Popular Piety, Hispanic, in the United States

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Hispanic popular piety in the U.S. encompasses a wide range of practices, rituals, meanings, and functions. It is highly affective, accessible to all, and often filled with color, pageantry, vivid religious imagery, lively participation, a fervent spirit of embodied prayer, and confident assurance in the tangible presence of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Practitioners of Hispanic popular piety enact their faith expressions both individually and collectively, as well as both outside official Catholic rites and during sacramental liturgies. Although they consist primarily of lay-controlled practices, Catholic clergy have fostered particular faith expressions that evoked significant lay participation among their Latino co-religionists. The primary promoters and teachers of Hispanic popular piety are Latina mothers, grandmothers, aunts, godmothers, and other women, who for centuries have transmitted communal faith, identity, and values to the next generation through their leadership in celebrating familial and collective religious traditions.

Hispanic popular piety has been continuously extant within the continental U.S. since 1565, when Spanish Catholic subjects established the first permanent European settlement at St. Augustine, Florida. The Hispanic penchant for Marian devotion expressed in activities like constructing Marian shrines, for example, was evident in Florida as early as 1620, when Catholics at St. Augustine built the first Marian shrine in the United States. In 1973, Cubans in Miami dedicated a shrine to their national patroness, Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity).

In the latter half of the 20th century, the numbers and influence of Hispanics in the U.S. have increased dramatically. An influx of newcomers from such diverse locales as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina, along with ongoing Mexican immigration, added to the ranks of an established Hispanic population comprised primarily of Mexican-descent Catholics. These arrivals from Latin America and the Caribbean bring their treasured expressions of faith with them. The faith expressions of Hispanic popular piety differ from group to group. While Mexicans are the principal Hispanic group that celebrates las posadas during the nine days before Christmas, for example, Puerto Ricans enact the parranda, in which devotees take images of the magi from house to house collecting aguinaldo, offerings used for a communal fiesta at the end of the Christmas season. Many national groups favor a particular Marian image such as Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia (Dominican Republic), Nuestra Señora de Lujan (Argentina), Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Colombia), and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Mexico), the patroness of the Americas. Some national groups also exhibit strong devotion to particular saints or images of Jesus, like the Puerto Rican devotion to their patron San Juan, Guatemalan faith in El Cristo Negro de Esquipulas (the Black Christ), Peruvian veneration of Santa Rosa de Lima and Nuestro Señor de los Milagros (Our Lord of Miracles), and El Salvadoran dedication to Oscar romero, the slain archbishop of San Salvador who is popularly acclaimed as a martyr and saint.

Some Hispanic faith expressions are common among several and even to all Latino groups. Although San Martín de Porres is a Peruvian saint, many Hispanics revere him for his life of charity and his perseverance in the face of the racist treatment he endured as a mulatto. Mexicans and some Central Americans retain the tradition of the quinceañera, which celebrates the maturing to adulthood of a young woman, usually in the context of the Eucharist around the time of her fifteenth birthday. Hispanics of various backgrounds also exhibit profound dedication to el niño Jesús (the child Jesus), the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Blessed Sacrament. Pilgrimages, processions, holy cards, crucifixes, saints medals, and other sacred images abound, as do the reception of ashes on Ash Wednesday and palms on Palm Sunday, the lighting of candles, and the keeping of mandas or promesas (offering promises in exchange for the granting of a petition). Many Hispanics construct home altars, use agua bendita (holy water) to bless themselves and their children, place a strong emphasis on padrinos (godfathers) and madrinas (godmothers) in baptism and other sacraments, bless graves and hold novenas for loved ones who have died, offer special prayers for their beloved deceased on all souls day (known in some communities as el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead), and ask priests to bless their homes, cars, and other possessions. One of the most widespread traditions among all Latino groups is the extensive devotion to the crucified Jesus and his suffering mother on Good Friday. In Hispanic communities this devotion encompasses rituals and devotions like a public reenactment of Jesus' way of the cross and crucifixion, the siete palabras or proclamation and preaching on the seven last words of Christ, the servicio del santo entierro (entombment service) for Jesus, and the pésame (condolence) offered to the Virgin on Good Friday evening.

Pastoral ministers respond in diverse ways to Hispanic popular piety; their responses are frequently shaped by the particular faith expression that they address in a given pastoral situation. Some pastoral ministers discourage or even condemn certain practices of Hispanic popular piety as inimical to Catholic faith and the Catholic tradition. Others try to incorporate traditions like Marian devotion into parish life and even into sacramental celebrations, often attempting to engage these traditions as a means to augment participation in parish and sacramental life. Still other pastoral ministers engage faith expressions like the Way of the Cross as a means to prophetically denounce the ongoing suffering of Jesus in today's suffering peoples and challenge devotees to live gospel and church teachings on social justice. In some instances, of course, pastoral ministers ignore or are unaware of home-based celebrations and faith expressions, making more visible or even accentuating tensions and separation between church officials and Catholic liturgy, on the one hand, and Hispanic devotees and religious traditions, on the other. Often missing in these various pastoral responses to Hispanic popular piety is an attempt to probe the complex and multi-layered meanings of Latino popular Catholicism from the practitioners' perspective. Pastoral responses to Hispanic popular piety are greatly enhanced by careful studies of these meanings, which collectively embody the worldview that underlies Hispanic faith expressions.

Recent studies highlight the rich meaning and underlying religious worldview in Hispanic popular piety. These studies provide critical insights about the theological significance of Hispanic faith expressions, as well as the pastoral opportunity and challenge to serve their practitioners in the life of local faith communities. Virgilio Elizondo contends that Mexican-American rituals and devotions reinforce identity and a sense of belonging, help a suffering people endure their pain and struggles, and enable this people to celebrate hope and new life. Ana María Díaz-Stevens states that many Puerto Rican migrants to the mainland brought the complex constellation of religious practices from their jíbaro (peasant or mountain dweller) roots. This constellation of practices illuminates God's action in daily life, enacts rites of passage, expresses devotees' desire for harmonious relations with nature, and reminds them of the need for mediators, both among the heavenly saints and the hacendados (major landowners) who so influenced their lives in their homeland. Roberto Goizueta proposes a theology of accompaniment rooted in the powerful network of relationships that popular faith expressions mediate between Jesus, Mary, the saints, and their Hispanic devotees. Orlando Espín has also proffered some analysis of the worldview that underlies expressions of Hispanic popular Catholicism. Espín posits that Latinos project many features of their familial relationships onto the sacred realm of the Trinity and the saints and that their popular Catholicism enables them to interpret and endure their personal and collective suffering. He also outlines basic tenets of the Latino popular worldview such as the constant intervention of the divine in human life, the belief that human existence always encompasses the conflict between good and evil, and the assumption that the only way people can change their state in life is through divine sanction granted after persistent prayer or fulfilling a series of challenges or tests.

Bibliography: a. m. dÍaz-stevens, Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue: The Impact of Puerto Rican Migration upon the Archdiocese of New York (Notre Dame, Ind. 1993). v. elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1983). o. espÍn, The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism. (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1997). e. fernÁndez, La Cosecha: Harvesting Contemporary United States Hispanic Theology (196898) (Collegeville, Minn. 2000). r. s. goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1995). t. matovina and g.e. poyo, eds. ¡Presente! U.S. Latino Catholics from Colonial Origins to the Present (Maryknoll, N.Y. 2000). j. rodriguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment among Mexican American Women (Austin, Tex. 1994). t. a. tweed, Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (Oxford 1997).

[t. matovina]

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Popular Piety, Hispanic, in the United States

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