The man who is likely the most visible and influential Latino Catholic in Orange County got his first lessons in social responsibility at the family breakfast table, listening to Spanish-speaking strangers.
His father would regularly bring them home from daily Mass at St. Polycarp Catholic Church in Stanton, and young Jaime Soto, who was used to seeing a frequent and lengthy procession of family members come through the house, would sit at the table and watch the mostly young men and his father converse in a language he didn’t understand. For years, he believed the visitors were cousins he had never met.
“I had no idea how big our family was,” he says, “and we were accustomed to having relatives over who spoke no English at all, but we were always taught to be respectful to them. It wasn’t until I was much older that I caught on that they were immigrants. My father would bring them over and help them out a little bit--give them a meal, take them to the store.
“That memory of my father doing that and the fact that he made us believe that these people were part of our family and that we should extend hospitality to them probably more than anything else gave me the conviction and led me to the kind of ministry I have now.”
That ministry--the post of episcopal vicar of the Hispanic community of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange--has helped propel Msgr. Jaime Soto into the often turbulent heart of one of the fastest-changing, most influential and most hotly discussed ethnic populations in America.
His principal job is a religious one: to bring cohesion, organization and vibrant faith to Orange County’s estimated 480,000 Latino Catholics--roughly half of all Catholics in the county. He chairs or serves on several boards and committees, both within the church structure and in the secular community. He speaks frequently before city councils, civic organizations, church groups and at forums both religious and civic. And he presides at special Masses and observances for Latino Catholics.
But because such issues as immigration, the right to work, fair wages, crime, education, poverty, housing, health care and other concerns are so closely associated with his flock, Soto often finds his job description encompassing both religion and politics.
“I’m not a politician,” says Soto, 38. “I’m a priest. But I believe that as a church, and myself as a priest, we have something to bring to the political forum, a light to bring to some often confusing and unclear issues. The church is not a body-less spirit. We’re here on this earth, and I’m here on this earth, to do a mission, and a core aspect of that mission is the transformation of the world. And that includes not only our hearts and minds, but our institutions. So we will not hold back.”
At stake, says Soto, is nothing less than the future of Catholic Orange County and, by extension, of Orange County society as a whole. The Latino community, he says, has the potential to become a rich economic, social, spiritual and cultural asset, but that perception, he adds soberly, is hardly universal. And the task of full assimilation is daunting.
“We’re in a time now,” says Soto, “when the accomplishment of that effort, and the value of that effort, is being challenged by society at large, also even by many of our own (Catholic) people, as to whether it is worth it.
“I ask them to really take a good look at some of our Santa Ana churches and other churches in the central county, and ask themselves if that isn’t the church of the ‘40s and ‘50s all over again--the vital, active youth programs, the churches filled to overflowing, people forming associations and groups. They bring a renewed vigor and passion for the faith that can honestly awaken us to what it means to be Catholic again.
“I understand the anxiety and fears that many people have about the immigrant population. We as a church feel the same strains in meeting the pastoral demands of our very young congregations. But this population is not a deficit population; it is a contributing population that in the short term right now may require an investment by the public and the volunteer sector. But in the long term, this same population will contribute and foster a new prosperity. I believe it will yield a harvest for the church and society in general.”
This is a position that delights many and irritates others.
“He’s a man of the people,” says Rusty Kennedy, the executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. “He presides over the pastoral care of his people and at the same time gets involved in broader scale issues, contentious and difficult issues. He helps build understanding and tolerance in an era when most people are heaving bombs. He’s a cool head who helps to focus people in a more sane direction.
“I’m sure he’s ruffled some feathers, but his is a voice of peace. He’s not an aggressive person. He doesn’t throw out his opinions with vitriolic words of hate and hostility, but in a positive way that allows even those who disagree with him to feel the grace.”
Even, perhaps, Harold W. Ezell, a former regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who, as an outspoken advocate of strict laws against undocumented immigrants, might be characterized as Soto’s natural political adversary.
“We’re in totally opposite camps, that’s for sure. But I don’t have anything against him as a person,” says Ezell, who heads the Newport Beach-based Ezell Group, an organization he says is dedicated to attracting businesses from overseas and creating jobs.
“I think he’s a decent guy. I was raised in a minister’s home, so I understand ministry. But I don’t think he’s any better than anybody else because he wears his collar backward. I think he has either a hidden agenda or he’s misguided, because it’s impossible for him to separate legal from illegal immigration.
“To me, it’s more than philosophical. He’s talking about the illegal immigrants in such a way that they’re here, we should take of them, we’re going to have to educate them, medicate them, compensate them and incarcerate them. I’d like to ask Jaime Soto how he’s going to vote on Prop. 187.”
A big no, says Soto, who vigorously and publicly opposes the “Save Our State” (SOS) initiative on the November state ballot, which would, among other things, remove undocumented alien children from public schools and deny state-funded medical care to undocumented residents.
It all goes back, he says, to the tradition of hospitality he learned at the breakfast table.
Jaime Soto, the oldest of seven children born into a devout Catholic family, was raised in the house in Stanton in which his parents still live.
“We are a very tight family,” says Soto, “very strong Catholic. If you go to my parents’ house today--and it’s always been that way--you go in the front door and immediately you see a framed picture, a really big one, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is something that’s very strong devotionally on the part of my father. Growing up, we used to gather as a family around that picture and pray the Rosary. My mother had all seven of us in 10 years, so you can imagine what it was like. It was quite a tribe.”
And still is. All seven children still live in Southern California and all seven, including the family’s only priest, stop by the family house for a visit with the parents at least once a week.
“And if they don’t, they’re at least going to call and apologize for not coming because this or that happened,” Soto says. “I’m amazed in talking with other friends or colleagues who say, ‘Well, I saw my parents last month.’ The habit of staying in touch and remaining close is for my family a really strong value.”
Soto says that familial closeness comforted and supported him during his pursuit of the priesthood, which began, “silly as it may sound,” in second grade at St. Polycarp School in Stanton. Both his family and teachers supported the idea from the start. Pressure was nearly nonexistent.
“When I was in the seminary, my father and I, we had this thing, this annual car ride that we took,” Soto says. “He’d take me out for a drive, and it was always the same topic: how proud they were of me that I was in the seminary but that I should never stay there just for them. I should do it if it was going to make me happy. There was always a sense of freedom about that, and I always appreciated that.”
After graduating from Mater Dei High School, Soto entered St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo, studying for four years before entering the major seminary there for an additional four years of theology.
It was during his third year at the college that he finally learned to speak rudimentary Spanish, nearly 20 years after first hearing it spoken in his own home.
“In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” says Soto, “our parents, both of whom were bilingual, wanted all the children to do well in school, and they thought that us speaking English well would be to our advantage. That’s what they did in the hope that they would be able to teach us Spanish later, but that never happened, although they tried on several occasions to make it happen.
“But our friends and all our cousins were English-speaking. In growing up, in the living room were all the aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents, and they would speak Spanish with intermittent English thrown in, and the rest of us would be in another room speaking English.”
At the seminary college, however, Soto had an experience that “was like having fireworks go off in my head.” It was a class called “The Novel of the Mexican Revolution,” in which students were exposed to the significant literature of early 20th-Century Mexico.
“I was a terrible student in the class,” says Soto, grinning, “but it was a great class. All of a sudden things about my personal family history were being connected with this literature. It was a whole motivation to learn the language.”
Still, he said, it wasn’t until about two years ago that his Spanish became fully conversational and fluent.
“The Spanish I speak now is light years away from what I spoke when I was at St. Joseph’s (his first parish assignment in Santa Ana). I still would never be mistaken for a native speaker, but as we say in Spanish, I can defend myself pretty well.”
Soto’s Spanish is not just fluent during a long day of meetings, it is reflexive. He speaks easily and smoothly and even starts many thoughts with the conversational kick-starter “Este . . . “
This morning, at 8 , Soto is chairing a meeting of the Hispanic Development Council of the United Way of Orange County, a group that, among other things, promotes Latino business ventures in the county. He conducts the informal meeting in English but greets and speaks to many of the council members around the table in Spanish.
They appear as glad to see him, as were the few people walking in the neighborhood around Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Ana’s Delhi neighborhood when Soto waved to them from his no-frills Honda on the way to the meeting. Soto has lived in a small room adjacent to the little church for eight years, the priest-in-residence of Orange County’s most Latino parish.
The Delhi neighborhood shows up on an ethnic population map in Soto’s office as a bright red triangle, indicating that it contains the highest concentration of Latinos in the county.
Throughout the 90-minute meeting, Soto smiles frequently, dispelling the almost fierce appearance of a face framed in a jet black beard. He speaks in a soft, slightly reedy voice and gestures with thin, expressive hands as he peppers his conversation with comments on how immigrants in Orange County are “driving the economy” and how much Latinos give, proportionally, to the church and various charities.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Soto is back in his office at the diocese offices in Orange--the former Marywood girls’ Catholic high school--going over his schedule for the week with his secretary. He begins this meeting with a short prayer and conducts the business in Spanish.
Around him in the spare office are several artifacts from Mexico and Latin America, a pair of tapestries, a poster memorializing Cesar Chavez, a framed page of Gregorian chant, a crucifix woven from dried leaves. The furniture is institutional veneer, and the computer on the desk is pure 1990s, but there is a well-chewed pipe in a nearby ashtray and books on a facing bookshelf to go with it: works by Neruda and Yeats to Novak’s “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.”
After dictating a series of letters, Soto leaves for the nearby chapel to officiate at Marywood’s daily lunchtime Mass, a job that all the staff priests take in rotation. He delivers a short homily on faith to a small chapel of staff workers and even here does not pass up the opportunity to drive home the message of Latino immigrant assimilation and contribution.
He speaks about the recent commotion caused when a Santa Ana Latino family asserted that an image of the cross of Christ appeared in the frosted glass of their bathroom window, touching off a series of minor pilgrimages among nearby Latino Catholics who wanted to see the supposed “miracle.”
Sorry, says Soto, no miracle. But, he adds, the depth of faith that was responsible for such belief should not be dismissed, but rather nurtured and valued.
After Mass, Soto eats lunch in the cafeteria, conversing and laughing with the Spanish-speaking members of the Marywood staff. He is the center of most of the table conversation.
Soto’s day at Marywood will finally end around 9 p.m. after a meeting with yet another Latino group, and he will drive the Honda back to his little room behind the Delhi church.
Ordained in 1982, Soto cut his pastoral teeth during his first two years at St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana. (He also had worked there as a deacon before his ordination as a priest.)
He had always wanted to become a parish priest, he says, but his specific ministry was born, in a sense, at Mater Dei High School when he received an assignment to write a report on one of the documents of Vatican II. He chose “The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.”
“I remember reading that document and being very inspired by it,” he says. “It’s the document that speaks about the church’s commitment to the poor, its commitment to disarmament and the necessity to assist developing nations, and it really was the council’s definitive statement on the church’s social teaching that was most impacting society at that time.”
After his two years at St. Joseph’s, then-Bishop William Johnson asked him to take to post of associate director of Catholic Charities in Orange County. First, however, Johnson asked him if he would consider going back to school for two years to obtain a master’s degree in social work in preparation for the job.
Those two years, at Columbia University in New York, were a revelation to Soto, who had until that time lived in an almost entirely Catholic world.
“When I went to Columbia,” he says, “was the first time I’d ever left the Catholic ghetto. It was a very defining experience. There I was, a priest in a classroom at a secular institution that prided itself to a certain extent on a secular mind-set. There were people who had no understanding of my view of the world or my values.
“For two years in that environment I learned how to articulate myself as a Catholic and a priest to nonbelievers. It was an irreplaceable experience, and it has really served me well in the work I do now, in explaining the mission of the church, our values. I’m constantly being challenged to be persuasive, whether the issue is abortion or immigrants or euthanasia or welfare reform. I find that to be one of the most challenging parts of my ministry, and one of the most engaging.”
Soto returned to his post at Catholic Charities in August, 1986, at a time when President Ronald Reagan had just signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which opened the door to amnesty for many undocumented aliens who had been longtime U.S. residents.
“We started a legalization program only a few weeks after that,” he says. “My work with immigrants really began in earnest from the signing of that bill. I basically ate, slept and worked immigration until 1989, implementing the legalization program and trying to keep it afloat.”
With the death in late 1988 of Archbishop Tomas Clavel, the former episcopal vicar for the Hispanic community, Bishop Norman McFarland appointed Soto to the post.
“He got the job because of the Hispanic priests of the diocese,” says Bishop Michael Driscoll, the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange. “There was an election process by which Bishop McFarland asked those priests to select a couple of candidates, and he was hands-down their choice. He was doing such a terrific job at the time with the legalization program. To replace Archbishop Clavel at the time seemed like an impossible task; he was so well-loved by everybody. But I think Msgr. Soto has even surpassed the things Archbishop Clavel did. He’s gotten so many others involved, enabled the community to bring forth its leadership. The ministry has grown by leaps and bounds because of him.”
At 11:30 on Sunday morning, Soto has just finished celebrating Mass in Spanish before an overflow congregation at Our Lady of Guadalupe. He greets them all as they leave, smiling particularly broadly for the children. They all smile back. Some of the adults, following Latino tradition, shake his hand and then kiss it. The meticulous organizer who carries a laptop computer to meetings has given way to the pastor.
“His pastoral duties are in many ways intertwined with his administrative duties,” says Driscoll. “Nobody can get everybody to agree with them, but he seems to be able to do it in such a way that the other side will listen and respect his opinion. Unlike other people, he has a talent for saying things in such a way that the other side doesn’t feel like they’ve been whacked over the head or pounded on. They see him as a pastoral person, not just some heavy-duty guy coming down on them. He’s pastoral all the time.”
His pastoral duties will take him later in the day to Santiago de Compostela Catholic Church in Lake Forest, to preside at a yearly Mass celebrating the ties the church has to Spain and the Spanish community in Orange County (the church is named for a church at a famous pilgrim site in Spain). At this Mass, he celebrates in both English and Spanish.
He appears most happy, however, when he is in the middle of a crowd of people. It is a feeling he recognizes.
“I feel most accomplished not when I’m out there in the city council chambers or in a political setting but when the people of our own congregations go out there and do it themselves,” Soto says. “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction when it isn’t just me out there leading the charge.”
Less a champion than a cheerleader, Soto is always ready to promote his flock, eager to push them from within, anxious that they are understood from without. The Latino who grew up speaking only English, the priest who moves so securely in the secular world, the precise organizer with the pastoral temperament holds tight to his vision.
“Of all the congregations who call the church their home, the Latino community has probably worked the hardest, creating bridges, working together particularly with the Anglo community. It is difficult and personally painful for me when people don’t see the Latino community as hopefully as I do, when they don’t see the same youthfulness and vibrancy in our congregations that I do.
“But I’m convinced that vitality will prevail. We have a job to do as a Latino community, and there are obstacles in the road, but it really is our task--and maybe, in a certain sense, our turn--to shape the future of California.”