Worshiping with Hospitalidad: Celebrating the wealth of Hispanic worship songs from around the world

The setting is a Protestant church in Havana, Cuba. The sanctuary is packed on this hot, humid June Sunday afternoon. Following the reading of la palabra de Dios (the Word of God), the pastor delivers the sermon. He speaks of esperanza (hope) and la paz de Cristo (the peace of Christ) during this “special time”—a euphemism used by Fidel Castro to refer to Cuba’s crumbling economy and the resulting suffering of the people. It is 1993, and the people are living in increased misery as the economic umbilical cord from the former Soviet Union is now fully severed. The oil from Russia that had kept Cuba moving since the 1960s has dried up; bicycles replace cars, and open dump trucks replace other more conventional forms of public transportation. The shelves of the farmacias are empty of medicine, even the most basic ointments or pain relievers like aspirin, in what had once been the leading medical system in Latin America. It has been reported in the United States that people are losing their eyesight because of a vitamin-deficient diet. Fish, chicken, pork, and other sources of protein are for the most part exported for dollars, thus depriving the people of access to the basic nutrients necessary for sustaining a healthy life.

This is my third trip to Cuba since 1990. I witness the deterioration of the Cuban lifestyle on each successive visit as aid is withdrawn from abroad and the embargo of the United States tightens. For the church in Cuba, this “special time” coincides with a revision of the Cuban constitution that relaxes the restrictions on the gathering of Christians for the first time since the revolution in 1959. Church attendance and vitality are on the rise. As I listen to the pastor offer la esperanza y la paz de Cristo (the hope and the peace that come from Christ) during this special time, I am reminded that as a pastor, he and his family are completely dependent upon the generosidad of the congregation, who have all too little to eat themselves. A Christian pastor does not receive the usual rations of food and clothing from the “full-employment economy” of the Cuban socialist system. Christ’s command given to those fishermen down by the Sea of Galilee is for the Cuban pastor an existential mandate, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). This pastor, like many others, has dropped his nets—left the relative security of the socialist system—and follows Christ.

Following the sermon it is time to celebrate la cena del Señor (communion). In a gracious act of hospitalidad, I am invited to preside at the table with the pastor. The bread is brought forward. I recognize it as the small loaves available in the ubiquitous and lengthy food ration lines. Later the pastor tells me that four families have given up their bread ration for a week so that the community can celebrate la cena del Señor.

Hymns of Spanish-Speaking Christians

During the last fifteen years, several Anglo denominational hymnals have included bilingual settings of Spanish-language hymns. In addition, at least eight Spanish-language hymnals have been produced in the United States, attesting to the significant numbers of Spanish-speaking and bilingual persons in this country. These hymns carry with them the faith stories and experiences of their countries of origin. They are gifts to us from Spanish-speaking Christians both around the world and in our own backyard. The Psalter Hymnal (1987) was among the first mainline Anglo hymnals to include hymns in an English/Spanish bilingual format. These nine songs include “El Señor es mi pastor” (“My Shepherd Is the Lord,” 162) and “Santo, Santo, Santo” (“Holy, Holy, Holy,” 626). Songs for LiFE (1994) includes at least twelve additional songs from a variety of Spanish-speaking cultures.

The purpose of this article is to describe in very general terms the origins of some of these hymns, discuss ways they might be presented with authenticity, and offer suggestions for their introduction to and use by primarily Anglo congregations in worship.

Spanish-language hymns found in recent hymnals for English speakers in the United States and Canada may be divided into three primary sources: those from Spain, those from Central and South America, and those from within the United States.


Perhaps the most famous hymn from Spain is the Latin chant “Divinum Mysterium” (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”) written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (c. 348-410) with a tune that dates from the twelfth century. A beautiful Spanish translation of this Latin classic (1962) has been provided by Federico J. Paguro of Argentina and appears in several recent Spanish-language hymnals.

More recent hymns from Spain include some Spanish folk songs of Catalonian or other origins:“En el frío invernal” (“Cold December Flies Away”), “Toda la tierra” (“All Earth Is Waiting”; see RW 49:26), a Catalonian text with a tune by Alberto Taulè, and “Pues si vivimos” (“When We Are Living”; Songs for LiFE 85, Leader’s Edition only).

The hymns by Roman Catholic priest Cesáreo Gabaraín (1936-1991) are the other major source of recent hymns from Spain. “Tú has venido a la orilla” (“Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”) is his most famous and widely used hymn. It is a lyrical narrative of Christ’s call both to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee and to us to follow Christ. Two additional hymns by Gabaraín appear in recent Anglo hymnals: “Una espiga” (“Sheaves of Summer”), a poignant communion hymn, draws from agrarian images of rural Spain and expresses the ecumenical fervor of the post-Vatican II days of the early 1970s. “Sois la semilla” (“You Are the Seed”) is a hymn of discipleship. Gabaraín wrote hymns for his parish immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when the Roman Catholic people were encouraged to participate in congregational song. At first he chose the popular melodies of African-American spirituals as musical sources for texts he wrote. Then he began to compose simple folk-like tunes that supported biblically based texts full of metaphors and images familiar to the people of Spain.

The use of a folk guitar with free-flowing arpeggios or broken chords is always appropriate when accompanying these beautiful melodies. When a piano is used, it should imitate the guitar style as much as possible. Avoid Latin American percussion. Harmonize the melodies by ear, often in parallel thirds or sixths. The music in the hymnal may be misleading. The melody for “Una espiga” appears to be somewhat rigid and angular in its written form. Sing it in a simple, relaxed, and flowing manner. Do not sing these hymns too quickly. In the case of “Tú has venido a la orilla,” think of a small boat rocking gently on the waves of a lake (as in the Sea of Galilee). Allow the music to rock gently with you. A similar selection is “Cuando el pobre” (“When the Poor One”) by Spanish priests Juan Olivar and Miguel Manzano. Those hymns in a folk style, especially the Catalonian Christmas carols, “En el frío invernal” and “Toda la tierra,” might benefit from a flute or recorder on the melody accompanied by a guitar and a light drum played almost in a medieval manner.

Central and South America

Hymns from Central and South America are extremely diverse. It is difficult to suggest a generic musical style because each country has its own multicultural mix of indigenous peoples with Europeans from Spain and other European countries as well as influences from the United States. Pentecostalism is quite strong throughout Latin America, even among denominations that would be considered mainline in the United States. Many churches sing coritos (short choruses) that are often indistinguishable from North American praise choruses except that they are in Spanish. In fact, many of these are translations of praise choruses originally written in English. Few of these appear in Anglo hymnals.

Several hymns, however, are becoming more common to recent collections:

  • The Puerto Rican Epiphany carol, “De tierra lejana venimos,” (“From a Distant Home”) is a lively addition. The bass rhythm pattern () is quite typical of this folk style. Maracas can be added either by playing the same pattern as the bass or straight eighth accented as follows: . Claves can support the accented rhythm of the maraca pattern. Think “guitar” if you are using the piano. Do not use a ritardando at the end of each stanza. Keep the beat steady.
  • Cantad al Señor” (“O Sing to the Lord”) is originally from Brazil and therefore was first written in Portuguese (“Cantai ao Senhor”). Feel this hymn in one beat per measure with guitar maracas, claves, and conga drum.
  • The Christmas lullaby, “Duérmete, niño lindo” (“O Sleep Now, Holy Baby”) could be supported by a simple arpeggiated or broken chord accompaniment on the guitar or the piano. This is not the place for complex counterpoint. We don’t want to wake the baby! Make sure that the tempo and style reflect the rocking of the Christ child. One should be reminded that not all music from Spanish speakers is lively “mariachi” style. There are many lovely lullabies.
  • Cristo vive” (“Christ Is Risen”) is a vibrant Easter text written by Nicolás Martínez and translated by Fred Kaan. The music is by Argentinean composer Pablo Sosa, a leading authority on Latin American congregational song. Sosa’s hymns are often written with folk-dance forms in mind. The traditional four-part chordal accompaniments in most hymnals belie a driving, energetic rhythm that could be accompanied by the rhythmic strums of a guitar or comparable piano accompaniment. Light maracas would add to the fiesta spirit of this Easter selection.
  • Canto de esperanza” (“Song of Hope”), also from Argentina, should be presented in a similar way to “Cristo vive.” Once again, the accompaniment in some hymnals does not capture the spirit of this wonderful benediction hymn.
  • Note also the beautiful Argentinean prayer chorus “Santo, Santo, Santo” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), another example of a lyrical restrained song, and Sosa’s “Miren qué bueno!” (“O Look and Wonder”), a hymn based on Psalm 133 whose music is derived from a lively Argentinean dance form, the cueca.

United States

Many Spanish-language folk songs find their roots in Texas, New Mexico, and California. As of yet, these have not been included in Anglo hymnals. I encourage you to seek some of these out in Flor y canto (Flower and Song), a Roman Catholic hymnal published by Oregon Catholic Press (1989). Two Mexican-American musicians are most prominently featured in Anglo hymnals. Carlos Rosas, a Roman Catholic musician born in Linares, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and living in San Antonio contributes the lively hymn echoing several psalms of praise, “Cantemos al Señor” (“Let’s Sing unto the Lord”). The accompaniment by Raquel Mora Martínez, also originally from Mexico, is undoubtedly pianistic and could be easily imitated on the guitar. The use of maracas and a tambourine on the estribillo “Alleluia” would only enhance the fiesta spirit.

Many of the hymns cited above appear in hymnals with accompaniments by the late Skinner Chávez-Melo, who was born in Mexico City in 1944 and died in New York City in 1992. Skinner contributed stylistic accompaniments to many Spanish- language hymns. They can be used as a model for your accompaniments, especially with piano.

A Case Study: “Mantos y palmas” (“Filled with Excitement”)

Mantos y palmas,” literally “cloaks and palms,” (Songs for LiFE 158) is a buoyant Palm Sunday processional from Mexico by Methodist church musician Rubén Ruiz Ávila. It is a classic Mexican hymn, known by virtually every Protestant Mexican church and many beyond. “Mantos y palmas” is especially popular with children’s choirs.

Ruiz Ávila is the son of Bishop Alejandro Ruiz, one of the most beloved bishops in the Methodist church in Mexico. He wrote “Mantos y palmas” for use in one of the largest Methodist churches in Mexico City, La Santísima Trinidad (The Most Holy Trinity), also known as Gante Methodist Church, where his father was once the pastor. Because of the song’s popularity and the influence of this church, “Mantos y palmas” quickly spread to other Methodist churches as well as Baptist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal congregations.

It is traditional for the children to process when singing this song. The congregation can play the part of the crowd and join in at the point of “Hosanna” during the estribillo (refrain). Once again, the accompaniment found in the hymnals does not indicate the vibrant fiesta that is implied by the melody and text. There are many ways to present this hymn successfully. In Mexico, some Protestant churches avoid the tambourine because of its association with the Pentecostal church. Maracas are also problematic for some churches in Mexico because they are associated with secular folk forms. However, the music indicates the fiesta spirit of the mariachi. The composer received part of his musical education in the United States and would encourage a more cosmopolitan approach to the instrumentation where appropriate. It is fitting to add claves, tambourine, and maracas where these instruments do not carry adverse connotations. The piano or guitar might play an arpeggiated eighth-note pattern with the bass part in this rhythm: . Non-pitched percussion could play off this basic rhythm for variety. For example, maracas and tambourine might play . The claves could add a two-measure sequence like this .

Above all, think of “Mantos y palmas” as a drama in which the children sing the stanzas and the congregation plays the part of the crowd singing “Hosanna.” I recommend singing the estribillo twice each time, once in Spanish and once in English. Repeat the “hosanna” section two or three times at the conclusion of the hymn until the congregation catches the excitement.

Using Spanish-Language Hymns in Worship

Following are some quick suggestions for introducing and including Spanish-language hymns in your worship service:

  • Have the congregation sing only the estribillo first. Have the children or young people sing the stanzas and invite the congregation to join in on the refrain.
  • Use either piano or guitar when introducing these hymns, and, when appropriate, unpitched percussion.
  • Offer a brief introduction to the hymn and its origins in the order of worship or before the service.
  • Sing the new hymn for at least three weeks with a new variation each week before making a value judgment on its quality and use with your people.
  • Use shorter forms or only the estribillos as service music (for example, a prayer response, song of benediction, etc.) for an entire season, first with the choir and then with the congregation.
  • During week two or three, teach the refrain in Spanish, especially on estribillos where there are just a few words to learn. Invite the congregation to sing the stanzas in English and the refrain in Spanish. The children will be excellent teachers for this.
  • Accompany the singing of the hymn with the Scripture for the day read in both Spanish and English.
  • Read the text aloud to the congregation. Many people will be drawn into the rich and varied metaphors and images of the text and want to sing the hymn. This is especially true of the texts by Gabaraín.
  • Make sure the choir is secure with the hymn before you introduce it to the congregation.
  • Include some of the slower, more legato songs in the repertoire. Do not stereotype the Latin American church as a church that only uses “happy” music. From a pedagogical standpoint, these songs are much easier for the congregation to sing in Spanish.
  • Do not forget that the fiesta spirit is not a giddy party, but, as Pablo Sosa says, comes “Out of oppression, [when] men and women rise up to celebrate, not forgetting their struggle, [but] to be nurtured by the sweet foretaste of the great fiesta of victory and liberation. It is not ordinary fiesta, intended to have people forget about their worries, to alienate them. It is the fiesta which liberates. For this reason it is said: ‘People who have no strength to celebrate, have no strength to liberate themselves.’” (“Spanish American Hymnody: A Global Perspective,” The Hymnology Annual: An International Forum on the Hymn and Worship, Vol. 3, p. 8.)
  • Listen to congregational music from Latin America. Musical style is learned through the ear first and then reinforced through the eye. Two cassette recordings that are readily available are God’s Fiesta: Latin American Church Songs and Todas las voces, both of which are distributed by Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) in Portland, Oregon. These tapes were produced by Pablo Sosa in Argentina. Ideas for piano and percussion patterns appropriate for various songs can be found in the Lutheran (ELCA) Spanish-language hymnal Libro de liturgia y cántico (1998). A special appendix at the conclusion of this book lists the rhythms and accompaniment patterns for thirty-five Latin American styles. See the bibliography for more information.
  • Always be upbeat when introducing a Spanish- language hymn. Do not tell the congregation that it will be difficult or “very different.” Just do it!

Encouraging Hospitalidad

Congregational song from various Spanish-language traditions contributes beautiful melodies and rich texts to our repertoire, but also, and more importantly, embodies the incarnation of Christ to todas la gente (all people). As I sing these songs, I am learning literally and metaphorically to pray in Spanish.

Justo González speaks of “reading the Bible in Spanish.” He was not referring to reading a Spanish translation of the Bible, but to “a particular perspective to history and to theology, . . . [and] the interpretation of Scripture” that those cultures who share the Spanish language bring to an understanding of the Bible based on their varied heritages (Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, p. 75). As González states in a later work, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, “The Bible has been good to us!” (p. 118). When Spanish- speaking Christians read the Bible, they find their story contained within its narratives. When we share in these songs, we are learning to sing and pray in Spanish. It is an act of hospitalidad to Spanish-speaking Christian hermanas y hermanos (sisters and brothers) who live throughout the United States, often in the neighborhoods where we go to church. Hospitality to the stranger is one of the underlying concepts of Jesus’ ministry. Including several hymns from Spanish language sources regularly at appropriate points in Anglo worship would be a beginning point for encouraging hospitalidad.

A Cuban Postscript

I will not forget la cena del Señor in that Havana congregation. I had often been a guest in the homes of Cuban Christians who had pooled their food rations so that I might be fed and welcomed. When I received the rationed bread that was to be distributed to the gathered assembly, I was humbled by the sacrifice of those families who had made this communion possible and the One whose broken body was made manifest in those meager rationed loaves. To my surprise this was not a somber memorial meal, but a joyful fiesta shared by oppressed Christians who, though suffering, anticipated the final Gran Fiesta. I experienced a fresh sense of God’s presence and rich Christian hospitalidad with these Cuban hermanas y hermanos. ¡Gracias a Dios!

I am grateful to Arturo González-Rivera, a church musician from Mexico and a student in the sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, for his assistance in writing parts of this article. Arturo grew up in La Santissima Trinidad Methodist Church in Mexico City, where his mother stills serves as organist.

I am also grateful for the assistance of Jorge Lockward as a reader of the earlier version of this article and for his constructive comments. Jorge is a church musician from the Dominican Republic who now serves a multiethnic congregation in New York City. He served on the hymnal committee for Mil voces para celebrar: Himnario Metodista, the official Spanish-language hymnal of the United Methodist Church.



Key to Hymnals Cited

CH: Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ, 1995)
H82: Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal, 1985)
HWB: Hymnal: A Worship Book (churches in the Believers Church tradition, 1992)
NCH: New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ, 1995)
PRH: The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990)
PsH/SFL: Psalter Hymnal (1987) and/or Songs for LiFE (1994)
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal (1989)
LBW/WOV: Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and With One Voice (ELCA, 1995)

Selected Recent Spanish Language Hymnals for further reference:
Alstott, Owen, Ed. Flor y Canto (Portland, OR: OCP Publications, 1989) Roman Catholic
Delgado, Conchita, Ed. Cáliz de Bendiciones: Himnario Discipulos de Cristo (St. Louis: Christina Board of Publications, 1996) Disciples of Christ
Gutiérrez-Achón, Raquel, Ed. Himnario y Libro de Adoración (Geneva Press and Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ
Hintze, Otto and Carlos Puig, Eds. ¡Cantad al Señor! (St. Louis: Concordia, 1991) Lutheran (Missouri Synod)
Libro de Liturgia y Cántico (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998) Lutheran (ELCA)
Martinez, Raquel, Ed. Mil Voces para Celebrar: Himnario Metodista (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1996)
Rojas, Juan, Ed. Celebremos su Gloria (Miami: Libros Internacional, 1994) Evangelical

Hymn Cited
(origin/English title)



Cantad al Señor (Brazil/
O Sing to the Lord
        472 SFL:
Cantemos al Señor
(Mexican American/
Let's Sing Unto the Lord
60   55 39     149 726
Canto de esperanza
(Argentina/Song of Hope)
        432 SFL:
Cristo vive (Argentina/
Christ is Risen)
      235 109   313  
Cuando el pobre (Spain/
When the Poor One)
662       104   434  
De colores (Mexico/Sing
of Colors
De tierra lejana venimos
(Puerto Rico/From a
Distant Home)
      155 64   243  
Duérmete, niño lindo
(Hispanic Folk/O Sleep
Now, Holy Baby)
  113     45     639
El Señor es mi pastor
(Bolivia/ My Shepherd is the Lord)
En el frió invernal
(Spain/Cold December
Flies Away)
            233 53
Mantos y palmos
(Mexico/Filled with Excitement)
      214   SFL:
Miren qué bueno!
(Argentina/O Look and Wonder)
Pues se vivimos(Spain
When We Are Living)
536     499 400   356  
Santo, Santo, Santo
(Argentina/Holy, Holy, Holy)
Sois la semilla (Spain/You
Are the Seed)
478     528     583 753
Toda la tierra (Spain/All
Earth is Waiting
139     121     210 629
Tú has venido a la orilla
(Spain/Lord, You Have
Come to the Lakeshore)
342   229 173 377   344 784
Una espiga (Spain/
Sheaves of Summer)
396   460 338 518   637 708

C. Michael Hawn is associate professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.


Reformed Worship 50 © December 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.