On superstition – part II

20 09 2010

“Your grandmother was superstitious,” my mother told me when describing my paternal grandmother’s veneration of la Santa Muerte. “She said that if she prayed to her, she wouldn’t come to take her in the night.”

This from my mother, who could seamlessly weave faith and folklore, old wisdom and wives’ tales into her exhortations to close the door when I left the house or not put too much salt in my food. Even my mother has standards, even when it seems that I don’t.

Perhaps this was the reason why my mother would only reluctantly tell us how things could really be like back on el rancho in Mexico. It was at a birthday dinner that AG and I took her out for (my mother is out of her element in any restaurant that doesn’t serve hamburgers) that she first told me about the remedies for el mal de ojo, or evil eye. I had known such things existed, of course, as my closest cousin was “cleansed” by his grandmother of the fright sickness. This type of stuff was just background noise for a pocho kid growing up in rural central California. By the sheepish way that my mother recounted this particular story, she probably already heard the “half way catechized” Catholic naysayers telling her that this was just superstition. “Here, have another scapular.”
Read the rest of this entry »

Sex and the Latino family

19 08 2010

The catalyst for this post comes again from the Conservative Blog for Peace, and it is an interview done a couple of years ago with writer Richard Rodriguez. I quote the relevant passages:

Once my partner became part of my life, he became part of their life too. They didn’t want it said, they didn’t want it named or defined, but they assumed it and accepted it. At family events, when my partner wasn’t there, my mother would get on the phone and call him and insist he come over…

I have not been to a Mexican family without some suspicion of homosexuality in children or grandchildren. But people deal with it within the larger context of family. That’s why I suspect the revolution will come not from the male church but from how women treat their children, and whether or not women are willing to reject their children. I don’t think they are. I saw too many times during the AIDS epidemic that when death came and the disease took its toll, if one parent was there, it was almost always the mother and not the father. That bond is so powerful.

Perhaps the lack of moral severity in the Catholic family has little to do with lack of catechesis, and more to do with the inherent inability of people to shun others for their sexual transgressions. Rodriguez’s case above is a prime example of this. While some would say that his mother is a “heretic” for not shunning her son or his lover, most would not feel comfortable disowning their son for such a consensual situation. In other words, people are not able to consistently live their lives according to the teachings of the Church because what is required of them is something that they are not willing to do.
Read the rest of this entry »

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.
Read the rest of this entry »

More thoughts on being “Latino” and Catholic

28 12 2009

image credit

Since no one is reading this blog right now anyway, I feel free to ramble about personal stuff that I ordinarily try to steer clear of. This time, I will touch once again on ethnicity. Again, maybe I am just not able to connect with other “Latinos” on the Internet, but I always find that the way most people reflect on issues of growing up “Latino”, culture, and religion, is profoundly different from my own experience. First of all, “Latino” is a construct that I don’t agree with. Even now, in New Orleans, I work in an office with lots of other Latino people, most of whom are Central American, and to tell the truth, it is the Latino equivalent of Americans working with Australians. (I have lived with Australians too, so I know what I am talking about.) Granted, if you were working in a place where the official language was French, you would probably identify a lot more with the Australians than with other co-workers. But you wouldn’t consider them “your people”.

Of course, my own experience growing up was different than what a “Latino” would experience here in New Orleans. In my small town on the central coast of California, people of Mexican descent were the majority, about sixty percent of the town. During the holidays, the exodus of entire families back to Mexico is a common phenomenon, one that I participated in several times as a youth. There was never the sense that we were a “racial minority”. Where we lived, we were the majority, and our enclaves were sort of “little Mexicos” where our customs, food, and way of life were somewhat preserved in the midst of the American melting pot. I can’t really think that this would be the experience of “Latino” communities in other places, and perhaps with the rapid spread of modern means of communication, it will not be in the near future.
Read the rest of this entry »

Slouching towards the “American Jesus” – part II

19 11 2009


Up from the rancho, straight into heresy

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!” That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank,” Garay said. “You don’t have to say, ‘God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.’ The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”

Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!” he preached that Sunday. “More work! Better work! The best finances!” Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.

-Hanna Rosin, from the December 2009 issue of the Atlantic

The narrative popular amongst those who reflect on the phenomenon of Christianity in Latin America is that while Catholicism was imposed by Spanish colonialists as the mandatory religion of the people, “Jesus” was never preached to the natives there. Thus, Latin American Catholics, especially the rural, “ignorant” type, were not really Christians, but “Christo-pagans”. Even many Catholics in this country, aghast at the prevalence of “superstitions” among the “brown peoples”, cannot but secretly breath a sigh of relief when such people finally leave Catholicism altogether to enter into the broad movement of Protestant evangelicalism. “At least they are moving past their superstitions and closer to the Jesus of the Gospels” is the thinking behind such a paternalistic attitude.
Read the rest of this entry »

Growing up Catholic in the barrio

28 09 2009


On my way out of a Latino grocery score in Kenner (I was there to pick up some special cheese for AG’s sister, CG), some middle aged gentleman shoved a newpaper-like brochure in my hand, which I only realized a few seconds and steps later was a Spanish Protestant religious tract. I went to the Salvadoran restaurant next door to order some pupusas as a surprise snack for CG, and so I began to examine the evangelical rag with only mild interest. The front was all about how the Catholic Church preaches a “doctrine of demons” since it “obligates” (?) certain people to be celibate. It also went into the whole idea of works vs. faith, circumscision vs. uncircumscision, and other bizarre ideas formulated in a unique if rather superficial way.

When I got bored with that, I began to look around the small establishment, and noticed that there were two small statues of St. Jude, along with a happy Chinese Buddha (and some other trinkets). At least St. Jude won out in the numbers game. After my pupusas were ready, I was prepared to go out there and give that guy a “piece of my mind”, but he had cleared out by the time I exited the restaurant.
Read the rest of this entry »

Mexican Folk Medicine in the U.S.

1 08 2009


An article in the New York Times from a year ago on Mexican folk healing. Scroll down for an accompanying informative video. Not only does this article show how folk medicine is at times effective, but it also shows that in many places, even in this country, it continues to be necessary. Also, it addresses illness not just from a naturalistic perspective, but brings in the “spiritual” dimension as well.

“Cultural Catholicism”

20 07 2009


It ain’t what it used to be

Sort of inspired by this post from the Gregorian Rite Catholic. Excerpt:

The implication of course is that you are not as Catholic (i.e., you’re not a good Catholic) because you are not as obvious. And these people are very judgmental about the Catholicism of people they don’t even know. Some even conduct conferences and then hang their audiences out to dry on their web sites for their supposed “ignorance,” or “cultural Catholicism,” or lack of “fervor” or for “not understanding” the message that these latter-day apostles have bestowed on them.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was happy that Catholics, however estranged, did go to Mass at least on Christmas and Easter. And he certainly would not disparage such Catholics either in person or behind their backs.

I was surprised during my last conversation with my father that he still considers himself a Catholic, though I don’t think he has set foot in a church during his adult life. Indeed, when he was growing up, his family would walk two miles to Mass every Sunday, though my father often was thrown out of catechism class for bad behavior. Before my father left for Vietnam, my grandmother gave him a card of the Mexican folk saint, Juan Soldado, which he kept with him, though he barely made it out of Vietnam alive. It was in the shadow of her folk shrine to this strange spirit that I lived some of the happiest years of my childhood. But while my grandmother was devout, her children weren’t. I don’t think any of them attend Mass as adults, though my uncle, recently deceased, was buried on consecrated ground next to his mother.

“Cultural Catholicism” was a fact of life growing up. I once worked on a crew with a guy who religiously made the Sign of the Cross every time he passed a church, though he had not set foot in one since he was baptized as an infant, and possibly for weddings and funerals. I’ve known evangelical Protestants who still carry around pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their wallets. That’s just how things are in the barrio, even today. I once saw a report in a national magazine concerning the growth of Protestant churches in the Latino community. Amongst some at least, they continue to use Catholic imagery, such as images of the Virgin Mary, in their churches. Like the black Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, one can’t really frame this form of Protestantism in the typical American context. Something more seems to be at work.

If I disparage those who disparage “cultural Catholicism”, I do so because their idea of religion borders on Pelagianism. While effort is always to be exhorted, the strength of a faith, like the strength of many things, is based on its weakest link. “Cultural Catholicism” has historically been that link. If the only act of Faith a prostitute or a drug smuggler can muster is wearing a medal of the Virgin or St. Jude, I fail to see how this is any worse than those who would turn Christianity into the civic religion of “decent folk”. If anything, at least the person who wears such religious symbols is more likely to acknowledge that how they live is wrong. I am not so sure about those who would turn Catholicism into a culturally Calvinist ideology of the salvation of “upstanding citizens”.

But such prejudices also underestimate how powerful such symbols really are. The Virgin is powerful, her image is powerful, and even the smallest act of love towards her can save a soul. (Read Trochu’s biography of the Cure d’Ars on this one.) No, it is not ideal, but do any of us deserve to get saved in the end, really? Perhaps the slow death of “cultural Catholicism” in the developed world is thus the most tragic phenomenon of all. If we are turning Catholicism into a mature faith of churchy busy-bodies, we are going to end up with half-empty pews filled with tightly wound, unpleasant partisans. And is that how the Church is supposed to look like?

Regnum Mortis

12 10 2008

Pt. I –Mis encuentros con la Niña Blanca

There are certain adventures that AG will simply take a pass on. Besides, she has her beloved college football to watch on Saturday afternoons. I had already spent my personal excursion points withher when, last week, we both went to visit my family in Hollister, which for us is really an excuse to eat at the excellent Basque restaurant in the mission town San Juan Bautista about five miles from my grandmother’s house. (Ask for the house wine.) Now that I am older and have some sort of semblance of a life, my visits to my grandmother’s are fairly official; now I sit there and we chat for a couple of hours, and I pay my respects to relatives who also happen to stop by.

  Read the rest of this entry »

More Ethnic Observations

7 07 2008

And: Can you pass my test?

Recently, AG and I saw the film, Ladrón que roba a ladrón  (To Rob a Thief), which is a delightful comedy with some interesting plot twists. I was all the more pleased to see it since it had a number of Spanish soap opera stars that I recognized though the action actually takes place here in the United States. This viewing started to get me thinking about other interesting differences that my Anglo brethren are perhaps clueless about when it comes to those of Mexican descent living in this country. Three things in particular stand out.
Read the rest of this entry »