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Religious Secularization

Photo by Melissa Merrill.

The cross of Christ hanging from a gold necklace is being Catholic.  For many second generation Latinos, this is as far as their relationship with God extends, a tendency that epitomizes their gradual move towards an evanescing faith in God.

While a growing number of Latinos identify themselves as non-religious, most say they still retain certain cultural aspects of Catholicism and thus consider themselves “culturally Catholic.” According to Ace Prensa, secularity among Latinos increases from 8 percent in the first-generation immigrants to 14 percent in the second-generation.

For these second generation Latinos, Catholicism is not a way of explaining their faith in God, but rather a cultural identifier. Though they do not practice it through the reception of all the sacraments, they still claim ties to Catholicism.

A young man who wished to remain anonymous said, “I don’t know much about the actual religion. It’s just how I was raised. I go to church occasionally, I have a rosary in the rearview mirror of my car, and I help my mom set up of the ‘nacimiento’ for Christmas and I really enjoy the big celebration my family does for the Virgin Mary. But as far as my relationship with God…well I guess that is my relationship with God.”

For Latinos like him, the connection between Catholicism and culture is much stronger than that of Catholicism and faith. Religion is not a matter of establishing a faith-based communion with God, but a matter of inheritance.

Their parents are Catholic and by default, they too inherit this religion. While this bestowal of Catholicism teaches them that babies should be baptized and that taking the Eucharist is the most sacred moment during Sunday mass, it does not teach them the spiritual meaning behind these practices.

This lack of spiritual knowledge is especially evident during the celebration of holy days such as Ash Wednesday. Many, from devout Catholics to cultural Catholics, gather on this day to have ashes imposed on their foreheads. But, the presence of so many new faces raises questions about the knowledge and credence in the paramount doctrines of their religion.

Upon asking a UCLA student, who identifies himself as Catholic, what the significance of Ash Wednesday is, he responded: “It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I have no idea. It’s just something I’ve done most of my life.”

He, like many other Latinos, chooses to be marked with the ashes of repentance on this Wednesday, but do not know why. Stripping this sacred practice from its spiritual

meaning and transforming it solely into a cultural practice, makes the ashes on their forehead less a symbol of mourning and repentance and more a symbol of a deteriorating faith in God.

Moreover, for the increasing number of non-religious second-generation Latinos,Catholicism has become one of the many aspects of their culture that is only ritualistically part of quotidian life, an inclination that does not accord with my definition of spiritual faith. Though they religiously obey Catholic practices, they are devoid of the fundamental characteristic on which religion is based: an absolute and walking faith in God.

Confessions of a Muslim Latina

How one Latina found new life by merging two worlds

Yannina Casillas, Contributor

Illustration by Maria Esmeralda Renteria

As a child of Mexican immigrants, I grew up culturally Catholic. But since I couldn’t find him there, I decided to seek Him for myself. I never lost faith in God and after years of searching, I finally found peace in Islam.

Even though I was extremely content with my new religion I felt lonely at UCLA. I quickly found myself bound between two completely different minority groups in America—Muslims and Latinos. Already a minority on campus as a Latina, I was also a minority in my religious community since the majority of Muslims at UCLA are of Arab or South Asian descent. I felt like an anomaly, so I began to overcompensate my Latina identity by rolling “r’s” in conversation and carrying Tapatio hot sauce everywhere I went. I became known as “The Latina” of the Muslim Students Association (MSA).

After two years, I stumbled on an old issue of the Muslim student newsmagazine, Al-Talib, that discussed the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association. I soon began inquiring about the stories of other Latino Muslims and found out that a friend of mine named Karla (also a Mexicana) had converted to Islam.

I finally found someone with whom I could share my experience. We exchanged stories about how our families confused Islam for Hinduism, the pain in having to give up chicharrones, and, ultimately, how our friends and loved ones felt about our conversions. Sharing this experience with Karla helped balance my identity as a Mexican and Muslim woman.

I have been a Muslim for over three years and am actively involved in the Muslim community through MSA UCLA and MSA West. Participating in such organizations has allowed my distinct identity to be expressed.It has also provided channel through which my political drive can be exercised—by educating my two different communities on issues ranging from the DREAM Act to Ramadan.

It was not hard to gain acceptance in the Muslim community since the Muslim brothers and sisters shared similar values towards family as I did and also because…they love converts! It was however difficult to try to learn new vocabulary. For example, the word for “mijo” in Urdu is “beta” (term of endearment). It was funny.

I connected with my peers in MSA through childhood stories and discussions on food.After bragging rounds, I dispelled rumors that Mexican food didn’t just consist of tacos and burritos.I introduced them to albondigas, ceviche, and authentic tamales. And of course, they had to recognize the superiority of Mexican cuisine.

I represent a growing population of converts in the United States. According to a 2010 report by The Pew Research Center, the Muslim population is around 2.6 million. Although the exact number of Latino Muslims isn’t known, Hjamil A. Martinez-Vazquez, author of Latina/o y Musulmán. The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States, explains that it ranges from 75,000 to 100,000.

To this day, I am still reconciling my identity as a Mexican Muslim woman.I am given the opportunity to shape the narrative of my community in this country. With my strong grounding in my faith, I look forward to contribute to the great legacy of the leaders in the Latino community.