Hispanic, Atheist, American, Me

Women in Secularism 2 was an amazing event, and one whose various liveblogs I encourage people to read.  The talks and panels were fantastic, despite being bookended by obnoxiously wrongheaded attacks on the conference’s very premise.  Short review: would do again.  And not just because fellow attendees and bloggers Kate Donovan, Jason Thibeault, Miri Mogilevsky, PZ Myers, and Ashley Miller kept the atmosphere awesome throughout.

Some things that were said, in particular by CFI-Transnational Director for Outreach Debbie Goddard, got me thinking.  It’s no secret these days that organized atheism’s roots in predominantly white, male, well-educated circles has often made it tone-deaf to the different experiences, priorities, and demands of people outside those groups.  It’s also no secret that some of these “outsiders” have far more to gain from abandoning religion than Western atheism’s white, male, well-educated old guard ever did or hopefully ever will.

Which brings me to the Sarlaac pit of contradictions that is being a Hispanic-American atheist.

The short answer is, all of those words matter.  As if I hadn’t already made that excruciatingly clear.

Hispanic-Americans are, by and large, a Catholic culture.  Even in the parts of the Hispanic cultural landscape where religion has shrunk in importance or been replaced with growing Mormon and evangelical groups, the imagery surrounding Hispanic-ness is unmistakably Catholic.  It’s a cliché that we wear gaudy cross necklaces, have rosaries hanging from our rear-view mirrors next to labeled flags, and keep tiny shrines to various usually-Hispanic saints in our homes, cars, and workplaces.  None of this is compatible with the practices that make Protestantism distinct from Catholicism, and a great deal of it (such as Mexican Día de los muertos skulls) is arguably not even Christian.  And then there’s Santería.

But Hispanic America is an ENORMOUS and long-standing community, even if we confine our examination to Hispanic people inside the United States.  A hint of just how much of the world Hispanic people cover: our extended homeland is from Oregon to Antarctica.  A hint of how long we’ve been here: the Mexican vaqueros who became Americans when the US annexed more than half of Mexico’s territory in 1848are the reason why cowboys call people “hombre” and wield lassos (lazos in Spanish).  For all that Catholicism is second only to the Spanish language itself as the most obvious signifier of Hispanic culture, and for all that the recent spate of conversions from Catholicism to smaller churches is worth a conversation all its own,  there is a massive diversity in practice throughout Catholic Hispanic culture.  For some, it is an intense, community-defining devotion, involving frequent Mass attendance and the use of one’s local church as the focus of all social functions.  The church bulletin board becomes where people advertise English lessons and each other’s business ventures.  Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation are not just family events, but bring in an extended network of friends known primarily through the Church.  The significance of Christmas is largely replaced with the Epiphany, known here as Día de los Reyes and celebrated in the first week of January.  Presents are delivered by the three Magi or by the baby Jesus, with the Germanic pagan tradition of Santa Claus merely tolerated.  Even the otherwise secular celebration of a 15-year-old girl’s quinceañera becomes a religious event, with an obligatory Mass and often use of Church real estate for the celebration itself.

But that’s not the only way to do Catholicism, however Pope Fascist Toady who Looks Just Like Ania’s Dad might feel about it.  Just like Methodists and Muslims vary in the degree to which their religion defines their culture, Hispanic people are not all the devout Papists that made us the object of fear for so long in Protestant America.  For every Latino community that builds its entire self-concept around their expression of Catholicism, there are thousands of “Christmas and Easter Catholics” who enter churches only for formal occasions and find even fellow Hispanics who are more churchgoing than they are to be a little weird.  Family barbecues, often featuring egregious quantities of pork, become a primary social event, featuring every relative within a few dozen miles and held to commemorate New Year’s Day, birthdays, and assorted milestones like graduations and job promotions.  But even this subset keeps Catholic symbolism omnipresent.  They still send their children to Sunday school and make large events out of Catholic sacraments, doing so out of a cultural rather than wholly religious imperative.  Wooden plaques depicting religious messages, Church-like glass paintings, and filigreed decorative crosses are often considered symbols as much of Hispanic identity itself as of Catholicism, regardless of one’s family’s church attendance.   And Hispanics of any religion are likely to keep around one or two of our famous jarred candles with the image of a preferred saint (usually the patron of our ancestral country), as a reminder of our roots, even if one is part of a sect that takes the “no graven images” commandment more seriously than Catholicism does.

And with that emphasis on religion as a cultural identifier come the mores.  One could be forgiven for not noticing them, since the image of Hispanic people is loud, aggressive, and flirtatious, with an affectation for miniskirts and one too many open shirt buttons.  But Hispanic culture is immersed in the same miasma of Catholic guilt that permeates Italian and other Catholic groups, and includes the same injunctions against premarital sex, the same confusion about a woman’s right to her own body, and the same hideous heteronormative bigotry.  We are, by and large, not kind to gay people, trans people, rape victims, sex workers, or anyone else who doesn’t fit into the neat Catholic narrative of losing one’s virginity to the other biological parent of one’s clutch of offspring.  Hispanic Catholicism is also hilariously, hypocritically patriarchal, all but encouraging men to have all the pre- and extramarital sex we can manage, including with prostitutes while traveling, while regarding the women we have it with as nearly subhuman, and quietly prodding its pregnant teenagers toward secret abortions to preserve “appearances.”

All of this might add together into a story not terribly different from that of other immigrant communities whose faith sets them apart from the majority in their adoptive homes.  But it’s not quite that simple.  As noted above, “immigrant” is often a tricky word for Hispanics.  Many of us are as removed from the immigrant experience as the average non-Hispanic white person in the United States, with only the continued influx of new Hispanic-Americans keeping us clearly identifiable as a distinct cultural entity.  Many of us easily pass as “white,” which may never be true for many other ethnic minorities with or without a religious distinction.  This is doubly so for those of us from parts of the Hispanic world where French, Italian, or Russian surnames are common, such as Argentina, Colombia, and Cuba.  In this sense, Hispanic-Americans have more in common with the older waves of immigrants, such as Ukrainian- and German-Americans, who maintain a smattering of traditions while melding into the broader American culture and notion of “whiteness,” despite the legions of us who came directly from, or have parents who fled, the Spanish-speaking world.

It’s that exposure to American norms that makes the Hispanic-American atheist experience as paradoxical as it can be.   Hispanic-Americans are a massive and well-defined community with a long history and truly incredible penetration into the American mainstream.  Not only do we have Spanish-language radio and television all over the country (not just in our major population centers like New York and Miami), but our cultural concepts, motifs, and creations populate English-speaking media as well.  Who among us hasn’t heard of Dora the ExplorerRicky MartinSpy KidsUgly BettySalsa, bachata, merengue, tango, chacha, vallenato, and cumbia are no longer just our signature ballroom dances—they are a part of the world’s cultural heritage, featured alongside the waltz in international competitions.  Fast-food restaurants sell pale imitations of Mexican specialties in China.  The stark, hardworking practicality of the Mexican laborer populates the whole spectrum from honest and respectful depiction to insulting caricature.  The devious, “screw the system, I’ve got mine” attitude that Communism inculcated in the Cuban psyche now finds a proud home in American right-wing politics without any of its white racist members recognizing its origin.  For all that Catholicism is often perceived as the guardian of the thousand and one versions of Hispanic culture, it is eminently possible to keep in touch with one’s Hispanic identity without it.  And that is HUGE.

That means that the people who identify aggressive, heterosexual masculinity as core to the Hispanic identity…are wrong.  That means that the people who claim that coercing women into sex and shaming them for it afterward is core to the Hispanic identity…are wrong.  That means that the zealots who shout that watching women and fetuses die together instead of deigning to terminate a pregnancy is core to the Hispanic identity…are wrong.

That means that there is a space in the Hispanic community for progressive, feminist, liberated thinkers who don’t see the morality in encouraging teenage girls to keep their sex lives secret from their parents and opening them up to abuse in the process.  That means there is a space in the Hispanic community for people whose notions of masculinity and femininity are broad enough not to BSOD at the thought of someone with a penis who is a girl.  That means there is a space in the Hispanic community for people who don’t see gay people as overdone stereotypes, abominations unto the Lord, or even as a modern-day aberration that we just have to tolerate, but as actual people.

That means that the people who think that people who leave the Catholic Church also leave their Hispanic-ness behindcould not possibly be more wrong.

Some people who flee the evils of the religion that claims their entire culture have to rebuild a semblance of ethnic identity out of the tatters that their escape left behind.  But me?  I get to keep medianoche sandwiches and salsa music and Gilberto Santa Rosa and Fernando Botero and Frida Kahlo and Gabriel García Márquez and guayaberas and Belanova and eating twelve grapes on New Year’s Day.  I get to keep the thought that I might someday preside over a quinceañera and share all of that with a someday daughter who deserves far better than the hateful, ignorant misogyny and rank superstition my culture will regard me as deviant and “Westernized” for not giving her.

There’s a space in Hispanic-ness for people like me.  But that space might not be with my family.  That space might not be with my Catholic-turned-evangelical grandmother, my silent agnostic(?) grandfather, and my increasingly zealous parents with their assorted bigotries against gay people, black people, Arabs, atheists, and anyone to the left of Dick Cheney.  They’ve already driven one of us off in their sickeningly well-meaning quest to do right by their god; why should I be any different?

I might not be the one who brings them around to accepting what their religion tells them to mistrust, fear, and refuse to learn anything about.  And that scares me.
Hispanic, Atheist, American, Me