This is now sliding into being old news, but the Pope visited Mexico last week. Richard Grabman wrote an excellent post on the visit, news coverage of it, and Mexican Catholics at http://mexfiles.net/2012/03/25/pope-porri/
I am going to expand a bit on the nature of Catholicism in Mexico because I think when people say things like Mexico is such a Catholic country they have in mind images from the movie Zorba the Greek where older women run around, dressed in black from head to toe; where women have ten children, where the churches are filled, where gloom predominates.
As Richard points out, the Catholic Church in Mexico was and is anything but homogeneous. I can add just a few details.
That Mexico, before it was known as Mexico, before it had ever heard of Catholicism, had a long, rich, crowded history cannot be stressed too much. And the longer and deeper archaeologists and historians explore, the more the truth of this becomes evident. Obviously this long, rich pre-Hispanic history was not Catholic history. The Spaniards came upon a world filled with people of different, highly developed, often somewhat related ethnicities, languages, architecture, governments, arts, trade, warfare and religions. The imposition of Catholicism on Mexico and the rest of Latin America is not a simple story partly because there were so many different circumstances, from local people who allied with the Spanish because they wanted to get the Aztecs off their backs to Conquistadors and church people who were unbelievably brutal in defeating local states and in instituting Catholicism. Individuals were important: from friars who were champions of the indigenous to those who cruelly abused them. The Inquisition existed in Mexico, too. The results were and are kaleidoscopic.
So as Richard points out, the Catholicism of Mexico is syncretic: it is a mix of what was here and what the Spaniards brought. Not surprisingly, the most Catholic Catholics were the Spanish settlers, the rich Spaniards who were landowners and city dwellers during the colonial era. In the San Antonio Museum of Art’s Mexican wing, there is (or at least was) a gallery devoted to the art of this period that hung in the houses and haciendas of the rich. It is, if I remember correctly, a longish, dark gallery with dark walls in startling contrast to most of the rest of the Mexican art in the wing. Still today, you can peak in big old mansions in Coatepec and Xico and see heavy overstuffed furniture covered with brocade and woodwork polished to a mirror-like sheens; you can see elderly ladies sitting and drinking maybe coffee with fuzzy little white dogs at their feet.
The rich weren’t all pure Spanish. Hernan Cortez himself had heirs from his union with La Malinche who themselves had heirs who fought over possession of large amounts of land. Many conquistadors were happy to marry the relatives of Moctezuma since they regarded these Aztecs as aristocrats.
I can sense myself going off on a long essay about classes and ethnicity in Mexico so I’m going only to say here that among these groups, the Spaniards, or those from Spain, the Criollos, originally those of pure Spanish blood born in Mexico, and aristocratic indigenous and Spanish mixtures were considered privileged groups – and the only privileged groups. People will quite legitimately be able to argue with me about this. Let’s just say this for now for convenience, though.
These privileged people would be the most traditionally Catholic and would be most closely allied with the formal Catholic hierarchy in Mexico, and to some extent they still are. The alliance wasn’t and isn’t strictly religious. It involves social ties, property and money. The Catholic Church, at one point the biggest landholder in Mexico, and the privileged were tied at the hip (so to speak) by loans and marriages and political alliances. It was a tight group. PAN, the political part currently in control of the national government, is the party of these rich people. I am always amused when US officials seem to think they are speaking to people who represent a large proportion of Mexicans when they deal with President Calderón and members of his party.
I live in a colonia which, as I’ve said, is probably most closely analogous to a blue color town in the US, maybe in upstate New York. People in the US seem to assume that these poorer Mexicans are more Catholic. This is completely wrong. I think a few fireworks went off when the Pope arrived, but nobody even mentioned it. Maybe it was spoken about in church, but few people regularly go to church in our area. What really matter to people as a group are processions and fiestas, often in honor of saints of mixed heritage. And velarias for the dead, held in people’s homes. Interestingly, in our area, holy women appear to be more important that Jesus. The patron saint of our community is La Virgen de Guadalupe; of Xico it is Maria Magdalena. There is another Mary whose title slips my mind as well. These are the figures that dominate the home altars and the capillas. Of course Jesus appears in the churches, often lower than the Virgen, and always as a suffering Jesus, whether dragging his cross on the road to Calvary or hanging from it, a bloodied, tormented figure.
I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that people pray, or talk, to the Marys and to Jesus asking for relief in this world, or comfort, for themselves and their families, not to seek salvation in the next. Heaven doesn’t appear to be too much on their minds. This is not the Catholicism of an angry or stern Catholic hierarchy but of people who know suffering in their lives and turn to their faith for comfort. As I’ve mentioned, my close friend Doña Gloria lit a candle to La Virgen de Guadalupe for my daughter when she had cancer. My daughter and I were very grateful.
Pope Benedict went to the state of Guanajuato which has been called the most conservative state in Mexico by some. By conservative is meant rich and Spanish and Spanish-style Catholic. Lots of people in Guanajuato are quite fair-complected. These are the people who might say they side with the pope on abortion and birth control, though even among the people I knew from this area, few had ten or twelve kids. They are the ones who will be most likely to be vocally anti-gay. But Guanajuato and the adjoining areas are, as I said, not all of Mexico, and the real head of the Mexican church is in Mexico City (he’s no flaming liberal either). But Mexico City is a very open city with legal gay marriage, legal abortion, and BIKE PATHS for heaven´s sake. Not to mention extremely modern art. Its politics are definitely leftish. I’ve mentioned before that Mexico has much stricter laws separating church and state than the US. In Mexico City and much of Mexico, these laws are valued and upheld. In PAN country, though the alliances may be unofficial, PAN and the church are close.
So when you think about Mexico, think of a country that is regarded as a success where birth control is concerned; where the official high school curriculum teaches very complete sex education, where there are processions for somebody every day and fiestas and celebrations, and where the gloom of the old Catholic church isn’t characteristic, even in Guanajuato.