Being Latinx in America is no easy thing. Fighting pressures to abandon our culture, traditions, and heritage, we’re carving out a unique identity in America that’s all our own. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29's #SomosLatinx, we’ll explore the unique issues that affect the community during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.
Diana Castillo has worn the same Virgin Mary pendant necklace for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Queens, her home was filled with Virgencitas and there were crosses in every room — including a wall dotted with palm-leaf crosses, nevermind that she can’t remember the last time her family had been to Palm Day services. Whenever she walks past a church, Diana reflexively touches her fingers to her forehead, chest, and shoulders in a quick sign of the cross, just like her Ecuadorian grandmother taught her.
It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t actually believe in God. “That’s just something that we’re supposed to do,” Diana admits. “And if I’m with other Latinos, they do it too, or at least understand why I do it.”
The decor, the rituals, and the connections to her family and culture are all deeply important to Diana. What separates her from older generations is her Catholicism has almost nothing to do with God. In fact, for many Latinx people who grew up in the United States, Catholicism is most useful as a lifeline to their cultural heritage.
This is a rising norm among young Latinx, who are increasingly less likely to identify as Catholic, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center. The truth is that most Latinx grow up Catholic: A Boston College study found that Latinx worshippers account for 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic population in the United States, and six percent of all masses in the United States are held in Spanish.
It’s difficult to divorce the Latinx identity from a Catholic one. After all, the Catholic Church put the latin in Latin America: From Borikén to Tenochtitlán, pre-Colombian civilizations were forced under the Catholic monarchies of Spain and Portugal. Catholic institutions and missionaries played a significant role in helping Spain create Latin America in its own image. Since then, the world has come to know us for our cultural Catholicism: our low-riders’ reverence to la Virgen de Guadalupe, the way we turned rosaries into fashion, and crosses into decor. There’s no Jane without la Virgen.
Diana had her first communion when she was about twelve. After the service, a photographer came through to snap some pictures. She knelt in the corner of the church holding her hands in prayer, surrounded by her Bolivian and Ecuadorian families. When the photographer asked Diana to look up into the distance, she blanked. “In that moment I was like, look up at what? Like, to who?” Diana, now 21, tells me.
It makes her laugh to think of just how far God was from her mind, despite the occasion. But Diana sees no sense in trying to figure out where her Catholicism ends and Latinidad begins.
“I’m Catholic by association with my Latinidad. I associate my religion with my heritage,” says Diana, explaining how her Bolivian family — and her uncle in particular — loved to throw parties for almost any reason. Luckily, the Catholic rites always provided plenty of occasion to celebrate: “There was food, there was music, there was family. I think that’s how I was integrated into my Bolivian culture.”
“There are a lot of ways in which religion plays an important role as a transnational connection these days,” explains professor Jacqueline Hidalgo, who teaches a course on Latinx cultural expression in Williams College. The Church is one of the few reliable, authoritative institutions that tethers the Latinx diaspora to their home countries, cultures, and ancestors. In many ways, Catholicism is tangled with Latin-American countries’ pasts and presents.
For example, take how Angelenos celebrate the Day of The Salvadoran. In El Salvador, the holiday is a hugely important one that honors the country’ patron saint, El Divino Salvador del Mundo. But in Los Angeles, it’s become an important way to express Salvadoran pride that has transcended its religious origin. The event’s official website doesn’t include a single mention of Catholicism, God, saints, nor religion. “It’s one of those moments where you can often feel connected to a community,” Hidalgo says, describing how the holiday, in Southern California, has become one of cultural pride, and not just religious observance. It’s become such a fixture in the local Latinx community that this year’s was partially sponsored by Telemundo and local politicians are known to roll through to shake hands and kiss babies.
But as communal as these events are for Latinx non-believers, formal services can seem just as alien and unwelcoming. The same Boston College study also found that nurturing relationships with U.S.-born Latinx Catholics is low on the Church’s list of priorities. The result? Latinx churchgoers are less likely to be fully integrated into their local churches.
“I don’t find comfort in the church,” confesses Diana, explaining why she doesn’t attend services with her grandparents, even though her grandma routinely claims her that the priest asked for her at church.
While at Sunday school, Diana sat in a circle with her classmates as the teacher gave each student a piece of paper, and told them to do whatever they wanted with it; fold it, rip it, smash it into a ball. That piece of paper, Diana’s Sunday school teacher told the class, was their virginities. The lesson seemed to be especially directed at the girls. Barely a tween, Diana remembers it all feeling wrong. She hadn’t yet talked about sex with her parents, but she knew that the rigidity of the lesson felt unfair. What she may want didn’t seem to matter, as long as she blindly protected the unwrinkled purity of her piece of paper: “Looking back at it, that’s why I don’t go to church as often.”
For Diana, it’s impossible to stomach a Catholic Church that’s come under fire for relocating sexually abusive priests and being less than proactive in preventing further harm. “These are the same people that said we have to be good…and that’s never made sense,” Diana points out. What’s more, the Catholic Church has taken a significant part in the annihilation of indigenous people and the justification and perpetuation of slavery. And Diana is particularly frustrated with the Church’s fixation on demonizing queerness: “God loves everyone so I’m confused as to why they contradict that. Like, how does that one work out?”
And she’s not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, one in four Latinx identify as former Catholics, most of them just stopped believing in its teachings and drifted away from church life.
It’s a fraught tightrope walk. Even though Diana strongly disagrees with much of the Church’s teachings, she participates like someone who subscribes to it all. So, she often gets questions like, “But do you believe it?”
She struggles to draw the line between belief and tradition: “Because if I don't believe, then why have I been doing it for all these years?”
This fall, Diana will move into a new apartment. There’s new furniture and new roommates, but what Diana needs most to turn this house into a home is for her grandparents to come by and bless her room with holy water. “I get comfort in having the house blessed, just like I get comfort in having the same cross that’s been in my bedroom forever.”
The Catholicism that we see in our Latinx houses is not the Catholicism that Vatican priests and bishops envision. Nevertheless, this type of pop Catholicism centers local and more personal practices — like Virgin Mary worship and home altars — that are more mutable, resilient, and personal. “Popular Catholicism is incredibly culturally important, and has been an important focus for art among especially Latina artists in the United States because it’s often associated with women’s devotional practices,” Hidalgo says. “It’s not strictly tied to the institution.”
The Catholic Church tied countless cultures and cosmologies to a single, blessed worldview, and in our struggles today – as outsiders and as children of outsiders – we’re often reaching for that kind of easy comfort. “The myths and practices become a way of reformulating those connections, especially in diaspora,” Hidalgo adds.
Latin America has over 30 countries and spans two continents. But the point isn’t that we’re one Latinx culture and one community; we are many. Like Spanish, Catholicism is another thing that connects us in ways good and bad. Many of our ancestors were forced into this religion, and we’ve survived and transformed it. Now, it’s time for Catholicism to change in order to fit our image.
For Diana, there are just as many reasons to go to church, get married by a priest, and baptize your kids as there are reasons not to. Likewise, there are so many reasons to have a cross in our rooms, and greet our abuelas with a Bendición.
A priest might say that God is the reason. But I know that on the rare occasion I do go to church, it’s out of reverence — not to God — but to so much else.