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Life in the Hyphen

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

by Harold Gutierrez, Oral Roberts University

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Migration to the Global North is motivated by a combination of pragmatic and idealistic motives. On the one hand, people seek to migrate dreaming of a better future for themselves and their children. On the other hand, people migrate, fleeing political unrest, unstable economies, and poverty. Though the idea of a better future serve as an anchor through the process of migration, migrants often endure seasons of discouragement as the process of adaptation is often filled with difficulties. For instance, describing the migration of Latinos to Canada, Nestor Medina explains that: “From the moment of arrival, they begin to navigate the ambiguous space of identity formation. In order to foster their Latino/a identity, they never cease relating to their relatives, friends, and people they know and love back in their countries.”[1] Medina’s assessment can be applied to all migrant communities regardless of the origin and destination in the migration process. People come to look for a better future, but they must navigate a tumultuous present as they look to be accepted in their new countries while seeking to retain the core elements of the life they left behind.

Life in the Hyphen

Migration and settlement give rise to two sociological realities: the formation of separate migrant generations and establishment of bi-national cultural identities, expressed in hyphens[2]. Living with a hyphenated cultural identity complicates cultural adaptation for people born to first-generation migrants (2.0 generation); and people that migrated with their parents as children or adolescents (1.5 generation).

Life in the hyphen reflects an internal tug of war for 1.5 and 2.0Gs. The main forces on this journey are the driving needs converging on 1.5s and 2.0s due to the varying degree of identity each migrant generation has with the country of residence. To better illustrate, William Haller sheds light on the fact that 1.0G people are in the host nation but rarely become part of it. In comparison, 1.5G and 2.0G people perceive themselves as citizens of the host nations and partakers of the host nation’s culture[3].

The tug of war could become more chaotic when their birth (or upbringing) country does not perceive them as locals. Often, 1.5G and 2.0G migrants are racially branded in the host nation based on their physical features, last names, and accents. Life in the hyphen then can create a cultural limbo reality for 1.5s and 2.0s because there is a disconnection with the cultural identity of the parents and disenfranchisement with the cultural identity of the society of their birth nation. This tension, akin to what expatriate children go through, can bring much angst as the 1.5G and 2.0G have no stable place to anchor their cultural identity.

The angst of cultural displacement has an impact on the spiritual health of the individual. One of the most important biblical texts in studying cultural identity among migrant communities is Psalm 137. The lament found in Psalm 137 has resonated with various communities, such as the American colonizers that fled European religious persecution and recent anticolonial movements among Black Americans[4]. When the exiles in the Psalm exclaim, “How can sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil? (Psalm 137:4, CSB)” their lament conveys a sense of displacement with negative implications to expressions of devotion such as public worship of God.

For those living in the hyphen, Psalm 137 can speak to the frustrations resulting from a cultural identity in limbo and flux due to the pressures of fitting in the cultural construct of their family or host country society. If the Church becomes a place where that tension is ignored or exacerbated, members of the 1.5 and 2.0 generation will also have difficulties fitting in the North American Church.

The difficulties stem from a lack of acceptance and belongingness. Since the recent migration waves come from the Global South, most newcomers will be visible minorities often marginalized because of their physical features. Speaking of the struggles of cultural identity among Christian Asian-Americans, Jonathan Tan explains that the experience that Asian-Americans have in white churches drives them to congregate in ethnic churches because they cannot physically blend in as Caucasian immigrants did two centuries ago.[5] The solution to congregate in ethnic churches often brings no comfort for those living in the hyphen because they will not fully reflect the values of first-generation migrants and thus will also feel somewhat displaced within those contexts.

Because one of the vital needs in the 1.5 and 2.0 generation is the discovery and acceptance of a cultural identity that will be rooted in two (or more) cultural paradigms, it is crucial that institutions in the host nation such as the government, the education system, and the Church respond to 1.5 and 2.0s by providing a safe space of cultural acceptance, so that those living in the hyphen can come to terms with their hybridized cultural identity. Usually, within secular and religious institutions, there is a loyalty to a unified national identity. This reality is also found within migrant family structures who will earnestly impose national loyalty to the homeland on their children born or brought up on foreign soil. No safe space for cultural acceptance among the 1.5G and 2.0G can be created under those conditions.


A turning point that could truly help those living in the hyphen is the widespread acceptance of hybridized cultural identities by migrant families and the secular and religious institutions in the host country. The potential acceptance of a hybridized model of cultural identity could diminish the implicit expectation placed on migrant children to choose either the cultural identity of their parents’ birth country over their own. If Christian institutions give attention to the needs of those living in the hyphen, they could become the place where each 1.5G and 2.0G person develops a stable cultural identity. It will be a compelling step in helping them obtain a sense of belongingness and significance in the local church’s life. Thus, North American Christianity must become intentional in the discipleship of 1.5 and 2.0G people by accepting cultural identity as a hybridized concept rather than one rooted in national loyalties.

As I believe this is a nascent concept, the conversation could be still in a theoretical stage. However, a positive foundation to move into praxis is the intentional celebration of migrant communities in denominations and local churches, the incorporation of mentorship circles for students that are 1.5 or 2.0, and the pursuit of a hetero-cultural Church model rather than one predicated on national or territorial allegiance.

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Harold Gutierrez is a second generation Colombian-American. Having grown up in South Florida, he got saved at an AG church at age 17. He obtained his M.Div. from Oral Roberts University in 2016. He and his family now reside in Canada, where he serves as Intercultural and Indigenous Ministries Director for the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. A member of SPS, He is currently working on a Ph.D. in Contextual Theology at Oral Roberts University.


[1] Nestor Medina, “Hibridity, Migration, and Transnational Relations: Rethinking Canadian Pentecostalism from a Latino/a Perspective,” In Global Pentecostal Movements: Migration, Mission, and Public Religion, ed. by Michael Wilkinson, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), p. 216-217. [2]E.g., Mexican-American, Nigerian-American, Indo-Canadian. [3] William Haller, Alejandro Portes, and Scott M. Lynch. 2011. “Dreams Fulfilled, Dreams Shattered: Determinants of Segmented Assimilation in the Second Generation.” Social Forces (University of North Carolina Press) 89 (3): 733 [4] Valerie Bridgeman, 2017. “‘A Long Ways from Home’: Displacement, Lament, and Singing Protest in Psalm 137.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 44 (2): 215. [5] Jonathan Tan, Introducing Asian American Theologies, (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis, 2008), 60.

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