As numerous scholars have noted, there is long-standing resistance in Latina/o and Chicana/o studies, in particular, to writing about religion (Espinosa and García 2008). Some of this resistance derives from the origins of Chicana/o and Boricua studies, which were deeply imbued with Marxist trends and influences, but it also has to do with the historical stigmatization of Indigenous and African traditions in the Americas. Further, the association between Christianity and colonialism leads some scholars to regard Catholicism as a tool for the oppression of Latina/o communities by colonial forces. Such perspectives minimize the contemporary centrality of religion to Latina/o populations, as well as the ways Latinas/os have used religion to resist oppression in a variety of settings.

The majority of Latinas/os in the United States are Catholic (55 percent), often with an infusion of Indigenous and African practices and devotions. However, the Catholic share of the Latina/o population is rapidly declining, as the Pew Research Center (2014) report on The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States indicates. In 2014, one quarter of the Latina/o population identified as former Catholics who had become Evangelical Protestants or unaffiliated with a religious tradition. The largest growth in the twenty-first century has been among unaffiliated Latinas/os (18 percent) followed by Evangelical Protestants (16 percent). Mainline Protestants make up 5 percent of the Latina/o population (Pew Research Center 2014).

The experiences of Latinas/os in the United States are shaped by historical legacies that marked Catholics as backward, lazy, and primitive. This American narrative of “Latin” slovenliness has deep roots, dating back to British antipathy toward Spanish culture and Catholicism during the Enlightenment and the era of colonial expansion. The American understanding of the Spanish past is shaped by ideas of colonial Spain in the U.S. historical imagination. Richard Kagan coined the term “Prescott’s paradigm” to describe “the juxtaposition of Spanish decadence and American progress,” a perspective that dominated U.S. discourses of Spain throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century (1996, 425). William Hickling Prescott (1837, 1853) and his nineteenth-century contemporaries advocated the “Black Legend,” based on details described by Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas in his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias ([1552] 1994), which was widely promoted by Dutch and English Protestant writers from the sixteenth century onward. The “Black Legend” cast the Spanish as exceptionally cruel and intolerant in their interactions with Indigenous peoples in the New World. Spain was characterized as outside of the European Protestant mainstream in its interactions both within Europe and in the Americas.

Colonialism and Catholicism are inseparable, as Spanish Catholic missionaries did significant work among Indigenous peoples on assorted New World frontiers in ways that were at times more akin to slavery than to evangelization. As Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra (2006) has shown, Spanish, British, and Dutch colonial rule was similarly damaging to Indigenous populations and cultures, regardless of the religious background of the colo- nizer. However, the historical legacy of Catholic cruelty has had more rhetorical force in U.S. historical narratives.

Prescott’s paradigm haunted U.S. interaction with Mexico during their mid-nineteenth-century war, when there was still widespread antagonism toward Catholics in the United States. Likewise, Prescott’s paradigm was reinforced by the Spanish-American War in 1898, after which the United States gained the last of Spain’s colonial territories. Despite efforts like Herbert Bolton’s (1933) to paint a “White Legend” of Spanish friars on the frontier civilizing Mexicans and Indians, rather than exterminating them, the historiographical habit of seeing Spain—and the fruit of its conquest, Mexico—in a villainous light persisted. This, of course, erased early American interactions of the British, Dutch, and French with Indigenous populations, which more often led to elimination or forced migration than integration. American exceptionalism was confirmed by U.S. interactions with Spain and Mexico. As destined as the United States was to prosper, Spain and Mexico were destined to fail. Mexico’s independence from Spain did nothing to free it from the Black Legend, and Mexico was cemented into a permanent past in reference to the United States. Catholicism, superstitious and secretive, was the foil to the religious ethos of the United States, which promoted individualism and progress, ordained by God through Protestantism.

Latina/o Catholic practice was often cast as idolatrous by Euro-American priests within the U.S. Catholic Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mexicans in the United States faced efforts to reform their expressions of the faith, including the worship of patron saints and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Through mission churches and at times served by Spanish priests, Mexicans were able to establish parishes in cities like Chicago, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. As Mexicans became more established in many areas, their Catholic faith served as a focal point in their communities, and often a refuge from their sometimes hostile surroundings. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans also faced Americanization campaigns in cities throughout the United States in the early twentieth century, which often included conversion to a Protestant denomination.

U.S. Catholic leaders saw ways to exploit the religious unrest in Mexico, caused by the Mexican Revolution, in rallying American Catholics to support missionaries in the U.S. Southwest and in newly acquired U.S. territories around the world (A. Martínez 2014). Father Francis Kelley, president of the Catholic Church Extension Society, befriended Mexican bishops in exile in the United States and orchestrated a U.S. Catholic campaign to save the Mexican Catholic Church in the 1910s. This U.S. Catholic fervor was revived during the Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929), a Catholic uprising against an anticlerical government bent on limiting the role of the Catholic Church in Mexican society. Kelley used Extension Magazine to reach Catholics across the Northeast and Midwest and invoked the Spanish Catholic past in the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Southwest to urge American Catholics to support mission work amongst “our Catholics.” Kelley exploited the fact that these were American territories, but sought to counter the classic Americanization projects that included Protestant evangelization. Kelley reminded American Catholics that these lands and peoples had already been civilized by the Spanish friars, and that it was the responsibility of U.S. Catholics to sustain the faith among these peoples. This narrative of Catholic uplift also reinforced the notion that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans needed the help of Americans to sustain democracy, as expressed through religious liberty in this case.

During the segundo mestizaje, as Virgilio Elizondo (1983) calls the Mexican presence in the United States, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in particular, has served as a source of pride and strength—both national and religious—for generations of Mexican-descent men and women in the United States. Jeannette Rodríguez (1994) argues that Mexican American women experience la virgen as a role model for survival of the self, family, and community, and as a source of empowerment. Since the 1970s, Chicana artists have also embraced the Virgin of Guadalupe as a source of empowerment. Yolanda M. López, for example, painted a series of three generations of Mexican women as la virgen, portraying them as strong, independent women. These extra-religious images were not always welcomed by traditionalists and the Catholic hierarchy. In 2001, Chicana artist Alma López created a digital image referencing la virgen, which provoked a significant backlash from conservative Catholics who saw the likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a bikini made of roses as sacrilegious. Alicia Gaspar de Alba (Gaspar de Alba and López 2011, 1–12) documents the ways Latina artists envision the Virgin of Guadalupe as a national, cultural, and spiritual source of inspiration that is not dependent on the sanctioning of the Roman Catholic Church. This Chicana spirituality is a source of empowerment for Mexican American women who grew up with the presence of la virgen, but did not see the institutional church itself as supportive (Sendejo 2014).

Religious sanctuary was a tool used as part of an interfaith movement to shelter Central American refugees in the 1980s, who were escaping civil wars in their home countries, largely driven by U.S. foreign policy. American Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations provided food, shelter, jobs, and protection from law enforcement to Salvadoran and other Central American families who fled political persecution in their homelands. The assassinations of American Catholic nuns and Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980 by forces supported by U.S. foreign aid provoked those of many faiths, in addition to some progressive cities and universities, to attempt to counter American foreign policy. Sanctuary challenged this policy by offering humanitarian aid to those escaping U.S. government-sanctioned violence and repression. At the same time, however, the Catholic Church often supported repressive regimes in Latin American countries. Romero initially did so, but eventually came to embrace Liberation Theology, a Latin American theology of the poor. Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, elected pope in 2012) was scrutinized by Argentinians for his alleged role in defending the authoritarian regime against the poor during the dictatorship, accusations that have been largely discredited.

The twenty-first century has seen an increase in Latina/o evangelicals throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Among the 22 percent of U.S. Latinas/os who identify as Protestant, approximately three-quarters are part of evangelical denominations. Latinas/os between thirty and fifty years of age are leaving the Catholic Church for evangelical churches while younger Latinas/os (aged eighteen to twenty-nine), are becoming unaffiliated with religious institutions. This overall shift away from Catholicism has been occurring quite rapidly. As recently as 2010, Pew research showed that 67 percent of Latinas/os identified as Catholic. Latina/o former Catholics have been drawn to charismatic movements within the United States, such as Victory Outreach and Vineyard, which have sought to appeal to Latina/o youth, in particular (Sánchez-Walsh 2003). More traditional groups such as Mennonites and Mormons have also made special appeals to Latinas/os in the United States.

Some Catholic organizations have moved toward more charismatic and varied practices to attempt to attract Latinas/os. For example, the Valley Missionary Program in the Coachella Valley built a shrine with a pyramid topped by a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe as part of its outreach to Latina/o immigrants, carving out a space within Catholic practice for Indigenous symbolism and the patroness of the Americas (Groody 2002, 88–89).

As dramatically as the Latina/o Catholic landscape has been shifting, so has the Latina/o presence within the Catholic Church in the United States (Matovina 2012). As of 2013, Latinas/os made up one-third of the U.S. Catholic population. While younger Latinas/ os are less likely to be Catholic, younger Catholics are more likely to be Latina/o. Since Latinas/os are a statistically young population, and are growing faster than the white population, their presence in the Catholic Church is likely to grow.

Mexico and the United States have both seen a revival of Indigenous religious expression. Historically, Indigenous religions resisted, coopted, and transformed Catholicism in Mexico. Many Indigenous faiths were believed to have died out but are being revived or becoming more openly practiced by Indigenous communities throughout Mexico. In some cases, this revival is tied to efforts to promote the use of Indigenous languages. Among the Huichol, Mazatec, and other Indigenous groups, language, religion, and culture are not easily separable. In many cases, Catholicism has become part of this spiritual practice, along with rituals that predate the Spanish invasion (Foudree 2013). In the United States, calpulli and danzante groups have embraced Indigenous Mexican dances and rituals in an effort to express resistance to the Spanish colonization of the sixteenth century and the American neocolonization from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Catholic, but their religious practice, like that of Mexicans, is often considered to be outside the Catholic mainstream (Díaz-Stevens 1993). Caribbean Catholic culture was shaped not only by Indigenous cultures, but also by the traditions of Africans who were brought to the islands as slaves. Cubans and Cuban Americans have a wider range of spiritual practice with a stronger presence of non-European religions, especially among non-elites. Santería (Way of Saints), or Regla de Ocha (Rule of Osha), has deep roots in Cuba, dating to the slave trade. This Yoruba-origin religion has incorporated elements of Catholicism into its New World practice. Miguel De La Torre (2003) documents Santería in the Cuban American population and its interaction with Catholic and other religions in the Miami area. Michelle A. González (2006) argues that regardless of race, Afro-Cuban culture is integral to Cuban culture and religion. Others have highlighted the role of Judaism among Cubans and Cuban Americans (Behar 2007).

Latina/o religious expression and identification is as diverse as the Latina/o population itself. It draws on the distinct historical legacies of Latin American national origins, and their specific relations with, and arrival in, the United States. Though still predominantly Catholic, Latinas/os are becoming more religiously diverse in the twenty-first century.

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