Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 11 December 2023

Hispanics and Religion in Americafree

Hispanics and Religion in Americafree

  • Kristy Nabhan-WarrenKristy Nabhan-WarrenDepartmetn of Religious Studies, The University of Iowa


What is today known as U.S. “Hispanic” culture is in reality a diverse array of ethnic, regional, national, and religious peoples and communities. Hispanic Americans trace their lineage back to colonial Spain, and Spanish is a unifying language for Hispanic peoples around the world. When we turn our attention to the United States, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Spanish colonizers, missionaries, and explorers alike made their mark in American territories such as Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The focus of this article will be Hispanic religions from the mid-19th century United States to the present. The invention of the designation “Hispanic” by the U.S. government in 1970 was an effort to identify individuals and groups who shared a common language, ethnicity, and cultural heritage. While we can certainly problematize the designation “Hispanic,” for the purposes of this essay we will use the ethnic and cultural designation Hispanic as a rubric to unify Spanish-speaking and ethnically related individuals and groups in the United States. What is useful about identifying individuals and groups as Hispanic is that we are able to focus on shared linguistics, ethnic identities, and experiences that emerge out of the lived experiences of colonization. Yet the story of Hispanics and religions is one of triumph and empowerment too as men, women, and children turned to their families, faith, and communities to combat the ethnocentrically driven colonization in the United States that threatened to overwhelm them. What they received from extended families, faith, and communities was support that gave them strength to persevere and prosper in conditions that were sometimes unbearable.

As long as we keep in the mind that there are vast differences among and between Hispanic peoples and groups, the broad rubric of “Hispanic” can help us understand linguistic, ethnic, and cultural continuities among individuals and their larger communities in the United States. Recent global Hispanic events such as the 2014 fútbol World Cup helped bring attention to the ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic similarities as well as the cultural diversity of Latin, Central, and South Americans. As much as there is a wide variety of Hispanic peoples and communities, so too is there a wide array of Hispanic religions and spiritualities. Latin, Central and South Americans increasingly make homes in the United States and add to the ever-emerging religious and cultural hybridity of U.S. religions. While the majority of U.S. Hispanics still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, there is a growing diversity of Catholic practices as well as broader religio-spiritualities among U.S. Hispanics. In order to understand contemporary lived realities among Hispanics, it is essential that we take a historical approach and study the deeper history of U.S. Hispanic religions and spiritualities. When we do, we are able to understand that openness to hybrid theologies, practices, and ways of being spiritual and religious are central to Hispanics’ histories of perseverance and adaptation to a country that has not been overwhelmingly unwelcoming to them. When we study U.S. Hispanics and their religious and spiritual lives from the mid-19th century to the present, we are able to understand three mutually informing and overlapping historical continuities: (1) A legacy of colonization, transculturation and borderlands existence; (2) The creation of a borderlands religion that responds to the legacy of ethnocentrism and inbetweeness; and (3) The centrality of fe, familia, and communidad (faith, family, and community) that work as an organizing and empowering trifecta for U.S. Hispanics.


  • Religion in America
  • Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology of Religion

Colonization, Transculturation, and Borderlands Existence

When we seek to understand the history of Hispanics and religion in the United States, it is essential that we begin our journey with Hispanics’ stories that center on their individual as well as collective borderlands’ existence.1 Borderlands existence is an existential, geographic, and spiritual in-betweenness, a hybrid state of being and lived reality that arises out of the experience of living in multiple contexts. As a result of being culturally in-between, U.S. Hispanic, Latino lived experience has been fraught with tensions as well as intense creativity. For Mexican-descent women and men in the United States, the largest Hispanic group in the United States, a borderlands existence has been an intrinsic part of their lived history. For Hispanics, stories of borderlands existence are bound up with the acquisition and annexation of land. The United States’ colonial enterprise began full force with the acquisition of Louisiana and Florida in the early 19th century (1803 and 1819, respectively), and the territory that became the state of Texas in 1845, next the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and the resulting forced annexation of one-third of land that had belonged to Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo marked an official end to the war, and the land ceded to the United States became the states of California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Washington, and Oregon. The states of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana were also on land that was formerly part of Mexico. Unlike most other immigrants in U.S. history, Mexicans did not initially cross over or emigrate to the United States—the U.S.-Mexico border crossed them. The war, annexation, and resulting racism and ethnocentrism toward Mexicans in the Southwest and West has been well documented by historians and sociologists alike.2 As the late historian David J. Weber noted, from the time of the end of the Mexican War and resulting treaty, Mexicans were “foreigners in their own land.”3 Mexicans who were living on land that had been part of Mexico and that was annexed to the United States post-treaty were subjected to a colonial mindset of Manifest Destiny.

A central tenet of Manifest Destiny was that Protestant Christianity and the actions of Christians would remake the West and would “tame” what was wild into something that was usable and valuable. The Gold Rush had just begun and white non-Hispanics from the East Coast and Midwest went out West to seek fortunes. A consequence of the massive influx of white non-Hispanic Protestants to Texas, Arizona, and California literally changed the ethnic, racial, and religious makeup of the West. In California, Californios, men and women who had been part of Mexico and who identified culturally with Spain and Mexico, were suddenly Americanos surrounded by white non-Hispanic Protestants on a capitalistic quest. By and large, these Protestants were deeply anti-Catholic as well as anti-Hispanic. And for their part, white non-Hispanic Catholics did not consider Mexican-descent Catholics as full members of their faith. Ethnocentric and racist ideologies and beliefs trumped catholic (universal) and Catholic notions of oneness in Christ. Mexicans were forced to worship in basements or in pews that were in the back of the sanctuary. In cities throughout the Southwest, Mexican Catholics banded together to finance and build their own ethnic parishes. Whites’ racism and ethnocentrism, as well as a desire on the part of Mexicans to have their own space for worship, led to the creation of Hispanic parishes and churches in the 19th century Southwestern United States. For the most part, throughout the 19th century and up to the late 20th century, Catholic parishes in California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico were either white non-Hispanic or Mexican-descent in population. These were ethnic parishes where culturally informed practices such as celebrations of Mañanitas (morning songs to the Virgin of Guadalupe), devotions to Mexican saints, both official and popular, and street processions of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, her feast day, were honored and maintained. Mexican Catholic parishes in cities like Houston were places marked where religion of the church/iglesia and the home/casa overlapped. Hispanic Catholics in Houston, Texas, as in cities and towns across the Southwest, crafted and maintained home shrines/altarcitos where images of saints like Santo Niño de Atocha stood next to images of Guadalupe, Jesus, and Saint Jude, and where candles/velas burned in homage to Jesus and the saints. The lived religiosity of Hispanic Catholics in the 19th century Southwest blended Catholic iconography, symbols, and rituals with a commitment to literally take one’s faith to the streets with images of Guadalupe, and led to the formation of the religiously infused Chicano civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, Mexican-descent Catholics across the United States attended ethnic parishes that were formed by Hispanics for Hispanics. For those Hispanics who migrated to the United States from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, from the mid to late 20th century, national parishes were their home away from home, their diasporic churches. National parishes were like ethnic parishes in the sense that they were parishes that had the intention of integrating and assimilating ethnic groups into territorial parishes. Territorial parishes were regionally based and less ethnically based. Yet despite the desire to phase out national parishes, this type of parish continued to exist de facto due to a combination of push and pull factors. Mexican-descent Catholics, like other late 19th-century and early 20th-century immigrant ethnic Catholic groups (Italians, Polish, Czechs, Germans, French Canadians), wanted to attend parishes where their language, culture, and heritage was honored and nurtured. Like eastern and western European Catholic immigrants of the early to mid-19th century, Mexican-descent Catholics wanted the freedom to worship in their own language in a place that was welcoming—and that did not enforce pro-assimilation and acculturation policies. For their part, white non-Hispanics were not open to brown-skinned Catholics moving to their parishes—at least not until they were viewed as acculturated into white mainstream society. And so a combination of ethnocentrism, cultural differences, and a desire on the part of Hispanics to maintain an intimate communidad contributed to Catholic parishes that were brown or white in complexion.4 The cosmology, religiously inspired worldview, of Mexican-descent Catholics included practices such as attending mass, praying the rosary and novenas, and lighting candles. Other more grassroots manifestations of Catholic piety and indigeneity such as curanderismo (healing rituals and practices), home altars, and a generally more home-based and community-based religion, was not in synch with white non-Hispanic notions of idealized “religion.”

When we examine the histories of Hispanics from a comparative perspective, we find that colonization and conquest were, and continue to be, ameliorated by men’s and women’s fortitude and agency that was represented and experienced via religious beliefs and practices. Hispanic women and men of Mexican, Guatemalan, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, and Cuban descent have turned to their faith and community based religio-spiritual traditions which have given them hope, solace, and strength to endure and rise above colonialism. What we find when we examine Hispanics’ religious histories are men and women who have been colonized by religious and secular empires but who have rallied, reclaimed, and remade their religions. Much of this creativity took place in homes, backyards, and in other spaces outside of the official religious centers. An excellent example of popular religious piety that sustained generations of Latinos who travel to the northern New Mexican pilgrimage site is the Sanctuario de Chimayó in Chimayo, New Mexico. Chimayó, as it is popularly called, is believed to be a place of healing and pilgrims take the sacred dirt and ingest it, and/or rub it on their bodies in the hopes and belief that they will be healed. Offerings of thanks and testimony to the site’s healing and sacred powers are on display in the shrine’s prayer room, and material religious items such as crutches, ex-votos, are among the many offerings of thanks that are on display. Belief in miracles and the intercession of the saints in places both inside and outside of the official church is a common thread within Latino Catholicism. Chimayó, before and after it became part of the New Mexico diocese in 1929, is a sacred site full of hope and meaning for Latino Catholics and the shrine’s early 19th-century origin story points to Jesus himself as choosing the site of veneration.5

A religio-spirituality of the home, the casa, has long been the center of Hispanic religions. Mexican-descent Catholics who were annexed geographically, religiously, and existentially in the wake of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo refused to abdicate their kin-based religious ecologies. Devotions to the saints and home-based Catholicism, along with pilgrimages to popular sites such as Chimayó, persevered in the wake of ethnocentricism and anti-Catholicism of the 19th-century Southwest as Protestant Americans flooded the West in search of land and gold. Among U.S. Latinos, a borderlands grassroots religio-spirituality emerged that addressed their needs as colonized people. A key aspect of Hispanics’ religio-spirituality has been its historic flexibility and ability to embrace hybrid cosmologies. Hybridized religious beliefs, symbols, and rituals are part of an expansive cosmology. Devotions to saints take place in homes, backyard and community shrines, as well as in churches.

Borderlands Religio-Spiritualities

From the 19th century to the present, Hispanic women and men have held leadership roles in their communities as borderlands spaces have proven to be fertile grounds for ethnic, spiritual, and religious creativity. Hispanic religions are a reflection of Hispanics’ mestizo realities—brown-skinned, socially marginalized, victimized and resented by much of white non-Hispanic society, U.S. Hispanics have managed to find hope, solace, and empowerment in their lay religious traditions which gave them strength to push back against the “melancholic condition” that plagued migrants and trans-bordered peoples.6 Whether we are looking at 19th-century annexed Mexican-descent Catholics in the Southwest, early to mid-20th-century Hispanic migrants to the United States, or more recent 1960s and 70s Chicanos who were part of the movimiento, Hispanics’ rendering of their experiences has been replete with spiritual and religious meanings. Like the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the Chicano movement drew strength from religious beliefs and iconographies. Leaders like César Chavez drew spiritual strength and meaning from his Catholic faith which in turn informed his politics and quest for social justice for farmworkers and brown-skinned migrants. The United Farmworkers Movement came to being as a lay-led Catholic-infused movement for social justice for brown-skinned borderlanders who put the spotlight on the injustices heaped upon Latino workers. Chicano priests also joined in the movement and its focus on social and religious justice for Latinos. For their part, Chicano priests formed PADRES (Padres Asociado para Derechos Religiosos, Educativos Sociales) in 1969 to protest discrimination and racism in the institutional Roman Catholic Church and to work toward justice for all Latinos. And Latina Catholic nuns and laywomen formed Las Hermanas in 1971, an activist group dedicated to bringing about change in the church and in broader society.

While Catholicism has historically been the most prominent religio-spiritual system among U.S. Hispanics, Protestant Hispanics have coexisted with their Catholic hermanos y hermanas since the mid-19th century and have made impressive inroads in encroaching upon what was long an exclusively Catholic Hispanic membership.7 Hispanics’ conversions to Protestantism accelerated during 1910–1920 period, during the Mexican Revolution when thousands of Mexicans migrated north and across the West and Midwest. Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist ministers offered messages of hope and redemption that appealed to Mexican men and women who had left their homes and country and who found themselves in a new, often hostile, land.

The number of Latino Protestants has grown exponentially since the 1960s, and recent data confirms that the Assembly of God Pentecostals is the most popular of all Protestant denominations. As Gastón Espinosa has recently shown, the Assemblies of God (AG), one the largest Pentecostal fellowships, has been a denomination within which Latinos have been able to craft a religiosity that for some is deeply infused with political activism. Many Latino Pentecostals, like Latino Catholics, have a rich history of religiously infused activism that challenges a history of colonialism and marginalization. Hispanics worshipped alongside white non-Hispanics and African Americans during the 1906–1909 Azusa Street Revivals in Los Angeles and made their presence known in the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination which formed in the wake of the revivals. As of 2014, U.S. Hispanic Protestants numbered 12.6 million, and the most popular of denominations is Assemblies of God, Pentecostal.8

Other groups of Latinos since the mid-20th century have increasingly turned to non-Catholic cosmologies to help deal with and overcome ethnocentrism and racism. Latino Mennonites, while a smaller group numerically than their Pentecostal counterparts, have found empowerment in the Mennonite tradition since the mid-20th century. The longstanding Mennonite commitment to nonviolence and pacifism has been attractive to Latinos across the United States who, like Latino Pentecostals and Mexican-descent, Cuban, and Puerto Rican Catholics, find a religio-spiritual tradition that emphasizes social justice and liberation theology attractive and life-changing. And like the Mennonite Church, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (LDS, Mormons) are proving to be attractive to Latinos in the United States and throughout Latin America. Mormon cosmogony and cosmology, as outlined in The Book of Mormon, is inclusive of Latinos and the current rise in Latino Mormons is in part due to Mormon acceptance of Latinos and a concerted effort on the part of contemporary Mormons to rectify the racist attitudes of the past. And yet another Christian group that is seeing a steady but slow rise in Latino membership are Jehovah’s Witnesses, another Christian denomination that emphasizes racial oneness in the temporal realm as well as in the afterlife.9 While Roman Catholicism and popular religio-spiritual manifestations and expressions of Catholicism have maintained a steady foothold in U.S. Latino communities, other forms of Christianity have taken hold as well. And in the past ten years, there has been a marked rise in Latino converts to Islam. Pentecostalism, the LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Islam are proving to be appealing to 21st-century U.S. Latinos as they all offer a more communally based leadership, prescriptions for a disciplined and purified life (no alcohol, no pork, modest dress), and clearly prescribed gender roles. Those sects and denominations that are the most rapidly growing in the 21st century offer answers and guidance in this world and assurances that the next world, if one lives a good life on earth, is paradise.

When we look to the eastern part of the United States, Hispanic religious history and the themes of migration and colonization, the mid-20th century was indelibly marked by the massive waves of Puerto Rican migrants who journeyed to New York City between the years 1946 and 1964. The half million men, women, and children who migrated came primarily for economic opportunities. The U.S. commonwealth experienced a severe economic downturn as the sugarcane industry was taken over by U.S. monopolies in the 1920s and 30s. Formerly successful subsistence farmers experienced economic hardship and waves of migration to the United States followed.10 Puerto Ricans’ status in the United States has been marked by historical peculiarity as Puerto Ricans, since the 1917 establishment of Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, have been given a higher status than the majority of immigrants. But, because they are not indigenous to the United States and are members of a commonwealth not a U.S. state, they have not been considered to be full-fledged members of the United States. Thus, Puerto Rican identity in the United States has been betwixt and between—neither full-fledged U.S. citizens nor immigrants.

Puerto Ricans’ journey and reception into the city’s Catholic community was ameliorated by Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status and the institutional church whose members saw their immigration as augmenting the pre-existing Catholic cultures. Yet, like Mexican-descent Catholics in many Midwestern and Southwestern cities, Puerto Ricans were given mixed messages from the archdiocese and broader Catholic and non-Catholic community. Many priests and well as members of New York’s Catholic Church hierarchy were suspicious of the national parish model which promoted ethnic parishes and favored integrated parishes which effectively downplayed ethnic origins and nationalities in favor of an “American” identity. The latter model of parish was seen as ideal because it sped up Americanization and de-emphasized immigrants’ use of their native language and cultural customs.11 While their numbers boosted church membership rolls, their darker hues and popular Catholic practices were not viewed favorably by the city’s non-Hispanic Western European Catholics. When we contextualize priests’ and bishops’ reaction to and reception of Hispanics in their parishes and dioceses, it is important to note that church reception to Hispanics was much more welcoming and inclusive in other parts of the United States. San Antonio’s Archbishop Robert E. Lucey, for example, was a strong advocate for Mexicans in the postwar period (1941–1969) and New York’s Cardinal Spellman during his tenure (1939–1967) emphasized the importance of priests becoming fluent in Spanish. The postwar period marked a shift in attitudes on the part of many U.S. priests as they saw firsthand the mistreatment of Hispanics in broader society and were convinced that a central part of their job was to advocate for social justice for Hispanics.

More than anything, it has been a grassroots blend of popular religiosity of the home, backyard shrines, and communidad that has served as the backbone of faith and endurance for Hispanics. For a colonized people, hybrid religio-spiritual beliefs and practices have been essential in pushing back U.S. ethnocentric and colonialist aims and impulses. Among Hispanics of Mexican descent, for example, Roman Catholic beliefs and practices have coexisted with popular piety since the annexation of the West and Southwest following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Virgin of Guadalupe, what the folklorist Eric Wolf famously called Mexico’s “national Virgin,” has provided encouragement, hope, and strength for Catholics of Mexican descent.12 Guadalupe is continually being reimagined. In many ways she has become a pan-Hispanic Virgin. Her mestiza, bicultural identity as Indian and Spanish—a hybrid ethnic identity of Mexicanidad—is understood by Hispanics who also live in a bi-, even tri- cultural worlds. Guadalupe is a penultimate symbol of a Virgin who has crossed ethnic, racial, and linguistic borders, for she originally appeared to Nahuatl Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 and spoke to him not in the colonizers’ Spanish language but in his language of Nahuatl. Guadalupe is a brown-skinned border crossed whose image and story has given hope, healing, and strength to millions of Hispanic Catholics.13

As the late Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa noted in her groundbreaking book Borderlands/La Frontera and in her many writings, a borderlands existence is one that is experienced by persons of color who have dealt with cultural, geographic, religious, gendered, and ethnic in-betweenness. For Hispanics who live in geographic borderlands such as the U.S.-Mexico border states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), as well as states that may not be on a geographic border with Mexico, but that exist as borderlands states and cities due to increased airline traffic between Hispanics’ home countries and their U.S. homes (Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Miami), their ethnic and religious identities are oftentimes hybrid and flexible due to their travel back and forth from their home countries to their U.S. homes. The numbers of Hispanics in America continues to rise due to migration and birth rates. The percentage of those of Hispanic origin in the United States who were of Mexican background in 2012. Another 9.4 percent were of Puerto Rican background, 3.8 percent Salvadoran, 3.7 percent Cuban, 3.1 percent Dominican, and 2.3 percent Guatemalan. The remainder was of some other Central American, South American, or other Hispanic/Latino origin.14

Public displays and parades featuring la Virgen de Providencia, Our Lady of Divine Providence, were public ways to promote and perpetuate deep devotional ties to the island and local Catholicism and served as powerful alternatives to the white non-Hispanic-dominated Catholic Church of New York City. Mexican Catholic devotions to la Virgen de Guadalupe and Puerto Rican Catholic devotions to la Virgen de Providencia mirrored other Hispanic Catholics’ reverence for the Virgin Mary, and are but two examples of Hispanic Catholic intense cultural and historical devotions to the Virgin Mary. A unifying characteristic of Hispanic Catholics is devotionalism to the Virgin and her son Jesus, and despite the fact that the Catholic Church and its panoply of saints was an intrinsic part of colonialism, Hispanics re-adapted the saints and made them their own. An examination of Hispanics’ devotions to the Virgin Mary reveals a strong undercurrent of liberation theology—a theology of empowerment with a preferential option for the poor. For Catholic Hispanics, the Virgin and her son reign supreme and they believe that they intervene in their lives. And popular, non-Church-sanctioned saints like Santo Niño, Santa Muerte (Saint Death), and Jesús Malverde reign supreme in borderlands spaces, whether on the U.S.-Mexico border, Chicago, Illinois, or in the South where numbers of Latino migrants continues to rise. These are grassroots saints and are embraced by men and women because they are believed to have humble origins like them, and pay attention to everyday needs and concerns like wanting a good marriage, wanting to conceive a child, and wanting to stay safe during journeys across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Puerto Rican women, as with Mexican-descent women, held important leadership roles in their barrios and broader communidad. As mothers, grandmothers, curanderas (curers), parteras (midwives), and madrinas (godmothers), their roles in their families and community were cemented and were infused with Catholicism. Among Hispanics of Mexican descent, curanderismo (folk healing), parteras (midwives) coexisted and overlapped in the Western and Southwestern U.S. borderlands from the mid-19th century to the present. For their part, men led their communities and in the absence of priests, took on leadership roles and aided priests when they were present.15 We find patterns of lay leadership and community-based religious practices when we examine Hispanics throughout the United States. Among Catholic Hispanic groups, home-based and community-based devotions to the Virgin Mary and the saints helped to sanctify and give meaning to everyday existence. And late 19th-century parish-based lay-led sodalities, confraternities, and groups such as the Gudalupanas helped Hispanics maintain a sense of belonging in a country that was oftentimes hostile to their presence on “American” soil.

And when we turn to Cubans’ experiences in the United States, like Mexican-descent and Puerto Rican Catholics and Protestants, Cubans turned to devotions and beliefs that cemented them culturally, ideologically, and historically to each other as well as to their homelands. Like Puerto Rico, Cuba was colonized by the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. While Puerto Ricans have migrated mostly for economic reasons, Cubans have migrated for mostly political reasons—fleeing the island in the 1820s as political exiles to Ybor City, and Tampa, Florida, and later in the 1960s as exiles fleeing Castro’s reign. Anti-Castro Cubans, over 600,000, who fled Cuba were middle- and upper-middle-class elites, and consider themselves exiles who left an oppressive regime. The 124,000 Cubans who came to the United States in 1980 were not as welcome as the earlier waves of exiles. These Cubans were poor, considered “deviants” by U.S. officials, and many were placed in detention centers. From 1959 to the late 1960s, lay Catholic Cubans and priests came to Florida in droves and were embraced by the Catholic Church in Florida, whose priests reached out to aid them in their adopted land. It is important to note that Cubans were the only Hispanics to migrate to the United States accompanied by their priests. And, as anti-communists who were protesting Castro’s brand of politics, they were welcomed by a broader U.S. society that was deeply anti-communist and responsive to these particular Hispanics. As a diasporic people, Cubans were distinctive from other Hispanic, Latino groups in the United States in that they claimed an exilic identity; and this identity was encouraged and embraced by the Catholic Church and larger U.S. society and culture. A strong political identity of anticommunism informed a religious identity of Catholicism, and devotions to the hugely popular Virgen del Cobre, Our Lady of Charity, were politicized and nationalized. Our Lady of Charity’s national shrine was a center of national, religious, and political pride. Like Puerto Rican and Mexican Catholics, Cuban Catholics maintained a distinctive ethnic and national identity in the United States and drew upon their religio-spiritual traditions to give them strength in what could be an alien country. And as with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, Cubans drew upon a hybrid of official church religion and grassroots popular spiritual traditions and practices. The hybrid cosmology of santería, a West African–based religio-spirituality of healing and wellness has remained popular across the Caribbean and Latin America. Santería is practiced alongside Catholicism in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and in Mexico, and santeros are laymen and women who practice traditional healing arts using herbs and other medicinals. Like curanderismo, santería offers outlets for healing and wellness that are based in communities and power resides in the hands of local practitioners.

Fe, Familia, and Communidad: Trifecta of Empowerment

When we comparatively analyze the experiences of Hispanics in the United States, we find that they share experiences of colonization and suffering as well as empowerment through religio-spiritual traditions. And these traditions were and are a blend of popular as well as official (“church”) religiosity. Among U.S. Hispanics, a trifecta of faith, family, and community gave Hispanic women, men, and children the strength to endure and persevere in the United States. Faith, family, and community came together in an auspicious way in the Cursillo de Cristianidad movement, or Cursillo movement, for short. The three-day Cursillos came to the United States from Mallorca, Spain, in 1957 and quickly spread across the West, Midwest, and East. These weekend religious retreats were popularized by Mexican-descent Catholics who were drawn to the weekend’s emphasis on personal piety, spiritual rebirth, and the formation of community. The three days of Cursillo was to be followed by the “fourth day” which was understood by cursillistas, those who made their Cursillo, to mean “the rest of their lives.” The Spanish-speaking Cursillo movement has remained a bastion of hope and strength for Latinos who wish to preserve and maintain linguistic and religious distinctiveness. Latinos belong to both the Spanish-speaking movement and the parallel but distinctive English-speaking movement and are drawn to the movements for the personal and communal empowerment it gives them.

The Cursillo movement’s U.S. history is an excellent case study that illustrates the way in which a grassroots Iberian spirituality migrated to the United States in the late 1950s and was subsequently spread across the fifty states by lay Catholics as well as clergy. U.S. Latinos were instrumental in the movement of Cursillos among Catholics and Protestants alike. What is so fascinating about the Cursillo movement is that it highlights the ways that Latinos and non-Latinos worked together to spread grassroots Christianity. And because there are Catholic as well as Protestant Christian versions of Cursillos, it is historically accurate to claim that Latinos continue to play an integral and instrumental role in spreading a lay-centered spiritual encounter with Christ. What continues to attract Latinos to religio-spiritual movements like Cursillo is their rootedness in laity. Cursillo weekends, while they involve priests and work closely with clergy, are fundamentally lay-centered and run. The Cursillo movement is one that has encouraged community-building as well as individual spiritual growth among Hispanics, both Catholic and Protestant.

When we turn from a historical to a more contemporary look at Hispanics’ religio-spiritualities in the 21st century, Hispanics continue to be empowered by religiously-infused rituals and symbols which have given them hope to persevere in what has been an oftentimes hostile country for them in which to live.

Non-Textual Materials

Delgado, Monica and Michael Van Wagonen, dir. Mundo Milagroso (Documentary film, 1995).

Franklin, Carl, dir. Bless Me, Ultima (Feature-length movie, Gran Via production, Monarch Pictures, 2013).

Lopez, Alma. I Love Lupe (Documentary film).

Luna, Diego, dir. César Chávez: History is Made One Step at a Time (Feature-length film, Participant Media, 2014).

Muños, Susana Blaustein and Lourdes Portillo, dir. La Ofrenda (Documentary film, 1989).

Nava, Gregory, dir. Mi Familia (Feature-length movie, New Line Cinema, 1995).

Reedy Solano, Jeanette. La Bajada: El Divino Salvador del Mundo (Documentary film, 2005).

Further Reading

  • Abalos, David. Latinos in the United States: The Sacred and the Political. 2d ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
  • Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1994.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3d ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
  • Brandes, Stanley. Skulls to the Living, Dead to the Bread: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Camacho, Alicia Schmidt. Migrant Imaginaries. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
  • Cantú, Norma Elia. Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la frontera. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
  • Chestnut, Andrew. Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • De Genova, Nicholas, and Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas. Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • De La Torre, Miguel. Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
  • Delgadillo, Theresa. Spiritual Mestizaje: Religion, Gender, Race, and Nation in Contemporary Chicana Narrative. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Dolan, Jay P. Puerto Rican and Cuban Catholics in the U.S., 1900–1965. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.
  • Dolan, Jay P., and Allen Figueroa Deck, S.J., eds. Hispanic Catholic Culture in the U.S.: Issues and Concerns. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
  • Dolan, Jay P., and Gilberto M. Hinojosa, eds. Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church, 1900–1965. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
  • Elizondo, Virgilio. Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005.
  • Espinosa, Gastón. Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism, and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Espinoza, Gastón. Latino Politics in America: Faith and Politics in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Espinosa, Gastón, Virgilio Elizondo, and Jesse Miranda. Latino Religions and Civic Activism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Flores, Edward Orozco. God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity, and Gang Recovery. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
  • Galvez, Alyshia. Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and Struggle for Citizen Rights Among Mexican Immigrants. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
  • García, Mario T. Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
  • Gaspar de Alva, Alicia, and Alma López, eds. Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s “Irreverent Apparition.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
  • Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Penguin, 2011.
  • Hendrickson, Brett. Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
  • Hinojosa, Felipe. Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
  • Howarth, Sam, and Enrique R. Lamadrid. Pilgrimage to Chimayó: Contemporary Portrait of a Living Tradition. Albuquerque: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  • Isasi-Díaz, Ana María. Oxcart Catholicism on 5th Avenue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
  • León, Luis. Llorona’s Children: Religion, Life and Death in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
  • León, Luis. The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
  • Martin, Desirée A. Borderlands Saints: Secular Sanctity in Chicana/o and Mexican Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
  • Martínez, Richard Edward. PADRES: The National Chicano Priest Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
  • Matovina, Timothy, ed. Horizons of the Sacred: Mexican Traditions in U.S. Catholicism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Matovina, Timothy. Guadalupe and Her Faithful: Latino Catholics in San Antonio, From Colonial Origins to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  • Matovina, Timothy. Latino Catholicism: Transformation of America’s Largest Church. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Nabhan-Warren, Kristy. The Virgin of El Barrio: Marian Apparitions, Catholic Evangelizing, and Mexican American Activism. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
  • Nabhan-Warren, Kristy. The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Peña, Elaine. Performing Piety: Making Space Sacred With the Virgin of Guadalupe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
  • Pérez, Laura E. Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Alterities. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Poyo, Gerald E. Cuban Catholics in the United States: 1960–1980, Exile and Integration. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
  • Sanchez Walsh, Arlene. Latin Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • Sklar, Deidre. Dancing With the Virgin: Body and Faith in the Fiesta of Tortugas, New Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Spitta, Silvia. “GuadalupeNation: Disappearing Objects, National Narratives,” in Misplaced Objects: Migrating Collections and Recollections in Europe and the Americas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
  • Spitta, Silvia. “Guadalupe’s Wheels: Runaway Image, Undocumented Border Crosser, Miracle Worker,” in Misplaced Objects: Migrating Collections and Recollections in Europe and the Americas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Van Wagonen, Monica Delgado. “Iconotheophany,” in vol. 1, Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions, ed. María Herrera-Sobek. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
  • Vasquez, Manuel, and Marie Marquardt. Globalizing the Sacred: Religion Across the Americas. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
  • Zavella, Patricia. I’m Neither Here Nor There: Mexicans Quotidian Struggles With Migration and Poverty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.


  • 1. In this article I will refer to Hispanic religions and spiritualities sometimes simultaneously, sometimes as hyphenated as religio-spiritualities to indicate the complexity and hybridity of religious beliefs and practices among U.S. Hispanics. I will use the terms religion, spirituality, and religio-spiritualities interchangeably in this article.

  • 2. For an excellent history of the United States’ historically contested relationship with Mexican immigrants see David Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexicans and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). See also George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

  • 3. David J. Weber, Foreigners in Their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973, 2003), 140.

  • 4. See Timothy Matovina, Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), especially chapter 1, “Remapping American Catholicism,” 1–41.

  • 5. For a clear account of Chimayó’s origins, see the site’s official website.

  • 6. Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 12.

  • 7. Juan Francisco Martinez, Sea La Luz: The Making of Mexican Protestantism in the American Southwest, 1829–1900 (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2006); and Juan Francisco Martínez Jr., Los Protestantes: An Introduction to Latino Protestantism in the United States (New York: Praeger, 2011).

  • 8. Gastón Espinoza, Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

  • 9. See Edwin David Aponte, ¡Santo!: Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality (New York: Orbis, 2012), esp. 43–45.

  • 10. See Ana María Díaz-Stevens, Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue: The Impact of Puerto Rican Migration on the Archdiocese of New York (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).

  • 11. Jaime Vidal, Puerto Rican and Cuban Catholics in the U.S., 1900–1965 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 79. See also José Calderón, “‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’: The Viability of Categories for Pan-Ethnic Unity,” Latin American Perspectives 19.4 (Autumn 1992): 37–44, esp. 38.

  • 12. Eric R. Wolf, “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol,” The Journal of American Folklore 71.279 (January–March 1958): 34–39.

  • 13. For two excellent academic books on the Virgin of Guadalupe see: D. A. Brading, Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe Across Five Centuries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); and Jeanette Favrot Peterson, Visualizing Guadalupe: From Black Madonna to Queen of the Americas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

  • 14. Hispanic Americans By the Numbers. U.S. Census Bureau, Infoplease.

  • 15. Jay P. Dolan, ed. Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church, 1900–1965 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).