Latino Religions - a Blend of Nationalist and Spiritual Meaning


When asked to define features that seem to be distinctive to Latino religious traditions, there is a list that comes to mind. Firstly, Latino religions have an interesting blend of nationalist and religious meaning applied to their practices and beliefs. For example, the Virgen de Guadalupe has been the symbol of Mexico since the War of Independence. Ever since being credited as an aide to the people in the war, the Virgen has been a strong figure for Mexicans. Eventually she became the official patron saint of Mexico and the Americas.

However, at the same time she holds different meaning in a spiritual context. While her role as the patron saint of Mexico and the Americas is recognized by the Catholic Church, she also is believed to provide aide and protection beyond a strictly nationalist identity. The Virgen is also seen as a mother and protector responsible for miracles in daily life, in the home, within the community, or whenever separate from strictly Mexican identity.

The veneration of saints such as the Virgen is also something inherently Latino. Saint veneration, most commonly expressed through votive devotion, is homage to God through the mediation of a saint. Latinos feel very strongly about this practice, both going to their place of worship to light candles and most often lighting them at home, too.

In order to light these candles in the home, Latinos also generally have altars set up in their residences. These altars are extremely common and are very important to the Latino community. This tradition is mainly in response to the lack of incorporation of Latino aspects of Catholicism into the Anglo-Catholic system as these immigrant communities are growing.

Yet another distinctive feature is the emphasis on the suffering and/or oppression aspects of each of their faiths. For example, Mexican-Catholics put great importance on the portrayal of the intense suffering of Jesus within the Passion narrative. By doing this, they are able to rationalize the seemingly unavoidable oppression and suffering experienced by Latino communities wherever they may be.

This virtually unavoidable marginalization and persecution of Latino communities almost always leads to community bonding. With Latino communities growing closer together and becoming tighter knit, the already existing emphasis on religion being part of one’s ethnic identity is only magnified. To many, being Mexican simply means being Catholic. Evidence of this connection can be seen with the incorporation of indigenous history in services, celebrations, and traditions. Not only can Aztec dancers be found at many festivals, but many Latinos also visit botanicas, incorporating other traditions like Santeria into their spiritual experience outside of the church. Of course, Latinos also prefer bilingual or Spanish speaking leaders for their services, something some Latinos had the privileged of experiencing and many didn’t.

But this ethnic identity goes even further geographically than the botanicas in their neighborhoods. The last and final of the bigger commonalities within Latino religious experience is that of a strong regional identity. Obviously, this comes from the already intense ethnic identity but it is taken a step further. The ethnicity is directly linked back to a home country and village that are reflected on the other side of the border.

Latinos tend to create communities in America with the best attempts to reflect their original community from their homeland. By creating this physical region in a transplanted area, Latinos are able to continue to adhere to their strong regional identity and, furthermore, ethnic identity. Each community in the original fatherland was unique, with different patron saints and/or traditions, something that, if it could be transplanted, would help create a comfort zone during a very new and jarring experience upon entering America. Beyond this, many express and act upon the desire to return back to their homeland for spiritual or personal milestones, such as certain festivals or child confirmation. Some are even willing to risk not being able to make it back because they are illegal immigrants.

Though all of these traits and traditions are agreed upon by many to be common within the Latino religious experience, it would be a gross generalization of the Latino community. Not only that, it would misrepresent other religious experiences by making each of these aspects seem uniquely Latino. The best way to approach finding out what makes a Latino religion Latino is less about finding a finite list such as this one and checking off each trait for each faith and labeling it Latino if it covers a majority of the traits and traditions.

Rather, it would be better to take a quite opposite approach. Firstly, the definition of religion would have to be established and agreed upon before anything else begins. This could take up a whole other paper, so the discussion will, sadly, not be delved into here, but let’s just say the dictionary definition is not the final answer.

Secondly, it would need to be decided if the qualifications for a Latino religion would have emphasis on the racial and genetically affected ethnic breakdown of the community. If so, then it’s a simple matter of gathering up statistics regarding demographics and interpreting it for a more mathematical and finite answer.

However, I feel that this would probably be the worst cop out ever and would truly miss everything about the emotions and experience of the elusive definition of what a Latino religion is. The best approach, which would (just our luck) be the most difficult approach, would be to somehow observe and document each individual Latino community’s general experience starting with their homeland faith and going through the immigration experience all the way until the present day in their American community. A combination of extensive personal human experience and demographical data would have to be collected in order for this to be done as accurately as possible.

The reason why I think this method is best is because I think the personal and spiritual experience of a Latino is the most important factor in their choice of religion. Not only that, but it would further directly influence how that religion would be shaped as far as traits and traditions that may change, be added or removed, or left the same. Using this approach, we aren’t limited to just studying the religion as it is upon the time of discovering that a Latino is biologically Latino. With this information, we are able to create a rough picture of pre-existing religions that changed or remained stoic, religions that merged to create hybrids, and religions that were (more or less) created from the history of Latino evolution.

Granted, I also have to accept that there will be generalization to a certain extent since I can in no way find it realistic to even dream about documenting this for each and every individual Latino. I chose the virtually impossible task of trying to document as many communities of Latinos along with a strong number of those who are not part of a Latino community, having experienced less bonding between Latinos and more of assimilation and possible alternate bonding with another non-Latino based community. Even more interesting would be to see if these individuals felt alienated and unsure of their identity.
Basically, the answer to this question can’t truly be answered but not just because my approach would require years of research and financing. There is no religion that could ever simply be labeled as Latino. Santeria, one of the religions brought over, is a mix of Latino and African indigenous. If the history of these African religions could be traced back, I’m sure they came from a merge of two or more pre-existing faiths.

No sense of identity that anyone claims, whether ethnic, regional, political, etc. can be used to claim any religion because, in all honesty, not one religion is new, original, or separate from the other, much like trying to find an actor not six degrees away from Kevin Bacon. Even Anglo-Catholicism is not truly Anglo tracing back into its history. Latinos cannot create a religion (hybrid or ‘original’) that is exclusive to only them, nor can they take a pre-existing religion and simply throw Latino in front of it and claim any ownership to it. Sadly, the idea that there is any sense of ownership of religion does exist no matter how 100% false that claim is.

This study would not give us an answer of whether a religion is Latino or not because that simply can’t be done. The best way I can think to explain this (and maybe it’s only because I’ve been studying for this final lately) is by comparing it to plate tectonics. There are two separate plates, one being Latino community and its current faith, the other representing whatever separate community and faith they are about to encounter. The basic premise of this scenario would be to gather any and all information about each separate plate so that we can properly predict and/or analyze the impending collision.

Many scenarios would arise. The Latino plate could prove to be weaker, being forced under by the other plate, with only scattered (yet explosive) uprising magmatic traditions that couldn’t fully be coerced out of them, similar to the Anglo vs. Mexican Catholic experience. Or, the Latino plate could prove stronger and, instead, overtake the other plate, causing the opposite results, something I would personally love to see and hesitantly say could be the impending future of the Catholic church in America.

The plates could also, rather than face each other head on, take on a transverse boundary, in which the Latino plate and the other plate violently rub together, causing intense heat, friction, and earthquakes all around the area. While they are not dramatically overtaking each other or drastically reshaping the weaker, they are interacting with each other abrasively where they meet, having effect on each other beyond just where they interact. This is still a situation of give and take, where the rocks actually rubbing at the boundary are mixing and switching in a tense manner. I find this to be most like the tension between the Protestant and Catholic churches, but specifically in the context of Latino conversion where the evangelicals and Catholic power-houses are struggling to keep what they have while also trying to acquire more of the Latinos in the vulnerable or soul-searching state that puts them in this boundary danger zone.

Finally, there is the divergent zone, in which is where the two plates are moving away from each other. This is due to the combination of pull and push forces, something that should sound familiar to those who listened to the lectures. The pull force is coming from the other side of the plates that are partaking in the subduction or overtaking of another plate, causing them these two plates to pull away from each other. The push force is coming from the uprising of new magma between the two plates, creating new portions of each plate. This new material not only helps with growth and movement of the plates, but it’s also interesting that two different plates are now made of very similar (if not identical) matter at this boundary.

This boundary is harder to put into context though it provides quite an interesting scenario. I would try and think of it as similar to a more relatively current situation in which Protestantism and Catholicism in Mexico have come to exist in each other’s space. They seem to just so sweetly and Christ-like naturally repel each other and desire great distance between them, in a general sense. Granted, Catholicism came ‘first’ and so instead of an even migration, the Protestant plate would be moving far faster and greater as they see the appeal of acceptance in America (pull force) and are virtually unwelcome in Mexico by Catholics (push force). Catholicism would remain more stagnant or, at least, be moving at a slower rate in the other direction. What’s most interesting, however, is what this ‘new’ material that is rising up will be. Could it represent the already clear open-minded and friendlier acceptance of Protestantism that can be found in Mexican cities and villages near the border? Or is there something new on the horizon that we have yet to see?

The one thing plate boundaries don’t cover is the existence of two plates that amiably live in the vicinity of each other. This is because not one single inch of a plate boundary isn’t interacting with another boundary. Call me a cynic, but there will never be a situation in which humans will interact in a 100% non-violent or abrasive manner, even if they try their best not to. Religion, like plates, will never stop interacting or changing and not one religion comes out fully unchanged.

So, the answer to the question is clearly not here. Instead, I think the question to ask here is broad and consisting of many layers. Considering the consensus that religions are not own-able or entitled to anyone, how does the personal and community experience of Latinos shape the way in which Latino communities and individuals react with other religious experiences they encounter? Do certain similar experiences (boundary types) correlate with similar outcomes (boundary types)? What does this tell us about the nature of Latino practices and traditions, such as why certain traits or traditions are less tightly held on to or how these dynamics lead to a winner in the power struggle? And, of course, in return, we can ask all these questions in regards to whatever religious experience our other plate may represent.

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