The Flavor of Mexican Catholicism: An Ongoing Rebellion

When I first read Octavio Paz’ collection of essays in The Labyrinth of Solitude it awakened in me a need to comprehend my identity as a Mexican. As most people, I used to spend my days wrapped in the cocoon of experiences and the stimulus of my surroundings, as if the world was the same everywhere.

I had travelled and experienced many cultures, many more than most people my age normally do, but the prism of my nationalism only let me see life as if it was them versus us. I questioned superficial life dictums but I never really delved into what makes me Mexican.

I am Mexican by birth and by cultural upbringing. I am wrapped in the red, white and green of my flag and I saw life in those colors, even when traveling in the United States and in Europe. As I became more immersed in different cultures I would begin to question the pre-conceived notions I had about other cultures. It wasn’t until I began to read Octavio Paz and Alan Riding’s; Distant Neighbors that I began to slowly comprehend that what we believe in is dictated to us by those that educate us, both formally and informally.

We all have biases and the reality of life is lost somewhere in that preconceived fog.

As people we rarely question what drives our beliefs and we rarely step outside the comfort of our experiences. Paz and Riding forced me to step outside of my nationalism and begin to question what the foundation of my being was. As I delved deeper and deeper into this notion I began to awaken from the apathy of a belief system based on national idealism – designed, intentionally or not, to maintain some semblance of control over the masses.

This is not unique to Mexico. It is practiced by all nations, some overly effective and others just marginally.

One of the tools employed to control the masses is organized religion.

I believe in God and I consider myself Christian. Although Mexican, I was not brought up in the Catholic faith but rather I was brought up in the Anglican experience.

Yes, Anglican. Contrary to popular belief, Catholicism is the dominant religion in Mexico but it is not the only religion. It is also not officially sanctioned by the government of Mexico.

According to the 2010 national census, Mexican Catholics make up about 83% of the population. Since the early 1990’s, Mexicans have begun, at least publically, to abandon the Catholic faith. In the early 90’s, about 90% of the Mexican population professed to be Catholic.

Anglicans and Protestants make up less than 10% of the Mexican population. According to INEGI, the Mexican governmental statistical collection and dissemination service, there are less than 50,000 practicing Jews living in Mexico. Even less Muslims.

It is important to remember that the data is derived from census reports from which most people answer, not truthfully, but what they perceive is expected of them. This is especially true in Mexico, so these numbers may not be as accurate as we would expect them to be.

Carlos Fuentes once described the Mexican experience as smoke and mirrors.

What, we as Mexicans, publically portray is a façade of the reality. It is part of our psyche. Our identity is a contradiction of what we perceive ourselves to be. We are an enigma of political liberal ideology wrapped in a personal cloak of conservatism.

This has led many, including Mexicans, to create illusions of what Mexico is when in reality it is something completely different.

Likewise Mexican Catholicism is uniquely Mexican and it is not what people perceive it to be.

To understand the Mexican Catholic experience it is important to delve into the history of the Mexican people in order to understand the nature of the Mexican identity.

The Mexican historical experience is long and complex but it revolves around the notion that we were not born, as a country, but by revolting against the Spanish, we are a continuation of an empire that freed itself from Spanish invaders.

Interestingly most Mexicans do not even realize this but subconsciously we express it in our daily language and in our lives.

We have been revolting against the old world as soon as the Conquistadores landed on our shores.

Throughout this continuous rebellion, death is central to our identity. Octavio Paz wrote that the Mexican “is familiar with death, he jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love”.

Death, according to the Mexican tradition, is part of the cycle of life. Paz explained that the fascination with death is an offshoot of the conquest of Mexico in the 1500’s by the Spanish Conquistadores. To the Aztecs death was central to their religious identity. The gods sacrificed themselves as part of the cycle of life. We continue to believe that death is central to life.

Mexicans are fascinated by death.

Through our language and our lives, mostly subconsciously we continue to identify ourselves as an evolution of the indigenous population that was conquered by the Spanish. In school we study the arrival of the Conquistadores as the Conquest of Mexico, rather than the beginning of Mexico. From then, we have continued to identify ourselves as a conquered people.

Unfortunately this is an anchor that continues to weigh heavily against the evolution of the Mexican identity.

In many ways the Catholic Church, through Spain, attempted to conquer us and as rebellious people we took what was ours and added what was there’s to evolve our own identity.

We may not rebel loudly but rather we resist quietly.

That is why many perceive Mexicans to be subdued, and in many ways we are, but at the same time we have endured many attempts at invasion and have remained Mexican throughout many occupations.

Through all of this, the Mexican version of Catholicism was born. Before delving into the flavor of Mexican Catholicism we must review the official relationship between the Church and the government of Mexico.

The Mexican Government and the Catholic Church

Officially, Mexico has had a very tumultuous relationship with the Vatican since the early 1860s, when President Benito Juárez, a Freemason, nationalized all church property and severely limited public religious activities.

Juárez’ parents died when he was only three-years old and after moving from one family member to another, Benito Juárez, of indigenous origin, ended up working for a lay Franciscan who enrolled him in Oaxaca’s seminary. As with all Mexican contradictions, Benito Juárez is best remembered for expelling the French from Mexico but he also brought in a liberal agenda to Mexico that included the mass expropriation of Church lands. It was the beginning of the official separation of church and state but was, in reality, a continued offshoot of the Mexican rebellion against the Conquistadores.

After living in New Orleans, in exile, Juárez returned to Mexico upon the resignation of Santa Anna in 1855. Under the provisional government of General Juan Alvarez, during the period known as La Reforma, Benito Juárez formulated the Ley de Juárez that declared all citizens equal before the law. This law severely restricted the Catholic Church and it has become the underlining dictum of the current Mexican legal framework.

Some have argued that because Benito Juárez was a freemason that is what drove his dislike for religion. Unfortunately this ignores the duplicity of the Mexican experience where we publically express one thing while believing another. Smoke and mirrors best exemplifies this.

Take for the example, that although Mexicans overwhelmingly profess to be Catholic, today, Mexican couples first marry in a civil ceremony attended only by their closets friends who act as witnesses. The notary, similar to a judge in the US, presides over the ceremony where the couple and the witnesses sign the marriage certificate and are entered into the official government logs. The couple then holds their religious ceremony later. Mexico does not recognize religious weddings as official and therefore the two rarely, if ever, mix.

The religious wedding is the public expression while the civil ceremony is the legal marriage.

As part of the reform laws initiated by Juárez and carried out by others, such as Miguel Lerdo de Tejada and José Maria Iglesias, the Catholic Church lost rights, such as the ability to charge fees for baptisms and funeral services and gave up ownership of Church property in Mexico.

Property nationalization was not targeted at the Church but it impacted the Church’s right to own property in Mexico. Eventually priests were restricted from wearing religious vestments in public and public religious ceremonies were prohibited. Religious education is still prohibited in Mexico, although tacitly tolerated.

It is important to remember that the Reform was not targeted at the Catholic Church but rather it affected all religious activity in Mexico, although Catholicism was the one that felt the effects the most.

Later, during the reign of Porfirio Diaz, the Catholic Church and Mexico maintained a cordial relationship, albeit informal, until Diaz was overthrown during the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican Revolution was a tumultuous period in Mexican history where different power centers rose and were eventually thrown out by other factions. It lasted over ten years. Although complex in nature the underlining revolt was the result of the masses exerting further liberal reforms upon the country.

Today’s Mexico is defined by the Mexican Revolution.

In 1917, as a result of the Mexican Revolution, the latest Mexican Constitution was enacted and is currently the Constitution that today governs the Republic. Although there have been many amendments to the Constitution of 1917, it is the basis of the Mexican political structure.

As of February 26, of this year, the Constitution still limits Church activity in Mexico.

Article One prohibits all forms of discrimination whether it is ethnic, national origin, gender, age, individual handicaps, economic status, health status, religion, personal expression of opinion, sexual preference, or whether the individual is married or single. Standard human rights dictums enshrined in the legal framework of the country.

Articles three, 24, 27 and 30 directly address religious activity within the Mexican political scene.

Article three of the Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to an education, but in accordance to Article 24, the education is secular in nature and must be devoid of any religion.

In fact, Article 24 is very clear to state that all men and women are free to believe in any religion of their choosing, adding that Congress cannot make any laws that establish or prohibit any religion. This article adds that religious ceremonies are to be practiced within the churches and public religious activity is discouraged.

To those that have witnessed Dia de los Muertos marches in public this dictum goes against the legal restrictions but in reality it is just another component of our smoke and mirrors duplicity.

Furthermore, Article 27 defines that the land and its corresponding water and minerals are the original property of the nation which has domain over them. Originally this Article was applied to limit the ability of religious organizations from the right to own land in Mexico, although that was not its intent. The Church just happened to be one of the largest landowners in the country. This amendment was later amended to give limited authority to the churches to control their land.

Article 130 directly addresses the relationship between the Mexican State and religious organizations. Among the rights of religious organizations are that the government may not intervene in internal matters of the churches. The Constitution, under this Article, clearly states that active religious leaders cannot hold political office.

A priest cannot run for office. It clearly lays out that religious organizations cannot participate or influence political affairs either through religious meetings or via religious dictates. In other words, religious leaders and their churches are prohibited from endorsing or supporting political activity. That includes delivering sermons of political nature.

To this day I am surprised to see a Church pamphlet in the United States advocating a political position in regards to abortion or the death penalty.

A product of the Mexican Revolution, the Constitution of 1917 is over 200 pages long. It clearly delineates rights and restrictions over the Mexican population. Although it may seem like it was designed to stifle religious activity it must be noted that in truth, it is a culmination of many factions coming together to share in the decision making process.

Mexico had been in a state of constant conflict since the Conquistadores in the early 1500’s and had just endured close to ten-years of revolution. It needed some peace.

Although, religious limitations were only a very small part of the overall legal framework, it is nonetheless, the basis of the next turmoil and evolution of Mexican Catholicism.

The Cristero War

Unbeknownst to most foreigners and Mexicans alike, Mexico fought its own version of the Crusades in 1926 through 1929. In the case of Mexico, the war was between the Church faithful and the government of Mexico.

Until Plutarco Elías Calles assumed power in 1924, the legal dictates limiting religious activity, for the most part, were ignored by both the Church and the government. President Calles eventually began to implement the Constitution’s limits upon the Church.

Interestingly, Plutarco Calles was the first elected official in Mexico that was recognized as having been elected on a populist mandate. His primary platform was land redistribution and equal justice. Therefore, although Calles is blamed for the Cristero War, in reality he was just expressing the wants of the Mexican population.

Plutarco Calles is also the founder of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, which eventually morphed into the Partido Revolucionario Institucional better known as the PRI.

First elected into office in 1924, atheist Calles did not begin to repress Church activities until 1926. This led to the Cristero War, a war between Mexican government forces and Catholic rebels attempting to overthrow Calles’ anti-Catholic laws.

Although it is easy to state that the Cristero War was about Catholic versus anti-clerical laws in Mexico, the reality is much more complex than that. It is important to keep in mind the major dynamics that were at play at this point in Mexican history.

Mexico had been in endless conflict from independence through numerous invasions and foreign interventions not to mention internal strife from government evolution to government evolution. We had been a Republic, a satellite to European interests, a monarchy and now had just exited a populist revolution based on land reform.

Intertwined in all of this is the US expansionism doctrine and the need for oil to drive that expansion. Calles had reformed the Mexican oil industry and had effectively shut out American oil companies. America needed oil and American oil tycoons had been shut out by the Calles government.

Add to this national turmoil an internal endless ideological battle between conservatism and liberalism that had been and continues to dominate the Mexican political scene. This ideological strife was not fought at the ballot box but was fought in the streets, Mexican to Mexican and government to government.

As if that wasn’t enough, throughout all of this is the Mexican psyche that creates the notion that we are offshoots of a conquered nation, the Aztec Empire and the unresolved issues surrounding our inability to come to terms with the growth and losses of the Mexican nation. This psyche was and continues to be the driving force behind what we do as a people and as a nation.

I best describe this psyche as our inability to resolve our inner demons between our indigenous self with the influences of the Conquistadores and other invaders that have left their mark upon our heritage and our lives.

Many find this notion blasphemous and in many ways it is a very simplistic definition to a very complex problem that is, nonetheless, a reality.

We, Mexicans are an ideological enigma. We create and support laws that are very liberal yet we value and embrace very conservative notions upon our lives. We are a nation of smoke and mirrors, on one hand we profess to be something while on the other hand we act otherwise.

The Cristero War may have been about anti-clerical laws but we, ourselves passed and embraced the laws that were finally implemented. To say the Catholic rebellion was just that ignores the many other factors that led to the conflict.

Throughout the Christian versus secular conflict there was another factor at play; the United States. Calles had not only alienated the Church but he had also threatened US interests by nationalizing the oil industry. With this backdrop, the United States, through its ambassador, Dwight Whitney Morrow finally came to an arrangement between the Mexican government and the Cristeros, called appropriately the “arreglos”, or the arrangement.

In typical Mexican fashion, the “arreglos” were not actually negotiated by the Cristeros themselves but rather interested third-parties, namely the Vatican who agreed to remove support for the Cristeros in return for the agreement. Many of the Cristeros felt betrayed and attempted to continue the fight until the Vatican threatened to excommunicate them.

For its part, except for a few public pronouncements emanating from the Pontiff, the Vatican was not actively involved in the secular versus the Faithful conflict. The Vatican went as far as to prohibit church officials from officiating in Mexico, ostensible under the guise of avoiding conflict. It was purely a Mexican affair, albeit with US back-door interference.

Basically, the “arrangement” ended the conflict by the rebels relinquishing their rebellion and the government agreeing not to rigidly enforce the anti-clerical laws. Though, the agreement did not end the legal framework limiting Church activity in Mexico.

The Mexican Catholic Flavor

All this Church turmoil within Mexico and the general repudiation of anything Spanish has created a unique Mexican flavor of the Catholic religion. Death, a central player in Mexican culture, continues to influence the Mexican perspective of the Catholic religion. To a Mexican, death is the central figure that has been imparted on the Mexican identity from the moment the Church tried to assimilate the indigenous population to today, where Mexicans may identify themselves as religious Catholics and yet practice Curanderismo and worship such dubious saints as Santa Muerte.

Again, smoke and mirrors, as Mexicans outwardly portray adhesion to the tenets of the religious doctrine they proclaim to adhere to while our continuous rebellion allows us to create our very own flavor of Catholicism.

Curanderismo

Curanderismo is one such expression of our Catholic flavor. Growing up in Mexico, whether in rural or in the city many a Mexican child would sometimes find a bowl with an egg under their bed.

The egg under the bed is a traditional means of curing the victim from the “evil eye”. The mysticism of the “curandero”, or the witch doctor, derives from our pagan ancestors, the indigenous populations of Mexico.

In our secret rebellion against the Conquista we profess to be Christian while still practicing curanderismo in our homes.

Dia de los Muertos

As death is central to the Mexican experience it is only appropriate that we set aside a holiday for it. Dia de los Muertos is the day to celebrate the dead. It is a national holiday.

As with everything Mexican, the Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Aztec Empire. It is a pagan religious event wrapped in a Catholic cloak. It is once again our rebellion against the conquerors.

Santa Muerte

Likewise, the death saint, known as Santa Muerte and recently made popular by the drug cartels is another indigenous religious figurehead that has been transformed by Mexicans into a modern day religious artifact. Although condemned by the Church, it is nonetheless central to the Mexican religious culture.

Interestingly, both Santa Muerte and Dia de los Muertos has spread from Mexico throughout Latin America and into the United States.

The conquered are beginning to influence others as well, and thus leaving the “conquered” cloak and growing into its own.

Probably the best example of the Mexican Catholic flavor is the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

The most identifiable Catholic icon that is purely Mexican in nature and known worldwide is the Virgen de Guadalupe. According to the historical record, especially the Nican Mopohua, an account of Juan Diego’s encounter with the Virgin Mary, written in the indigenous Nahuatl, the immaculate Mother of God appeared on Saturday, December 9, 1531. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Indian who had recently converted to Catholicism was on his way to his religious class when the Virgin Mary appeared before him on Tepeyac hill, near Mexico City. The Virgin Mary requested that Juan Diego ask the local bishop to build a church, in her honor, on Tepeyac hill. Of course, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga sent him away believing Diego’s request was just another new-world indigenous superstition.

After returning to the hill a couple of times, Juan Diego first asked if the Virgin Mary would not send someone better qualified then himself to ask for the church to be built. He eventually accepted that he was to be the messenger and he asked for something to prove to the bishop the apparition.

The Virgin Mary responded by giving him flowers from the hill that had grown on barren soil. As Juan Diego delivered the flowers to the bishop, the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared on Diego’s cloak which finally made the bishop believe in Diego’s story.

In 1567, 36 years after the apparition, the church was completed. On December 12, 1667, Pope Clement IX instituted the Feast of the Guadalupe. In 1737, the Lady of Guadalupe is chosen as the Patron Saint of Mexico City and becomes the patron saint of all of Mexico in 1821.

Fr. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla adopted the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe as his flag when he initiated the War of Independence against Spain in 1810.

In 1945, Pope Pius XII proclaims the Lady of Guadalupe patroness of the Americas. And in 1999, Pope John Paul II proclaims the Lady patroness of the whole American continent.

Although at first glance the apparition of the Lady of Guadalupe seems to be a very Catholic event, the truth is a little more complex than that.

After the Conquista, the indigenous population continued to worship their idols while the Spanish forced them into Christianity. One of the idols worshiped was Tonantzin, or “Our Reverend Mother”, better known as Mother Earth.

The indigenous population, the Mexicans, for the most part worshipped this idol on Tepeyac hill, where the Basilica de Guadalupe now stands and where Juan Diego was supposed to have received his instructions from the Virgin Mary to build her church.

According to legend, Juan Diego was a Native American who witnessed Hernán Cortés’ invasion of Mexico and who was among the first converts to Christianity. The legend states that Diego was on his way for further religious study when he had his vision. Keeping in mind that we, as Mexicans, continue to rebel against the Conquista we can see a pattern begin to develop.

In a classic rebellion against overwhelming forces, authority is suppressed with passive, yet incomplete obedience to the dictates of the oppressors. The Spanish were intent on submitting the indigenous population to their will and to that end they had to erase all manner of independence from them. This included converting the Indians from pagan worshipers to Christianity, thus erasing their cultural identity and replacing it with a pliable one.

For their part, the indigenous population reluctantly professed obedience to the Spanish religion but tactfully wove their belief system into their new lives. Coincidently, the Spanish invaders had to stifle discontent within their own ranks, both in the New World and in the Old World and thus religion became the release valve.

The Spanish, who were trying to tame a vast empire, had to reluctantly allow certain mythology to coexist in order for the transformation to be completed. Otherwise the taming of the vast population would have been unattainable with their limited resources.

And thus the Mexican flavor of Catholicism began.

Accepting this notion and regardless of whether the Virgin Mother apparition is real or not, the reality is that the Virgen de Guadalupe is unmistakably the symbol of Mexico.

Many Catholics will tell you that Mexican Catholicism tends to place more attention on the Saints than other Catholics. I would argue that this emphasizes is just another example of the ongoing Mexican rebellion against the old world. Take a saint and replace it with one of the indigenous idols and a pattern starts to emerge.

Keep in mind that today’s Mexican Catholics are not worshipping the idols through the saints; rather their worship is just a religious evolution that has been passed down from generation to generation.

It is just another flavor to Mexican Catholicism.

To this day, the Mexican government has created national holidays for Christmas, not as religious affairs but just as a tacit accommodation to the Church. Schools traditionally take a break during Holy Week, not in religious observance but in another tacit accommodation.

But the reality is that the Vatican-Mexican relationship is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

In fact, Mexico had no formal relations with the Vatican until September 21, 1992 when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari first pushed forth an amendment to the 1917 Constitution that was approved by Congress to amend Article 130 to allow churches to be officially recognized as associations under the law. This eventually allowed the Vatican to establish formal relations with Mexico.

It is important to note that the amendment was not to recognize churches as churches but rather as associations under the law.

Prior to this, a church had no formal legal protection under the Constitution.

The constitutional amendments, also for the first-time allowed priests the right to vote and the churches, of all religions, to organize themselves officially. But even this is smoke and mirrors.

Although the amendments recognized the churches officially, keep in mind that they existed prior to the constitutional amendments. They were just tacitly ignored by the government of Mexico, part of the “acuerdos” after the Cristero War. About the only concrete action the amendments brought forth was that the Vatican had once again established a formal relationship with the Mexican state.

It is important to remember, that although the Mexican people have proclaimed to be overwhelmingly Catholic the country had no formal relationship with the Vatican until 1992.

Many Catholic religious figures have tried for many generations to define, change and understand the Mexican flavor of Catholicism only to eventually reach the conclusion that Mexicans may be devout but will follow their own version of the doctrine.

This is just another accommodation by all the parties involved.

That doctrine as practiced today, for better or for worse is just another evolution of the practices of the indigenous population into what today is Mexico’s version of Catholicism.

As Mexicans, we identify ourselves as a continuation of the indigenous empire that was here before the Spanish invaders arrived. For many of us, subconsciously, we continue to resist the invasion with our own flavor to the Catholic religion. For that matter, our own unique and convoluted flavor to political ideology that forever is outwardly leftist while inwardly conservative.

More importantly, the Church, like Mexicans, ignores this divergence of Faith and instead focus on the fact that many Mexicans are devout practicing Catholics. But are we really?

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