biblical text that impedes this goal is denounced.

Doing Mujerista Criticism.

Since mujerista criticism is grounded in Latinas’ religious faith and the role it plays in lo cotidiano, the first move of mujerista criticism, before exploring the biblical text, is to perform a critical cultural, sociohistorical, political, and economic analysis of Latinas’ reality. Such analysis should also include a careful understanding of their worldview, namely the values and goals that guide them and the hopes and dreams that inspire them. This critical analysis is done in two stages, first the internal understanding of themselves and then the external understanding of their cultural, sociohistorical, political, and economic reality. This analysis seeks to help Latinas and society at large to understand what changes are needed to enable the struggle for liberation.

After the analysis of Latinas’ reality, the second move of mujerista criticism is to go to the Bible and find a text that matches the issues that are being addressed by the community or can speak about their reality. Mujerista criticism is highly suspicious of traditional interpretations and biblical texts that can obstruct liberation for Latinas; therefore mujerista criticism is very intentional about seeking and highlighting biblical texts that deal with lo cotidiano and using only biblical interpretations that give attention to the importance and centrality of everyday experience.

Mujerista criticism highlights texts that can be used to empower Latinas and give them strength as they live every day. Key passages are those that characterize women taking control of their lives or making their own decisions, particularly when they go against the systems of power that are oppressive and unjust. These biblical stories do not need to be exclusively about women, since gender is not the only identity marker that speaks of oppression. Mujerista criticism acknowledges the multidimensionality of the lived experiences of marginalized subjects who are excluded not only because of gender but also because of ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation.

Some of the favorite passages in mujerista theology include the stories of (1) Shiphra and Puah (Ex. 1:15–21), two simple midwives who defied the king by disobeying his orders; (2) the young women of Israel who refused to let history forget Jephthah’s daughter by commemorating her life every year (Judg 11); (3) Ruth and Naomi, joined in faithfulness and relationship (Ruth 3:13–17); (4) the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears (Luke 7:36–59), a story demonstrating Jesus’s vulnerability, expressed in his need to be touched and be taken care of; (5) Jesus’s sharing with others his self-understanding and his mission, which expressed inclusivity (Luke 9:28–36); (6) Matthew’s description of the kin-dom of God as including human needs and care for the body (Matt 25:31–46); and (7) day workers who are treated unfairly and struggle for justice (Matt 20:1–16). All of these passages highlight the biblical cotidiano, which is central to a mujerista reading and interpretation of the Bible.

The third move in mujerista criticism is to analyze the context of the selected biblical text. As a mode of inquiry, mujerista criticism positions itself within the interpretive paradigm of cultural criticism because of its particular interest in lo cotidiano. Mujerista criticism is mostly attracted to this mode of critical discourse because it explores the biblical texts as sociocultural products emerging from their social and cultural context; the texts are inscribed with the codes from a particular world. The analysis of cultural criticism calls for an examination of social institutions, values, behaviors, class, and class conflict. What attracts mujerista criticism to this interpretive approach is its focus on the economic and sociocultural context of the text. This critical approach highlights the biblical cotidiano of the text—the cultural values and behaviors and the cultural matrix behind the text—rather than the religious and theological aspects of the text. This approach is interested in understanding the world behind the text.

Mujerista criticism listens to the voice of grassroots Latinas whose readings may not be scholarly but are valid because they are life-giving to themselves and to their communities. This recognition of the authority of Latinas to interpret the Bible is intrinsic to a mujerista praxis of liberation that seeks to contribute to the strengthening of these women’s moral agency and self-definition. Ultimately, theological and religious meaning of the text is not determined by the church or traditional interpretations but by the religious value that the text itself may have for Latinas given their experience in their individual reality, subjectivity, and everyday life.

Key Concepts in Mujerista Criticism.

In mujerista theology, liberation is understood as la lucha, the daily struggle for the flourishing of lives and fullness of life, for Latinas and for all. Therefore, mujerista criticism is guided by la lucha: it must contribute to liberation of Latinas and all.

Lo cotidiano is one of the core elements of mujerista theology. It is a complex term that goes beyond the everyday life experiences. For mujerista criticism, lo cotidiano means the immediate spaces of Latina lives, the first horizon of their experiences, which are the experiences that constitute their reality. Lo cotidiano is the cultural space of encounter where Latinas face the material world and interact with it; it is made up not only of physical realities but also of the relationship of Latinas with reality and their understanding and evaluation of such reality. Lo cotidiano is what grounds and situates the experiences of Latinas, what gives structure and limits to their social relations; it is constituted by the habitual way of judging reality, the usual tactics used to interact in life, and the practices and beliefs that have been inherited.

This way of being in the world and interacting with reality is not an uncritical act. Lo cotidiano is a way of interacting and negotiating everyday life in a critical and conscious way.

It refers to the lived experiences that have been analyzed and are now part of Latina identity, how Latinas understand reality and how they act. In and from lo cotidiano, Latinas engage in multifaceted dimensions of humanity. Lo cotidiano refers to the ways that they express themselves and the interplay of their multidimensionality—how they negotiate economic status, race, ethnicity, and gender. The scope of lo cotidiano goes beyond the personal and private world; it encompasses the public arena, the social system with which they interact every day, and the relations they have with friends, family, and community.

Mujerista criticism is unapologetically and radically subjective. It responds to the personal, which is understood by the social and human ability to discern and establish criteria that resonates with others. Radical subjectivity is about taking a stand and being grounded in Latinas’ interests and commitments, which are also accountable to the existence of others. It is the tension between the personal interest and the interest of others that makes it possible to be open to others for the sake of the common good. Radical subjectivity validates the claims that emerge from daily experience rather than from abstract ideas; it acknowledges the particularity and contextuality of all human knowledge.

Approaches to Biblical Texts.

Liberation and the promotion of liberation are the criteria for accepting or rejecting biblical interpretations and biblical texts. Biblical texts and interpretations are both validated and accepted as long as they help in the struggle for liberation. From that standpoint the biblical message is considered as the Word of God by mujerista criticism when it brings light and support to the process of liberation.

The text (or image), selected as analogy to help in moral decision-making, has to be consistent with the central biblical message. The biblical text has to be consistent with a theologically sound concept of God based on the understanding of the community. The text should be measured against the perspective of the whole life of Jesus.

Particular biblical and theological presuppositions undergird mujerista criticism.

First, the God of the Gospels is understood to have a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized. Second, the main message that Jesus preaches in the Gospels is understood as the establishment of the Kin-dom of God, where the hungry are fed, the homeless receive shelter, and the naked are clothed. This focus on kin-dom rather than king-dom is central to mujerista understanding.

While during the first-century Jewish world the metaphor of kingdom was probably the best way Jesus and his early followers found to indicate God’s benevolence, in today’s world the metaphor of the kingdom has become irrelevant; kingdoms rarely exist anymore. The metaphor of kingdom has lost much of the positive meaning it had for Jesus and his followers, and now often promotes decidedly anti-kingdom values. In mujerista theology the metaphor of the kingdom is now seen to refer only to male sovereigns and to reinforce a male image of God, still very prevalent in the church; it is seen as an ineffective and dangerous metaphor, suggesting an elitist, hierarchical, patriarchal structure that supports all sorts of systemic oppressions.

Exploring the context of the original metaphor provides a way forward. For Jesus and his early followers, speaking of the “Kingdom of God” was a way of speaking about shalom, about fullness of life. Shalom was not a private reality that each individual had to find or construct but a reality for which people needed to work together. Jesus made love of neighbor central to life in the Kingdom of God: love is communal, the task of a people and not solely of individuals. Shalom—fullness of life—is the value at the heart of the kingdom metaphor that Jesus used; today in mujerista theology, shalom goes by the name of liberation—a holistic liberation that happens at all levels of life: social, political, personal, spiritual.

The idea of kin-dom of God, of the family of God, is a much more relevant and effective metaphor today to communicate what Jesus lived and died for. It also serves as response to the ongoing concern for the loss of family values and the loss of a true sense of family in present day society. Kin-dom of God as the core metaphor for the goal of Jesus’s life helps to reconstitute the sense of family, as a family united not by ties of blood but by bonds of friendship, love, care, and community. This new family is an inclusive one, not constrained by the patriarchal structure of a ruling father with a submissive mother but inviting different structural configurations and a value on belonging, being safe, and becoming fully oneself.

Third, Latinas’ beliefs about Jesucristo come out of their reality as marginalized persons who struggle for fullness of life. Seeking to answer the question Jesus posed to his disciples, “who do you say that I am?,” mujerista criticism follows the tradition of the Gospel writers who created narratives about Jesus that responded to the questions and issues alive in the communities for which they wrote. Its struggle for liberation is a call for creative explanations of who Jesucristo is for them in ways that have a certain logical flow and coherence. Listening carefully to the voices of grassroots Latinas, mujerista Christology treats belief about Jesus as a mirror for conscience: Latinas know Jesus is with them because he joins them in their struggle for liberation—fullness of life.

Mujerista Theology.

Mujerista theology emerged in the late 1980s from the work of activist and theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz. Committed to the struggle for justice and peace, she began developing mujerista theology in the company of and in conversation with grassroots Latinas using ethnomethodology, an approach to sociological inquiry interested in the study of the everyday routines that people use to produce social order. The goal of ethnomethodology is to document the methods and practices used by the members of society to make sense of their world. As such, mujerista theology emerged as a forum for the voices of Latinas in their daily struggle for liberation and survival, and it continues to offer them the opportunity to confront oppressive religious teachings and practices as it seeks to empower Latinas to become agents of radical change in order to transform society and eliminate oppression.

Mujerista theology draws from three central elements of the reality of grassroots Latina women. First, mujerista theology is based on a mestiza and mulata Christianity, a mixture of religious practices and contents that come from the Catholicism of the Spaniard conquistadores, the African and Amerindian religions, and the Protestant and evangelical traditions. Within this Latino/a Christianity, influenced and shaped by different religious understandings and practices, the importance and use of the Bible offers a wide spectrum that goes from nonexistent for some Latinas to highly authoritative for others. Mindful of the wide spectrum, mujerista criticism seeks to help Latinas to appropriate the Bible in a liberative way.

Second, the source of mujerista theology is the experience of Latina women and their struggle for survival, not the Bible. Equally, the starting point for interpreting the Bible from a mujerista perspective is the experience of Latina women. Third, mujerista theology operates under the critical lens of liberation, a liberation that has to do with physical and cultural survival. Reading the Bible from this perspective means that the Bible can be accepted as divine revelation and as authoritative for life only as long as it contributes to the liberation of Latina women.

Out of the three foundational elements of mujerista theology emerge three guiding principles for doing mujerista biblical criticism: (1) the criterion for using the Bible is the need for liberation. Latina grassroots women use the Bible when they need it, for what they need from it, and in the manner in which they need it; (2) the central lens in mujerista criticism is the struggle for liberation, a hermeneutics of la lucha; and (3) Latinas’ interpretation of the Bible is central for identifying and struggling for their proyecto histórico, their preferred future.

The implementation of the proyecto histórico shapes mujerista biblical interpretation in four concrete ways. First, biblical exegesis is praxis. It is a communal task where all participants have a voice and it is a way to claim their right to think. Second, Latinas live their faith within a functional religious pluralism, a “grassroots ecumenism,” which Isasi-Díaz takes as an invitation to read the Bible beyond traditional doctrinal purity and in solidarity with Latinas, bringing to the text whatever tool is necessary from their diverse religious practices in order to understand the text in a liberative way. Third, the Bible should be read in ways that confront and defy elitism, demanding the elimination of its hierarchical understandings, structures, and ecclesiastical privileges. Fourth, mujerista criticism should reject the split between the personal and the political, respect the self-determination for the person, analyze and redefine power for a just society, respect the right of all groups to struggle and achieve liberation, and achieve the common good.

Influenced by her Roman Catholic background as a former novice, Isasi-Díaz’s main concern about the Bible is the exclusivist way in which it has been read and used to control women and prevent them from appropriating the text from their own views. Operating from a hermeneutics of suspicion, Isasi-Díaz seeks to subvert the patriarchal power of the Bible by questioning its authority and accepting it only as a liberating and authoritative text in as far as it enables and advances the liberation and survival of Latina women. By empowering Latina women to use their experience as the entry point into the Bible and by opening a forum where Latina women can read the Bible the way in which they need to in order to survive, Isasi-Díaz challenges the elitist views and hierarchical readings of those in power to authorize the correct interpretation of the Bible. By subverting all the authorized ways of reading the Bible, Isasi-Díaz de-patriarchalizes the biblical text and calls into question the solidarity of the church with women who have to find their own liberative ways of reading the Bible in order to survive and struggle for a better world. Mujerista theology affirms that without liberation there cannot be justice and peace. Liberation is a communal endeavor, and no one can find liberation in isolation or at the expense of others. Mujerista criticism, therefore, is a communal endeavor that seeks the liberation of all.

In the process of finding a name for the theological work of Latinas and their commitment to liberation, Isasi-Diaz was inspired by the work of black feminists who preceded Latinas in the struggle to name themselves and was immensely influenced by their use of the term “womanist.” The name mujerista is derived from the Spanish word mujer, which means woman. The name mujerista was inspired by the songs of women from Isasi-Diaz’s Latina community, who sing about strong women who struggle for equality, particularly “Cántico de Mujer” written by Latina activist Rosa Marta Zárate Macías.

Who Is a Mujerista?

Mujeristas are persons who opt for Latinas, who have Latinas’ liberation and fullness of life as their goal because they are convinced that no one can be fully liberated unless all are liberated. Men can be mujeristas; non-Latinas or non-Latinos can be mujeristas. Professional theologians can be mujeristas, in the same way that grassroots Latinas are theologians. Also, Latinas with some training in religious studies such as catechists, pastoral workers, or ordained Latina women in Protestant churches can be mujerista theologians. All those who see themselves interconnected in the struggle for liberation can be mujeristas, for everyone can take part of it as mujeristas themselves. The struggle for liberation is an option for life and a rejection of untimely and unjust death.

Doing mujerista theology is a praxis of liberation, a way of making a contribution to the struggle for fullness of life for Latinas in the United States. Doing mujerista theology is a way of contributing to the church and to its theological understandings, enriching what it teaches about the divine and about Latinas’ relationship with the divine. Doing mujerista theology is way of influencing society, a call for all to be concerned about others and for others, particularly those who are oppressed—the poor, marginalized, exploited, abused, and victims of discrimination. Doing mujerista theology is a way of bringing joy to others, of contributing to their fullness of life. Doing mujerista theology is life-giving, particularly when it is life-giving to others.

[See also INTERSECTIONAL STUDIES; READER-ORIENTED CRITICISM; and WOMANIST CRITICISM.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Isasi-Diáz, Ada María. “The Bible and Mujerista Theology.” In Lift every voice, edited by Susan B. Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engle, pp. 261–269. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.
  • Isasi-Diáz, Ada María. “Defining Our Proyecto Histórico: Mujerista Strategies for Liberation.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 9, no. 1–2 (Spring–Fall 1993): 17–28.
  • Isasi-Diáz, Ada María. “La palabra de Dios en nosotras—The Word of God in Us.” In Searching the Scriptures, Vol. 1, edited by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, pp. 86–97. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
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Leticia Guardiola-Saenz