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Notes and news on immigration in the US, in Oaxaca, immigrant rights, and immigration reform.

¿Quienes somos? ¿Que necesitamos? Needs Assessment of Hispanics in Atlanta

¿Quienes somos? ¿Que necesitamos? Needs Assessment of Hispanics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta

Martha Woodson Rees and T. Danyael Miller

LINK TO REPORT: Rees&Miller Quienes Somos Latinos in Atlanta (2002)

Executive Summary: Hispanics in North Georgia

Not only the Catholic Church, but the United States as a whole is becoming more Hispanic. The number of Hispanic immigrants to the north Georgia area has grown over two hundred percent in the last decade, with most growth after 1995. Just in the metropolitan area of Atlanta, the Hispanic population grew over 130%, from 30,000 in 1982 to over 110,000 in 1992, to over 234,010 in 1998, becoming the largest non traditional minority group in the city. There are lots of reasons people migrate, but the most important factor for us here in the United States is to recognize the benefits immigrants bring us—cheaper labor, housing, child chare, domestic work, etc. We all benefit from this new class of Americans in our midst. This study reports on a unique step by the Archdiocese of Atlanta to describe the diversity, and resultant divergent needs, of its Hispanic members through a random survey of over 10% of participants in Spanish masses, probably the only one ever done—a systematic “listening session” initiated from the top down. This is in line with Vatican II on the rights and duties of migrating people and the local Church’s response: the right to have a homeland, with its spiritual and cultural links; second, not only the right to emigrate, but duties toward the host country, such as learning the local language; third, immigrants’ right to their language and spiritual heritage.

The Methods

The questionnaire is a short survey applied to a sample of 50 individuals at each Saturday and Sunday mass. We estimate that there are up to 25,000 participants in the over 60 Spanish masses in the Archdiocese of Atlanta in a given week. This data give us a “snapshot” of active Hispanic Catholics, which prepares the Archdiocese for continued work. This project simply describes the basic characteristics of the population in order to lay the groundwork for this future, more qualitative, work.


This report summarizes the findings from the survey, as well as from interviews in the parishes. Our conclusions deal with (I) the Archdiocese, and (II) the parishioners. These conclusions lead us to make a number of recommendations, which we offer as a first step in an on-going process of reflection and analysis to be carried forth by the Archdiocese.

I. The Archdiocese

1. Communication. From our work with the parishes, both in terms of difficulties in contacting many of them, as well as from comments and needs expressed by parish priests, religious sisters, staff and volunteers, it is clear that communication is not clear, swift or easy in many cases. If fact, communication is iffy throughout much of the Archdiocese. Many of the parishes (priests and/or staff) are not linked to others either socially or professionally. This contact would increase the viability of all the work of the archdiocese. Within parishes, there needs to be increased communication and coordination between Spanish and English clergy, laity and staff.

2. Hispanic diversity. There is incredible economic and cultural variation within the Hispanic population. Even within one nation, or state, like ours, there is significant variation. In Latin American countries these differences are often even more exaggerated. In the Archdiocese, these differences were often represented to us in negative terms (especially with respect to Mexicans), where in fact, they are an asset and an opportunity.

3. Hispanic/Anglo Relations. In addition to differences within the Hispanic community, there is a vast gap in understanding between the English- and Spanish-speaking communities. This is also often represented in negative terms, instead of as the opportunity that it is. There is significant anger toward the institution and between different national groups within the Archdiocese. For example, English-speaking host parishes often comment on the mess that people leave in the Hispanic masses. This is easily corrected by understanding how people use restrooms and conceive of trash in Latin America and by coordinating volunteer clean-up committees. First and foremost comes communication across these constituencies. Another example is the insulting stereotype that Mexican Catholics are more “uneducated” (which glosses as bad-mannered in Spanish).

II. Parishioners

There are vast numbers of Hispanics in north Georgia, and many are not being served by the Catholic Church. The institution needs to decide what role to play in the lives of the Hispanic minority (soon to be a majority, according to Bishop Arthur N. Tafoya, chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs). Hispanics are such an important minority, if we can still call them that, that are increasingly important players in the future of the Church.   What are the main characteristics of the Hispanic population?

  • The ratio of males:females in mass is 55:46
  • We conservatively estimate the total population of Hispanics in North Georgia to be 460,000
  • The average age of the population is 33 years
  • Women go to mass more often and are more likely to be married
  • Most people, 86% of the sample, are married or in a common law marriage
  • 15% have no children
  • Over 80% have no children in their home country (males of any age and all older migrants have more children in home country)
  • The population as a whole has an average education of 9.7 years, women have 10 years, and men, barely 9—but this differs widely by region and nation of origin
  • Hispanics come from 20 countries: Mexico is the birth country for over 75% of the sample, Colombia for 7% and Guatemala for 4%
  • The average year of arrival in the US is 1992, and in Georgia is 1995
  • At least 50% of the total Hispanic population is undocumented
  • About half send money home; especially those who report children left behind with relatives
  • Many still have strong ties to their country of origin—40% own a house there
  • The longer the US residence, the less money people send home
  • The most common form of household is for 3 family members to occupy two bedrooms and rent out the third bedroom (or the living room) to 2 non family members
  • Hispanics not as mobile as is commonly thought—over two years average in their current housing; males are a more mobile population than women.
  • Average rent is $665 per month
  • Most live in a house (49%), followed by apartments (36%) and trailers (12.5%)
  • Women work in meat packing (chicken plants) (11%) and domestic service (8%), professionals (7%) (13% were professionals at home)
  • Men work in carpet (7%), meat packing (chickens) (10%) and construction (29%), including 8% who are skilled construction workers or crew chiefs
  • In their home country, the largest group worked in agriculture (31%), with 13% in construction (13%) and 11% professionals
  • Unemployment is less than 4%
  • Most (61%) do not speak any English, while 35% report that they are bilingual; 3.9% speak an indigenous language
  • The main language spoken in the home is Spanish, but 10% speak English or English and Spanish at home
  • Most report that they come to mass every week
  • 80% get to mass in car, 9% by (paid) ride
  • 43% prefer mass at noon; and 80% prefer mass on Sunday
  • The mass in Spanish reflects their traditions
  • Few, 6.5%, have participated in another religion (or few who have participated in another religion return to the Catholic church)
  • Half would prefer a parochial school for their children
  • 10% need baptism services, over 25% have used these services
  • 25% report a need for Bible study or spiritual study
  • Three-quarters of the population would serve in a ministry in the parish; 73% have never served in a parish ministry
  • Most come to mass with between two and three other members of their household
  • 10% reported living in households with people who practice another religion
 What are the main needs of the Hispanic population?
  • More report social needs (35%) than religious needs (29%)
  • Most people know what services are offered in their parishes
  • The greatest needs are for English classes (35%), legal advice (33%), helping getting driver’s licenses (28%), and medical care (17%)
  • Few need financial help or job fairs—most are working and supporting themselves.
  • Services actually used include English (20%), other services (youth group, financial support and newcomers groups)
  • Few parishes offer social services


The population of Hispanics is young, mobile, and recent (1995). It is predominantly male, but many live in families in stable housing. The average household in this sample is made up of a married couple with two kids, who share a three bedroom house ($665 rent) with 1 or 2 non relatives. They’ve lived in their residence for almost two years, and have an average of two cars per household. Almost 90% speak mainly Spanish at home. Hispanics who attend mass in north Georgia are relatively more highly educated than the majority of the population in their home countries. Hispanics do not live in conditions that are much different from the non-Spanish speaking population, except for the composition of the household. Only the presence of an average of two non family members in each household indicates the composite structure of the household unit. The needs, participation in and knowledge of religious services offered at parishes indicate that Hispanics rate their sacramental, religious and pastoral needs highly (29%), although a somewhat higher figure report social needs (35%). People are willing to participate in their parishes, but there is a big gap between willingness and actual participation. Hispanics in the Archdiocese “want to be welcomed” (Unity in Diversity, United States Catholic Conference 2000),[1] but often feel unwelcome. They want to be bicultural, and have begun the acculturation process, but they do not want to lose their native language and customs. They want to learn English and participate in the life of the church in the United States. This certainly resonates with the US Catholic Bishops’ pastoral on “Welcoming the Stranger,” as well as Pope John Paul II’s message.


Our recommendations are made with the recognition that we giving our professional advice, we report and interpret what we see and what people tell us in the surveys and interviews. We make a series of recommendations, followed by specific implementation strategies, where indicated. In addition, it would behoove the Archdiocese to find out what other Arch/Dioceses have learned and done in this context.

1. Communication and Structure. We recommend email and web page contact for each parish—for announcements, services, changes, help and more. We recommend increased intra-institutional contact among diocesan leadership. There are structural problems within the parishes, roles and responsibilities within Hispanic ministry aren’t clearly defined, and as a result, messages get lost, ideas dissipate while being juggled around, and a “he said-they said” confusion often reigns.

2. Hispanic Diversity. In order to become aware of the differences in the Hispanic population, and, in order to reach people and to reduce misunderstandings, we recommend that the Archdiocese form groups of clergy, staff and lay people from different nations and regions within nations to serve as advisors on cultural issues. Implementation: The form could be as focus groups or committees. Independent consultants may best coordinate focus groups, in which up to 10 people are recruited to discuss a topic with a moderator who is a combination interviewer, researcher and therapist. The moderator must create a “safe” environment for people to be able to talk about sensitive issues, which allows focus groups to produce meaningful information. Priests and staff should not be present. Implementation: In addition, “listening sessions”, dinners, or social events within the Archdiocese would help increase communication and understanding. These should include the Archbishop, curia priests, and deacons—both Hispanic and Anglo or African American or Asian, etc. Pot luck suppers, especially those that highlight regional specialties, would be another way of encouraging all constituencies to know and appreciate each other. We found only a few parishes that offer coffee after mass.

3. Hispanic/Anglo Relations. The Archdiocese needs a more thorough pastoral planning with respect to diversity. Our experience in education has taught us that learning about folks who are different helps us understand and appreciate them. Implementation. One way to increase understanding across cultural differences is to incorporate those differences in the religious service, as testimony, or in some other way (see suggestions above, as well). Implementation: Another way to increase understanding and communication across Hispanic constituencies and between Hispanic and English ones are cultural diversity workshops that deal with differences in language, class, race (including skin color or ethnic group), and national origin. In addition, foreign clergy and religious sisters need to learn English more proficiently and to learn about life in the US, both for immigrants and natives alike. Implementation: cultural orientation of foreign clergy and religious sisters.

4. Broader Community Issues. A common frustration expressed by parishes is how to reach Hispanics who are not active Catholics. From our work in the community, we know that most Hispanics learn about people and places by word-of-mouth. We find that some people are very well informed; others aren’t. The most common way of finding out about church activities is via the announcements in mass—a time when there are lots of distractions. A simple and effective way to increase knowledge about church locations and masses is to change advertising strategies: post flyers with a mass schedule in businesses frequented by Hispanics or place a billboard in Spanish on the interstate with a calling to mass. In a market where other churches are actively recruiting Hispanics, a little more advertising could go a long way.

5. Stewardship. There is an apparent gap between actual participation (including tithing) and willingness to participate in ministries. Increased participation would probably increase stewardship and overall support. First and foremost, Hispanics need to feel welcomed in their church. Second, differential income and ability to contribute must be accommodated. One of the common Latin American systems (see cargos, p. 6) could be adapted to include men, women and children, to help run the church, and to give immigrants ownership of their US church, something that we’ve seen in only a few places. Third, several parishes expressed a need for deacon training in Spanish, which would facilitate many of the changes already mentioned here. The feeling was that deacons have to train in English, a policy that inhibits Spanish-speakers from participating. It appears as if Hispanics may not contribute proportionate to their numbers. In terms of stewardship, there are a number of alternatives. One is to educate the more affluent parishes, and to encourage them to share their resources and parish home with newer arrivals. If this doesn’t work, we suggest encouraging Hispanics to take greater ownership of their church in the United States. Welcoming strategies include Spanish signage and literature, as well as social services. In addition, social ministries with active volunteer groups would help immigrant parishioners to feel at home. 6. Needs. The Hispanic population has high social and religious needs. We recommend expanded religious and social services, include catechesis in Spanish, English classes,[2] medical and legal advice. Implementation: Create a social service ministry and organize volunteers in social service and other ministries, or use the concept of “twinning” to teach successful models to other parishes. In conclusion, we recommend that the Archdiocese help bridge differences without erasing those differences. This would enrich the whole culture, reduce misunderstandings and increase participation at the same time as it would help meet the urgent, very real needs of this population.

[1] Ibañez (2002) reports that students who feel welcome, do better in school.
[2] Of 26 free English classes offered in the area, 13 are offered in Baptist churches, a handful in churches of other denominations, some in secular organizations and a handful at Catholic churches.

Adelina Nicholls. Aqui estamos y no nos vamos (interview)

This interview with Adelina Nicholls, a grassroots activist in Atlanta, delineates the view of immigrant groups on the US political situation.

Adelina 287g

Adelina: Personally, I feel that this lack of action by the House isn’t just about immigration reform, but,as we have seen, any proposal that President Barack Obama puts forward will be and has been rejected, not just in their discourse, but also their actions. Conservatives and the Republican Party have the slogan to vote “no.” They refuse to support any initiative Obama puts forward. It is an open secret that virtually no Republican will support any proposal by an African American president. This is a problem of racism.”