Cowboys toil in dust and grime in an old beer commercial, bringing in a herd of cattle from the range. Only when the last calf has been corralled, roped, and branded does the foreman shout, "Miller time!" In American culture, celebration has to be earned. You celebrate if you finish the job. People often wonder then why Mexican Americans can be so happy when they often have so little to celebrate.
Father Daniel Gerard Groody, C.S.C. was struck by this he interviewed immigrants in the Coachella Valley for a recently completed doctorate in theology. He discovered that the ability to celebrate life in the face of struggle, disappointment, sickness, or even death is one of the gifts that Mexican Americans bring to the church.
"It is in our fiestas that our legitimate identity and destiny are experienced," says Father Virgil Elizondo, the leading Mexican American theologian. "They are not just parties. They are the joyful, spontaneous, and collective celebrations of what has already begun in us, even if it is not recognized by others or verbalized even by ourselves.... In the fiestas, we rise above our daily living experiences of death to experience life beyond death." No matter how difficult it is, life is to be lived, appreciated, celebrated.
Hope and loyalty
Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez observes that Mexican Americans do not lose hope in God or in the conviction to create a more just and humane world. One senses that kind of hope in many Masses in Spanish: the excitement, the palpable devotion, the emotion in the singing, and an all-pervading sense of community.
Such a parish is Sacred Heart in Othello, a farming community in central Washington State. In 1998 when I visited there, the church was filled to overflowing for its two Sunday Masses in Spanish. There were old faces and middle-aged faces, but the majority were young couples with children. Father Heliodoro Lucatero, the pastor--himself an immigrant from Mexico, like most of his parishioners--says: "They have a lot of vitality." In a society where couples often avoid having children because they fear what the future will bring, the children are their vote of confidence that God will not abandon them.
"There are many Baptisms in Spanish each month, very sporadically one in English," Lucatero says. "Since I came here [in 1996] I have not had a single wedding in English, but I am always witnessing weddings in Spanish."
Loyalty is another enduring value of Mexican Americans, Elizondo says. "In many U.S. Catholic parishes, my people were made to sit in the rear of the church or barred from entering at all. It was not uncommon to be told, `Go to the Mexican church. This is not your church.' Pastors and others often made us feel like dirty and unwanted foreigners. That we remained in the church has to be a tribute to the very deep faith of our people and our acceptance of the human sinfulness of our church."
Historian Carey McWilliams has written: "Waves and still more waves have passed over the Spanish-speaking people, but they are still as firmly rooted in the Southwest as a forest of Joshua trees." And they are similarly rooted in the church. No other ethnic group has remained so steadfast. Even now, despite inroads in recent years by Pentecostal and evangelical churches, 65 percent are loyal to the faith of their fathers and mothers.
At Tepeyac in Mexico City, one can see pilgrims with bloody knees inching forward on the plaza toward the entrance of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. …