Cleofas Calleros & Liberation Theology

Cleofas Calleros and Liberation Theology


Robert J. Tinajero, MTS, MFA


“We are also very poor in this part of the country, so what little we have we are sharing with you”

Cleofas Calleros – Nov. 5, 1957

Cleofas Calleros (1896-1973) was an important civic and religious figure in the United States southwest during his lifetime.  Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to Ismael Calleros and Refugio Perales de Calleros, the family moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1902, where Cleofas would attend school and eventually graduate as valedictorian from a small, religiously affiliated high school, St. Ignatius.  He would later attend Palmer Business Writing School, Droughon’s Business College, and St. Edward’s University.  He married in 1918 to Benita Blanco and had one daughter, Margarita Calleros Blanco.

His celebrated career centered around his position as the Mexican Border Representative of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Bureau of Immigration in El Paso, from 1926 until 1968.  According to the biography posted on the University of Texas-El Paso Library website, “he handled over a million immigration cases in his role as welfare director and social worker, including assisting religious groups who were persecuted and expelled by the Mexican government in the 1930’s.”  Calleros published extensively, worked closely with a number of local charities, was a sought-out speaker in the United States and Mexico, co-founder of a number of civic organizations, and a historian and supporter for the Tigua Indian’s cause in El Paso.  Calleros received numerous awards and recognition for his civic efforts and received a Purple Heart for his service in World War I.

For more biographical details, refer to the Biography link on Calleros at the University of Texas-El Paso Library website (, located in the Special Collections section of the site.  One may also be interested in references to Calleros’ life and work in Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America by Zaragosa Vargas and Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez 1893-1923 by David Dorado Romo.


Though Calleros published extensively, my focus here is on the Cleofas Calleros Papers located in the Sonnichsen Special Collections Department located at the University of Texas-El Paso Library.  The collection was donated by Calleros’ daughter and grandson in 1979.  While the collection has been organized, with a table of contents available on the library’s website, the material is not part of the popularly published corpus of Calleros’ work.  The material in the collection, though researched by some, has remained tucked away in the library for years.  My hope is to shine some light on a small slice of Calleros’ writings while focusing on his religious activism.

The collection has been separated into nine “containers” or sections by the UT-El Paso Library, with some texts overlapping.  The sections are as follows:

I.                    General Correspondence

II.                 Civic/Religious Organizations and Activities

III.               Political Activities and Issues

IV.              Business and Financial Material

V.                 Literary Endeavors

VI.              Personal and Biographical Material

VII.            Photographs and Other Works of Art

VIII.         Publications by Others

Considering the nature of my research interest, my focus was on section II of the collection: Civic/Religious Organizations and Activities.

In no way was my focus expansive, as I was specifically looking for material that emphasized Calleros’ activism within the context of religiosity.  As I found more material that fit this research I began to see how framing Calleros within the theological movement known as Liberation Theology would be legitimate and productive.  Further study of Calleros in the context of cultural studies, race studies, Mexican American studies, historical studies, and rhetorical studies, would be important and fruitful work.

Along with this article, which attempts to situate Calleros within the practical and ideological work of Liberation Theology, my hope was to make the Collection more accessible to those doing future studies.  Thus, through my grant proposal, the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project (University of Houston) has secured monies to microfilm and digitize the Collection.  This project was funded under the name of Highlighting and Preserving the West Texas Religious Ethos (1920-1960): Selected Documents from the Cleofas Calleros Papers.

Liberation Theology

Before making direct links from Liberation Theology’s ideology to Calleros’ work and rhetoric, it is important to look at a working definition of Liberation Theology.  While most point to the 1950s and 1960s as the foundational period for this theology, some suggest that it was first discussed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 1930s, while many sympathizers would also suggest that Jesus himself was the first Liberation theologian.  At its core, Liberation Theology is concerned with doing theology (discussing and analyzing God and His/Her works) with an emphasis on social justice and political activism.  The poor and marginalized are privileged as the mirrors for social inequality and injustice, and “loving your neighbor” is directly linked to struggling against human suffering and critiquing society’s oppression of the poor and voiceless.

In the eyes of Liberation Theologians, the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ should be used to resist and defeat oppressive forces in the world, including political, social, and economic forces that tend to help the middle and upper classes, while leaving the poor out in the cold, literally and figuratively.  Christians should find a divine purpose in their existence and, as Jesus did in his time, reach out to the marginalized and, if need be, suffer for justice and righteousness in the spiritual and, centrally, the material world.

Fundamental beliefs in human equality have been voiced for years, including missionaries in the early colonial period in Latin America “who questioned the type of presence adopted by the church and the way indigenous peoples, blacks, mestizos, and the poor rural and urban masses were treated” (Boff).  Men such as Bartolome de Las Casas, Antonio de Montesinos, Antonio Vieira, and Brother Caneca, lived in many ways the religious life supported by what would later be labeled Liberation Theology.  So, this theology’s status may have been solidified in the 1950s and 1960s, but its roots run deep, especially in Latin America and Europe.

But, despite of (or, because of) its growing influence, Liberation Theology has met many detractors.  In Catholic circles, where the movement had many of its first supporters, Liberation Theology was seen by many as being too political and aggressive.  Instead of focusing on understanding and reconciliation, this breed of theology was focused on struggling for justice, and for some that meant a violent struggle if need be.  And because some threads of Liberation Theology centered on Marxist and socialist ideals, marked by bouts of violent protest, many in the Church’s hierarchy, including Pope John Paul II, and the current Pope Benedict XVI (former Cardinal Ratzinger), worked against the growth of the movement.  As Pope John Paul II put it in a 1979 speech, “this conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis.”

Despite the opposition, Liberation Theology grew in its scope and influence, becoming a defining principle for a number of clergymen in the Catholic Church (many in Latin America), and a strong influence in Protestant theology.  Some central Liberation Theologians/Practitioners include Oscar Romero, the Catholic priest assassinated in San Salvador for his activism against death squads and criticism of El Salvador’s government, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Haiti), Alan Boesak (South Africa), Hugo Assmann (Brazil), Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Robert Brown (U.S.), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua) and Virgilio Elizondo (U.S).  For a more in-depth look at Liberation Theology one may look at these central texts: A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez, The Poors, Jesus and the Church by Paul Gauthier, Jesus and Freedom by Sebastian Kappen, Towards a Theology of Liberation by Rubem Alves, and for a more historic look at the subject, Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff.


It may seem that standing up for the marginalized is an obvious good, but for many throughout history, poverty and marginalization has been a sign of incivility and backwardness.  In theological circles, marginalization was discussed and, in some ways, fought against, but placing the marginalized at the center of doing and “thinking” theology was/is rarely the case.  Using the poor and oppressed as the lens to view, discover and implement the word of God was, and continues to be, the exception to the rule.

Because Cleofas Calleros was working in the southwest United States, a land stamped by the cruelties of colonization, let me provide some commentary by Virgilio Elizondo, a leading Liberation Theologian:

The European colonizers made rapid progress.  The new nation was to be the new Israel, the new Athens, the new Rome, and the new Jerusalem all in one.  Conquest, power, and wealth were the evident signs of God’s election.  Poverty and misery were signs of sinfulness and rejection.

Anglo-Americans started to move into the northern territories of what was then Mexican territory.  Some came legally, but most were illegal immigrants who had no regard for Mexican laws.

And the Mexican had a totally different worldview from that of the aggressive, land-hungry, power-intoxicated Anglo-American Indian-fighter.  The Mexicans were labeled inferior, lazy, deceitful, superstitious, incapable of assimilation. (14)

Simply put, a history of colonization and post-colonization, marked by middle-class, Anglo-American hegemony, led to injustice, inequality and the oppression of non-Anglo, especially poor, citizens of the southwestern United States.  The work Calleros did was a life-long response to the social and political forces that marginalized the underprivileged non-Anglo in the southwest, specifically El Paso, Texas.  And while African Americans and Asian Americans suffered under the same oppressive forces in the southwest, my focus here is Mexicans and Mexican Americans; the people Calleros defended the most and wrote the most about.  And it is because of this activism, while holding true to his Religious beliefs and holding a high post in a religious organization, that I place Calleros within the context of Liberation Theology.

It is important for me to state that Cleofas himself never claimed to be a Liberation theologian, and that Liberation Theology hadn’t reached a critical mass until late in his life.  But, there is no doubt that Calleros embodied the spirit of Liberation Theology in his own way.  And while he never took up arms or resorted to violent measures, features of some Liberation practice, I believe he undoubtedly personified the ethos of that movement.  And though he may not have been directly influenced by Liberation Theology writing (another opportunity for future research), he was, in the same way people were “Marxists” or “Postmodernists” before Marxism or Postmodernism, an embodiment of this Theological movement.


Simply defined, orthopraxy means “right action.”  In this postmodern age, “right” can be, and is, defined in a myriad of ways.  What Calleros thought was right, and what fit into his theological perspective, was the defense of the marginalized and the struggle against racist and classist hegemonic forces.  This is the same “right” put forth by Liberation Theology.

Many tend to see “right action,” in relation to combating suffering, as something needed to done on a grand scale—a grand speech, a million-dollar donation, the formation of an agency or foundation, etc.  What Calleros embodied was the notion that smaller, consistent acts of generosity and caring are needed in the everyday battle against oppressive forces.  As Philomena Essed points out, in her discussion of racism, “racism is defined as inherent in culture and social order…it is more than structure and ideology.  As a process it is routinely created and reinforced through everyday practices” (177).  It is in everyday occurrences that oppressive forces, such as racism, are perpetuated.  It is the negative things that are done, and the positive ones that are not, that give life to this marginalization.

In a letter to the El Paso city engineer, Mr. Perez, dated 1958, Calleros, writing from his position as the Mexican Border Representative of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, expressed concern for the constant flooding of streets, specifically on “the Southside of 8th Street” (CCP 5,6).  He was upset that the flooding had been ignored despite the fact that the problem had persisted for some time.  It seemed to him that the city was not concerned with the problem and that the citizens were left to deal with the situation.

While a flooded street is not equivalent to something such as systematic starvation, it was important to the citizens and a situation Calleros felt compelled to do something about.  And that is somewhat the point.  Marginalization is not only about vast colonialism, the conquering of towns, cities, states, regions, countries, etc., but also very much about the everyday actions, and non-actions, of those in power.  Calleros did not ignore these everyday moments.  Neither does Liberation Theology.

We can find numerous instances in contemporary times that parallel this everyday problem of a flooded street.  Today, those with economic and cultural capital, are able to get their problems fixed faster and more often.  From fixed potholes to better healthcare, there are still those that are privileged and those that are marginalized in our society.  In the early to mid-1900s, Calleros was a warrior against many of these problems in El Paso.

Mixing social, political, and religious activity, as does Liberation Theology, Calleros stated in a 1957 letter to Juan Navar, “the Catholic Welfare Association is the only logical and effective means of carrying on an intelligent and practical social work under the Catholic auspices” (CCP 5,6).  It was Calleros’ belief that religious work was social work and vice versa.  Religiosity was not only about going to Mass and receiving the Sacraments, it meant being socially active.  It meant being concerned about flooded streets and being generous to real people in real situations.

In a November 5, 1957 letter to Bishop Dwyer of Reno, Nevada, Calleros addresses a plea for help from the Bishop: “We are also very poor in this part of the country, so what little we have we are sharing with you” (CCP 5,6)).  His generosity and solidarity are apparent.  In Calleros, to very loosely paraphrase Theologian Justo Gonzalez, the gospel of love is translated into actual good works (26).  It is not simply a “thinking about” proper action, theorizing about what is good, but about doing good (orthopraxy) in everyday situations.  It is about helping the less fortunate and, in Calleros’ case, as with Liberation Theologians, doing so because of deeply held religious beliefs.

In a final example, focused more on churchly duties, Calleros writes to El Paso Rev. Father Blanchard, in a letter dated November 14, 1933, concerned about the diocese’s waist of money due to bad financial oversight.  In the letter he addressed forty-nine families that are receiving assistance from the local Church and points out that the bookkeeping on this assistance has a number of errors and is costing the diocese more money than it should.  In another “everyday” instance (bookkeeping), Calleros is looking out for the Church and freeing up money that can be used to help other families.  Though not dealing with vast sums of money, the monies freed up by Calleros’ investigation could be used to provide further help to those suffering under economically and socially oppressive forces.  As we know, the poor are not dealing with stocks, bonds, and brokerage accounts, but with the everyday realities of poverty.  Calleros understood this fact.

There were numerous examples I could have chosen from, and many more which have yet to be excavated from the Calleros Special Collection—examples which highlight Calleros’ commitment to relieve suffering and to spreading not only the message of love and liberation, but the action of love and liberation.  His actions spoke for the man he was, but that “speaking,” the discourse Calleros put forth, was equally important.  His orthodoxy fed his actions and reached beyond the southwest.


Orthodoxy, or “right doctrine,” points to specific beliefs, virtues and ideology.  I am not using it in the more common sense of conservative adherence to strict (many times religious) rules.  While orthodoxy and orthopraxy certainly influence each other in many complex ways, I do believe there is a distinction between what one does, physically, in the material world, and what ones’ beliefs are in the mental and spiritual realm.  In the case of Cleofas Calleros, his beliefs were strongly held and help us understand his civic activities and his continued emphasis on equality and liberation.

In an August 25, 1960 letter to a Mr. Neelly, Calleros writes to thank him for his service to the local community and for “alleviating suffering.”  And, in an issue just as pertinent today, Calleros thanks Neelly for his work in brining down Border Patrol watch towers, which he describes as “hideous monstrosities” (CCP 5,6).  Calleros was clearly against the use of watch towers by the Border Patrol, which he felt undermined the ideals of the United States and the ideals of the Church.  In stating his opposition to watch towers, Calleros’ beliefs move into the realm of the political, a hallmark of Liberation Theology.  He was not only concerned with feeding the poor and caring for the sick, but understood the social ramifications of political moves, such as the resurrection of watch towers.  Calleros saw no distinction between his religious and political views, no distinction between his duties as a Christian and his social activism—once again, an embodiment of the spirit of Liberation Theology.

Important examples of issues central to Calleros’ thinking and ideology come to light in a letter to one of his superiors, Mr. McCarthy.  While the letter is dated April 26, 1967, Calleros dealt with many of these issues prior to the 1960s, in his tenure in the National Catholic Welfare Conference.  In the letter, Calleros is describing a meeting between himself and members of the U.S.-Mexican Commission for Social Development, lead by Raymond Telles.  The three other committee members present at the meeting were Robert Allen, of the U.S. State Department, Dr. John M. Richards, Head of the Political Science Department at UT-El Paso, and Dr. Gifford W. Wingate, Head of the Economics Department at UT-El Paso.  According to the letter, Mr. Telles had requested Cleofas Calleros be present at the meeting “so that the other three gentlemen (Allen, Richards, Wingate) would make notes from ‘a man who had spent most of his life on the Border in social, charitable and welfare work, and whom he had known since his (Telles) childhood.’”

In the letter, Calleros pinpoints specific issues and states that his views were expressed “at some length” during the “two and one half hour” session.  His concerns and ideology (orthodoxy) come through in the following list of some of the circumstances he addressed:

–         discrimination toward children of Mexican descent in schools and adults in employment

–         how over 750,000 “Mexicans” were “repatriated” to Mexico during the National Depression in 1930-1938

–         how the Ku Klux Klan operated in the Southwest, particularly in Texas, during its hey-day from 1922-1940

–         how Mexicans, regardless of citizenship, were denied benefits

–         how the “programs” involving “illegal entrance, wet backs and braceros” operated officially and in practice

–         how those of Mexican descent were treated as social outcasts in many communities, particularly Texas

–         why the Mexican has not forgotten what happened to him during the Texas Independence (1836); Mexican-U.S. War (1846-1848); and the Gadsden Purchase (1853)

–         why there were no people of Mexican descent teaching in public schools during 1920-1945

–         the “idiotic” classifications used for persons of Mexican descent, including the persistent classification by the average Anglo of “non-white human”

–         the fact that the Mexican never entered the “melting pot”

–         the “elitism” of certain organizations who supposedly had come together to foment better international relations

–         the fact that “the Mexican” has been studied and analyzed by many individuals, agencies, and organizations for years, including many which Calleros assisted with, but these studies, and recommendations stemming from them, have been fruitless                             (CCP 5,6)

At the end of the letter Calleros adds, “It is a fact that the Mexican as a human has an ‘elephant memory’, and by tradition and word of mouth things are told and passed from generation to generation.”

Calleros’ thoughts on social, economic and political issues become apparent in this list of concerns, and his concluding remarks.  Calleros is well aware of the social political and historical realities which surround the Mexican descendant in the United States and it becomes clear how his “thinking” on such topics led to his “doing”—his social activism.

A final example from the Cleofas Calleros Collection, clearly revealing a part of  Calleros’ orthodoxy, comes from another letter to Mr. McCarthy, dated June 25, 1966, which addresses Calleros’ observations “during the past seventy years” on racial inequality (CCP 5,6).  Responding to a request to fill out a questionnaire for an Equal Employment Opportunity Employer Information Report for his National Catholic Welfare Conference Department of Immigration staff, Calleros responds poignantly and aggressively.  When describing the racial makeup of his close staff he states, about Miss Elva Morales, that she has Tepehuan American blood in her and “How much Spanish blood no one will ever know.”  His directed sarcasm continues with his racial description of Miss Adela Wallace: “…her father was Anglo-American and her mother a North Mexico American Indian.  How much European blood her father had or how much Spanish blood her mother had, no one know.”  He continues with Miss Annie Harron, whose “father was originally of English-Irish ancestors, her mother was a Tigua New Mexican American Indian, how much Spanish blood of the original 1598 Spanish explorers she had, no one will ever know.”  And finally, he saves the longest racial explanation for himself: “[I’m a] combination of Tepehuan and Tarahumara Indian blood; the parental grandparents were Tepehuan Indian, the maternal grandfather was a Southern-Chihuahua-American Indian and the maternal grandmother was right on the dividing line of the white race Tepehuan Indian and the red race Tarahumara Indian.  YOU FIGURE IT OUT (his emphasis), the fact is that we four are Caucasians.”

While modern-day Hispanos/Latinos/Mexican Americans would shy away from the Caucasian label for personal, social, and political reasons, Calleros was frustrated that Mexican Americans were seen as second-class citizens and that they had to “explain themselves” and their heritage.  His complexity and sarcasm in answering the race question show Calleros’ intelligent and aggressive approach to defending Mexican Americans.  He could have answered the question quickly and simply, but his beliefs/virtues/ideology would not let this moment slip by without a fight and strong response.

These are some of the highlights of Calleros’ three-page letter, in which he expresses more of his central ideology/orthodoxy:

–         during the past seventy years, it has been my observation that the white race…would like to think that they are superior of all humans

–         many of the white race…do not even wish to admit that the first human in this world, according to scientific study, was a member of the Negro or black race

–         the majority of Americans…consider themselves the only true Americans, forgetting the fact and not accepting the fact that there are twenty other kinds or brands of Americans in North, Central and South America

–         since the first “pioneers” came from Missouri in covered wagons to Utah in 1840, it was been the accepted way of life to believe that they actually brought culture and civilization to the West in 1840 and that nothing existed West of the Mississippi River

–         (c.1830 and beyond) the Mexican became an unwanted and discriminate human who could be pushed around and classified to fit the whims of the “melting pot” that had infiltrated to areas south of Kentucky and West of the Mississippi

–         at the turn of the century…and since the computer came into being, it has become more difficult to place him in the right [classification] he thinks he belongs or where someone else believes should belong

–         the Mexican has been so unwanted, harassed, discriminated, set-aside, etc., that he himself is confused as to what he should call himself or be known as

–         Mexicans have now become the football of many classifications such as…Texans…Spanish-Americans…Mexico-Americans…Latin-Americans

–         very few who have “graduated” to white collar jobs will admit that they are of Mexican ancestry simply because boys who were born Roberto are now Robert, Bob, or Bobby, and girls who were born Ana are now Ann, Anne or Annie

–         (referring to a thirty-five year study he did in the 1930s on Mexicans in the United States) …Mexicans have become more confused since this thirty-five year study

As is apparent, Calleros’ ideology is centered around intelligent research and lived experiences.  It is this ideology, this strong opposition to inequality and injustice, that make up his orthodoxy—his core beliefs that are his guiding light in his fight against oppressive forces and liberation.

His Thoughts and His Deeds

As previously stated, orthodoxy and orthopraxy mingle in complex ways.  What we believe affects our actions.  What we do, or have done to us, affects our inner thoughts and worldview.  Calleros’ worldview involved both doing and saying.  The fire in his discourse was the same fire in his actions.  In his position in the National Catholic Welfare Conference, he was not only able to mix the world of religion with the world of social activism, he was also able to mix the world of discourse with the world of material action.

It is true, many of us “do what we say” and “say what we do”, but rarely do we do it in the realm of social justice, or to the extent Calleros did it to help liberate his people from the shackles of poverty and social inequality.  In small ways (fixing flooded streets, saving the Church money) and larger ways (combating the ideology of racism), Calleros, throughout his life, built a monument of hope, of justice, and of love—all central themes of Liberation Theology.  He influenced countless persons in his lifetime, and this article is only a small branch birthed from the roots he planted.

I end with a quotation from David Maldonado Jr., a leading theologian of Hispanic descent:  “The task of Hispanic [theology] is to define what it means to be human within the broader context of history, culture, community, and the social condition of the Hispanic American… To be Hispanic is to experience life as a member of the American mestizo/mulatto population, which understands its birth in the context and outcome of conquest and which has experienced oppression and colonialization throughout its history and continues today to identify with the poor and the oppressed” (110).  Cleofas Calleros understood this message.  He spoke this message. He lived this message.

Works Cited

Boff, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff. “A Concise History of Liberation Theology.”

15 October 2006.

Cleofas Calleros Papers (CCP), 1860-1977, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections

Department, the University of Texas at El Paso Library. Box 5, Folder 6.

Elizondo, Virgilio. Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise. Maryknoll:

Orbis, 1999.

Essed, Philomena. “Everyday Racism.” Race Critical Theories Eds. Philomena Essed

And David Theo Goldberg. Malden: Blackwell, 2002.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective.

Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.