I’ve been learning about Latin@ faith and spirituality this month, through a class taught by Dr. Carmen Nanko-Fernández, and through a host of readings, some of which I will mention in this post, and others I will list at the bottom. I am learning as a married, male, Lutheran bishop of European descent, who has not been given the perspective of biculturality. I have much to learn. This is a first attempt to share and integrate my continued lifelong learning.
I say “Latin@” for lack of a better term, and also because this is the term most of the writers I’m reading are using. I am aware that the label is imposed as an expression of power. The term lumps together several dozen distinct cultures with roots in Latin America, that have the common experience of oppression and colonization by Spain. Latin America is a complex intersection of indigenous Americans, European invaders (Spain in this case), African slaves, and Asian immigrants. This reality has created an expression of Christianity that is unique, rich and complex. The realities of being Latin@ in the U.S. has further developed this unique expression.
Christianity is a way of life, that is lived within the context of culture. The way it is expressed and lived depends on that cultural context. Christianity has necessarily taken different forms in Jerusalem, Rome, China, Africa and Latin America. Symbols used in one place are unhelpful in others. The adaptability of the faith is part of its beauty.
Today is Columbus Day. In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He also committed genocide, tortured the indigenous peoples he encountered, and “gave” young women to his men. He enslaved human beings for God and country bringing them back to Spain without their consent. The atrocities are well documented, but in particular I commend to you Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Columbus.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula with 11 ships, 500 men and 13 horses. He claimed the land for Spain. He overwhelmed Tabasco and took 20 women as slaves as his bounty. One of them became his interpreter and bore him a son, who is considered to be the first mestizo. He marched on to Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City. He massacred thousands along the way.
The Aztecs were domineering rulers, so Cortés found support from vanquished locals to join his efforts. He tried many times to get a meeting with Moctezuma II, the ruler of the Aztec Empire, but was turned down. By the time he arrived, his ranks had swelled with 1,000 indigenous people who were either forced into service, or willing opponents of Moctezuma and Aztec hierarchy.
Tenochtitlán had an estimated 200,000-400,000 in habitants, making it one of the largest cities in the world, the same size as Paris at the time. London had 50,000. When Cortés arrived with his swelled ranks, Moctezuma reconsidered, letting them in the city gates, and hoping to assess their weaknesses. He fed and cared for Cortés and his men. When they asked for gold he said they didn’t have much, but he was welcome to it.
Cortés took Moctezuma prisoner in his own palace, then besieged the city. The battle is too complex to detail here. At one point 60 Spaniards were captured, sacrificed, and eaten. The Aztecs began to contract strange new diseases. In time the population was decimated, starved in the siege, Cortés and his men prevailed and Tenochtitán was leveled.
What happened next was remarkable in its audacity. With the conquest swift, brutal, decisive and complete, the conquerors set out to convert the natives to the Christianity God of love.
How does one convey the Christian faith to a people who are immersed in a completely different religious world of symbols and meaning, who speak a different language, and who write not in any European-known alphabet, but with pictographs?
The Aztec people were quite religious. Their faith was rich with personal and communal elements. It was a polytheistic faith, with a pantheon of gods, quite at odds with the monotheistic Christian faith. Both the Spaniards and the Aztecs agreed on one thing. Clearly, the Christian God was greater than the Aztec gods, otherwise, how could Cortés have possibly defeated such a great empire?
First of all, the main religious argument employed by the early evangelizers was the “conquering might” of the Christian God vis-à-vis the apparent inability of the Amerindian gods to save their worshipers from the Spaniards. (Espín, loc. 1118)
In order to convert the “savages,” the Spanish crown then sent Franciscan missionaries (and in time, Augustinians, Dominicans and Jesuits). Back in Spain, the crown had spent the last few centuries pushing out the Muslims and Jews. Additionally, they were hard at work rooting out any Lutheran or Calvinist heresy. While the Council of Trent would fall short of Lutheran hopes, its reforms were significant, and it also homogenized many older liturgies into one official liturgy.
These reforms did not reach across the Atlantic for the most part. Pre-Tridentine liturgical patterns had been set in place in the Americas prior to the Council of Trent. The Christianity of the friars was late Medieval Catholicism, not a product of the Reformation or the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Thus, began a divergence, subtle at first, between Spanish Catholicism and Latin American Catholicism.
Faith must be communicated using the language and symbols of the people. Teaching the doctrine of the Trinity is hard enough when both parties are from the same culture and speak the same language. Across the cultural divide it proved nearly impossible. Fortunately, we have copies of the first catechisms and prayer books employed by the monks. You can look at these Testerian Manuscripts at a museum in Mexico City. They contain the pictographs used to convey the Christian faith to the indigenous population. They were written by Aztec converts, directed by Franciscan friars.
Any translation requires interpretation and a set of creative choices. How were the friars to speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit without it being interpreted in a polytheistic manner? The Aztecs had a pictograph for father and many for the various gods. What pictograph should be used to convey God the Father? God the Son? God the Holy Spirit? For earthly father, they chose a pictograph with a headdress, which conveyed maleness and authority. For God the Father, they used a hybrid of two pictographs, one meaning God and the other meaning father, the latter looking a lot like a Franciscan friar. Espín says they were trying to convey the sense of fatherhood of God. Did it work? Was it understood in a trinitarian way? Most say it is doubtful. It probably conveyed the fatherhood of the friar. This complicated locals further, when trying to convey the Son of a celibate friar (Espín, loc. 1244-54).
Jesus is clearly depicted as Lord (with a headdress) and God (three groups of feather-like lines around the head). The headdress, conveying a sense of Aztec lords, also conveyed their brutality. Either the author did this intentionally, or simply had no other symbol to use. Jesus is also depicted as the Son of Mary. The difference between Jesus’ relationship with his mother and his Father is not explained. The pictograph for Jesus is the crucifix. It seems there was no symbol adequate, so the author borrowed one from Spanish symbolism. (Espín, loc. 1314-34)
Iberian Christianity was highly Christocentric, with less emphasis on the Holy Spirit (like many Lutherans today). The idea of a Holy Spirit was foreign to Aztec theology. Without much to go on, the author had to convey the divinity of the Holy Spirit as one person of the Trinity. The symbol chosen was a bird with a halo, in flight, ascending, surrounded by light. This was a made-up pictograph with no correlate in pre-Columbian drawing. What would the indigenous people have understood about this? (Espín, loc. 1353-63)
The friars were part of a long tradition of conveying the faith in the illiterate European masses of Medieval period by using icons, symbols and dramas. Symbols, however, in one culture can mean something completely different in another culture. The local population received the message of the gospel in the context of their own worldview, using symbols with ambiguous meaning. The faith that emerged bore a resemblance to European Christianity, but like the mestizo children walking the streets, it was clearly a hybrid. An new expression of Christianity had been born.
What faith would make sense to the vanquished and humiliated people of the Americas, whose culture, and way of life had been completely destroyed? Ironically, the image of the crucified Christ spoke, even in spite of the treatment of the conquerors. In fact, the brutally humiliated, vanquished Christ on the cross became a powerful symbol with which the conquered people could identify.
Many pre-Columbian religious practices found their way into the Latin-American Catholicism that emerged. The Day of the Dead celebrations have pre-Columbian origins. Previously held earlier in the fall, they were moved to All Saints and All Souls days, and adapted to conform to those remembrances. Some denigrate the forms of popular religion that resulted, calling them syncretistic bastardizations of Christianity. Such facile appraisals fail to notice the pre-Christian influences on European Christianity, such as the Christmas tree or the word “Easter” likely originating from Eostre, the pre-Christian goddess of Spring. At its best, the Christian gospel does not destroy cultural symbols, but enters them, bringing the message of the cross of Christ.
In 1531, not long after Cortés conquest, an indigenous convert to Catholicism named Juan Diego saw a vision of a woman who spoke to him in Nahuatl, telling him to build a temple on that site. The site was
Is known as Guadalupe, a mispronunciation of Tecoatlaxope, a Nahuatl term meaning, “She will crush the serpent of stone.” (Espín, loc. 1948)
Who was this woman in the vision? Diego, newly converted to Christianity, interpreted it as a vision of Mary of Nazareth. There was also an Aztec deity known as “our mother” Tonantzin, often depicted as pregnant or carrying a child. She was the wife of the serpent god. The woman that spoke with Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac would ikely have been understood as Tonantzin to Aztecs and Mary to Spaniards. Some suggest it was the Holy Spirit. (Why could a female theophany not be God?)
Either way, there was a true religious message being conveyed in both Aztec and Spanish understanding. God is not just angry judge and conqueror, but also compassionate and loving. Mary, a member of a conquered race, gives birth to a very human Jesus who suffers and is ultimately defeated as were the Nahuatl people. A peasant Galilean, mestizo? (Elizondo), Jesus was humiliated and killed by those more powerful than he was, even though he lived in solidarity with the poor. He revealed a God of the oppressed and vanquished, who loves the weak. (Espín, loc. 2040)
This vision seems to have been a turning point for the Christian faith in Mexico. Espín:
Guadalupe seems to be the birth of the inculturation of Christianity in colonial Mexico. In other words, precisely because Juan Diego claimed to have seen Mary the way he did, we can say today that this is a sign that the Christian gospel was in fact announced and accepted in early colonial Mexico, in spite of all the betrayals of the gospel that can also be documented. (Espín, loc. 1979)
Edwin David Aponte concurs:
Localized shrines of devotion to Guadalupe can appear in places as diverse as an Episcopal church in north Philadelphia, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, a small mission church in the Diocese of Miami, a major shrine outside Chicago, a backyard holy place in south Phoenix, or on unnumbered home altars. (Aponte, loc. 2171)
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a vital symbol for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, not just religiously, but also culturally.
The late colonial period, according to Espín brought with it a re-evangelization, for two reasons. Trinitarian theology and doctrine had been hard to convey. Some of the indigenous people considered Mary a female deity, along with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Additionally, the saints felt a lot like a pantheon especially when one prayed to them. Second, the Council of Trent had brought about changes in liturgy and practice that had to be taught. The reindoctrination was slow to reach the rural areas. It eventually led to a growing rift between the intellectual and ecclesiastical elite, who were beholden to Spain.
The movement for independence brought unity between elites who wanted independence and those with allegiance to Spain. Politicians and church leaders for independence embraced popular Catholicism as a unifying factor.
Two hundred years after Cortés, in 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. 27 years later, Mexico, unprotected by Spain, lost half its country to the U.S. All of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of Colorado and Utah used to be Mexico. The shaded areas of these maps tell the story.
Suddenly Mexicans, mestizo families who had lived on the land for centuries found themselves strangers in a new land: U.S. territory. Spanish-speaking states under Mexican law became English-speaking states under U.S. law. People of Latin descent were treated as enemies, relieved of their ownership and rights. “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.” To this day, Latin@s whose families lived here before the first English-speaking person arrived are asked, “When did you come to this country?”
Latin@ popular religion did not immigrant to the U.S. Southwest. It has been here since the early colonial period. In some aspects, it has been here all along.
The popular religious patterns that developed among the richly diverse, multicultural population did so in the home, as priests were in short demand. Religious processions in the street, personal devotions, saints and icons became the norm. Their faith was hewn from a history of colonization, suffering and oppression. Protestants in ministry with Latin@s learn quickly that these symbols are central to life and faith.
We are now living in a time when roughly half of all U.S. Catholics are Latin@, and a growing number of Protestants. Latin@ spirituality is born out of a unique context. Those who criticize Latin@ Christianity for being syncretic ignore the same in European Christianity, as witnessed by Druid Christmas trees, and even the name Easter, which comes from the goddess of the rite of Spring. It may well be a beauty of the Christian faith is that it adapts to the cultures in which is spreads, honoring the faith of converts.
Latin@ spirituality may be a great gift to the U.S. with its rising number of “nones” who claim no religious adherence, as well as great suspicion of religious institutions. Much of Latin@ spirituality is unofficial. Posadas, processions, rosaries and even Marian devotions were not official liturgies of the church, but of a faith that emerged from the people. (The Advent wreath is similar, not a liturgical rite that came from church to the home, but a popular devotion that found its way from the home into church.) The indigenous peoples of this land adopted Christianity and made it their own.
At at time of COVID-19 pandemic, when gathering in large crowds is unsafe and unwise, perhaps it is a time to revisit the power of devotions in the home. Luther wrote the Small Catechism not for church, but for catechesis in the home. Day of the Dead altars, not unlike African libation altars, give thanks to God for those who went before us. They remind us of the resurrection of the dead, that our loved ones surround us, a communion of saints. We could all use a dose of this.
Edwin David Aponte. 2012. ¡Santo! Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, 1991. Columbus. Oxford University Press.
“Many Cultures. One Faith,” interview with Arturo Bañuelas in U.S. Catholic (November 2009), Vol. 74, No.11, 28, http://www.uscatholic.org/church/2011/01/many-cultures-one-faith.
Elizondo, Virgilio P. 2007. Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise. Maryknoll, Ny: Orbis Books.
Espín, Orlando O. 1997. The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books. Kindle edition.
Fernandez, Eduardo C., 2008. Mexican-American Catholics, Paulist, ISBN: 9780809142668
Carmen Nanko-Fernández, “¡Despierta Iglesia! Reconfiguring Theologies of Ministry Latinamente,” Concilium (2010/1).
Click here to view more catechetical pictographs: https://archive.org/details/catecismotesteri01cath/page/n41/mode/2up