Latino Traditions

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Latino Traditions

Identity is rooted in tradition and particularly in a sense of peoplehood (Shils 1981). Christianity among the American peoples was first brought from Iberia, a European meeting place for Visigoth, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious traditions, and this mixing or cultural mestizaje continued with Native American customs (Elizondo 1992). As it had done in the Europe of Franks, Goths, and Celts, the agricultural cycle shaped the way these "adopted" celebrations became Christian, providing local variations to a religious calendar (Stevens-Arroyo and Díaz-Stevens 1993). Latino religious traditions have inherited a Catholic matrix that carries over into a cultural identity that Latino Protestants, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals also share. Within the United States there is a growing diversity of Latino traditions owing to the migrations from Mexico, Central America, South America, and Cuba.

Latino traditions can be described by referring to an agricultural cycle. Planting begins in early February and is initiated by the feasts of the Purification of Mary (Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria) and of St. Blaise. Fire and light are associated with Candlemas, which along with the feast of St. Blaise contains elements of the Roman Lupercalia. Fasting continues during the forty days of Lent, but the last days of Lent are characterized by intense attention to vicarious identification with the sufferings of Christ. Good Friday, with its emphasis on fasting and redemptive power, sometimes supplanted Easter Sunday in the focus of Christian piety. The penitentes of New Mexico scourged themselves publicly on Good Friday in reparation for sins, much as the members of Seville's cofradías (confraternities) show contrition. The Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3) coincides with the month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and both feasts allow for the introduction of femininity into festivals of spring. These include various processions and other religious gatherings, often with young women assuming important roles, in which a statue of Mary is elaborately adorned and crowned with flowers or a prominent cross on a home altar is similarly decorated.

Summertime feasts include St. John the Baptist ( June 24) and Our Lady of Mount Carmel ( July 16), of relevance to maritime settlements, and various forms of bathing and blessing of waters. The Feast of St. James the Apostle ( July 25) has rich roots in Iberian practice, where this feast reenacted symbolically the centuries-long wars between Christians and Moors (Foster 1960; Benavides 1995), and has assumed similar customs in the Americas.

Harvest is observed with prominent feasts such as St. Michael the Archangel (September 29), St. Francis of Assisi (October 4), Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7), and St. Rafael Archangel (October 24), matching particular autumn agricultural practices to a saint's day. The feasts of All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2) carry resonances of Mesoamerican rites for communication with the dead, particularly in Mexican-influenced areas.

In addition, each town has its patron saint, so that the village would often add the fiestas patronales, a week of festivities not unlike medieval feasts that symbolically united the different classes in a common Christian belief and practice (Díaz-Stevens 1990). Civic, religious, and even ribald elements—parades, processions, and carousing—were put into stark conjunction that celebrated the community as much as the saint's life and works. In the Americas these fiestas preserved their popular character, adding Native American or African traditions to the Iberian matrix, much as had occurred in Europe's ancient religions. The baroque epoch in which Latin American popular religiosity was established fixed a pattern of simultaneous interiority and public display for religion that has survived in today's Latino traditions (Stevens-Arroyo 1998), which demonstrate communitarian characteristics inseparable from an interiorized devotionalism.

The special mixture of public and personal is perhaps most clear in the important cycle of Christmas. For Latinos, Christmas generally begins with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12). The cycle climaxes on the second Sunday of January, called "Bethlehem's Octave," which features the Feast of the Three Kings or Epiphany. The Christmas cycle features distinctive music and special foods, making it the richest segment of Latino popular religiosity. The sixteenth-century Spanish missionary use of miracle plays or actos sacramentales has significantly enriched many of these celebrations, especially in areas influenced by Mexican customs. Perhaps the most well known of these traditional Christmas plays is La Pastorela, which has been celebrated in San Antonio, Texas, since the beginning of the twentieth century (Flores 1995). A less formal version of these plays is the posadas. The entire village is involved in a dramatic reenactment of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The subsequent public party includes the breaking of the piñata in a public place so that children receive their first Christmas gifts from the community rather than from "Santa Claus." In the Caribbean the processions from house to house are centered on a tradition of celebrating the journey of the Three Kings or Magi. Jovial processions or parrandas go from house to house singing aguinaldos and asking for a gift. Members of the different households would join in so that by the end of the evening members of the whole community had gathered together in singing and merrymaking. The final stop on Christmas Eve is the parish church for the midnight Mass, or la misa del gallo.

Christmas Day itself is marked by a meal for the extended family. Among Mexican and Central Americans, meat is diced and spiced in a stew, added to cornmeal (tamales de maiz), while among Puerto Ricans and other people of Caribbean heritage the meat is added to mixtures of ground plantain and green bananas or yuca (pasteles de plátanos or de yuca). The preparation segregates men from women. Thus popular religion often depends on food offered in ritual cuisine. While these elements are ludic and seemingly divorced from sacred celebration, they are essential to the communitarian nature of the religious celebration (Díaz-Stevens and Stevens-Arroyo 1998).

The Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28) bears many similarities to the medieval Feast of Fools. In places where it is still observed, children carry mock spears imitating the soldiers of King Herod attempting to kill Jesus. The children are provided with the power of political authority in a ludic representation of how the poor view the government's police.

The Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day on January 6 is the traditional time of giving gifts to children. Freshly cut grass is placed in a box underneath the bed, and in the morning gifts are found in the box as testimony from the grateful kings. The three visitors are depicted as combining the three major racial groups in Latin American history: white (European), yellow (Taíno), and black (African).

Personal and familial experiences are also part of Latino traditions. The rites of passage usually involve reception of the Christian sacraments. In the Catholic world, most of these rites of passage are accompanied by the recitation of the rosary (Elizondo 1975). Moreover, the public recitation of the rosary usually begins with imaginative introductions or glosses that use poetry to connect biblical events to individual needs in the rosario cantao, or sung rosary, which is a lively and animated event.

Christians generally believe that Baptism is required to enter Heaven. Immediately upon birth, the midwife commonly sprinkled holy water on the child, sometimes reciting the Latin formula for the sacrament. Baptism in the church incorporates into a family the compadre and comadre, who are godparents. Called compadrazgo (Elizondo 1975), the obligation on the adults makes them the equivalent of brothers and sisters. Birthdays and holidays such as Christmas necessitate gift-giving between those spiritually related by Baptism as if they were blood relatives.

The first Holy Communion was another occasion for family social celebration, adopting some of the trappings of a wedding. The function of Christian maturity, fulfilled by Confirmation in other, more settled places, was supplemented for female children through la quinceañera, a custom of formally presenting or introducing young daughters to society. In many places the wedding ceremony includes the ancient Iberian custom of las arras, coins symbolic of the groom's commitment to support his new bride. As with virtually every culture in the world, marriages are accompanied by huge family parties with food, music, dancing, and other ways of integrating two families.

Care for the sick often relies on a healer or curandera, who also possesses a wide repertoire of prayers, pases or ritualistic gestures, sprinkling of holy water, anointing and massages with oils, and extracts of herbs. If both the curanderas' medicine and that of doctors fail, then the rezador/a (a communal prayer leader) is asked to pray over the ill person, asking divine intercession for a cure or preparing for death. Sometimes a person would make it known that he or she would not die until a specific matter was settled between himself or herself and another person. After death, the deceased is dressed in a special attire called la mortaja, and the wake proceeds with both prayers and family reminiscences. For burial, a simple wooden box is sought, and the closest of kin carry the remains of the dear one to the town church and cemetery, where the priest or minister officiates at the last ceremonies. The mourners comfort one another for an additional eight days of prayers. Every year the day of death is commemorated by an anniversary velorio (wake), to which a rezador/a and the friends and family are invited back.

The closest members of the family often are expected to mourn the person's departure for a period of time. Sometimes widows, orphans, mothers, or other relatives would vow to clothe themselves in black or not to cut their hair for the rest of their lives. These are called promesas, from the Spanish word for "promise." But promesas need not be connected to death and oftentimes are not. A promesa (or a manda, among Mexican Americans) may be made to ask for any special blessing or in thanksgiving for one received. Connected to promesas is yet another custom—the wearing of medals or scapulars. In ways that seem unique to Latinos, religion in the barrios of the United States nurtures the revitalization of old traditions and the creation of new ones.

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Belonging, Religious; Patron Saints and Patron-Saint Feasts; QuinceaÑera, La; Rites of Passage; Ritual; Sacraments.


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Ana María Díaz-Stevens