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Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History

The first major historical study of the role of Catholicism in Chicano history in the twentieth century.

October 2008
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378 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 b&w illus. |

Chicano Catholicism—both as a popular religion and a foundation for community organizing—has, over the past century, inspired Chicano resistance to external forces of oppression and discrimination including from other non-Mexican Catholics and even the institutionalized church. Chicano Catholics have also used their faith to assert their particular identity and establish a kind of cultural citizenship.

Based exclusively on original research and sources, Mario T. García here offers the first major historical study to explore the various dimensions of the role of Catholicism in Chicano history in the twentieth century. This is also one of the first significant studies in the still limited field of Chicano religious history.

Topics range from how early Chicano Catholic intellectuals and civil rights leaders were influenced by Catholic Social Doctrine, to the role that popular religion has played in the lives of ordinary men and women in both rural and urban areas. García also examines faith-based Chicano community movements like Católicos Por La Raza in the 1960s and the Sanctuary movement in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

While Latino/a history and culture has been, for the most part, inextricably linked with the tenets and practices of Catholicism, there has been very little written, until recently, about Chicano Catholic history. García helps to fill that void and explore the impact—both positive and negative—that the Catholic experience has had on the Chicano community.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. In Search of Chicano Catholic History
  • Chapter One. Fray Angélico Chávez, Religiosity, and New Mexican Oppositional Historical Narrative
  • Chapter Two. Catholic Social Doctrine and Mexican American Political Thought
  • Chapter Three. Recording the Sacred: The Federal Writers’ Project and Hispano-Catholic Traditions in New Mexico, 1935-1939
  • Chapter Four. The U.S. Catholic Church and the Mexican Cultural Question in Wartime America, 1941-1945
  • Chapter Five. Religion in the Chicano Movement: Católicos Por La Raza
  • Chapter Six. Padres: Chicano Community Priests and the Public Arena
  • Chapter Seven. ¡Presente! Father Luis Olivares and the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles: A Study of Faith, Ethnic Identity, and Ecumenism
  • Chapter Eight. Contemporary Catholic Popular Religiosity and U.S. Latinos: Expressions of Faith and Ethnicity
  • Reflections
  • Notes

Mario T. García is Professor of Chicano Studies and History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


While Hispanics [Chicanos] were the first Catholic . . . inhabitants to establish settlements in territories now under U.S. control, for much of U.S. history Hispanics have constituted a relatively . . . overlooked group within U.S. Catholicism.

Timothy Matovina and Gerald Poyo

They can take away everything else from me but not my faith.

Father Virgilio Elizondo

Becoming a Chicano Catholic

As a student at the University of Texas at El Paso (then named Texas Western College) in the early to mid-1960s, I drove my grandmother Nama to 6:30 Mass every Sunday morning. These years coincided with Vatican Council II, but its liturgical reforms had not yet become evident. The council (1962-1965) had been called by Pope John XXIII to revitalize and breathe some fresh air into the Catholic Church. The Mass I took Nama to was a quiet one, with few in attendance, always the same people. Every Sunday we sat in the same pew at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Arizona Avenue, about a mile from our rented house on the same street on Golden Hill with its sweeping vista of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to the south. I could see the border and south to Mexico, where Nama had come from many years before during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

At Mass only the drone of the priest's prayers in Latin could be heard. No homily was preached, so we were out by 7 a.m. We would walk to the car—my mother's, not mine—but before driving home we always stopped at the Mexican bakery, or panadería, on Nevada Street, just a couple of blocks from the church. Invariably we ordered the same Mexican breads with colorful names that I, an acculturated Mexican American, never learned. The teenage girl behind the counter, whom I had a crush on, was the daughter of the owner, and she would give us an extra piece of bread, a pilón, as Nama called it. We then drove home, where my aunt, Tanaca, had breakfast ready while my mother and siblings still slept. Breakfast consisted of fresh flour tortillas that Nama and Tanaca had prepared early in the morning before Mass. Hot tortillas with butter, eggs over easy, a beef patty, hot coffee, and an orange drink called Tang, a powder that you mixed with water, was my big Sunday breakfast. Then, in the cool of the morning in summertime or the bright glare of the winter sun, I would retire to devour the Sunday El Paso Times.

Religion, specifically Catholicism, was always a part of my life. Not a day passed that I wasn't aware of this. It was a Catholicism first planted in the Southwest by Spanish Franciscan friars and over time influenced by both Mexicans and Anglo-Americans (mostly Irish Americans) in a border context. But I wasn't yet aware of all of these historical influences. Awareness would come later, and my education continues to this day.

My family was Catholic but not in a showy, exaggerated way. That wouldn't have been fitting for the Araizas, my mother's family, which saw itself as gente decente, or people properly brought up, and from the better classes that had escaped the Mexican Revolution. My great-grandfather Araiza was a well-to-do landowner in northern Chihuahua and partner to American mining companies. His fate was sealed as a supporter of Francisco Madero, the "Apostle" of Mexican democracy, who raised his banner against the long-standing dictator Porfirio Díaz. My great-grandfather was executed, and his family fled to the border and crossed into El Paso. They left everything but their honor and middle-class Catholic values behind.

We were Catholics, but not barrio Catholics. We weren't part of the barrio experience. My mother, born and raised in El Paso, didn't grow up in the big immigrant barrio, El Segundo Barrio, of south El Paso. Her family rented homes in west and central El Paso. Here, the middle-class political refugees from Mexico settled and lived apart from the lower-class immigrants and workers. The refugees built the Catholic church of La Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family Church, in the Sunset Heights area on the west side, where my mother married my father, who came from the state of Durango, thus bridging the Mexican American experience with the mexicano.

But we were always on the move north of the tracks, where the more aspiring Mexican Americans resided. First on Missouri Street, where I was born, then Yandell Boulevard, then Wyoming Street, and then finally to Arizona Avenue, all in the central part of El Paso.

As a kid, I don't remember particular Catholic images in our various homes. We must have had a crucifix and some holy pictures, but I can't remember any. I think it's because we didn't have too many of these images. My family was religious, but not like the poorer Mexican immigrants with their home icons and popular religious traditions. I think this was how my mother preferred it. She was proud of her ethnic heritage, but as a bicultural and bilingual Mexican American, she also desired American mobility. Appearance was important to her, and she probably didn't want a household that was too Mexican or Catholic Mexican.

I remember, however, the elaborate home altar at the home of my friend and classmate Frank de la Torre. I don't remember if this was Frank's house on Yandell or his grandmother's, but I do remember being there with several other neighborhood kids and being awed by the elaborate nature of the home altar. I don't remember specific images, just the clutter of items on it. It was like having a chapel in the house. I now am more aware that home altars, or altarcitos, big and small, elaborate and simple, are very much a part of Mexican Catholic culture along the border and in the Southwest. Some installation artists such as Amalia Mesa-Bains today have elevated home altars to artistic heights.

I also connected border Catholic culture with older women wearing black. Nama and Tanaca didn't wear black, or at least not often, nor did my mother, but I recall many other women, especially in El Segundo Barrio and around the Catholic churches there such as El Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart Church, always wearing black, including black shawls, and always carrying rosaries in their hands. This darkness mystified me and made those south-side churches with their ornate icons, including darker and more bloody crucified Jesus figures, scary and even threatening to me.

Border and southwestern Catholic culture also prescribed that I attend parochial schools. My mother insisted on it. She had gone to public schools, but she believed, and correctly so, at that time anyway, that the parochial schools provided a better education. So my siblings and I were enrolled in St. Patrick's Elementary School. I remember the images of the Sisters of Loretto who operated and taught in the school. With one or two exceptions, nuns in classic black habits taught every class. Only a small amount of white garment around the rim of the head habit and a bit in the bodice challenged the blackness of the rest of the outfit. The habits seemed heavy and hot, especially for the El Paso climate, which, with the exception of some bitter cold winter weeks, was warm. I can still smell the odor of the habits, noticeable when I drew near one of the nuns. I don't know whether it was the habit or the nun herself, but it smelled of old cloth or an old gunnysack.

I don't recall whether any of these nuns—sisters they're now called—was Mexican American. Perhaps one or two were. The rest were Anglos. I remember some of their names: Sister Charatina, Sister Eugene Marie. They seemed old to me but probably were not. A few looked young and even pretty, though we couldn't see much of their faces.

It was a good education as far as I knew at the time. There was a good spirit about the school. It was a mixed school. Many of us were Mexican Americans, but there were also a good number of Anglos (again, probably Irish Americans). This was the usual pattern in the parochial schools north of the tracks. The schools in south El Paso and east El Paso parishes like Sacred Heart, St. Ignatius, and Guardian Angel had all Mexican Americans.

The other Mexican American kids and I knew mostly Spanish when we entered kindergarten, but we very quickly picked up English. There was no bilingual education at St. Patrick's in the 1950s when I attended, but, unlike the public schools, you were not punished or made to feel bad about speaking Spanish. The sisters were quite strict, but they seemed to care about us.

St. Patrick's under Monsignor Caffrey, with his full head of white hair, was not a "Mexican" parish even though many Mexican Americans attended the church. It was also the official church of Bishop Sidney Metzger, who seemed to reign for years and years. St. Patrick's and the Catholic churches north of the tracks were different from the "Mexican" churches south of the tracks. Our church was more "Anglo." It seemed more airy and roomier than Sacred Heart, for example, which seemed crowded and stifling. Our homilies were in English, while those at Sacred Heart were in Spanish. St. Patrick's was more middle class while Sacred Heart was poor and immigrant.

Yet our whole culture while growing up was very much Catholic. Our education was Catholic, our friends were Catholic, our sports activities were all centered on the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), our social events, such as dances, were all connected to our Catholic school. We lived in a border and southwestern Catholic culture. The metaphor of the border is very appropriate because, like real borders, different influences intersected in what some postcolonial theorists refer to as "contact zones." At St. Patrick's, it was an intersection of our family, Mexican American culture with what I now recognize as largely Irish American culture. St. Patrick may have been an Irish saint, but he was our saint as well and not as San Patricio but as St. Patrick. We proudly wore the green and white of our school athletic uniforms.

When I attended the local Catholic high school, Cathedral High School, just up the street from St. Patrick's, I identified with the school's nickname, the "Irish." Our colors were blue and gold, patterned after the University of Notre Dame, and our school song was the Notre Dame fight song. I'll never forget attending, as a member of the school basketball team, the Texas Catholic High School Basketball Tournament in San Antonio in 1961. Before one of our games, an older Anglo gentleman came up to us and asked us why we called ourselves Irish since we were all Mexican Americans. We didn't know what to say. This was before the Chicano movement. "It's our team name," we told him.

Catholic high school only added to my Catholic experience. The boys—the majority Mexican Americans—attended Cathedral, run by the Christian Brothers, while the girls, including, later, my own sister, attended Loretto High School, run by the Sisters of Loretto. The kids from south El Paso at Cathedral introduced me to Chicano barrio culture, which made me more aware of ethnicity. It wasn't that ethnic identity was not part of our growing up. It was. We knew we were Mexicans. How couldn't we? I spoke only Spanish to Nama and Tanaca, who knew little or no English. They didn't really need to because El Paso was such a predominantly Spanish-speaking city, with even more Mexicans across the border in Juárez. But we saw ourselves as middle-class Mexican Americans.

At Cathedral I learned more about barrio culture from my south El Paso classmates. I first heard the term Chicano, which the barrio students used as a term of identity. I didn't identify fully with Chicano, but the swagger and what seemed to be pride in identifying as Chicano fascinated me. I was impressed by the Elvis-style ducktail hair the Chicanos wore almost like a crown. I tried to comb a ducktail but with little success, probably because my hair was shorter than theirs. My cowlick always bounced back despite the large amount of hair gel I put on. I liked these kids, although I didn't run around with them. They were more barrio and working-class kids, while I was used to more middle-class friends. However, I played sports with some of them. I think this connection, fascination even, with the barrio students because they were different left an unconscious base for my later work as a historian, such as my history of Mexican immigrant El Paso, which focused on the south side and described the ancestors of many of the Chicanos I went to school with at Cathedral. By later studying and writing about this history, I came to appreciate what I didn't know as a middle-class Mexican American high school student from the "right side of the tracks."

Catholicism in El Paso was not just part of family and school life; it also had a public face. I particularly recall the large procession on the feast day of Corpus Christi each June. Because the temperature at this time of the year approaches one hundred degrees during the hottest time of day, the procession began at 5 p.m., when it had cooled off somewhat. I marched in one while in high school. We gathered at the front of St. Patrick's, people covering the front steps and spilling onto Arizona Avenue and Mesa Boulevard. I remember the richly colored robes of the clergy, including those of the bishop. Especially attractive were the elaborate outfits of the Knights of Columbus with their white-plumed hats and their black and red capes. It was, as the kids say now, awesome. We marched down Mesa into the downtown area, stopping to pray at decorated temporary Stations of the Cross or makeshift altars. People came from all of the parishes; some recited the rosary in English and some in Spanish. The procession through the streets of the city stopped all traffic. The later antiwar marches of the 1960s reminded me of these processions. The procession snaked its way into south El Paso, where it seemed to take on an even more Mexican character. It finally ended at Sacred Heart in El Segundo Barrio. By now it was evening, and this gave the ceremony within the already-somber church an even darker appearance. Everything was in Spanish now and more of a Mexican ritual.

I remember going a few times with my family, including my father, to Cristo Rey, a high hill overlooking the El Paso Smelter on one side and Juárez on the other side of the Rio Grande. At the top of the hill was a large cross of the crucified Jesus dedicated to Christ the King, or Cristo Rey. At different times of the year, but I mostly remember summertime, people made pilgrimages up the hill. It was a winding road, and mostly dark-shawled Mexican women prayed the rosary as they went up the hill. Like the Corpus Christi procession, this impressed me probably because of the spectacle of it all.

Visits to the Evergreen Cemetery, going over the bridge to Juárez to visit the cathedral on that side of the border, accompanying Nama when she took my little sister, Alma María, to offer flowers to the Virgin Mary at a small church on the edge of the barrio, all of these and more remain memories of what Catholicism meant to me growing up in El Paso, along the U.S.-Mexican border, and in the Southwest.

My Catholic faith was very much a part of a particular region. It had a southwestern touch. I now appreciate this more, but in a way my earlier work as a historian of the Chicano experience was already leading me in this direction.

Chicanismo and Catholicism

By the time I was in graduate school in the early 1970s at the University of California, San Diego, I wasn't as Catholic as I was when growing up in El Paso. By now I had become a Chicano owing to my involvement with the Chicano movement when I came to California in 1969. "Chicanismo" replaced Catholicism as my faith. It seemed more relevant to my life then. But I was still culturally a Catholic. I couldn't escape my Catholic upbringing.

As I look back on this highly politicized period in my life, I think my concern for issues of social justice, civil rights, human rights, and respect for people of all backgrounds had its origins in my Catholic background. I didn't become a Chicano out of thin air. My progressive political views were tied in part to my Catholic faith, taught to me by the sisters and brothers. I can't pinpoint any specific doctrine or biblical teachings that constitutes this influence. It was just a general sense that we were all people of God and that God did not support such things as racism and discrimination. Growing up during the civil rights era, I sensed in my high school years that what that movement stood for was the right thing and that as Catholics we should support it.

I remember watching on television as a sophomore in college Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963 and being moved by his stirring words. I think my reaction had to do with my own ethnic background as a Mexican American. In the early 1960s, I certainly wasn't politically conscious in ethnic terms, but I believe that part of my positive response to the black civil rights movement had to do with identifying with the underdogs. In my town, Mexican Americans were the underdogs. Growing up along the border, you couldn't help but distinguish between Anglos and Mexican Americans. Even though we had a Mexican American mayor, Raymond Telles, whose biography I would later write, most of the faces in the newspapers and on television, especially those representing business, civic, and social circles, were predominantly Anglos. The annual Sun Carnival Pageant over the Christmas holidays always had an Anglo queen and mostly Anglo princesses, the exception being the representative from Juárez across the border. I always thought this a bit strange since Anglos were a minority in El Paso.

I think that whatever political and even intellectual ideas I had then were shaped by my Catholicism and by being Mexican American in a border context. The Mexican part was intuitive and emotional, the Catholic, cerebral and intellectual. These two characteristics gave me the foundation on which I built my later conscious politics when I became part of the Chicano movement in the late 1960s and after I moved from El Paso to California.

This move influenced my ethnic identity as a Chicano—a term that I now embraced. I rethought my identity and took on a more radical, militant attitude concerning ethnic identity and prejudice. But my conversion to Chicanismo wasn't as big a leap as I might have considered it at the time. During much of the 1960s, I saw myself as a liberal Democrat. I supported not only civil rights, but also liberal reforms such as the War on Poverty, and gradually became more skeptical of the Vietnam War. In retrospect, I don't think it was such a huge change to go from liberalism to radical Chicano movement politics that stood for Chicanos not being ashamed of their ethnic background and for pushing more militantly for civil rights and equal opportunities.

As I became a Chicano radical, however, I also became less of a practicing Catholic. Chicanismo, or what was called cultural nationalism, absorbed my intensity and interest. I remember in the fall of 1969, shortly after arriving in California as an instructor of history at San Jose State College (later University), attending Mass in a downtown San Jose church and thinking how irrelevant the priest's homily now that I had been stirred by movement rhetoric and the excitement of participating in marches and demonstrations. My public Catholicism began to wane. During the next two decades, I attended Mass and other religious services only occasionally. These were my radical Marxist years, when I combined being a Chicano—in a political sense—with being a Marxist and joining the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party.

I wasn't a public Catholic, but I believe my earlier Catholic ideals still complemented my new secular ones. From a certain cultural and psychological perspective, my Catholic school formation was still very much a part of me. This included a sense of discipline, respect for others, and a certain proper behavior (which often conflicted with radical politics). I didn't completely abandon the Church. I suppose if asked then what my religion was, I would have still answered, "Catholic." I was a "cultural Catholic," to use Andrew Greeley's term. When I got married in 1979, I knew I wanted a Catholic ceremony. My wife, whom I met in graduate school, is also Catholic, although of Irish-Italian background. It's possible that we found much in common because of our similar Catholic upbringing, including attending parochial schools. In fact, my wife had done me one better. She had attended a Catholic college, graduating from Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution. Because of her Santa Clara affiliation, we were married in the beautiful Santa Clara Mission. I had no problem with this. I was still a Catholic.

History and Liberation Theology

But what does all of this have to do with my career as a historian? Historians and other scholars bring to their disciplines a whole baggage of cultural, social, political, ideological formation. What they chose to study is more than an intellectual and scholarly interest. They study in part based on who they are. Writing history is also autobiographical. "The storyteller is often as important as the story being told," the historian Michael P. Carroll observes. This doesn't mean that as a historian of Catholic background, I chose to work only on Catholic subjects, although, in my case, I am now doing so. But it does mean that one’s personal experiences have a lot to do with one’s research choices. The historian is a product of his or her own history. I agree with Timothy Matovina, one of the leading scholars of Latino religion, when he writes, "Every attempt at scholarly analysis is filtered through the lens of the interpreter's bias and social location."

In my case, I think the combination of my Catholic liberalism, which included accepting the new progressive winds of change brought on by Vatican II, and my political radicalism as a result of my involvement in the Chicano movement affected my research and intellectual interests. I chose to work on Chicano history, but it was a history that, in retrospect, was a liberating history. I was not conscious of liberation theology as it was developing in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Liberation theology endorsed social change, even revolutionary change, and called on the Church to have a "preferential option for the poor." However, when I began my dissertation research, which in 1981 became my book Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920, I chose to focus on poor Mexican immigrant workers. This was, in a way, accepting a preferential option for the poor. It is a history that in a scholarly sense is aimed at uncovering the role of Chicanos in U.S. history, but at another level is also aimed at showing how the discovery or rediscovery of that history (I was in fact rediscovering my own history in El Paso) could likewise be liberating for Chicanos. A significant part of Chicanismo was knowing oneself through a rediscovering of one's roots in pre-Columbian history, in Mexico, and as a Chicano. The truth, or in this case history, would set us free. It would free us from what Carlos Fuentes calls "mental colonization." Chicano history and those of us who researched and wrote it were both scholars and, in a sense, "theologians." Our history had a dual purpose, although it was certainly written in a professional academic style. Still, the histories that my colleagues and I wrote were not written solely for a professional audience, but also for the movement, for Chicanos, our communities, and for advocating La Causa—the cause of freedom and social justice.

This theological involvement with history—this liberating aspect to my writing of Chicano history—was not only, I believe, the result of secular politics. It was part of my Catholic soul. It was my unconscious reflection on the Passion, the crucifixion of Jesus, carrying my cross, and the resurrection that would follow. I may have come from a middle-class Mexican American Catholic background, but my Catholic sensibility and imagination along with my ethnic border position and my later radical politics did not divorce me from the oppression of the poor. Indeed, it made me sympathetic to researching not only the Mexican immigrant poor, but also the Mexican American middle class (see my Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology and Identity, 1930-1960) because I knew, having been raised in a struggling middle-class household, that to be middle class and Mexican American also meant experiencing degrees of discrimination, injustice, exclusion, and being treated as a "stranger." When I chose to write about the civil rights and labor rights struggles of what I call the Mexican American Generation between the 1930s and 1960s, I again was continuing that liberationist tendency. To be a Catholic, a Chicano Catholic, along the U.S.-Mexico border and in the Southwest is to be an underdog—what the great novelist of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mariano Azuela, referred to as "los de abajo."

This emphasis on liberation extends to some of my other works. In my oral history, or testimonio, of Bert Corona, a major Chicano labor and civil rights leader (Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona), I focused on Corona's long history of giving his life, almost in a sacrificial way, to empowering poor and oppressed Chicanos. In my edited volume on Ruben Salazar, a leading Mexican American journalist who championed the rights of Mexican Americans (Ruben Salazar, Border Correspondent: Selected Writings, 1955-1970), I stressed not only Salazar's writings on the impact of discrimination and exclusion on Mexican Americans, but how Salazar supported the Chicano movement for liberation. And in the coming-of-age story I coauthored with Frances Esquibel Tywoniak—the tale of a young Mexican American girl in the 1940s in the San Joaquin Valley (Migrant Daughter: Coming of Age as Mexican American Woman)—we highlighted a daughter of migrant parents who struggled to make something of herself through education and who went on to dedicate herself, almost in a missionary sense, to teach the children of poor Latino families.

All of these texts have to do with the concept of liberation. They do not ostensibly focus on Catholic themes; however, they are guided, in my opinion, by my ingrained Catholic faith and sensitivity to the marginalized. Not all of this has to do, of course, with just Catholicism. The Chicano movement resonates in my research as well. But the liberationist character of these studies is the product of more than sectarian political influences. I believe there is also a certain spirituality to them that speaks to my own faith background.

Yes, I know some will say, "He's really straining here to make the Catholic connection, and he's reading back what might have not been there at all." This is a reasonable response. I am reading back. But in so doing, I truly believe there is a religious and certainly moral influence in my early work as a historian that in part has to do with my Catholic background.


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