June 4, 2012

Book of the Month:

Gastón Espinosa and Mario T. García, eds., Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism, and Culture.

Review by Brett Hendrickson

Most of the American West used to be Mexico, and Mexican Americans and other Latinos comprise the largest minority group in every continental state west of Kansas City except the Dakotas, Oklahoma, and Montana. It would be an exaggeration to say that the history of Mexican Americans is the history of the American West, but it is impossible to understand the region without considering Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Naturally, Mexican American religions have a tremendous influence on Mexican Americans’ cultural output, sense of self and community, and negotiation of identity in the United States.

This relatively recent volume (2008) adds to a growing wave of scholarship in what one might call “Mexican American lived religions” in that it avoids explicit normative and theological viewpoints as well as religious institutional histories. The editors explain in the introduction that this collection, instead, focuses on “religious sentiments in [Mexican American] literature, art, politics, and pop culture” (4). As a result, most of the essays in the book are extremely fun to read: they are topical, full of illustrations and personal stories, make playful use of theory, and would work easily in an undergraduate seminar.

To say that the essays are fun is not to say that they aren’t serious. An ongoing theme in all scholarly work on Mexican American religion is that religion, for the most part, has aided Mexican Americans in their struggle against prejudice, exclusion, poverty, and marginalization. The most important essay in the volume, “Pious Colonialism: Assessing a Church Paradigm for Chicano Identity” by Anthony Stevens-Arroyo complicates this picture of Mexican American religion and shows that Chicano religious institutions and customs have also had their role in promoting subjugation. However, more typical is the excellent chapter about feminist appropriations of Guadalupe by Socorro Castañeda-Liles, which displays some of the creative and empowering relationships that many Mexican American women have shared with the Virgin.

Indeed, women are everywhere in the book. A chapter by Kay Turner profiles altaristas, women who maintain elaborate home altars (in writing so tender that I teared up at times). Other chapters consider women’s roles in community-based faith dramas, in literature, in art, and in traditional folk medicine. The final chapter in the book, by Gastón Espinosa, is a suggestive exploration of how the murdered pop singer, Selena, is now functioning like a subcultural redemptive force. Another chapter, co-authored by Roberto Lint Sagarena and Davíd Carrasco, is a paean to the poet and activist Gloria Anzaldúa. The editors, without saying a word about it, have demonstrated with their chapter selection and organization that Mexican American women are central actors in Mexican American religion and culture.

What could be better? There are two good chapters on Mexican American Pentecostals, but there could be more here. Likewise, there is no discussion of how Mexican American Catholics and Protestants do or do not relate to each other in public life. A few of the chapters have appeared almost verbatim elsewhere. A couple of the authors probably overstate the ability of religion, art, or literature to overthrow centuries of economic oppression and second-class citizenship (but wouldn’t it be nice to think that what we study has that kind of power?).

But, all in all, this is a strong collection of essays. Like many edited collections, it doesn’t have a clear argumentative arc and therefore could never be used as a stand-alone text in a course on Mexican American religion, much less religion in the American West, but it would be a terrific supplementary reader. And even if you aren’t thinking of using the book as a teaching tool, it is still a great read that will help you fill out your own understanding of the diversity of religion in the American West.

Editor’s note: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Susanna Morrill reviews Patricia O'Connell Killen and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the Northwest: The None Zone (Altamira Press, 2004).

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