Where’s My Rosary?

When my wife and I were married over a decade ago, we had the ceremony at a Methodist church. That we had it in a church at all was more about practicality than an indication of the depth of our religious feelings. A couple of hundred guests weren’t going to fit into an outdoor tent or in some other preferred secular location. So we went with my wife’s childhood religion.

This logistical decision did not go over well with some of my distant relatives. They were older and had been raised in the Catholic crucible of El Salvador, and their opinion of the ceremony was summed up by their non-attendance. I found out later that one great aunt said, “If they’re not getting married in a Catholic Church, they’re not really getting married.”

While my relatives’ reaction may have been extreme, it is not rare in Latino societies.  Hispanic culture and Catholic dogma are so intertwined that it is often difficult to separate them. If you haven’t noticed, this has become one of my favorite themes on this blog.

There are good explanations why Latinos are fanatical about the pope.

The historical reason is because the Spaniards brought their religion with them on the point of a sword when they colonized Latin America. Natives who knew what was good for them quickly abandoned their old gods and hailed Jesus. Over the course of a few generations, this forced conversion morphed into sincere belief.

The contemporary reason is that the Church serves as a bridge for immigrants to their new country, a way for them to ease into assimilation and carry some of the traditions with them. Even for first- or second-generation Hispanics, the church often serves as community foundation and social epicenter in a way that is rarely seen anywhere else in this country (with the possible exception of Baptists in the Deep South).

But there are problems with the Catholic Church’s hold on Latino society. For starters, any culture that emphasizes religion so much is bound to be less interested in more secular matters – such as the importance of education or the value of political clout or the practicality of having many children.

In addition, Hispanic Catholicism has a strangely fatalistic viewpoint, seen in the mindset of many Latinos who think that being poor is their destiny and that they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. Believing that God will take care of everything is one of the chief reasons that Latin American countries, and immigrants from those countries, have such a high tolerance for being pushed around.

There is also the weird disconnect between real-world behavior and Church priorities. In Hispanic culture, the mere act of stepping into the Church is often sufficient to prove one’s moral standing. Growing up, I knew gang members (or at least wannabes) who were praised as “good boys” solely because of their attendance at Church. Their presence, of course, was mandated by their parents, who cared little about what their kids did at other times of the week, as long as they were in the pews on Sunday.

Of course, there is one more negative consequence of Catholicism’s hold on Latino culture. Apparently, every painting by a Hispanic artist must have, at minimum, three images of La Virgen de la Guadalupe (seriously, is this a law or something?).


Despite these issues, however, Hispanic Catholics are not on the same theological plane as heavy hitters such as Christian fundamentalists or Hasidim Jews or Islamic theocrats. Latino Catholics are, for the most part, able to acknowledge the outside world and at least tolerate others.

As for those relatives who boycotted my wedding, they have gone about their Church-centric lives. They still attend Mass so frequently (i.e., at least once a day) that they have earned the Spanish appellation of “las cucarachas de la iglesia.” This is a poetic way of saying that even cockroaches don’t live in the church pews as much as they do.

I presume that the originator of the phrase was Catholic. Also, he apparently didn’t attend a very clean church.


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February 2009
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