El futuro que se acerca y el pasado que nos hechiza – segunda parte

1 05 2008

A visit to a botanica, a charismatic prayer meeting, and a stuffy Latin Mass

I stumbled across an article in the conservative Catholic newspaper, Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission entitled, I Don’t Do Black Magic: The Mysterious World of Botanicas. For my Anglo readers, a botanica is a religious store that has its roots in Afro-Caribbean santeria that sells everything from pagan statues to Catholic holy cards. The article documents how the use of botanicas is on the rise among many Latino Catholics in this country. One can say that this is due simply to the fact that Latinos tend to be more superstitious than their Anglo neighbors (one only need to watch Mexican television for twenty minutes to find that out). However, the diagnosis of one expert was particularily enlightening in terms of what I have been thinking about recently viz a viz the changes in the Church in the last fifty years.

According to the museum curator, Patrick Polk:

…after the Church removed saints like St. Christopher from the calendar, used sacramentals like incense less and less, and downplayed the general belief in the saints, Catholic Latinos began to seek for these things elsewhere — in botanicas. Polk believes that the Second Vatican Council modernized the Church at the expense of popular beliefs. “Well, you can’t kick St. Christopher out of a botanica,” he said. “People know what St. Christopher is good for — regardless of whether or not somebody can prove his legend. The fact is that the folks at a botanica know that if you are going on a trip or if you are crossing the border, you get a St. Christopher medal.”

Polk believes that after Vatican II, the Church’s antiseptic view towards the sacraments drove many Latino Catholics eager for more mysterious, mystical experiences into other churches. He adds that botanicas are filling some of those needs. “The Catholic Church tried to become more sterile, maybe more scientific in its approach to the mysteries of spirit and faith,” said Polk. “And that’s really the opposite of what the botanica is. It’s a place where people are looking for new mystical traditions. As the Church became less ritualized, people started looking for ritual in other places.”

This individual is neithr a “Rad-Trad” nor a person who thinks that the real Pope is locked in a closet in the Vatican. Chances are he isn’t even Catholic. This was also the case with my professor who lived many years in northeastern Brazil who heard from the priests there that the Church is losing members to Pentecostal sects for the exact same reasons.  Perhaps the difference between Latinos and Anglos in this country when it comes to religion is that Latinos expect the supernatural to be more immediately present in their lives, while most Anglos, even Roman Catholics, perceive the Divine in more cerebral things, such as Biblical interpretation, obedience to the Pope, and so on and so forth.

When I think of my surviving grandparents who are charasmatics, then, I don’t think their perceptions of the changes were that unambigously positive. Charismaticism has in many ways filled in the gap that the twilight of the saints, the Virgin, and curanderismo has left in modern Mexican Catholicism on both sides of the border. It is Msgr. Knox’s enthusiasm in its most vibrant and modernized manifestation. Indeed, I will not say that it is a good or bad phenomenon at this point. I will only say that it’s not my cup of tea. Whether or not that woman speaking in tongues is for real or not, she is filling in for the curandera, the Santo Niño de Atocha , and the St. Isidore statue that was processed through the fields every May. For me at least, it is an unfortunate replacement.

Roman Catholic traditionalism doesn’t define who I am. It is more a space where I best fit in terms of what I perceive Catholicism to be. My primordial memories of my deceased paternal grandmother were much more low-key when it came to church than the experiences with my mother’s side of the family. She wore her mantilla to Mass and watched. I liked going to church with my Grandma Maria; I liked doing everything with her, though she couldn’t go often because of her health. I guess on some level, I think that my Grandma Maria would be more comfortable at a traditional Latin Mass than at the charismatic prayer meetings that my other grandparents used to drag us to. There I can be silent and admire beauty. I think that is what she used to do anyway. She didn’t have to make a lot of noise for God to be close by.



One response

4 12 2008


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