On the margins of theology – VIII

25 02 2010

Protestant folk saints in Latin America

The common idea in the Catholic world is that membership in the Roman Church is a sine qua non of sanctity. In multi-confessional states, this is all the more highlighted since Catholicism is often seen to be in competition with other churches for membership and religious hegemony. There are of course exceptions. Some societies have had religious cultures that were so dominant that they can integrate “foreign” characters into themselves without many scruples. This was true of such characters as St. Isaac of Nineveh in the Christian East, as well as St. Jospahat and other “questionable” saints who may have been based on “non-Christian” characters.

In many ways, Latin America was no different. Violent death not only could be seen as having the power to “canonize” even the worst sinner, but it could also wash away confessional difference. One good example is that of Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista (no relation) who was executed in Peru in 1970 for the crime of murder and rape of a shepherdess. He never confessed the crime, and there were no witnesses, so the vast majority of people thought him innocent. He was executed anyway, and his tomb, like those of many executed criminals, became a place of pilgrimage, the soul of Bautista Vasquez having become an alma milagrosa.

The only catch was that the man wasn’t Catholic, or rather, he became a Seventh Day Adventist in prison. As Nanda Leonardini writes in her chapter, “Una muerte sacralizada”:

“Other significant aspects are his ‘religiosity’ and the humility manifested before the ‘actions and games that life provides’, as well as the religious formation received when he converted to Seventh Day Adventism, and reading the Bible daily.” (my translation)

In the mind of the Peruvian devotee, Vasquez Bautista’s defection from the Church was a sign of devotion and not of scandal. In a world where people often do not take institutional Catholicism very seriously, many would interpret going over to las sectas as a sign of greater committment to Jesus. Indeed, the condemned criminal is said to have forgiven his executioners before his death, and no doubt the fame of this humble demise added to his reputation. The Peruvian Catholic thus had no problems asking him for a miracle, even if both the Catholic hierarchy and the Adventist missionaries who catechized Vasquez Bautista would have objected on doctrinal grounds.

Closer to home, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, otherwise known as just “Selena”, has received similar treatment, as one can see in the altar in a restaurant in her native Corpus Christi seen above. For those ignorant of the plight of the young Tejana singer, she was shot by one of her fans in 1995 at the age of 24, just on the verge of having cross-over success. Being a teenager in the barrio at that time, I can attest to the strong affect that this tragic death had on Mexican-Americans. Quickly, images of Selena became ubiquitous, and a sort of folk canonization took place of the young star. Latina Magazine picked up on this in an article entitled, “Santa Selena?”, and the now famous movie was made starring Jennifer Lopez. The end of the movie is all but an apotheosis:

To her fans, predominantly of Mexican descent, and thus Catholic, such a phenomenon was perfectly natural, and had been going on for centuries. The singer Pedro Infante, who also died unexepctedly in a tragic manner, was given similar treatment. The problem is, Selena was raised a Jehova’s Witness, and her family was apparently very devout in that faith, even moreso upon her death. Her brother, when asked if he wanted revenge against the woman who shot his sister, responded that “revenge belongs to Jehova”. Her father even chimed in on the phenomenon of Latinos “canonizing” his daughter by saying:

Selena would not want that because she believed worship should go only to the Creator. Just remember her as a person who loved life. I don’t think Selena would be pleased to be part of any form of idolatry.

That hasn’t stopped people from asking favors from her, or erecting altars. Even the Catholic Church got involved, and one monsignor even commented about a commemorative Mass in Corpus Christi saying that it was no coincidence that Selena was born on Easter Sunday: there was a parallel between the hope that she gave to Mexican American youth and Christ’s victory over death. Nevermind that Jehova’s Witnesses don’t even celebrate Easter.

But the real lesson that we should take away is that “historical truth” in the religious context is often arranged in the manner that most suits the devotion of the people. One always likes to resort to the correctness of doctrine, the sobriety preached by official institutions, and the “written truth” that is often missing in a culture of unlettered people. Of course, one should not be given to romanticizing nostalgia. At the same time, a more sober mind would realize that the line between “approved” devotion and “unapproved” devotion amounts to little more than a legal fiction. Would I pray to Selena? No. But I would not tell someone not to do it. In the end, everyone uses the things that they need to get through the day. To the outside observer, even our “approved” activities are as ridiculous and childish as praying to a chanteuse slain in the prime of her youth.

…And this has always been my favorite Selena song. Just another instance of the oftentimes gratuitous content of blogging:


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One response

25 02 2010
Manuel

The altar doesn’t bother me either.
Maybe my family is farther removed from the barrio, but I remember we got really tired really quick of seeing her image everywhere. Only my sister ever got into her music and drove me and my brothers crazy, years after she passed.
Also, I remember a few saying she was probably killed so her dad could make more money. Artists make more when they’re dead you know, and those jeovanos have no consciences. The movie also launched J-Lo’s career.
I guess this show another aspect of popular Hispanic thought: if they’re higher up than you, they’re probably thieves and murderers. From politicians, to artists, to bishops and priests.

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