Mormon church's celebration of Latino cultures puts spotlight on often-overlooked diversity

Every November since 2002, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has held an annual show called “Luz de las Naciones,” or “Light of the Nations.” With a cast of more than 500, most of whom are Latino members of the church, the program incorporates music, dancing and spiritual messages in a celebration of Latino identity across cultures.

The theme for 2022 is “Juntos es Mejor,” which means “Better Together.” The free program is held in the LDS Conference Center, just north of the famous Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah: headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also historically known as the Mormon or LDS church. Luz de las Naciones is the only annual long-standing multilingual and multicultural televised celebration sponsored by the church headquarters.

As a scholar of immigration, race and religion, particularly in the LDS church, I often encounter a stereotype that it is overwhelmingly conservative, white and American. Yet that is increasingly not the case. What was once a tiny religious movement has grown into a global faith with almost 17 million members, by the church’s count, and over 60% of members live outside the United States. Using LDS church statistics and Pew Research reports, I estimate around 40% of members worldwide are from Latin America, or descended from people who are.

Two-century transformation

Many stereotypes about the LDS church are rooted in its controversial history. Joseph Smith established the faith in 1830 in New York state, and early members moved to Ohio, then Missouri and then Illinois before they settled in present-day Utah, which led to conflicts and displacement of local Native American groups. Even today, LDS influence is strongest in the so-called Mormon Corridor: states in the western U.S. with large LDS populations, including Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Arizona.

Despite facing hostility in the church’s early decades, leaders emphasized the importance of evangelizing. This focus on “every member a missionary” resulted in one of the most organized worldwide missionary programs and, ultimately, large membership growth abroad. In the U.S., the primary sources of growth are Latinos, and there is continued push for immigrant outreach.

Leaders vs. reality

My ethnographic research focuses on the experiences of Latina Mormon mothers in the U.S. and internationally, highlighting the diversity of the modern church. One likely reason this diversity sometimes surprises Americans is the lack of representation within institutional LDS leadership.