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Felices Pascuas: A Visit to La Iglesia Católica de Inmaculada Concepción

Felices Pascuas! Here we are at the end of our Semana Santa journey. I decided to go to two masses today: the Catholic Easter service at the Duke Gardens, and the Spanish mass at the Church of Immaculate Conception in Durham. The second was quite the experience, and gave me a new perspective on what it meant to be a Hispanic Catholic. To begin, there should have been a warning outside that said: Standing Room Only. I hadn’t seen such a huge body of people since our high school graduation–700 kids and their families. The age demographic was probably similar too; it was mostly parents with two or three children, I only spied a few elderly or single churchgoers. What was most surprising to me was that the Catholic mass here was similar to what I had often seen in the Guatemalan videos: staid parishioners who did not seem overly involved in the service. I must say that after having attended Duke University’s mass for the last year, I had grown accustomed to a body of parishioners who always wanted to be there 100%–after all, they had no parents to force them to attend. Going back to the real world, I was reminded that there were people who left right after communion, and I was reminded that the church wasn’t enough of a community to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer. I wouldn’t say that they were not in tune with the service at all–and perhaps it was because I was sitting in the back–but many parents were more preoccupied with their children than in the worship. I could definitely see how going to a spirited Evangelical mass might be much more fulfilling.

One challenge in the mass was that the priest was white, and although he could pronounce the Spanish well, it was clear that he was not a native speaker. The sermon was slowly vocalized, and simply summarized the events of holy week and why Jesus died on the cross, skipping over any deep religious convictions. Although the priest was clearly trying–and it showed that after mass he stayed and spent time talking to some of the children and parents–there was a clear cultural and language barrier. In Guatemala, priests are often of lighter descent, and may face some of the same challenges in preaching to a majority indigenous/mestizo population.

Overall, the Spanish mass reminded me more of my parish at home, where only a small portion of the people were really there, than I would have imagined from a culture that is often labelled as being deeply religious. It makes me question whether this is what mass is like in Latin America, too? If so, I can see where there are a clear shortcomings in the Catholic church’s religious service, and the problems are similar there as in North America. I would like to return next week to see if maybe the view I got was of the “Cheaster” Catholics (if they exist in the Spanish mass too), and whether there is any change in the services between different weeks.

Viernes Santo: The Crucifixion

Good Friday marks the crucifixion of Christ. Today in Guatemala, there are three processions: the procession of Jesús Nazareno de la Merced, and in the afternoon the procession of El santo entierro del santuario de la aldea de San Felipe de Jesús and El Santo entierro of the church Escuela de Cristo. In Antigua, each of these actually circle the city three times, making a total of 9 parades–quite a day!

Good Friday Float--Jesus Carrying the Cross

Each float rides over beautiful alfombras made from dyed sawdust. These “carpets” are absolutely beautiful, and display myriad colors.

Alfombra, Guatemala City

There are several traditional beliefs associated with Good Friday, some of the more interesting being:

  • If a baby is born on Good Friday, he may be the Antichrist
  • You should not have sex on Good Friday because you may get “stuck”
  • No music on Friday, except for funeral marches

I think even more interesting is the writer of the blog that I got these traditions from (see below). He says we are slowly losing these beliefs and we must encourage our children to uphold them so that they are not lost. There is not much information about him, but I think it shows that there are many different people–some who want to keep the orthodoxy, and others who want to move past it.

Sources: http://www.aroundantigua.com/culture/easter.htm

Blog: http://ilcristomorto.wordpress.com/

Palm Sunday–The Beginning

A Guatemalan Woman Crafting Palm Bouquets

Today marks the first day of the holy week and Semana Santa processionals in Guatemala. Palm Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’s entry into Bethlehem. The townspeople of Bethlehem welcomed Jesus (this was before they decided to condemn him) with palm fronds and bouquets, and the tradition of giving out palms, usually folded into crosses, still exists today.

In Guatemala, floats called “andas’ are carried by processional marchers in purple robes. The float for Palm Sunday is called “Jesus de Consuelo [Comfort].” Holy week celebrations will continue and culminate on Easter Sunday. I will try to post more pictures from this year’s celebration as they come up.

Palm Sunday Processional in Antigua

Source: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/travel/articles/festival-in-antigua-guatemala-semana-santa.shtml

Pictures: http://antiguadailyphoto.com/

My Twitter: A Photofeed

It has been very hard to find updated information on my topic, but while I was searching for maps, I found this wonderful site:


Everyday, it posts one photo from the historic town of La Antigua. Most of it is touristy, culture-related material (which is very interesting nevertheless), but he really shows how much religion is engrained into this town. One of the most intriguing posts, linked here, questions how attached the church is to the state. The photo above shows an alter for Lent in front of the municipal government building. I think this goes to emphasize how different the government-state relations are from the United States. The Catholic church has always been heavily involved in politics, and it reminds me of how much turmoil this at times has caused, especially during the war era. I have not been able to find concrete information on the conflict between Catholicism protestantism in La Antigua itself, but it intrigues me to no end.

Petra Barth Segues to Liberation Theology

Petra Barth's photo of a photo of Salvadoran Bishop Óscar Romero

I attended the panel discussion with Petra Barth and panelists David Clements, Erika Weinthal, and Sandy Smith Nonini. We began with an introduction of the main speakers, and then each of the panelists spoke about a few of Ms. Barth’s pictures and what each meant to them. It was interesting because each person spoke about the pictures from their own perspective in their fields, but all of them spoke about how much pride the people had, and how Ms. Barth captured it so well in her pictures.

First, David Clements, who has a background in Global Health and Latin American Studies, chose the picture of a Haitian woman sitting a chair and staring out pensively. He discussed how, in his visits to Latin America (primarily Honduras), the people never thought of themselves as poor, and he put it wonderfully that they “would never know something is wrong until someone tells them.” They live as they would if the resources they had were the only ones available to any living being. The woman in the picture has a dignity about her: she sits alone, but knows her power to make what she can with what she has. Second, Erika Weinthal, who works at the Nicholas School of Environmental Studies, discussed the themes of access to basic services, natural disaster, and climactic change as she saw the photos from Brazil and Haiti. She pointed out that in places like Rio de Janeiro, there is such economic success, but there is so little attention paid to those living on the margin, that some don’t even have basic sanitation. Part of the reason that they are marginalized is because they participate primarily in the informal sector (remember the photo of the open market?) and are considered of minimal importance to the economy at large. Marginalized people don’t have access to proper infrastructure such as schools and security, they live without basic needs such as clean water (2/3 of the Brazilian population does not boil their water) and sanitation, and their situation is compounded by natural disasters, such as in Haiti. To end, Erika emphasized how each of these landscapes–the beaches, the cities, the countryside–would be so affected by global climate change, something that they have barely contributed to, but still have to suffer the consequences of.

The presenter who interested me the most was Sandy Smith-Nonini, anthropology professor and reporter/journalist from UNC. She was studying the growth of the health care system in El Salvador in light of the work of the Catholic Church. She was especially moved by the photo of Óscar Romero, showing his portrait and the quote, “Que mi sangre sea semilla de libertad y la señal de que la esperanza será pronto una realidad” (That my blood will be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon be a reality). She visited El Salvador at the end of the 1980s, around the end of the popular health movement. This movement was brought about by the Catholic Church with their liberation theology, and gave a lot of hope to the people that their basic needs would be met. More than just giving access to medical treatments, the church held programs for spiritual support. The church became the pillar of hope for the El Salvador people. Petra Barth later gave a moving discussion of one of her other pictures that really visualized the power of the Catholic Church during the 1980s. The photo showed a group of woman in a “church” that was nothing more than crumbling walls waiting to meet so they could discuss how to continue life. Even in a landscape of destruction, the church was the unifying factor for the common people. I went to talk to Sandy after the discussion, and she mentioned how, despite these popular reform movements, the government attempted to repress any progress, leading to its decline. Now, she says, the Catholic Church is becoming a more conservative force.

It is interesting to see the liberation theology movement in El Salvador pan out very similar as to in Guatemala. There, the church too began to promote service programs for the poor, although not to the extent that it occurred in El Salvador. The Catholic church became a vessel for the poor, as it still is today. However, as a result of the Guatemalan Civil War (where, ironically, the Catholic Church sided with the liberal rebels), Evangelism has taken over as the primary mobilizing religion, whereas Catholicism has been left to history.

Petra Barth was the last one to speak. She began by apologizing that she couldn’t express herself as well verbally as she does in photo. However, I think her words were the most moving of everyone; she used simple language with a strength that only a decade long expedition through impoverished Latin America could have provided. She emphasized the hope and pride and kindness of the people; she admired their way of thinking, as she put it, “We don’t care about tomorrow; we think about today.” I think this quote puts into perspective the entire conception of the marginalized population. This “in the present” mindset is probably considered backwards and slow for the people of modern society, just as we perceive these poor populations to be far behind us in terms of civilization. However, there is a certain appeal to it; that it is not a negligence of thinking about the future, but rather an embrace of what is going on now. These people on the margin are so in touch with their lives without all the blinding distractions we have in our world of technology. They know they do not have it all, but they take pride in what they have, and make of it what they will.

Religious Barriers to Health

I am a member of Project HEAL, a group that travels to Honduras each year to promote health education in two rural towns. This year, we are focusing on women’s issues, using health awareness as the key to empowerment and overcoming traditional gender roles. We were discussing birth control and prevention of STI’s when I suddenly realized: even if free condoms were provided (which they are), the Hondurans probably would not take them. First, with a history of machismo, men have long rejected the use of any form of “control”, even when it could have been a matter of life or death. Most importantly, though, is the long-standing factor of religion. From an article concerning family planning in Guatemala:

Guatemala is a deeply religious country. Even those who are not active church-goers grow up surrounded by Christian worldviews… The Catholic Church, with its profound, 500-year old roots, and the energetic, emotional worship and deep cultural conservatism, make Guatemala’s consideration of family planning a far different one from that of North America or Europe.

Abortion is viewed as a terrible sin. Birth control pills, intra-uterine devices and diaphragms are suspected of causing illnesses in the women who use them. Implanted, slow-release contraceptive chemicals are catching on, but they are expensive and provide only limited-duration protection. Condoms are unpopular among men, and discouraged by the Catholic Church, which only advocates natural methods for family planning.

So, even as many people move away from Catholicism, this stigma is still deeply set into the society. As a result, there is minimal family planning in Guatemala. In fact, Guatemala has the highest fertility rate in Latin America: an average of 5 children per woman. Not only is this an economic stress, but babies born shortly after an older sibling are more likely to be premature and underweight. As they grow up, the strain of being in a large family only compounds their malnutrition and access to health care issues. Furthermore, a mother (teen mothers are very common) in a less-developed country with sub-par medical care puts herself at risk of maternal mortality with each pregnancy.

This is without even moving to problems of STIs and STDs such as HIV/AIDS and HPV, which leads to cervical cancer. The second is much more of an issue in Guatemala and other countries in Central America. Cervical cancer makes up 60% of all women’s cancer cases; it is easily treatable if detected; unfortunately, it is usually not detected.

Guatemala is a case in which education will not be the solution to everything. The Roman Catholic beliefs of the people are so ingrained into the society, it seems there will be little we can do to instill change. For our group going to Honduras, we will keep this in mind, but we still have hope that what we do may be a baby step for something greater to come in the future.

Why Evangelism is Winning

The Evangelical Mega Church (Click to See Full Size)

This picture cannot be more amusing to me, especially after looking through several pages of old-fashioned Catholic churches (see previous posting.) The “Mega Church”–literally an amphitheater–being built in Guatemala City has a capacity of 7,000, with hundreds of meeting rooms and over 1,000 parking spaces. From quite the thought-provoking article, this church is literally a couple of miles away from the slums of the capital.

Just as Evangelism swept America in the mid-1900s, a massive wave is riding over Guatemala. There are mass revivals (in a church like this; has anyone watched those HUGE Southern evangelist sermons–scary!!) and mass publicizing on media venues. It is the “new thing” and the stiff and conservative Catholic church is slow to embrace such passion. Ironically, while one the Catholic Church’s main goals is to help the poor through services, they are losing a lot of their poor population to this new, attractive religion.

Church of San Andrés Xecul: An Intersection of Indigenous and Catholic Culture

Musings: Gay in Guatemala

I am still looking into this idea of the Roman Catholic Church vs. Protestant Groups’ roles in the anti-gay movement. I found this article concerning gay life in modern Guatemala. It shows how much violence there is against gays even today. Oasis, a center for gay individuals constantly requires an armed policeman for defense. Compounded onto this is the fact that 80% of Guatemala lives in poverty. It is difficult for gays in this group to bring about change (this goes back to Ivanna’s comment in class about how the gay rights movement is started from the up down.)

I want to know why, while Guatemala has a 50-60% Catholic population (half of whom are not even real Catholics, but rather indigenous Catholics) and a 40% Protestant, it has such a history of violence against gays. In more progressive countries, especially Argentina and Colombia, the proportion of Catholics is nearly 75%.

This article does briefly link anti-gay discrimination to the Roman Catholic Church and a history of machismo.

Possible explanations:

  • The Catholic church was prevalent in Guatemala until the 1990s. Perhaps it was a homophobia generated at this time that lingers until the present.
  • There are differences in faith between countries like Guatemala and Colombia.
  • Guatemala’s history of conservatism in the Catholic Church is the cause of both its anti-gay violence and citizens resorting to Protestantism.

To be continued…

Statistics from Wikipedia.

RE: Uganda… On The Topic of Gay Rights and the Catholic Church

David Kato, holding a magazine with 100 pictures of targeted homosexuals in Uganda

In light of recent news of Ugandan David Kato, it is painstakingly clear that our prejudices against the LGBT population mostly arise from religious considerations. I find myself gravely speechless at the words that people can pass on, and that they could be so strong as to smother a life. In Uganda, no more than two years ago, American evangelist missionaries came to teach about faith and god to the “uncivilized” Africans, piggybacking along an acerbic criticism of gays. They accused them of sodomy, and labeled them as the greatest evil threatening to overthrow our heterosexual way of life. Within these few years, this infectious ideology had spread to all the citizens of Uganda, to the point that they even considered a law to execute gays. David Kato was a gay rights activist, always looking over his shoulder and fearing his life for his incendiary activist work. He was hammered to death in his own neighborhood. The Evangelicals who taught in Uganda now deny any blame.

Being Catholic, it is hard for me to blame my faith as well for the harm we’ve done and the opposition stance we hold. Albeit being threatened by protestant groups, the Catholic grip on Latin American society is unlike any other (except, perhaps, in Italy). Because of this, the first Latin American gay marriage did not occur until 2009, in Argentina between Jose Maria di Bello and Alex Freyre. With the recent law to allow same-sex marriage in that same country in July of 2010, reporters describe the situation as evidence that Catholic power is waning in Latin America. In general, the Catholic system is considered a conservative force in Latin America, opposed to social movement and educational progress (article here). In the United States, more Catholics are socially progressive Democrats than their Protestant peers. This seems contradictory seeing as the Vatican itself is so orthodox. However, through my own experience and readings, I have noticed that Catholics are more likely to be centered on a “moral ethics” approach to religion rather than a more Protestant “bible study” approach. On the homosexual question in particular, the church has an interesting view. From AmericanCatholic.org:

“The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and the social acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships, but teaches that homosexual persons deserve respect, justice and pastoral care.”

I know that most people in my parish share this view; actually, around half would probably openly support gay marriages. One of my college interviewers was ecstatic about his priest: a gay ex-Broadway star who would perform Godspell each Christmas.

These issues bring up several topics for my study of Catholicism in Latin America:

  • Clarification of the “conservatism” of the Catholic Church
  • Defining the debate between Catholic and Protestant groups, and how these effect policy and society
  • Compare the history of the Catholic church (beginning from the conquistadores) in Latin America to the Protestant church (beginning from Pilgrims) in the United States

I chose Guatemala as it is the most protestant country–over 50% are now evangelicals–imposing a rapid decline of Catholicism, especially as much of the indigenous “Catholics” are not truly connected to the Vatican at all. As I work on my website, I’d like to research further into these topics. I will attempt to preclude any bias on this subject.