Cuando Dios y Usted Quiere



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Cuando Dios y Usted Quiere”

Latinos Studies Between Religious Powers and Social Thought
Several years ago I gave a visiting lecture entitled “The Sense and Nonsense of Latino Studies” in a class on Latino studies at Harvard University. The good senses of Latino studies were obvious-the new ethnographies, stimulating publications, degree programs, disciplinary orientations, and new critical and creative Latino voices that had been occluded for so long in the academy and society at large. But I was obliged to note that the course’s Latino Studies Reader had titles with the words immigration (8 times), gender (6 times), class (5 times), Latino (10 times), Race (15 times) but not a single article had a title or topic related to religion or theology among Latinos.1 I noted that this lack of any engagement with the religious dimensions of Latino history, in this springtime of Latino studies, was the ‘nonsense’ of Latino Studies. How could a field of scholarship that emerged from the ‘oro del barrio’, the ‘fight in the fields’, the Civil Rights Era, critical epistemologies about the ‘pueblo/pueblo’ and which claimed new knowledge about the social realities and dignity of Latinos isolate itself from religious practices and realities in Latino lives? How could a field of study which worked to illuminate the ‘historical continuum’ of various Latino cultural projects, that prided itself on being of the people, for the people and by the Latino peoples -so successfully ignore the religious dimensions of Latino life?

So it was with gratitude and hope that I responded to the invitation to contribute an essay to this Latino Studies reader on the theme of Latinos and Religion. In what follows I will discuss three powerful religious dimensions in Latino life that invite Latino Studies scholarship to pay more attention to the religious practices and imaginations of Latinos. I will also make references to and use some outstanding scholarly exceptions to this nonsense of Latino Studies. Knowing that this reader is designed as a pedagogical tool for teaching and further learning I will structure the essay by combining 3 scholarly issues with 3 existential moments in my life. They are



  1. The enigma of anteriority and indigenous cultures and my scholarly and personal repeated encounters with the Aztec gods and myths in Mexico. This enigma raises the issue of the complex origins and nature of Latino identities and the role of indigenous cultures and myth in Latino lives and culture. B) The allure of sacred places and center/periphery dynamics in Latino society and history. By sacred places I mean the ways that cities and local neighborhoods but also the borderlands as geography and imagination provide Latinos with a sense of ultimate orientation. As we will see in references to San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, these sacred places become powerful resources for knowledge about social cosmology. C) Redressive actions and the problem of religious mixtures and asymmetrical hybridity in Latino history and my encounter with the espiritista Nino Fidencio Constantino2 while a graduate student in Chicago. This raises the problem of understanding religious change, multiple identities and diverse religious orientations of Latinos. In this section I will focus, in part, on the importance of flexible healing practices in our communities. Throughout the essay I will refer to John Phillip Santos’ Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation.

My essay draws from Charles H. Long’s definition of religion to help Latino Studies to more fully wake up to the religiosity of Latino lives, dreams, bodies and places. Long, working with African American evidence notes that

“As an historian of religions I have not defined religion in conventional terms. To be sure, the church is one place one looks for religion…the church was not the only context for the meaning of religion. For my purposes religion will mean orientation-orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world.3
In what follows we will see a variety of ways (inside and outside of churches) that Latinos religiously come to terms and orient themselves in indigenous meanings, complex mixtures and in negotiating the center and the periphery. My approach as an historian of religions is to take seriously both sides of the equation quoted in the title “Cuando Dios y Usted Quiere”, a statement made to me about death just before I met the Nino Fidencio for the first time. I see the pronoun ‘Usted’ as a marker of social agency in religion and in the study of religion and want to pay attention to how religions are socially constructed traditions of ideas and ritual practices.4 As a scholar I also acknowledge the power and role of “Dios”, ‘dioses’, saints and religious experiences in Latino communities and remain open to the claims that God, the gods, ancestors and spirits are more than social constructions. The meaning of the words “Dios”, “dioses”, “espiritu” and many more need to be understood by scholars in the ways that lay people understand them-as living subjects working in the lives of humans and challenging scholars into dialogue.5 Both the religious “Dios” and the social “Usted” and the relationships between them deserve our scholarly respect and study. This is the approach I take into the study of enigmatic origins, the allure of sacred places and redressive actions in the face of asymmetrical hybridites in Latino life.


  1. The enigma of anteriority

"...Finally, after exteriority and superiority, one runs up against the enigma of anteriority; before the moral law, there is always a moral law, just as before Caesar, there is always another Caesar; before the Mosaic law, there are Mesopotamian laws, and before these are yet others, and so on. Here we find a sort of always-already-present which causes any effort to discover a dated beginning to fail as it encounters the perspective of the origin. It is as though there were a dialectic of the origin and the beginning; the beginning should be able to be dated in a chronology, but the origin always slips away, at the same time as it surges up in the present under the enigma of the always-already-there.” Paul Riceour, Critique and Conviction

The words from Paul Riceour remind me of 1) Latino fascinations with the dynamic between our identity and the issue of our indigenous origins, our mythical and historical beginnings. This enigma is reflected in that marvelous statement from John Santos’ Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation where he writes,

“It sometimes seems as if Mexicans are to forgetting what the Jews are to remembering. We have made selective forgetting a sacramental obligation. Leave it all in the past, all that you were, and all that could not be. There is pain enough in the present to go around.”


The contemporary pain that goes around, however, does not deter Latinos from discovering and re imagining the indigenous gods, myths, symbols associated with Anahuac, Aztlan, Borinquen, and African homelands. The indigenous dimensions of Latino life, in spite of powerful psychological pulls to assimilate to the mainstream US historical narrative or construct alternative narratives entirely rooted in the crisis of the modern world (both of which tend to nullify indigenous history and myth)6reassert themselves as ‘always-already-there’ in many ways. As I heard one Latin American historian say about Mexican diasporas, “One continuous social practice of immigrants is that they always refer back to the places they come from.” My point is that this practice of referring “back to the places they come from” often points way back to a primordial place and time that gives a religious tinge to identity constructions. 7

My First Aztec Moment


I remember what I call my first “Aztec Moment”8, my first encounter with this enigma of anteriority and how it had a deep impact on my life and scholarly career. I was 15 years old, living in Mexico City with my parents while my father was assisting the Conferderacíon Deportiva Mexicana train its Mexican coaches in preparation for international competition. My tía Milena had taken me to the Museum of Anthropology on Moneda Street and I found myself wide eyed at my first encounter with actual Maya jade, Maya writing, the treasures of Monte Alban, the Aztec Calendar Stone, the giant statue of Coatlicue, the imitation penacho of Moctezuma, and the many ritual objects in the Salon de Monolitos. Strong and strange sensations welled up in me. I wandered out onto the street and over to the grand Zocalo and I became aware of a sharp ambivalence. I was feeling both intense pride and a cutting shame at my Mexican ancestry.

I remembered how I had been encouraged in US schools, T.V., and films to identify with negative US images of Mexico with its thirst for blood, its weakness before Cortes and the Spaniards, Moctezuma’s revenge, its “halls of Montezuma” where US Marines always fought victorious battles against Mexicans. I had been taught that Mexico was a country valued only for its defeats, jokes, and folklore but not for its civilization-a word that was to be located primarily in Greek, Egyptian or Roman cultures. The power of this indoctrination began to come clear to me only on that Mexican afternoon.

At the same moments I was aware that this story of Aztec inferiority and European superiority was a terrible distortion and my own orientation began to deepen and change. I saw that there were deep intellectual, artistic, and religious issues and powers to be understood from knowing the Aztecs and their neighbors. I was learning that ingenious human beings had lived here, occupied this very place, developed complex calendars and mythologies, worshipped gods of prodigious powers, grew and distributed life giving plants and foods by the thousands, built a magnificent city with monumental and domestic architecture, and decorated it with arresting images of deities with names like Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, Xochiquetzal. These Aztecs were as interesting to study, as important to know about, as significant to understand as the Romans and Greeks. This “Aztec Moment”, complex in its discovery, percolated with me for years and is tinged with a religious quality that I was gaining a different quality of knowledge about knowledge, about Mexicans and about Mexican Americans in the United States.9

Aztlan as Plan, Empowerment and Heart

Nowhere is the meaning of indigenous signs, symbols and myths as a form of orientation clearer than in the history of the use of the Aztlan mythology in Mexican American politics and art. The political philosophy of Chicanismo,10 central to the identity politics of Chicanos derives, in part from the “Espiritual Plan de Aztlan”. The opening paragraph in this 1968 manifesto announced a new geographical and political orientation for Mexican Americans.

“ we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlan from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility and our inevitable destiny.
These lines show the authors are reworking Aztec sacred history11, as they have learned about it in bits and pieces, in the following ways. First, Chicanos are descendents of the ancestors who left Aztlan (a), which is a northern territory (b). Consequently, they became the people of the sun (the title of a book about the Aztecs by Mexico’s Alfonso Caso) (c) who, because of a ‘call’ in the blood (d), have an inevitable destiny (e). If there is one dimension of the human body associated with the Mexicas it’s surely blood, because the Aztec believed that prodigious supernatural powers resided in human and animal blood. Further, Aztec theology is reflected in the claim of “inevitable destiny” which refers to the cosmic renewal found in the Aztec stories about the five cosmic suns of the universe. The destiny of the Aztecs, depicted for instance in the central section of the misnamed “Aztec Calendar Stone” tells of an inevitable cosmic pattern of birth-stability-collapse and rebirth. Some Chicanos believed their movement for political liberation represented the final stage of rebirth out of the years of suffering in fields, jails, borderlands and cities. 12 I have written extensively about this pattern elsewhere so suffice it to note here that the leading Mexican American journal, published continually since 1970 is called Aztlan. Since that time, a number of influential books exploring the widespread uses of the Aztec myth of origins in Chicano politics and art have appeared including Aztlan Y Mexico: Perfiles Literarios E Historicos by Luis Leal, Aztlan: Essays on a Chicano Homeland by Rodolfo Anaya and Francisco Lomeli, and the more recent spectacular Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland. In the latter work the editors make the huge claim that “Aztlan—as symbol, as allegory, and as real and invented tradition—served as a cultural and spiritual framework that gave Chicanos/as a sense of belonging and a link to a rich and extensive history…ethos and foundation.”13 (Italics mine.) The claim is that the enigma of Chicano anteriority leads us to Aztlan.14

Santos says it this way. “Los Muertos do not give up their homelands. We call it Texas. Some of them knew it as Tejas or part of La Nueva Extremadura of New Spain. Others refer to it secretly as Aztlan, the mythical birthplace of the nomadic Mexican people….” As a sign that engagements with the enigmas of our past histories and cultures will continue Raphael Perez Torres, in his outstanding essay, “Refiguring Aztlan” tells us “We cannot abandon Aztlan, precisely because it serves to name that space of liberation so fondly yearned for…Aztlan is our start and end point of empowerment.”15

Luis Leal, both kind in heart and wise in mind respects the searches for the ‘historical Aztlan’ but comes to also recognize the term “spiritual” in the spiritual plan of Aztlan, and writes, “…whosoever wants to find Aztlan, let him look for it, not on the maps, but in the most intimate part of his being.”16

2 ) Sacred Place and Center/Periphery Dynamics


“The spirits stand dazed in front of the statue of the Virgen of Guadalupe inside the door of the San Fernando Cathedral, exhausted and dirty from a long day of picking tomatoes.” John Santos, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation P. 24

Throughout Mesoamerican and Latino history, places filled with sacred meaning, mystery, energy and story play major roles in how human beings orient themselves in space, time, daily life and the imagination. Given all the Latino scholarship on territory, Greater Mexico, Greater Southwest, Aztlan, Borinquen, barrios, cities, and now trans national relations, its important that more attention be given to the power and meaning of sacred places in the forms of altars, churches, cemeteries, monuments, rivers, deserts, casitas, islands, neighborhoods, fields, the human body, the family and even the borderlands as a sacred landscape and ritual theatre17- in Latino Studies. An ample study of Latino history and religion would reveal that there is hardly any aspect of Latino life, place and space that has not been considered by Latinos themselves, at one time or another as a sacred place. By sacred place I mean a locus where human beings experience the presence of supernatural, divine, ancestral, demonic or numinous powers. These powers which can take the forms of angels, animals, humans, enemies, ancestors, spirits, sounds, lights, water, stones, symbols of identity, voices appear to communicate that a specific location is an opening to an other world, an other time (past or future) and these places become the site for the human production of story/myth, ritual/pilgrimage, memory/imagination18. They may also be sites of proud ethnic identity, architectural tradition19 or a deeply valued sense of community.

One of the most significant places of orientation and sacrality throughout human history has been cities, those great social and cultural urban centers that have extraordinary centripetal powers to attract people, ideas, agricultural and manufactured goods, foreign and local gods and cultural expressions.20. However, a closer look at the role of cities and especially sacred cities in Mesoamerican and Latino history reveals two powerful patterns; 1) the sacrality of cities is expressed through monumental and miniature ceremonial centers in the forms of pyramids, temples, cathedrals, altars, shrines, cemeteries and churches. 2) The sacrality of the city is, ironically the result of a fascinating and potent relationship between sacred ‘centers’ and sacred ‘peripheries’ or borderland places and people. Thick descriptions of Latino social history show not only the powers of cities and their ceremonial centers to attract people, ideas and goods but also the dexterity of creative struggle that Latinos express from marginal landscapes on the edges of urban networks. Even more, Latino social history reveals a profound dynamism between centers and peripheries. Often people from the social, economic and cultural periphery bring new stories, goods, skills, objects and ideas into the central landscape resulting in significant changes at the axis mundi. These important peripheral places and powers are sometimes expressed in relationships to geographical forms including sacred hills outside of cities or other potent geographical features on the edges of city or pilgrimage networks.21

One outstanding example of this center/periphery dynamics in the form of place and theology is the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio Texas where Father Virgilio Elizondo, along with others, has generated Latino Liberation Theology and ritual practices.22 In the book San Fernando Cathedral: Soul of the City, James Wind illustrates the dynamic social power of this Mexican American sacred building.

“I will never forget my first visit to San Fernando Cathedral. Colleagues had told me about the old adobe and stone church building, about its distinctive Mexican-American history, about its special public role in the city of San Antonio, about its deeply faithful people…From the moment in December 1992 when I stepped in the nave of this, the oldest cathedral in the United Sates, I was encountering a reality that, for me at least, was very new. San Fernando was a cathedral unlike any other I had seen. It was smaller, simpler, and older than all of North America’s cathedral churches. This was a place where a different language prevailed, where a different history lived, where different saints and different celebrations shaped the daily lives of people. It was a place where above all, a special kind of hospitality was offered to all…I also recognized that I had entered a living mystery that would not let go of my imagination.”

Here we see that this building is both center and periphery in American and Mexican American religions. It is in a city that is peripheral to US history-seemingly a latecomer to the national story where Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other eastern US cities serve to situate the origins and center of the religious narrative in North America. It is a place where Mexican Americans have placed a series of differences in the church-a different language (Spanish); different saints (Virgen de Guadalupe, Cristo Negro de Esquipulas) different celebrations. In the master religious narrative of the US, San Fernando is a marginal, outsider church. But this cathedral is also ‘central’ in the sense that it’s the oldest i.e. first cathedral in the United States and therefore has the prestige of the beginnings also symbolized in its combination of adobe (and indigenous material) and stone. But it is also a center in the sense that through its rich historical traditions and liturgical innovations it transmits its religious difference in the form of La Virgen de Guadalupe around the world to many other centers and peripheries. Its ‘centeredness’ is also temporal for as Wind notes San Fernando Cathedral was “both part of the great past of American religion and part of its great future” i.e. it stands at the center of religious history and one imbued with a ‘living mystery that would not let go of my imagination.” For Wind, the Mexican American cathedral is alive in the middle of his mind. 23

A more local sense of center/periphery dynamics is stated by Elizondo who grew up in one of San Antonio’s barrios located geographically, economically and politically outside of the ‘center’ of the city’s life. In his local barrio church he learned and absorbed what he calls ‘mestizo’ Christianity. He writes that when he became rector of the Cathedral

“I made a conscious decision to reclaim and recreate the religious traditions of my childhood and my barrio as the basis for the pastoral life of the cathedral. This was not because of nostalgia but out of a conviction that these sacred traditions were not only the basis of our faith experience as Latinos and our innermost identity as a people but they were desperately needed for the spiritual health and salvation of the United States.”24


Elizondo sees Latino sacred traditions as entertaining what I have called the ‘enigma of anteriority’ and ‘mixtures of religious complexity’. He brings indigenous religiosity, in this case the Aztecs, back to us this way.

“As I celebrated the early pre-dawn daily Mass during any given day of the week, I felt always that we were energizing the entire city of San Antonio for one more day. As I offered the Holy Sacrifice, I felt that I was in continuity with Jesus who sacrificed himself to give us life, and with our Aztec ancestors who offered pre-dawn sacrifices to ensure that the sun would rise another day. I was in continuity with the generations from time immemorial…It was like ‘fueling up’ the spiritual engines that give life to our city.” 25


One of the most powerful ways that this ‘center’ fuels up other parts of the city is in the truly remarkable Semana Santa celebrations that take place within, emerge from and return to the Cathedral. Having participated in these festivals I have come to refer to Semana Santa at and beyond Cathedral as a ‘sacred metamorphosis of center and periphery’. In a bold series of public rituals, designed in part by Elizondo and his colleagues, a sacred re-mapping of the central part of the city takes place through processions, rituals, street performances, prayers and blessings.26

3) Asymmetrical Hybridity and Healing Strategies:
“Students of syncretism in Europe have understood more clearly that a given combination of Christian and ‘pagan’ elements was inherently transitional and incomplete, a mixture or combination more than a fusion. It was not, in itself, a synthesis of religions or a selective assimilation of one religion by another, but part of an incomplete process that might be reversed or redirected and could not be measured by traits added or subtracted…”27 William Taylor

“But the past can be difficult to conjure again when so little has been left behind. A few photographs, a golden medal, a pair of eyeglasses as delicate as eggshells, an old Bible, a letter or two…the Santos traveled light through time.” John Phillip Santos


I sometimes wonder why Latino Studies has been tone deaf about the religiosity that is pervasive in Latino history and homes. Is it because many of us who become scholars had negative feelings and experiences in the churches and synagogues of our childhoods? Is it because our embrace of Social Sciences turned us into atheists-at least intellectual or methodological atheists? Is it because the stereotype that Latinos are Catholic occluded acknowledgement of the wide variety of religious orientations in Latino communities and inhibited scholars from disclosing them? Is it because we, like most scholars of religion, are ill-equipped by imagination and education to confront and interpret the social dynamism, mixtures, cultural incompleteness and the power of local histories highlighted by William Taylor’s summary statement above? 28 Of course this eclipsing of Latino religiosity has not been the case for scholars like Alberto Pulido, Laura Pérez, Ana María Díaz-Stevens and Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, Gaston Espinosa, Luis Leon, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Laura Medina, Virgilio Elizondo, Ines Hernandez Avila, Timonthy Matovina, Gary Riebe-Estrella, Chris Tirres, Roberto Goizueta, Orlando Espin, and many others. And Gloria Anzaldua writes about the profound role that the religious imagination played in her life in the highly influential La Frontera/Borderlands. The potent combination of the ‘nonsense’ of Latino Studies as well as the growing scholarship in Latino religions gives future researchers a rich opening.29

One of the deep concerns in John Santos’ memoir is about healing practices and the physical and mental health in Latino communities. His drive for understanding this family loss stems, in part, from his awareness that physical illnesses and disease as well as social oppression and mental depression have been constant forces in Latino communities. Immigration,30 deportation, loss of lands31, illegal status, job losses, family separations32, language loss and acquisition often lead to internal sufferings and social instabilities that reach into the individual, family and collective body and spirit of Latinos and call out for many types of healing responses.33. Carlos Velez e Ibanez refers to this history of suffering as the ‘distribution of sadness’34 and shows this sadness to be a prevalent social and psychological dimension of life in Greater Mexico. We can say that Latinos are “magically enchanted”, not only by the indigenous past but also by these physical and mental sufferings and have positioned themselves in never ending ritual negotiations with these accumulated sadnesses and historical losses.35

Latinos have developed a rich array of what Victor Turner calls “redressive actions” to deal with the suffering and crises that accompany daily life in Latino communities.36 While traditional forms of Catholicism have indeed defined and nurtured many daily lives and social realities of Latinos,37 recent research in Latin America and Latino communities in the US 38has shown very diverse religious responses including the appeal of Protestant churches, Pentacostal movements, Afro-Caribbean practices, Jewish,39 as well as indigenous and espiritista religiosities.. Following William B. Taylor’s words above, Latino religiosities are important to study because of the alternatives they present in terms of ritual mixtures, transitional theologies and the many variations coming out of local social and geographical settings. New research shows that Latino communities and daily life are, in part, animated by not only Catholic Church practices but also significant hybrid religious practices such as Espiritualismo, Santeria, Candomble, Regla Ocha and many others.40 It is not just that Latinos occupy the borderlands or carry a sense of critical and creative marginality with them, its that their religious practices are often mixtures and borderlands themselves combining beliefs, practices, symbols and images from various and diverse traditions and often combining the sacred and secular within a religious performance.41 For some time now these combinations and mixtures have been interpreted from the emerging model of ‘hybridity”. This model (which has begun to displace the more traditional models of ‘conquest’ and ‘resistance’) argues that ritual participants faced with different religious traditions, say Catholicism and African or Indian traditions “pick and choose” elements of each and create i.e. hybridize an emerging religious world view and practice which, in the words of Elizabeth Wilder Weismann produced ‘something new and different from anything else in the world.”

Asymmetrical Hybridity

I assent to this historical and dynamic view. But my reading of both Mexican colonial ‘hybridities’ and Mexican American religious expressions leads me to insist on the persistence of an “asymmetrical hybridity.” By this I mean that encoded in, and sometimes concealed within Latino religious expressions is the legacy of and protest against the devastating social, political and ideological abuses that formed the relationships between triumphant European church traditions and African and indigenous symbols and practices which were always under assault. In my view of ‘asymmetrical hybridity’, the productions of numerous Latin American religious practices that were ‘new and different from anything else in the world’ were also living memorials to the ways local peoples negotiated from and resisted socially degraded positions. When we participate in Dia de los Muertos or the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgen de Guadalupe there is more at work than creative hybridities of Spanish and indigenous mourning rituals or comfortable unions of the Spanish Virgen de Guadalupe with the traces of an Aztec goddess cult. These and many ritual practices seek access to the spiritual power of Spanish invaders while also reviving access to indigenous traditions (from Africa or the Americas) and creating new forms of religiosity. Embedded in some of these rites of passage is the memory of asymmetrical suffering as well as critical and creative responses to the conquest and death of millions of Indians, the complex forces that led to mestizaje and mullatez, the introduction of new diseases and the cultivation of myriad forms of social and physical suffering such as slavery. The asymmetries of conquest and colonial Mariology, among many others are what are hybridized.


My Time with the Niño Fidencio


I witnessed an example of asymmetrical hybridity and ritual renovation during my graduate school days at the University of Chicago when I worked at Centro de la Causa in an educational program for mental health paraprofessionals. I was invited by a friend named Porfirio to meet someone who “does beautiful things with the spirits-but don’t worry its not black magic” he said. He opened the door for me to learn first hand about Mexico’s most famous folks saint, El Niño Fidencio Constantino. When I met Porfirio at the appointed street corner in Little Village and asked for some clues on what was going to happen when I met the espiritista he said only two things. “Don’t worry you’ll be safe. Don’t cross your legs, arms or hands at any time during the ceremony. Oh, yes and if someone asks you ‘cuando se muere? Just answer, ‘Cuando Dios y Usted quiere.” While this did not fill me with high reassurance I accompanied Porfirio down a street in the Latino neighborhood, around the back of a house, up the back stairs of three flights and into a small attic room. There was no furniture except for a table with a bowl of murky water, eggs, some flowers and a picture of a saintly man holding a large white cat. I was quietly told that this was the Nino Fidencio Constantino, the famous Mexican healer/espiritista.

During the two years that I participated in the Little Village based “mision” of El Niño Fidencio I witnessed a rich series of potent redressive healing rituals that combined Catholic symbolism (one picture of Nino Fidencio depicted him dressed as the Virgin of Guadalupe) and rites (reciting the Ave Maria was the ritual trigger for the descent of Nino Fidencio’s spirit into the body/materia/caja who carried out the healing rites) with indigenous Mexican figures (the Pluma Roja’s spirit also descended into the materia’s body for especially aggressive healings). There was also a set of shamanic gestures and rituals including cleaning with eggs, use of various incenses including pungent chili smoke, collective chanting, massage and body manipulations. The materia always faced us with his eyes rolled nearly completely up into his head, announced that he was the Santo Nino Fidencio Constantino who had come from God in the house of light in heaven and he had now descended to our earthly realm to bring love, health and healing. He spoke to us in a falsetto voice of his mission on earth, his knowledge of our sufferings, his powers to love and to heal.

Referring to my insistence on “asymmetrical hybridity”42 it was clear that while traditional Catholic symbols and rites structured the healing ceremonies, it was also clear that by themselves they were inadequate to meet the health, employment, relational needs of the members of the ‘mission’. Each of us was assigned a specific saint (mine was Santo Judas, the saint of desperate and lost causes!) and asked to bring his or her image for the altar that grew in size and complexity (it eventually included a samurai sword, an image of Santa Claus and twinkling lights). But we were also periodically sent to local botanicas to acquire combinations of herbs for teas, baths and ritual prayers that were addressed to Nino Fidencio when we were in trouble.43 Most impressive to me were the intense devotions, admiration and spiritual dependency that the people felt for Nino Fidencio.44

There is much more to say about my two years with Nino Fidencio but this experience opened me to the breadth of alternative Latino religiosities, healing practices, and showed me that hybrid religious practices were powerful, asymmetrical, living social and spiritual forces in Latino lives 45



In this springtime of Latino studies it is crucial that all the religious dimensions of Latino communities find narrative space and interpretive attention. Among those religious dimensions are enigmas of anteriorities, sacred places and ritual healings. Si Dios y Usted Quiere.

1 A similar occluding of religious dimensions in Latino history appears in The Latino Studies Reader: Culture, Economy and Society, edited by Antonia Darder and Rodolfo D. Torres (Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Mass,) 1998. and slightly less so in Latinos Remaking America, ed. Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco and Mariela M. Paez (David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University and the University of California Press) 2002. The latter ‘reader’ does have a fine essay by Peggy Levitt on Latino Religious Life in the United States focusing on the reworking of America’s civil religion by Latinos. These lacunae reflect “phenomenological distress”. The phenomena of Latino religiosity (and its powerful role in all areas of Latino life) is nearly everywhere in the ethnographic record but religion and religious studies is herded into the corners of the academic disciplines responsible for understanding and interpreting Latino history and culture.


2 Dore Gardner writes about Mexico’s most famous folks saint, “Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino was born in Guanajuato 1898 and lived in Espinazo, Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico. He worked in the ways of the traditional healers, preparing medicines from herbs and plants, and in mysterious ways with the supernatural. By his mid - twenties thousands of people were coming to Espinazo. There they would camp out awaiting his attention and hoping to be touched by him. At he time of his death in 1938, he was Mexico's most famous curandero (folk healer). Today there are countless curanderos who serve as mediums for the Nino Fidencio on both sides of the Rio Grande. The mediums are referred to as materias or cajones and act as cajitas (little boxes) for Nino Fidencio’s spirit. During the healing rituals they are endowed with the Nino’s healing powers” See her website at http://www.zonezero.com/exposiciones/fotografos/dore/default.html

3 Charles H. Long Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion

4 Reading the works of Emile Durkheim, Peter Berger and Jonathan Z. Smith illuminate this approach for Latino Studies.

5 Reading the works of Rudolph Otto, Kimberley Patton, Lawrence Sullivan and Mircea Eliade will illuminate this dimension for Latino Studies.

6 See especially the introduction to Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: The Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, (Oxford University Press, 1989)

7 Latinos, at least since the late 1960’s are more and more fascinated by the indigenous ‘places’ they come from whether it is Mesoamerican myth, caves and mountains of the Tainos, African homelands, or the many Aztlans. In another part of his memoir John Santos says these ancient places have an ‘invisible enchantment’ which takes the forms of “a fine rain of voices, images and stories” that reassert their powers in contemporary life. Visitors to Latino barrios will see colorful evidence of attention to indigenous voices, images and stories in murals, sometimes covering large parts of buildings, in the names of community centers as well as the names given to children. The more Latinos explore and embrace their mestizaje and mullatez, the more these indigenous anteriorities reassert themselves-sometimes overtly and sometimes secretly.


8 In my essay “Aztec Moments and Chicano Cosmovision: Aztlan Recalled to Life” I discuss “Aztec Moment” quoting a dinner companion. “Chicanos don't just have ‘senior moments,’ those moments of forgetting the details of one’s memory or some recent event,” she said. “We have Aztec moments when we realize que los Indios de Mexico, los Aztecas, los Toltecas y los Mayas are part of our historias, who we are. We are not Españoles, we’re mestizos and proud of our indigenista parts.” The four of us recalled conversations with our parents and grandparents as well as childhood journeys to Mexico, where we discovered our names and faces and family stories in Mexican museums, parks, villages, churches, mining towns, myths and histories. In each of our families, there was an “Indio” in appearance or in lineage. My father was called “el Indio” in his family because, like his mother Carlota Carranza Carrasco, he had what was perceived as the physiognomy of a Mexican Indian. In those days it wasn’t a sign of pride. But for us around the table, having an “Aztec Moment” meant that Chicanos are able to re-member their native roots, to expand their sense of identity beyond either Anglo definitions or the black-white dichotomy that animates so much of race discourse in the U.S. And we felt pride in this remembering and were coming to realize that our mestizaje was both a complex social location but also a symbolic meaning from which we viewed the world with complex eyes.”

9 Later—when I was studying the History of Religions at the University of Chicago—it resurfaced and egged me on to choose the myths of Aztlan, the Feathered Serpent, Mesoamerican cities and symbols as the main focus of my career. I had received the ‘invisible enchantment’ of indigenous Mexico.

10 See Jose Cuellar’s excellent essay “Chicanismo” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, vol 1, pp. 180-183, New York, Oxford University Press, 2001

11 Central to this vision is the lineage which Chicanos claim goes back to the ‘northern land of Aztlan”, meaning the place of emergence of the Aztec ancestors. For the Chicanos who wrote and believed in this document, that northern land is not Guanajuato or Zacatecas but Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas.

12 This Aztec place of origins, now imagined somewhere near San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, San Antonio and Los Angeles was, according to Amalia Mesa Baines “ key to the construction and articulation of a common framework for Mexican American political identity and that depended in part on the adoption of indigenous Mesoamerican imagery.”

13 “Aztlan: Destination and Point of Departure”, Virginia Fields and Victor Zamudio-Taylor, Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001, p. 64 ) These are very strong terms—“central image,” “cultural and spiritual framework,”—and big claims -“belonging…foundation” putting layers of symbolic weight onto Aztlan. . As an historian of religions I am struck by the similarity of this language with the religious category of a “cosmovision” because it communicates aspects of a world view and shows how the Chicano movement attempted to stimulate a renovation deep inside Chicano communities.

14 Though it is not a widespread movement in Latino communities, there are an increasing number of community centers, schools, websites and social groups and movements who study, appreciate and elevate the indigenous dimensions of Latinos. A quick tour through Google’s Aztlan references reveal how widely and often superficially this indigenous marker is used to identify parts of Latino culture and experience. I will leave open the question as to how ‘authentic’, ‘imagined’ or ‘post modern’ these cultural forms are while insisting that they raise complex questions about the ways Latinos come to terms with the ultimate significance of their lives and culture through an attachment to a primordial world-an alternative Edenic beginning. . There is growing evidence that within the immigrations streams from Latin America into the United States are increasing numbers of peoples who are importing indigenous myths, rituals, aesthetics and languages into the social and imaginary ‘fields’ where Latino studies works. In recent months news reports tell of Latin American immigrants who bring not Spanish but indigenous languages into the US that cause problems from everyone involved in the new dialogues.



15 Ibid, p. 235

16 Aztlán was, in a sense, our collective milpa, the agricultural hearth where Mexican laborers went back into the land, into the dirt, the soils, the plants, the fruits, and the waters of the Southwest. Aztlan of this abundance stimulated Chicanos to always look for signs in the desert, or names on obscure maps, or caves on islands-dreaming they would find the ‘original’ Aztlan, as though it were another Garden of Eden, only this time capable of scientific and pedestrian discovery.

17 See Renato Rosaldo’s essay “Cultural Citizenship, Equality and Multiculturalism” in Latino Cultural Citizenship

18 See Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima for a rich series of examples of sacred places. For the child Antonio, a fish or golden carp becomes a locus for the sacred that is part of his relationship with the healer Ultima. See my essay “Bless Me, Ultima as a Religious Text” in The Chicano Studies Reader.

19 See Sam Edgerton’s Theatres of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans of Colonial Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2001)

20 See Paul Wheatley, The Pivot of the Four Quarters, (Chicago, Aldine Press, 1971 for an ample description of how cities and especially their grand ceremonial precincts serve as style centers for all-important social institutions. And my Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire (University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 2000)

21 At the level of social thought, ‘peripheral’ ideas may challenge and invigorate a time word tradition and take the form of an alternative world view as in the case of alternatives theologies like Latino Liberation Theology. Alternative world views lay out a new or different, complex cosmologies that often affirm the importance of the city with its abundance and authority but also insists on an inclusive future where peripheries and peripheral people are protected, nurtured and sometimes identified as the living purpose for which the city came into being.

22Important expressions of this creative alternative are found in Virgilio Elizondo, Galilean Journey
Roberto Goizueta, Caminemos con Jesus, Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology and Maria Pilar Aquino’s "Theological Method in U.S. Latino/a Theology" in From the Heart of Our People ed, Orlando Espin and Miguel Diaz (Orbis). Also see Chris Tirres’ "'Liberation' in the Latino(a) Context: Retrospect and Prospect" in New Horizons in Hispanic/Latino(a) Theology, ed. Benjamin Valentin (Pilgrim Press).

23 In a series of publications and ritual innovations, Elizondo and colleagues have shown how this Mexican American church has become the ‘soul of the city’ i.e. how its work as a ‘ceremonial center’ has served as home, hearth, and place of revelation. Like many churches, community centers, and altars in Latino communities it provides deep sense of beginning and story, a sense of sacred rooted ness and narrative and acts as a stage (and staging) for rituals/performances that memorialize/celebrate the agony, ecstasy, comedy and tragedies of the local people. To use a term that Juan Flores uses in his essay on Puerto Rican rural houses, this cathedral is a ‘salvacion casita’ of Mexican American peoples. In the short space that follows I want to summarize how the cathedral became the ‘soul of the city’ through its negotiations with a series of centers and peripheries.

24 Ibid. p. 11

25 Ibid. p. 12 Elsewhere Elizondo writes about ‘Mestizo Christianity’ which contains three mestizajes. The mestizaje of the anthropological birth of mestizo America in the meeting of Europeans and Indians, the mestizaje of Catholic Mexicans meeting Protestant Anglo Saxons and the European Catholics who settled in Texas and the encounter of modernity and fundamentalism. Yet, he writes, “…throughout all these mestizajes, our original Indian roots continue to inform and influence our identity and core values.” P. 83

26 The function of these rites is to sacralize a significant portion of the downtown area of San Antonio and the people who participate. This ritual mapping links the cathedral to the streets and sidewalks leading to the Mercado, the old Market Square of San Antonio then to Soledad Street and Dolorosa Street to the Justice Center to local restaurants and businesses which become, symbolically, part of the topography of the Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. At the Market Square participants and passersby witness Pilate and Herod trying Jesus through recitation of passages from the gospel accounts of the Passion. After the trial, Jesus with his crown of thorns carries the cross through downtown streets of San Antonio that have been completely shut off from traffic, i.e. changed from secular space into the spaces momentarily sacralized by these rites. In front of La Margarita, one of San Antonio’s favorite restaurants, Jesus falls for the first time. Then the “way to Calvary” proceeds up Dolorosa Street when the Archbishop takes over for Jesus and carries the heavy cross, watched by thousands of people, several blocks. When the ancient and contemporary entourage passes by the Justice Center, comments of irony can be heard in the crowd sometimes comparing the contemporary Mexican American legal struggles to those of Jesus. The Passion play eventually arrives at the Main Plaza of the City. There in front of thousands of people from San Antonio and around the world, the crucifixion is acted out to tremendous emotional effect.



27 William B. Taylor, Magistrates of the Sacred: Priest and Parishioner in 18th Century Mexico, (Stanford, Stanford University Press) 1966, p. 59

28 An important exception to social science research that ignores the religiosity of Latinos is found in George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American. See his chapter 7 “The Sacred and the Profane: Religious Adaptations”, Oxford University Press, 1993.

29 It will help the reader to understand that Latino religious practices, like all religious practices, provide at least two powerful and highly valued strategies for dealing with daily life. They provide appealing a) cosmologies/world views that posit social and spiritual order, limit and security for believers and b) ritual strategies for directly addressing life cycle and calendrical changes, as well as bodily and spiritual suffering. Cosmologies/world views provide a cognitive map and ritual strategies provide a sense of legitimate spiritual agency. 

30 See Nicholas Cull & Davíd Carrasco, eds. Alambrista and the US-Mexico Border: Film, Music and Stories of Undocumented Immigrants (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2004)

31 Richard Griswold del Castillo The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict, (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press) 1992on Treaty

32 Daniel Groody, Border of Life, Valley of Death: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit, Rowan and Littlefield, 2002

33 An excellent overview of the historical, political and religious vicissitudes of Latin American history is Ken Mills and William B. Taylor’s Colonial Spanish America

34 Carlos Velez e Ibañez, Border Visions: Mexican Cultures of the Southwest United States (Phoenix: University of Arizona Press,) 1996

35 For an insightful discussion on the psychological pull of colonialism and the ways it forces its victims to fight back in terms defined by the colonizers, see Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy: The Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Oxford University Press,) 1989

36 Victor Turner, “Are There Universals?” By Means of Performance, eds. Schechner, Richard and Willa Apel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Turner writes about the four stage process that societies in crisis go through; breach, crisis, redressive actions

37 Virgilio Elizondo, A God of Incredible Surprises

38 The most productive center for the study of religion among Latinos is PARAL or the Program for Analysis of Religion Among Latinos which functions as a network of scholars committed to a comparative study of religion among the people of Latin American heritage living in the United States. PARAL’s website will guide the reader to important recent publications showing the dynamics and diversities in religious beliefs and practices among Latinos.

39 For instance, see the diversity of religious practices among Latinos in Americanos: Latino Life in the US

40 One event that changed the view that Catholicism completely dominated Latino life was Pope John Paul’s visit to Cuba in 1997. While on the one hand there was an outpouring of Catholic devotion, on the other hand, Santeria rituals, music, dances and symbols surfaced with great intensity revealing that Cuban religiosity was a powerful mixture of European, colonial, indigenous and African traditions and not ‘a selective assimilation of one religion by another, but part of an incomplete process”.

41 See Roberto S. Goizueta, “The Symbolic World of Mexican American Religion”, Horizons of the Sacred

42 With the insistence on ‘asymmetry’ I am following Mary Louise Pratt’s cogent writing about the “Contact Zone” and how colonial settings always place colonizer and colonized in asymmetrical relations.

43 I could not help noticing the flame coming out of ST. Jude’s head and thought that the Nino Fidencio had made a link between my intense intellectual life and the need to combine it with the flames of the spirit. The playfulness of Nino Fidencio came to me on several occasions when we would stand back to back and then grabbing my arms, bend my back over his back and then bounce me up and down, stretching out my spine and muscles, joking “Hermanito Davíd, me mas pequeno de todos, te vas a caer, te vas a caer…no, no te dejo caer, hermanito Davíd.” Since I was by far the tallest person in the group, this joking brought mirth to the others. These séances that would last from 7 pm to the early morning hours were primarily dedicated to healing us of our various physical and spiritual maladies.

44 People spoke feelingly of their cancers, diabetes, injuries as well as their needs for jobs, help with social authorities, marriage and pareja struggles. Outside of the growing circle of devotees, when we saw each other on the street, in classes or at social events in the barrio, there was a strong, secret sense of loyalty to our shared rituals and devotions for El Nino Fidencio. And I learned that there were many other missiones devoted to El Nino around the country including a second one in South Chicago were twin 10 year olds served together as materias for El Nino Fidencio.

45 For an excellent summary of his life, death and the mystery of his reappearance in other materias like the one I came to know in Chicago’s Chicano community, see Luis Leon’s chapter “El Don: The Gift of Healing from Mesoamerica to the Borderlands” in his La Llorona’s Children. Scholars from many disciplines are paying attention to the ways that religious mixtures in the worlds of the penitentes, Santeria, Candomble, curanderismo, pentacostal, espiritista traditions have been embraced and practiced by Latinos at increasing rates. See for example Harvey Cox Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentacostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century, The Sacred World of the Penitentes by Alberto Pulido, La Llorona’s Children by Luis Leon, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomble and Alternative Spaces of Blackness by Rachel Harding, Nino Fidencio/Nino Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open by Dore Gardner are stimulating accounts of these alternative histories.


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