By Pablo Jaime Sáinz
Before migrating to the United States, Rolando Figueroa would never eat red meat on Fridays during Lent in his native Mexico. But when he arrived in San Diego, he began attending a Baptist church looking for answers.
“It was there that I realized that I was following Catholic traditions that I never understood,” Figueroa said. “Now that I’m a Baptist and know my faith, I don’t follow absurd traditions that I didn’t even know the meaning of.”
It is during Lent season that many immigrants like Figueroa have begun to change their trips to the beach on Holy Friday for Bible study.
One of them is Maria Qui-jada, a Mexican woman living in Imperial Beach. She left the Catholic Church because she didn’t relate to its practices.
“The truth, I was looking for a faith that would fulfill my spiritual need,” said Quijada, who’s a Jehovah’s Witness. “I started looking for something better.”
Like Figueroa and Quijada, there are thousands of Latin American Catholics that, when they migrate to the United States, leave Catholicism to join a different Christian denomination. The first thing that comes to mind is that these immigrants are betraying their traditions to embrace the new Anglo culture. But this change goes beyond just assimalting into a new culture.
Alberto Hernandez, a sociologist at Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana and author of the study “La conversión religiosa como proceso transnacional” (“Religious Conversion as a Transnational Process”), said that the sociological and psychological factors of migration affect all aspects of an immigrant’s life.
“The experience of migration is an experience of changes, where there are also religious changes,” Hernandez said. “Immigrants, when experiencing all the changes included in migration, begin to ask themselves a series of questions. Maybe other churches, and not the Catholic Church, has the answers for them.”
Orlando Espin, professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Science at the University of San Diego, a Catholic university, said that several factors make Mexican immigrants leave Catholicism.
“The most common reason is that they didn’t feel welcomed in the Catholic Church in the U.S.” Espin said. “Another reason is that they feel truly convinced of the ideas of other churches. Another reason is to maintain family harmony. When a member of the family converts to another denomination, sometimes there are confrontations among family members. In order to avoid this, for example, the husband also changes denominations.”
There are three different forms of Catholicism in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, according to Espin.
The first group includes those who are practicing Catholics. These attend Mass every Sunday, are involved in Church activities, and are an important part of their catholic communities.
The second group is made up of Catholics who follow the cultural traditions. They attend Mass and follow Catholic traditions because it’s the norm in their families and their societies.
There’s a third group of Catholics that rarely attend Mass, but still they practice a popular form of Catholicism. On December 12, for example, they pay tribute to Our Lady of Guadalupe. But in general, they’re not committed to the Church. According to Espin, the majority of Mexicans practice this form of Catholicism.
“Many of them, even though they’re Catholics, don’t practice Catholicism firmly,” he said.
Enrique Mendez, retired director of the former Hispanic Affairs office that’s now part of the Office for Cultural Diversity at the Diocese of San Diego, said that arriving at a new country causes religious confusion among immigrants.
“They don’t know how to distinguish among churches because there are so many,” he said.
Hernandez also said that “many non-Catholic churches give social support to undocumented and field workers. This creates a sort of commitment in part of the immigrants.”
But Hernandez said that perhaps in Mexico, immigrants only knew the Catholic Church, and many didn’t even know people from other religions.
“When they migrate, options begin to grow,” he said.
Other Mexican immigrants, such as Maria Quijada, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, are disappointed at the Catholic clergy. The sexual scandals that have been made public in recent years have something to do with this.
“A priest in Mexico tried to rape my sister,” Quijada said. “Little by little in our family we realized what was happening in the Church: Priests raping children, something that had happened for years, but until today everything is public.”