One of the most unique parts about religion in the American West is how European religious traditions transform themselves. The reality of western life made adapting and creating new ideas and religious practice the norm, and necessity spurred by the constraints of location was what led to the development of these changes. Mexican American Catholicism makes up a unique branch of the Catholic faith, and is a perfect example of how the constraints and reality of life in the American West influence the way its inhabitants practice their faith.

The reality of practicing Catholicism in Mexico was imperative to the development of ritual and tradition for its people. Beginning with the transition from Spanish to Mexican rule in Mexico, Franciscan monks and priests were slowly replaced with Native priests (Lint Sagarena 57).  The transition from traditional Catholicism, as it was practiced in Europe to what is now known as Mexican Catholicism began here. A lack of available native priests led to a dependence on lay people to carry out religious ritual tradition and ultimately influenced the way in which traditions changed and developed, and led to a shift in which faith was no longer primarily worshiped within the church, and religiosity became a primarily domestic concept (León 7).

398-Virgin_of_GuadalupeReligious tradition became even more important to Mexicans as they began to migrate to various parts of the American Southwest. Festivals worshiping the Virgin of Guadalupe, altars honoring ancestors and attendance in at home prayer groups were all ways in which Mexicans celebrated their faith at home. Attendance at these events was high and home worship dominated religious Mexican Catholics, as attendance in the churches themselves was extremely low (Lint Sagarena 63). Dedication to the cultural aspects of their faith also facilitated a deep connection with home parishes and communities back in Mexico, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the religious life of Mexican immigrants to the United States is the transnational nature of their faith, and the important role that it plays in both their cultural and religious identity (Murillo 147)

Understanding the significance of transnational religious practice is something that is essential to understanding the culture of Mexican American Catholics. For example, the small parish town of Coeneo, Mexico sees Mexican Americans returning back for generations in order to experience various religious rituals (specifically baptism and marriage) back in Mexico (Murillo 149). The movement associated with the religious practice shows how Mexican American faith was focused on the self rather than the church as an institution.

The reality of the American West transformed the practice of the Catholic faith for Mexicans and Mexican Americans by unintentionally creating a religious culture at home through ritual, the limitations of Western geography and and the necessity of movement for religious practice. Mexican Catholicism evolved in this uniquely Western way and continues to be an important part of culture and lifestyle for many Mexican Americans today.

–Anna O’Keefe, December 2015

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  • Badillo, David A. 1997. “Between Alienation and Ethnicity: The Evolution of Mexican-American Catholicism in San Antonio, 1910-1940.” Journal of American Ethnic History 16, no. 4 (1997): 62–83.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Image 1: Virgin of Guadalupe.  Public Domain.