Chapter 3; Popular Religion & Cultural Identity: Mexican-American Experience in the USA, by Virgil Elzondo

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 3; Popular Religion & Cultural Identity: Mexican-American Experience in the USA, by Virgil Elzondo

(Virgil Elizondo is Director of the Mexican-American Cultural Centre in San Antonio.)



Allow me to introduce myself so that you may read this presentation from the perspective from which I am attempting to reflect on -- the great frontier between Mexico and the USA. I am a native born Mexican-American Tejano from San Antonio, Texas, USA. I have always lived and worked among my own people -- except for very brief periods of time when I went away to do advanced studies or on special assignments in different parts of the world. My own family and the people from my barrio have been my basic formation team and it is from them that I have acquired my most cherished values, beliefs and religious expressions. It is through them and with them that I have experienced God, Jesus and the communion of saints -- all of them have become very good friends.

As I practice and reflect on the popular tradition of faith of my own Mexican-American people, I become more and more fascinated with its meaning and function in the everyday lives of the people and the enriching contribution that these faith traditions can make to the universal church and to society in general. Many have tried to force us to give up our language, culture and even religious expressions of our faith. But we have resisted and to the degree that we have resisted, we continue to be el pueblo.. la raza. What ultimately makes us who we are? We continue to re-create annually the ancient traditions which are the very substance of our collective soul.

Formation of Mexican American Religious Tradition

Religion and religious expression is power -- but will it be a power unto life or a power of sacralized and legitimized oppression, marginalization, exclusion, ethnocide and even genocide? I am involved in the praxis of what theologians and social scientists tend to call "popular religiosity." And from within the praxis of "popular religiosity" I can say honestly that I find very few authors that seem to know what he/she is really talking about -- they always seem to be speaking about the faith expressions of someone else who does not have the "pure faith" the author seems to presuppose about him-/herself. I do not believe that anyone can penetrate the deep mystery of the religious expressions of a people from the outside. Outsiders can describe it and analyze it, but they will never know it for what it truly is. To the outsider, the ways in which people express their faith will always appear as religiosity while to the people themselves, they will be the ultimate, tangible expressions of the ultimately inexpressible: the mystery of God present and acting in our midst.

Our Mexican-American religious expression, as we have it today, started with the prodigious mestizaje of Iberian Catholicism with the native religions which were already here. The rich and original synthesis did not take place in the theological universities or the councils of the Church, but in the very ordinary crossroads of daily life. This mestizising process started in 1519 and is still going on today. It is in the pantheon of these religious symbols and rituals that the Mexican-American experiences the deepest belonging and cultural communion. They need no explanation for those of us for whom they are meaningful, and no explanation will suffice for those who live and operate in a world of different religious symbols. We Mexican-Americans do not need or seek explanations about Our Lady of Guadalupe, Nuestra Señora de los Lagos, el Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, San Martin de Porres. . . . We know them well as living persons. In them, we experience the mystery of our own identity. They are our collective alter ego.

The Christian word of God was inculturated deeply within the collective soul of Mexico not by the intention of the missioners, but by the process of symbolic interchange which took place in a very natural way in the cocinas, mercados, plazas, hogares, tamaladas, panteones, milpas y fiestas del pueblo. In these places, the free interchange of life and ideas between the Iberians and the Nahuatls took place in a very natural way. Nobody was planning it or organizing it, it was simply taking place as naturally as the new flowers blossom in spring time.

Because the ordinary Spaniards of that period of time were mostly illiterate and came from the medieval world which was so rich in imagery and the native world of the Americas communicated mainly through an image-language, it was much more at the level of the image-word than of the alphabetic spoken word that the new synthesis of Iberian Catholicism and the native religions took place and continues to take place today. This synthesis became flesh in the gastronomic world which produced the new Mexican foods for which Mexico is famous today. Our cuisine, rich in contradictory flavors, is the earthly expression of the heavenly banquets referred to in the Scriptures. As Mexican cuisine emerged, so did the Mexican soul. Our mothers struggled to prepare tasty dishes out of the little or nothing they had available. They managed to nourish both our bodies and our spirit out of the same domestic tabernacles of life: Las cocinas.1 Here they were free to talk, discuss, imagine, think, formulate and understand without coercion or control from higher authorities. This interchange at the grassroots level has gradually given birth to Mexican Christianity.2

Ritual, mystery and image might well be called the trinity of the Mexican and Mexican-American cultural-religious identity. Dogma and doctrines seem to be so Western, while ritual and mystery seem to be so mestizo Mexican. It is only in Our Lady of Guadalupe that the dichotomy is both assumed and transformed into synthesis. It would be the madrecitas in the cocinas who would gradually unfold and transmit the innermost meaning of this theophany which ushered in the new Christian tradition of the Americas. The male theologians have imposed Western Marian categories on Guadalupe and have missed the creating and generative power of Guadalupe which has been articulated, developed and transmitted by the abuelitas, storytellers and artists.3 It marks the beginning of our own tradition of Christianity -- or what some people call "popular religiosity."

Function of Religious Tradition

Popular religiosity is simply the religious tradition of the local church.4 The term itself "popular religiosity" is what others call the religious expressions of my people. For us, they are simply nuestra a vida de fe! They are our own sacramental life which has arisen out of the common priesthood of the people acting in the power of the Spirit. The Word has become flesh in us in the form of our religious practices and traditions. They are the visible expressions of our collective soul through which we affirm ourselves to be who we are in our relationship to each other and to God. Others may take everything else away from us, but they cannot destroy our expressions of the divine. Through these practices we not only affirm ourselves as a people, but we likewise resist ultimate assimilation. Thus they are not only affirmations of faith, but the language of defiance and ultimate resistance. In our collective celebrations, we rise above the forces which oppress us and even seek to destroy us and celebrate publicly our survival. But it is much more than survival; through them, the new born babies and growing children are initiated into the God-language of our people and thus we are assured that life will continue unto the next generation and generations to come.

By popular expressions of the faith I do not refer to the private or individual devotions of a few people but to the ensemble of beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, devotions and prayers which are commonly practiced by the people at large. It is my contention, which is beyond the scope of this paper to develop but which will be its point of departure, that those expressions of the faith which are celebrated voluntarily by the majority of the people, transmitted from generation to generation by the people themselves and which go on within the church, without it or even in spite of it, express the deepest identity of the people.

The popular expressions of the faith function in totally different ways for various peoples depending on their history and sociocultural status. For the dominant culture, the popular expressions of the faith will serve to legitimize their way of life as God’s true way for humanity. They will tranquilize the moral conscience and blind people from seeing injustices which exist in daily life. For a colonized/oppressed/dominated group, they are the ultimate resistance to the attempts of the dominant culture to destroy them as a distinct group either through annihilation or through absorption and total assimilation. They will maintain alive the sense of injustice to which the people are subjected to in their daily lives.

They are the ultimate foundation of the people’s innermost being and the common expression of the collective soul of the people. They are supremely meaningful for the people who celebrate them, and meaningless to the outsider. To the people whose very life-source they are, no explanation is necessary, but to the casual or scientific spectator no explanation will ever express or communicate their true and full meaning. Without them, there might be associations of individuals bound together by common interest (e.g., the corporation, the state, etc.), but there will never be the experience of being a people un pueblo.

It is within the context of the tradition of the group that one experiences both a sense of selfhood and a sense of belonging. Furthermore, it is within the tradition that one remains in contact both with one’s beginnings through the genealogies and the stories of origins and with one’s ultimate end. We are born into them and within them we discover our full and ultimate being. I might enjoy and admire other traditions very much, but I will never be fully at home within them. No matter how much I get into them, I will always have a sense of being ‘other’.

From the very beginning, Christianity presented a very unique way of universalizing peoples without destroying their localized identity. People would neither have to disappear through assimilation nor be segregated as inferior. The Christian message interwove with the local religious traditions so as to give the people a deeper sense of local identity (a sense of rootedness), while, at the same time, breaking down the psycho-sociological barriers that kept nationalities separate and apart from each other so as to allow for a truly universal fellowship (a sense of universality). In other words, it affirmed rootedness while destroying ghettoishness. Christianity changed peoples and cultures not by destroying them, but by reinterpreting their core rituals and myths through the foundational ritual and myth of Christianity. Thus, now a Jew could still be a faithful Jew and yet belong fully to the new universal fellowship and, equally, a Greek or a Roman could still be fully Greek or Roman and equally belong to the new universal group.

In the same way, Christianity, without destroying our ancient rootedness, allowed us to enter into a universal family by sharing in a new common faith and in universal religious symbols. It changed our native ancestors and their mestizo descendants not by the elimination of our religious ways, but by combining them with the Iberian-Christian ways to the mutual enrichment of both. This has been the consistent way of the Christian tradition as it has historically made its way from Galilee, to Jerusalem, through Europe, Asia and North Africa and to the ends of the earth.5 Without ceasing to be who we had been, we have become part of a broader human group -- the Christian family which takes its members from all the nations of the world without destroying their nationalities.

Two Distinct American Religious Traditions

The beginning of the Americas introduces two radically distinct image/ myth representations of the Christian tradition. The USA was born as a secular enterprise with a deep sense of religious mission. The native religions were eliminated and totally supplanted by a new type of religion. Puritan moralism, Presbyterian righteousness and Methodist social consciousness coupled with deism and the spirit of rugged individualism to provide a sound basis for the new nationalism which would function as the core religion of the land. It was quite different in Latin America where the religion of the old European world clashed with those of the world they were conquering and in their efforts to uproot the native religions, found themselves totally assimilated into them. Iberian Catholicism with its emphasis on orthodoxy, rituals and the divinely established monarchical nature of all society conquered physically but itself was absorbed by the pre-Colombian spiritualism with its emphasis on the cosmic-earthly rituals expressing the harmonious unity of opposing tensions: male and female, suffering and happiness, self-annihilation and transcendence, individual and group, sacred and profane, life and death.

In the secular-based culture of the United States, it is the one who succeeds materially who appears to be the upright and righteous person -- the good and saintly. The myth of Prometheus continues to be the underlying myth through which all religions of the USA are reinterpreted and reshaped. In the pre-Colombian/Iberian-Catholic mestizo-based culture of Mexico it is the one who can endure all the opposing tensions of life and not lose one’s interior harmony who appears to be the upright and righteous one. Our religions and culture are constantly reinterpreted and reshaped through the combined myths of the suffering and crucified Jesus -- as Jaime Vidal has stated: "El Señior del gran poder" -- combined with the myths of Cuatemoc: the young Aztec prince who allowed himself to be burned to death slowly rather than give the Spaniard the secret of the Gold and Quetzalcoatl who sacrificed himself for the good of his people.

Prometheus sacralized the power to conquer for self-gain while El Señor del Poder and Quetzalcoatl sacralized the power to endure any and all suffering for the sake of the salvation of others -- two very distinct foundations for the main religions of the Americas.

The Catholicism of the USA and the Catholicism of Mexico accept the same creed, ecclesiology, sacraments, commandments and official prayer. But the ways these are reinterpreted, imaged, and lived are quite a different question. The use of sacramentals and prayer forms and the relationship of people to the institutional church is totally different in Mexican and Mexican-American Catholicism than in the USA. For example, it seems to me that in the USA, we tend to see the Pope as the President/CEO of our giant, worldwide Catholic "multinational," while in the Mexican-American group, we see, love and reverence him as the "papa grande" of the big family. The implications of this are quite different! In the USA, the sacraments have been the ordinary way of church life, while throughout Latin America it has been the sacramentals. The written and spoken alphabetic-word (dogmas, doctrines and papal documents) are most important in US Catholicism while the ritual and devotional image-word have been the mainstay of Mexican Catholicism. The US has been parish-centred while the Latin American church has been home, town and shrine-centred.

With the great Western expansion of the USA in the 1800’s, 50 per cent of northern Mexico was conquered and taken over by the USA. The Mexicans, living in that vast region spanning a territory of over 3500 kilometres from California to Texas, suddenly became aliens in their own land . . . foreigners who never left home. Their entire way of life was despised. The Mexican mestizo was abhorred as a mongrel who was good only for cheap labor. Efforts were instituted to suppress everything Mexican: customs, language and Mexican Catholicism. The fair-skinned/ blonde Mexicans who remained had the choice of assimilating totally to the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture of the USA or be ostracized as an inferior human being. The dark-skinned had no choice! They were marked as an inferior race destined to servants of the white master race.

Today, social unrest and dire poverty force many people from Mexico to move to the former Mexican territories which politically are part of the USA. Newcomers are harassed by the immigration services of the USA as illegal intruders -- a curious irony since it was the USA who originally entered the region illegally and stole it from Mexico. Yet the descendents of the original settlers of this region plus those who have immigrated continue to feel at home, to resist efforts of destruction through assimilation and to celebrate their legitimacy as a people.

Religious Symbols as Roots, Core and Aspirations

The Mexican-Americans living in that vast borderland between the USA and Mexico have not only survived as a unique people but have even maintained good mental health in spite of the countless insults and putdowns suffered throughout its history and even in the present moment of time.6 Anyone who has suffered such a long history of segregation, degradation and exploitation should be a mental wreck.7 Yet in spite of their on-going suffering, not only are the numbers increasing, but in general they are prospering, joyful and healthy, thanks to the profound faith of the people as lived and expressed through the common religious practices of the group. I could explore many of them,8 but I will limit myself to what I consider to be the three sets of related core expressions which mark the ultimate ground, the perimeters and the final aspirations of the Mexican American people: Guadalupe/Baptism; polvolagua bendita; crucifixion/los muertos. They are the symbols in which the apparently destructive forces of life are assumed, transcended and united. In them, we experience the ultimate meaning and destiny of our life pilgrimage.


There is no greater and more persistent symbol of Mexican and Mexican-American identity than devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Thousands visit her home at Tepeyac each day and she keeps reappearing daily throughout the Americas in the spontaneous prayers and artistic expressions of the people. In her, the people experience acceptance, dignity, love and protection ... they dare to affirm life even when all others deny them life. Since her apparition she has been the flag of all the great movements of independence, betterment and liberty.

Were it not for Our Lady of Guadalupe 9 there would be no Mexican or Mexican-American people today. The great Mexican nations had been defeated by the Spanish invasion which came to a violent and bloody climax in 1521. The native peoples who had not been killed no longer wanted to live. Everything of value to them, including their gods, had been destroyed. Nothing was worth living for. With this colossal catastrophe, their entire past became irrelevant. New diseases appeared and together with the trauma of the collective death-wish of the people, the native population decreased enormously.

It was in the brown Virgin of Guadalupe that Mexicanity was born and through her that the people have survived and developed. At the very moment when the pre-Colombian world had come to a drastic end, a totally unsuspected irruption took place in 1531 when, in the ancient site of the goddess Tonanzin, a Mestizo woman appeared to announce a new era for "all the inhabitants of this land." Guadalupe provides the spark which will allow the people to rise out of the realm of death like the Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the past -- not just a return to the past but the emergence of a spectacular newness.10 In sharp contrast to the total rupture with the past which was initiated by the conquest-evangelization enterprise, Guadalupe provided the necessary sense of continuity which is basic to human existence. Since the apparition took place at Tepeyac, the long venerated site of the goddess Tonanzin, it put people in direct contract with their ancient past and in communion with their own foundational mythology. It validated their ancestry while initiating them into something new. The missioners had said their ancestors had been wrong and that the diabolical past had to be totally eradicated. But the lady who introduced herself as the mother of the true God was now appearing among them and asking that a temple be built on this sacred site. She was one of them, she was clothed with the colors of divinity, but she definitely was not one of their goddesses. In her, there was continuity and newness; rootedness and breakthrough. Out of their own past and in close continuity with it, something truly new and sacred was now emerging.

Furthermore, she was giving meaning to the present moment in several ways for she was promising them love, defense and protection. At a time when the people had experienced the abandonment of their gods, the mother of the true God was now offering them her personal intervention. At a time when new racial and ethnic divisions were emerging, she was offering the basis of a new unity as the mother of all the inhabitants of the land. At a time when the natives were being instructed and told what to do by the Spaniards, she chose a low class Indian to be her trusted messenger who was to instruct the Spaniards through the person of the Bishop and tell them what to do. In her, the conquered, oppressed and crushed begin to conquer, liberate and rehabilitate.

Finally, she initiated and proclaimed the new era which was now beginning. Over her womb is the Aztec glyph of the centre of the universe. Thus she carries the force which will gradually build up the civilization which will be neither a simple restoration of the past nor simply New Spain but the beginning of something new. The flowers, which she provided as a sign of authenticity, was for the Indian world the sign which guaranteed that the new life would truly flourish.

Thus in Guadalupe, the ancient beginnings connect with the present moment and point to what is yet to come! The broken pieces of their ancient numinous world are now re-pieced in a totally new way. Out of the chaos, a new world of ultimate meaning is now emerging. The Phoenix had truly come forth not just as a powerful new life, but also as the numinosum which would allow them to once again experience the awe and reverence of the sacred -- not a sacred which was foreign and opposed to them, but one which ultimately legitimized them in their innermost being -- both collectively as a people and individually as persons.

The complementary symbol of Guadalupe is the baptism of infants. The Lady of Guadalupe had sent the Indian Juan Diego to the Church. The Indian world immediately started to go to church and ask for baptism. Yet, they were no longer being uprooted totally from their ancient ways in order to enter into the church which the Lady had sent them. They were entering as they were -- with their customs, their rituals, their songs, their dances and their pilgrimages. The old Franciscan missioners feared this greatly. Many thought it was a devil’s trick to subvert their missionary efforts. But the people kept on coming. They were truly building the new temple the Lady had requested: the living temple of Mexican-Christians. It is through baptism that every newborn Mexican enters personally into the temple requested by the Lady.

Through baptism the child becomes part of the continuum and is guaranteed life in spite of the social forces against life. The physical birth of the child is completed by the spiritual birth and both form an integral part of the biological life of the child. For our people, baptism of infants is not just a sacrament of initiation of our Catholic Church, but also a biological-anthropological event which binds the child and the community together in a profound and lasting blood-spiritual relationship.

Through baptism, the community claims the child as its very own and with pride presents to the entire people -- no matter how it was conceived or what might be the social status of the child. In the group, the child will receive great affirmation and tenderness. This will give the child a profound sense of existential security and belonging. Whether others want us around or not is of little consequence because we grow up knowing that we belong. He/she will be able to affirm selfhood in spite of the putdowns and insults of society: they will dare to be who they are -- and they will be who they are with a great sense of pride! This deep sense of security and belonging will develop through participation in the multiple religious rituals of the people -- posadas. rosarios, velorios, peregrinaciones, viacrucis. . . .

For a people who have a historical memory and contemporary situation of degradation, insults and rejection, baptism is the recognition that this child, regardless of what the world thinks of it, is of infinite dignity. It is the sacred rite of initiation into the community and the ancestors. Through it, not only are the newborn welcomed into the group, but the continuity of the life of the group is assured ... the life of the ancestors will continue in the future generations because of our religious celebrations today.

As the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac were the beginning of an anthropological resurrection event for the native and mestizo peoples of Mexico, so is baptism the individual entry into the life of these resurrected people. Through baptism a child not only becomes a child of God according to the Christian tradition but equally also a child of our common mother of the Americas, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

Cenizas y Agua Bendita (Ashes and Holy Water)

For anyone who knows anything about the Mexican and Mexican-American religious expression, there is no doubt that ashes on Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular rituals of the entire year. In my parish of San Fernando in San Antonio, we have a service of ashes every half hour averaging 1,200 persons per half hour. By the end of the day, we have had over 30,000 persons go through for the ashes. The church does not really promote this, yet it is one of the most popular rituals of the entire church year. Why?

For us, the earth is sacred. We come from the earth and in time we return to the earth. The earth, and especially the portion of the earth out of which we originate is the very source of our life, subsistence and existence. In a survey I conducted a few years ago of Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest, to the question, "What would you like to leave your children?", the most frequent response was: "una tierrita". Precisely because we are so bound to the earth, one of the deepest sources of our suffering as a people is that we have been deprived of our own land. Without even having migrated, the natives of the Americas have been forced to live as aliens in the very lands of their ancestors. Only the languages, dress, food, customs and religion of the foreigners who invaded and robbed the natives of the lands are considered true and legitimate while the ways of the natives continue to be despised as pagan, savage and inferior. In our own land, we cannot be at home! We are treated like squatters without rights to be thrown around as the powerful see fit. We are thrown around from one space to another without any regard for our families or cemeteries. Our natural resources are taken away from us and replaced with garbage and toxic wastes. Whatever the rest of the society does not want -- jails, public housing, garbage dumps -- is conveniently placed in our neighborhoods.

What is life without connectedness to our own proper earth? Polvo!

On Ash Wednesday, as the people come up to receive the ashes, they hear the words: "Polvo eres The ashes of the beginning of Lent are a curious and mysterious religious expression of the Mexican tradition which finds its full socio-religious meaning when coupled with the Holy Water which is blessed during the Easter Vigil -- when, through God’s power, justice triumphed over injustice in the resurrection of the innocent victim from the death inflicted upon him by the unjust "justice" of this world. The one whom the world had rejected and killed, God raised and installed as the Lord of all nations.

For people who have been forced to become foreigners in their own land, who have been driven from their properties and who have been pushed around by the powerful like the mighty wind blows the dust around, ashes, as a moment of the continuum of the pilgrimage of life become most powerful. They mark the radical acceptance of the moment -- actually there is no choice -- like Jesus accepting the cross. This is a ritual reenactment of the burning of Cuatemoc’s feet while he refuses to give in to the demands of the Spaniards. He endured rather than giving in to the unjust demands of his captors. But this acceptance does not indicate approval in any way whatsoever. It is the acceptance of an unjust situation without the acceptance of its disastrous consequences: the destruction of our people. The very fact that we are here in growing numbers and walking up to receive the ashes is an act of public and collective defiance of the destructive situation that has been forced upon us.

We will not be eliminated from this earth, we might be dust today, but dust settles down and can take roots when it receives moisture. The people do not only come for ashes, throughout the year they come for holy water to sprinkle upon themselves, their children, their homes. . . everything. They are very aware that our entire world yearns and travails in pain awaiting to be redeemed -- a redemption which in Christ has indeed begun but whose rehabilitating effects are yet to take effect in our world of present day escalating injustices. The use of the regenerative waters of baptism in every aspect of life is a constant call to God to right the wrongs of our present society. If God is truly God, God must intervene. God cannot remain distant and passive in the light of the great misery and suffering of God’s people. We know that God hears the cries of the poor and God will come to save us. God will redress the unjust situation which has been imposed upon us. God opened the sea to allow his people to escape enslavement, God called his assassinated Son to life from the tomb and this same God will convert us from aliens to children in our own land. The present situation will not last forever for the God of justice and mercy will bring about change.

The sprinkling with the waters of the Easter Vigil is a constant call for the regeneration of all creation. The dust which is sprinkled with the water will be turned into fertile earth and produce in great abundance. As in the reception of ashes there is an acceptance, in the sprinkling of holy water there is an unquestioned affirmation: the ashes will again become earth: the dust-people will become the fertile earth and the earth will once again be ours. The dust-water binomial symbolizes the great suffering of an uprooted people who refuse to give in to despair but live in the unquestioned hope of the new life that is sure to come.

Crucifixion/"Muertos" (Dead)

The final set of religious celebrations which express the core identity of the Mexican-American people is the Crucifixion which is celebrated on Good Friday, and The Dead whose day is celebrated on November 2. For a people who have constantly been subjected to injustice, cruelty and early death, the image of the crucified is the supreme symbol of life in spite of the multiple daily threats of death. If there was something good and redemptive in the unjust condemnation and crucifixion of the God-man, then, as senseless and useless as our suffering appears to be, there must be something of ultimate goodness and transcendent value in it. We don’t understand it, but in Jesus, the God-man who became the innocent victim who suffered for our salvation, we affirm it and in this very affirmation receive the power to endure it without destroying us. Even if we are killed, we cannot be destroyed.

Jesus was killed but not destroyed. He is alive and his cross has become the source and symbol of the ultimate triumph of goodness over evil, courage over fear, love over righteousness. No wonder that in their faith-filled evangelical intuition, at the moment when the scourged and crowned with thorns Jesus of Nazareth appears to be the most powerless, the people spontaneously acclaim him as "El Señor del Poder. . . el señor de la Gloria." He had the incredible power to sustain the most cruel suffering for the sake of our salvation. This, in the minds of our people, is the ultimate power of God -- the power to endure for the sake of those we love. And this is precisely the power that we see missing in today’s world -- husbands or wives abandon their sickly partners because they can no longer endure the pain, children abandon their elderly parents because they can no longer endure the pain of seeing them helpless, society abandons those who have made mistakes to like imprisonment because they cannot endure to have them around; multinationals abandon their faithful workers rather than endure a loss or diminishment of profits. The power to conquer might be glamorous and appealing, but only the power to endure for the sake of others is truly divine and life-giving. Animals conquer by force, God conquers by enduring love -- enduring even unto death on the cross. The power to conquer diminishes with time and remains only in the dust of unread history books while the power to endure lives on in the lives of those who are saved through it -- the crucified Jesus lives today but the conquering Caesars and armies have long been dead, buried and hardly remembered. The crucified is alive, but the executioners are all dead and gone.

In the presence of el Señor del Poder (The Lord of Power) we see and celebrate our own inner strength which has allowed us to endure for the sake of our families and our people. What others ridicule as weakness, we see as the divine power alive in us. We are not a fatalistic people who enjoy suffering, but a powerful people who will not allow suffering to destroy our lives or even our joy of living. The radical acceptance of the cross of life is the basis for our festive music, dances and fiestas. We do not celebrate because we suffer, but we celebrate because we refuse to allow suffering to control or destroy our lives.

Dia de los Muertos/The day of those who are ultimately alive!

People who know us from the outside claim that we are so fascinated with suffering and death that we ignore joy and resurrection. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They are so totally wrong about us -- they see us but they do not know us. Often the ones who make this claim are the very ones who have no inner appreciation of the fullness of the paschal mystery themselves. Our people accept openly the harshness of suffering and death only because we participate already in the beginning of resurrection. Certainly we celebrate our collective resurrection on the early morning of December 12 at our sunrise service to our Lady of Guadalupe; certainly we celebrate resurrection every time we use the agua bendita in reaffirming God’s power over sickness and death. But at no time do we celebrate resurrection and the communion of living saints more than on "el dia de los muertos" which in effect is the day of the living -- the day of those who have defied death and are certainly more alive than ever!

We know the secret of the mystery of life. Those whom the world takes for dead, we know beyond doubt are alive not only in God -- and God is the fullness of life -- but in us who remember them. Because they are no longer limited or imprisoned by "this body," they are more alive than ever. The final, absolute, definitive death beyond which there is no earthy life left is when there is no one around to remember me or celebrate my life. Thus in remembering -- "re-cordando" -- we keep alive our ancestors as much as they keep us alive and continue to guard over us. The pain which we experience when someone we know and love dies is transformed into an innermost joy at the annual celebration of those who through death have entered ultimate life. The memory of their lives becomes a source of life and energy. As we bring them flowers, build altars of remembrance, light candles, share in the common bread and punch of the dead, we truly enter into the ultimate fiesta. In the mystical moment of the celebrations of el dia de los muertos, the veil of time and space is removed and we are all together on earth and in heaven, in time and in eternity singing the same songs, enjoying the same drinks and sharing in the same life that no earthly power can take away from us.

It should be noted that our dia de los muertos is the very opposite of Halloween. Our "dead" do not come to spook us, but to visit, comfort and party with us. We do not fear them. We welcome their presence and look forward to having a good time with them. Sometimes we even take music to the cemeteries to share with them their favorite songs. We celebrate together that death does not have the final word over life and that life ultimately triumphs over death. Our family and our pueblo are so strong and enduring that not even death can break them apart. Thus what is celebrated as the day of the dead is, in effect, the celebration of undestructive life -- a life which not even death can destroy. Society might take our lands away, marginalize us and even kills us, but it cannot destroy us. For we live on in the generations to come and in them the previous generations continue to be alive.


The conquest of ancient Mexico by Spain in 1521 and then the conquest of northwest Mexico by the United States in the 1840’s forced the native population and their succeeding generations into a split and meaningless existence. It was a mortal collective catastrophe of gigantic death-bearing consequences. Yet the people have survived as a people through the emergence of new religious symbols and the reinterpretation of old ones which have connected the past with the present and projected into the future. The core religious expressions as celebrated and transmitted by the people are the unifying symbols in which the opposing forces of life are brought together into a harmonious tension so as to give the people who participate in them the experience of wholeness. In them and through them, opposites are brought together and push towards a resolution and the people who celebrate them experience an overcoming of the split. Where formerly there was opposition, now there is reconciliation and even greater yet, synthesis. This is precisely what gives joy and meaning to life. indeed makes life possible in any meaningful sense regardless of the situation and it is in the celebration of these festivals of being and memory that the people live on as a people.

I have carefully limited my observations and attempts at interpretation to my own personal Mexican-American experience, not because I am not interested in all the Hispanics, but precisely because I do not dare to have the arrogance to speak for the others. I have not lived their experience and even though I respect their religious symbols and practices deeply, they are not my own. I am convinced that you can only understand religious symbols correctly from within and not by mere observation -- even the best and most critical -- from the outside. In seeking to understand religious symbols correctly, the so-called "objective distance" of Western scholars is a sure guarantee of falsification and objective error, especially if it is not in dialogue with the believers themselves. Only by a patient and prolonged listening to the believers can one begin to understand the real meaning of their practices and rituals. They cannot be judged by criteria of another cosmovision or world-view.

I very much admire what Richard Flores is doing with the Pastorelas and how he has gone through the process of becoming a pastorsito himself, has personally taken part in all the aspects of the process and is gradually beginning to understand them from within. I very much appreciated what Ana Maria Diaz Stevens is doing with the development of religious thought of the Puerto Rican women. Her insights have opened up a whole new field of reflection for me. All of a sudden "las cocineras" were not just the women in the kitchens, but the creative thinkers who were cooking-up new and profound theological thought. Woo! We need Hispanic theologians and social scientists who will reflect from within the common experience of faith of our people, not as outsiders but as believers who are seeking to understand, clarify and enrich our own life of faith.

I am anxiously awaiting and looking forward for the other Hispanic groups in the United States to begin speaking and writing about their own religious expressions of their culture. To the degree that this takes place, we will be able to begin a very fruitful dialogue among ourselves. I long to see deeper studies on the Cuban American devotion to N. S. de Caridad and their Afro-Cuban sense of santeria; on the Puerto Rican devotion to San Juan Bautista and other religious practices; on the Cristo Negro de Esquipulas of Guatemala and other devotions and rituals of the various Hispanic peoples living in the United States. I trust that PARAL will be able to continue encouraging this type of socio-theological reflection and dialogue among the various groups -- each from within its own lived experience of enculturated faith with its corresponding religious symbols. These religious symbols and rituals are the keys that will unlock the secret to the deepest and most far-reaching elements of the cosmovision of our people and thus provide the ultimate basis of our earthly identity.



1. We do not intend to indicate that women should stay in the kitchens, but only to bring out a very important aspect of life which has not been properly recognized. It was Anna Maria Diaz Stevens during the PARAL symposium who first made me aware of this fascinating contribution of how much more had come out of the kitchens than mere food. They had been the most exciting place where new life in all its aspects had truly blossomed and developed.

2. O. Espin has some very good articles on the relation between popular expression of the Faith and the Roman Catholic tradition. In particular. I would recommend: Tradition and Popular Religion" page 69 in Allan Deck’s book: Frontiers of Hispanic Theology in the U.S.A. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1992); a classical work on this subject is: J.MR. Tillard et al: Foi Populaire Foi Savante (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1976).

3. For more in-depth studies on Our Lady of Guadalupe I recommend my own book: La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas (San Antonio: MACC Publications) and subsequent articles on this subject in Concilium. Also the coming book of Jeanette Rodrigues on this topic by the Texas University Press in Austin, Texas.

4. For some very good clarification on the concept of the Local Church. consult, J.M.R. Tillard.

5. Jean-Louis Aragon: "Le ‘Senus Fidelium’ et ses fondaments neotestamentiares" in op. cit., Foi Populaire.

6. R. Acuna, Occupied America (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1972).

7. Roberto Jiminez, "Social Changes/Emotional Health," Medical Gazette of South Texas, vol. 7, no. 25, June 20, 1985.

8. For a greater discussion of other religious symbols, consult my previous works: Christianity and Culture (San Antonio: MACC Publications); Galilean Journey. The Mexican American Promise (New York: Orbis Books, 1983).

9 For other aspects of Guadalupe, consult my previous articles in Concilium, No. 122/1977 and No. 188/1983.

10.J. Ruffie, De La Biologie A La Culture (Paris: Flammarion. 1976), pp. 247-252.