Religious Folklore:
An Everyday Mexican-American Experience

Joshua Steiner
Folklore 530
Dr. Ruth Olson
02 May 2004

From the Middle Ages through the 19th century, the inhabitants of Western Europe held a strong fascination with the exotic empire that had existed in Eastern Europe for centuries.  Many fanciful tales arose of magicians, and foreigners who would arrive in the empire from far off lands to trade spices and rare goods there.  The city of Istanbul had, by the 19th century, reached almost fabled proportions among Europeans, who found it difficult to understand the traditions of these people on the very Eastern edge of Europe.  There were stories of the strange religious practices which existed there - the men that wore cloaks on their heads, and the veiled women.  A different culture so close, but strangely so far away. 

An ocean and a few hundred years away, this same dynamic exists within the United States of America – so many different people from so many different places all congealing in one country – so close, but strangely so far away.  There is an old Mexican saying, “Space does not separate people so much as culture.” [1]   Mexican-American culture is in many ways separated from mainstream American culture (due to language and cultural differences, etc.), but they - more than any other group - seem to have found a place to flourish within the United States.  Soon to be the largest non-Caucasian population within U.S. borders, Mexican-Americans are a proud people, with a rich heritage steeped in lore and the fables of the ancient Aztec peoples from whom they draw their heritage.  Though it would be impossible in such a short space to describe an entire people, there is a certain aspect of Mexican-American life which I have had occasion to experience which may help to provide a snapshot of who these people are - their religious folklore. 

Let me place you in time.  While Istanbul was thriving as the European fabled city in the late 15th century, the Aztec peoples were inhabiting what we now call Mexico.  Their religion was one carved into stone temples, and changed by each new leader that took power, to benefit whatever suited their desires as ruler.  We know that Aztec religious practice changed often from inscriptions discovered on Aztec temples which archaeologists have found to be repeatedly scraped away in many cases, with new carvings put where the old ones used to be.  The Aztec religion was, it seems, very fluid.  However, in the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish Conquistadors conquered the land of Mexico, and thereafter introduced the Mexicans to Catholicism; by so doing, they forever changed the course of Mexican history.  Five hundred years later, most Mexican-Americans (over 80%) still practice Catholicism. [2]  

The religious experience of Mexican-Americans as a whole, however, has changed so much more than traditional Catholicism, that the religious experience of a European-heritage Catholic is much different than that of a Mexican-American Catholic.  This has primarily to do with how Mexican-Americans hold their religious experience to be a very personal thing, and how as a result they feel free to change the experience to suit their desires.  “Latinos often take the supernatural for granted.  As they see it, there is a world beyond what people call the ‘real world.’  Because of this attitude, Latinos interpret religious experiences in a very personal way, often throwing in their own interpretations.” [3]   They tend to look at their religious experience as structured in Catholicism, but not so much determined by it.  They have a strong belief that there is a “spirit world,” where the spirits can only be controlled by man via offerings. Interestingly, this is much like the Aztec religion was very focused on ritualistic sacrifice of human life to appease the gods.  In fact, this is a theme that is often seen running through the Mexican-American religious experience – the mixing of ancient ideas of offering to a spirit or a saint in hopes of currying favor in the physical world, and traditional Catholic rites, such as Communion.             

Francisco Rangel recalled how his family in San Antonio would light candles at their home’s shrine as a way of asking for God’s favor:

            Once a week, we would gather around the shrine in our living room.  It
            was a depiction of Mary at the feet of Christ.  We would light the candles
            and say a prayer for protection . . .when my grandfather was dying, we
            would ask for Jesus to send a saint to protect my grandfather from harm [4]

The rituals that are created seem to take whatever is the accepted religious practice, and build further traditions onto it.  If it fits in with their view of the world, and what religion means to them, Mexican-Americans are ok with starting a new tradition.  “Milagros” are small trinkets imbued with symbolic meaning which “many Mexican-Americans [fashion themselves and then] place on statues in their own household shrines,” according to Eileen Oktavec. [5] Noting how personal these shrines tend to be in many cases, Figueredo notes that “many Catholic Latinos . . .build shrines in their homes – usually in the bedroom – to the saint.” [6] Oktavec describes how “most household shrines are for family use, but if prayers are answered, and word of the “miracles” gets out, friends and neighbors may ask if they, too, may pray and leave offerings at the shrine.” [7]   Milagros are mainly used by Mexican-Americans in the Southwest United States, whereas my research was done in the Midwest, so though I have no experience seeing them in person, they can be quite intricate.  One statue of Jesus in a home had been strung all about with tens of milagros that were actually individual pairs of eyes!  It was a way of symbolizing the statement of “see my good deeds, and let me enter the gates of heaven.” [8]   Again, the idea of petitioning to the spirits, or to God, is very important.  And if getting a response from the spiritual world takes putting a milagro on a neighbor’s shrine, they will do just that!  Figueredo put it best by saying, “Most Latinos feel a harmonious relation with the supernatural, a relation that is channeled through participation in organized religion or informal spiritual endeavors” [9] (such as shrine building and petitioning the saints with milagros).

Francisco Rangel shrine

A shrine in the home of Francisco Rangel

It is not only the intensely personal religious experience that affects how quickly Mexican-American religious folklore evolves, but it is also the fact that in Mexican-American culture, historic lore tends to mix very cleanly with religious lore to create ever-newer rituals.  The most dramatic and long-lasting of these examples is the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Griffith tells it best: he describes her as “. . . the most popular religious figure of the entire Mexican and Mexican-American world.  She is the Protectress of the Mexicans, Queen of the Americas – the Virgin Mary as she appeared just outside Mexico City to an Indian named Juan Diego.” [10]   Olga Estrada, a neighbor of Francisco Rangel’s, described the story – in 1531, when Juan Diego was passing the hill of Tepeyac [which by the way, was a sacred hill to the Aztecs as well, illustrating how Mexican religious lore has been mixed over time], a lady appeared to Juan and told him to go into the city and ask the Bishop there to build a church on the very spot where she was standing.  So Juan went to ask the Bishop, who promptly denied him.  After two unsuccessful tries at the same task, Juan returned to the Virgin on the hill, who told him to gather all the roses from the hill into his coat and drop the roses at the Bishop’s feet.  Juan did so – and when the roses dropped from Juan’s coat, an image of the Virgin on the hill appeared within Juan’s coat, confirming that the Virgin had appeared to Juan as he was insisting.  Interestingly, as the story goes, it took Juan three tries to get the Bishop to believe the Virgin had appeared to him.  There is a modern Mexican saying “La tercera es la vencida”, which when translated means “The third time is when you will succeed.” [11]

Mexican-American folklore is steeped in these kinds of examples where religious beliefs are influenced not only by religious doctrines, but even more so the history of the Mexican peoples themselves.  Isn’t it interesting that the story of the Lady of Guadalupe appearing to Juan in 1531 was only about ten years after the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World, introducing the Mexican people to Christianity? It is also not very surprising that Catholicism gained and continues to have such a strong foothold in the belief system of the Mexican-Americans.  According to Figueredo, only three hundred years after the Conquistadors landed in Mexico, the Catholic Church owned almost half of the land in all of Mexico! [12] Religion and history collide in Mexican-American lore.

Yet another type of very personal folklore is based on a very strong belief that Mexican-Americans hold about religious items having a very real ability to protect people living in the physical world.  Francisco Rangel called them, “gifts his mother gave to him and asked him to put in his car.”  I asked Francisco whether or not he truly believed any item in his car could actually protect him, at which point he told me how at first, he didn’t believe it.  But now, after such a long time of having the item in his car, he would almost feel unsafe without it!  He said he believed that people could be protected from the spiritual world, and at this point - since he has remained safe, he wouldn’t part with the item.  A picture of the item appears below – Francisco has had the item in his vehicle for over ten years to provide him with protection. 

Jesus disc Mexican prayer

Francisco Rangel keeps this item in his vehicle for physical protection.  On the front is a likeness of Jesus, and on the back is a Mexican prayer for protection.

Laura Rangel summed up her feelings about the items used in her vehicle for protection: “I think they can protect me.  My grandmother gave me that card to put in my car, and I have always had it there.”  She keeps a card in her vehicle with a picture of the baby Jesus.  In Spanish, it says “Jesus – the friend that never fails.”

Protective cards

Laura Rangel uses this card for protection in her vehicle.  Notice the picture of her favorite nephew right next to it.  Mexican-Americans often mix their religious beliefs with their own personal items to create a new version of lore.  This is one reason why Mexican-American folklore changes so quickly.

 Not only are there items for protection in the vehicle, but there are also miscellaneous items that families put up for protection wherever they are – at work, at home, wherever time is spent.  Take, for example, the cross made out of reeds that the Rangel family has posted up above their kitchen doorway.  Or the mirror with the angel figure placed above a child’s bed, all items used for protection.

Reed cross

Cross made of reeds to protect the Rangel household.

Child's mirror

Mirror placed above a child’s bed for protection.  Notice the angel figure with its arms outstretched, ready to save the child.

The items I have been describing are primarily not for public display.  Most are very personal, existing in the homes of people where they can give tribute as they personally like to - asking the saints or Christ for assistance, or relying on the item for protection.  However, there are other more visual items of religious folklore as well.  Outside of their churches, Mexican-Americans often create expressions of their faith for open public display.  From what I have been told, these items are often built right into the church itself.  In other words, religious folklore has a place right alongside the formal doctrine of Mexican-American churches, as in this example of a grotto built right into the side of St.Anthony’s Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Shrine at St. Anthony's

Shrine built into St.Anthony’s Catholic Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

St. Anthony's:close-up

Close-up view of the St. Anthony’s shrine, with religious figures in bronze inside.

There are even outdoor shrines that play a central role in the Mexican-American community by both supporting religious beliefs and reinforcing the history of the Mexican culture.  One evening, Francisco Rangel described to me how one of his grandsons attends a Mexican-American school.  Across the street from that school is a shrine set up to honor none other than Our Lady of Guadalupe – the Virgin Mary that appeared in 1513 and is considered the Protectress of all Mexicans.  Francisco went on at great length about how the shrine was good for the children – it not only protected the school, as he saw it, but it also was used by the teachers as a tool for teaching the students about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a springboard into teaching them about Mexican history. 

Our Lady of Guadelupe

Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Notice the altar in front of the shrine. It is deeply engrained in Mexican-American culture that either honoring a saint, or the receiving of protection comes only after a gift is given.  Note also the paper crafts the children made to honor the Lady.  The crafts were left hanging on the shrine both to honor the Lady and ask for her protection.

Our Lady

A close-up of the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine.  Notice the traditional Mexican tile work and the crafts given by the children to honor the Lady.

Our Lady's Plaque

Plaque next to the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine explaining its history

To Mexican-Americans, religion is not something to be put in a box, to be clearly defined.  It is a belief system that one seeks to lead their life by.  The system is flexible - the core beliefs remain the same, but the way they go about exercising those core beliefs changes over time.  Their history is woven into their beliefs, so their religious folklore can be thought of as dual-sided: it is at once both religious and historic in nature, but nonetheless it is always focused on reinforcing the spirituality of the participants - by bringing them closer to the spiritual world and making them feel safe.  The more public items of religious folklore not only remind Mexican-Americans of their spiritual foundations, but also act as a sort of repository for their history as a people.  Though it cannot be easily defined, there can be no doubt that religious folklore plays a vital role in both the past and the future of the Mexican-American peoples. 



Notes

[1] Ballestreros, Octavio A. Ed.D. and Maria del Carmen M.Ed.  Mexican Sayings: The Treasure of a People. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1992: 44.

[2] Figueredo, D.H. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Latino History & Culture. Alpha (A Pearson Education Company), 2002: 161.

[3] Figueredo, 172.

[4] Rangel, translated by his daughter Laura. 

[5] Oktavec, Eileen. Answered Prayers: Miracles & Milagros Along The Border. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1995: 51.

[6] Figueredo, 172.

[7] Oktavec, 51.

[8] Picture was present in Oktavec, Eileen’s Answered Prayers: Miracles & Milagros along the border.

[9] Figueredo, 162.

[10] Griffith, James S. Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1992.

[11] Ballestreros, 47.

[12] Figueredo, 162.

Bibliography

Ballestreros, Octavio A. Ed.D. and Maria del Carmen M.Ed.  Mexican Sayings: The Treasure of a People. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1992.

Estrada, Olga. Informal interviews, March 2004.

Figueredo, D.H. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Latino History & Culture. Alpha (A Pearson Education Company), 2002.

Griffith, James S. Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1992.

Oktavec, Eileen. Answered Prayers: Miracles & Milagros Along The Border.Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1995.                       

Oring, Elliot. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1986.

Rangel, Francisco. Informal interviews, March 2004.

Rangel, Laura. Informal interviews, March 2004.