Latina but not Catolica

Feature photo by subzonica

There I was, eight years old, sitting on the playground of my new school, eating my torta when all of the sudden I heard, “Padre Olvera, Padre Olvera!” All the little girls ran towards this balding older man, who was wearing a ridiculously long, white gown. I ran towards him too, as I was always nosy. All the little girls kissed his hand. I was puzzled. When Father Olvera stretched his hand towards me, I did what any well educated niña would do: I shook it and said “Buenas tardes!”  I think Padre Olvera took it well; he shook my hand and asked my name while the rest of the girls murmured and giggled. Later I would find out that I was a “Protestant,” but I did not understand why. After all, I did not think I was demonstrating against anything.

While I was not “protesting” anything, most people thought that when it came to religion, I was quite the rebel. I must admit that my attitude in the following years did not help my case. We went to mass every first Friday of the month, and while everybody would kneel during the service, I remained standing. On Ash Wednesday, all of my classmates would go to the chapel and get ash on their foreheads; I would refuse to do it. One year, a teacher “made me go,” saying “a little ash did not hurt anybody.” Of course, the ash stayed on my forehead for about 20 seconds, as I  wiped it off with my sleeve. I know by now you are thinking I was a brat, but I prefer to think I was fighting for my religious freedom.

I am not exactly sure when things started to change, but by the time I was in seventh grade my interest in everything Catholic started to grow. I became fascinated with nuns, priests, monks, and monasteries. I even started researching if there were any “Protestant” convents out there (there is one somewhere in Europe, in case you wanted to know). I started going to the cathedral downtown. I would stay there, sitting on a bench, looking at the people kneeling and whispering their prayers. There was something mystical about it, something that was missing from my church with the plain walls and no icons hanging on the walls.

I ended up graduating from a Catholic University and I am now a graduate student at yet another Catholic school. Curiously enough, I have not “converted.” I am still a Protestant, an evangelical Christian, an “Aleluya” – like they used to call us back in Mexico. While I am proud of my religious heritage (my great grandfather was a pastor), I do realize now that I missed something. There were ceremonies, rituals and festivities of which I could not take part growing up because they were “Catholic.” I never went to a posada or rocked baby Jesus at midnight on Christmas eve. I did not have a nativity scene because at the time my parents thought that was idolatry. I never lit a candle or said a prayer for a loved one, even when I wanted to. I never gave anything up during lent.

Ever since I moved to the United States five years ago, I have been trying to hang on to my ties to Mexico. I have pondered what it means to be Mexican, and how that is connected to Catholicism. As I try to retain my roots I find myself trying to get closer to a faith that it is not completely foreign to me, but that I tried to separate myself from for many years. The fall is near and will soon give way to Christmas. I think this November I will set up an altar to celebrate “the day of the dead.”  I will try to go to a posada and set up a Nativity scene for Christmas, and most of all, I will light a candle for my grandpa simply because I miss him very much.

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5 thoughts on “Latina but not Catolica

  1. there exist many a linguistic and cultural religious alienation as well. i was brought up with the option, i could believe whatever i wanted to believe. and in the 90s that meant wanting to know more about buddhism. i never had a disregard for religion, i just didn’t believe in it. and in my atheism i have found that humans tend to create explanations that can benevolently explain why life can get horrible. the juxtaposition you were witness to in mexico is something akin to all of us who are either of a separate religion or are not believers. either way, atheism is also a belief; a belief in what has been proven by logical means, e.i. science or what cannot be proven by that, soon shall. i commend the bravery and candidness of this piece.

  2. It’s so true, Roberto. Religion is so closely associated with Latin American cultures that the concept of Latino atheists seems like an oxymoron to many people.

    I myself was raised a soft-core Catholic. My parents weren’t very religious; it was more of a Sunday routine and a celebration of traditions rather than a hardcore belief in the Catholic religion. I’ve never taken part in a posada nor have seen Mexico at Christmas time. I would love to see these things, only to experience these customs. As an adult, I don’t believe in any religion, but a few years ago I found myself longing to connect with the Latino community in my own neighborhood. It’s diverse and sparse, not concentrated like in Pilsen or Little Village. So what did I do to connect? I took my butt to church, and lo and behold every Latino in our community came out of the woodwork once a week to join together there. I learned about all the programs and groups that Latinos organized through the church. Of course, my temporary lapse didn’t feel natural or right to me, so my visit was a one-time deal. Yet it showed me how much religion is intertwined with our culture, traditions, and even our sense of community. I think it gives unique experiences to those of us who aren’t Catholic.

  3. Interesting article. I was raised Catholic but soon experimented with many faiths throughout my early adult years but have come back to my Catholic faith exactly because of the many cultural connections I am able to make to the faith. However, to be a Protestant Puerto Rican is not as uncommon as it might be in other places in Latin America due to the forceful “Americanization” of the island since its invasion by the U.S. over a hundred years ago. Now Protestants have a lot of power in Puerto Rico, with mega churches sprouting up everywhere and the same is for Puerto Ricans in the U.S. It has come to the point that I as well as my grandmother and other family members have to struggle with our people in order to uphold our faith or justify why we are still Catholic. The irony of it all is that three generations ago our family was practicing espiritismo or santería (which I have some friends who still practice that). Latin America has a rich intersection of many faiths and that is the beauty of our multitude of identities. The most interesting aspect of the article though was the transnational questions: while you were born and raised in México because of your faith, you were never included in the standard national discourse of mexicanidad. Since moving to the U.S., you are, for all purposes, Mexican, and now, in the Diaspora, you are incorporating that standard discourse with all its practices. There’s a saying: People only become Puerto Rican after they leave the island. The same exist for many other groups.

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