Sitting in a historic Catholic church in Arizona, where candles flicker for the faithful and prayers permeate temple walls, Guillermina Vázquez remembers when her daughter was born in the United States.
The doctors told her that her child was in grave health. For a mother, nothing could be worse.
She had to face the truth: Her baby girl was very sick. The doctors needed her to know – it was possible that nothing and no one could help.
The Mexican immigrant mother turned to her faith, to her belief in the sacred heart of Jesus, asking him to grant healing for her newborn daughter.
She made a promise.
“And I fulfilled it,” says Guille, as she is affectionately called in the Catholic congregation at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, located in the heart of Phoenix.
“If he saved my girl, I promised that I would be more active in the church,” she says. “Suddenly, they called me from the hospital to tell me that my daughter had nothing. They found nothing wrong. I could take her home.”
Doctors told her that her baby, Stephanie, had been “miraculously” healed.
They didn’t have an explanation. Even if they had, Guille is a woman of faith. When medicine failed to help her daughter, she turned to the Holy Spirit. Her devotion to Catholicism grew.
“It felt beautiful to see God’s response,” she says, convinced that holding to her faith helped make a miracle happen for her newborn child.
For Guille, holy days are sacred. She practices fasting, prays the Holy Rosary, does penance, goes to mass and recites the Stations of the Cross, so as not to forget the sacrifice of Jesus for the salvation of humanity.
This woman with jet black hair and deep brown eyes has worshipped and worked to pass down Catholic traditions to her four children born in the U.S. Eduardo, Stephanie, Levi and Sarai.
Her own Catholic faith was passed down generationally in her native Durango, México. Guille believes that being close to the church and celebrating Holy Week gives her back a little piece of her longed-for México.
Holy Week, which began this year on April 10, and the celebration of the Virgen de Guadalupe each December are the most important religious holidays of the year for many Latino Catholics. This is time to commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, according to the Roman Catholic Church.
In México, the representation of the Stations of the Cross in Iztapalapa brings together more than a million attendees each year. While in the U.S., small performances are held in some Latino communities and in Catholic churches where masses are held in Spanish.
There are 62.1 million Latinos in the nation, which represent 18.7% of the population, according to figures from the 2020 Census. In Arizona, with a population of more than 7 million, Latino representation is 31.7%.
There are 1.2 million Catholics, of which more than 50% are Latino, according to the Diocese of Phoenix that’s home to these parishioners. Many of them are migrants who came to this country with their faith rooted in their culture.
In 2016, Bishop Thomas Olmsted said that “in the 21st century, the explosive growth of Hispanics is shaping the foundation of this faith,” citing the Latino majority in the Diocese of Phoenix and a 69% Latino majority in the Diocese of Tucson and calling for a greater focus on Latino and immigrant parishioners.
Cristofer Pereyra heads Tepeyac Leadership and is a former director of the Hispanic Missions Office of the Diocese of Phoenix. In Arizona, many Latinos and Latinas hold their Catholic faith to their heart, he says.
“There is no other group that cultivates faith like Hispanics,” he says. “They are the most active in the Catholic Church. When it comes to celebrating Lent, they are very united with religious life.”
‘We are Catholics’
A 2018 survey from a coalition of Catholic organizations on Hispanic/Latino ministry showed that Latinos represent 40% of all Catholics in the United States.
But the numbers spotlight a generational decline. In 2016, 61% of Latino immigrants were Catholic, with the second generation making up 50% and the third generation and above making up 43%.
Pereyra explains that the second or third generation of Latinos in the U.S. do not keep the Catholic faith as strong as first-generation migrant Latinos who came to America in search of a better life.
“Unfortunately, Catholics tend to forget God when they prosper, while the more recently an immigrant arrives in this country, the more they embrace their faith,” he says. “They feel that they need more of God. They bring their traditions and that is what they pass on to our children.”
Apart from the detachment that some generations of Catholics are beginning to feel, the thousands of complaints of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have made even the strongest believers question their faith in the church.
The Child Rights International Network report — “Justice for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in Latin America” — is one of many that measures the magnitude of the problem. Despite the popularity of Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio), the first Latino to lead the Vatican, the number of Catholics is declining.
Two months ago the Catholic community was shaken again with news that captured international attention. Catholic priest Andrés Arango had erroneously baptized thousands of children since 2005. It happened in Phoenix-area parishes with largely Latino congregations.
According to the Diocese of Phoenix, the priest used the words “we” baptize you, instead of “I” baptize you during the sacramental process, devastating many Latino families stunned to see their own or their loved ones’ baptisms invalidated.
Still, many Latinos, Latinas and Latinx people are motivated by their love for Pope Francis. He is the first pope to visit the U.S.-México border and speak in support of migrants and immigrant-rights activists.
Devotion for Catholics is often reborn again on these holy days, when many Latinos go to church to give thanks for the sacrifices of Jesus, whom they believe carried the cross to erase the sins of the world. This is how Omar Juárez tells it.
He immigrated to Arizona in 2000 from México. Omar and his wife, María Hernández, have three daughters Michell, Angélica and Abigail. All born in the U.S.
“We are Catholics and we always come to mass. Faith and religion is the only thing that makes us carry on the memory of our México,” says Omar, as he shares a plate of quesadillas with his family, in a small makeshift restaurant on the patio of the parish.
In the U. S., Holy Week sometimes coincides with spring break, and always with Easter. Although some immigrant Latinos have adapted American Easter customs, many also maintain traditional Catholic habits, such as not eating meat on Fridays and blessing palm leaves on Palm Sunday.
Emmanuel Gálvez, a priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word who has held mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Parish for two years, talks about the importance of Latino communities in preserving religious traditions.
“Mexican culture was born with the Catholic Church. As long as Mexicans preserve their culture, they will preserve their traditions,” he says. “God gives grace and they respond.”
The parish priest recognizes two celebrations as cornerstones for Latino Catholics. Holy Week, celebrated from April 10 to April 17 this year, and the commemoration of the Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12.
“These two celebrations are essential for Hispanics. Holy Week represents the mystery of our faith,” he says. “Christ died and rose for the salvation of the entire human race, and the Virgen de Guadalupe is commemorated in Mexican culture and has prevailed as a sign of cultural heritage.”
Immigrants preserve Guadalupan devotion in Arizona
On a cold December day in the Arizona desert, Lorena Juárez delicately places the flowers that frame the altar that she installs each year to the Virgen de Guadalupe.
She lights the candles. She holds Rosary beads in her hands. Ready to begin a long prayer in search of the miracle she longs for – to see her parents in México again.
Almost 20 years ago, she immigrated to Arizona from Toluca. Since then, she has not returned to her home country, nor to her mom and dad. Her faith is so great that she is convinced that the Virgen will give her “license” to fix her immigration status, so she can return to her hometown, to her parents.
“I do not lose hope that the miracle will work for me,” Lorena says, despite knowing those in her own community who have not been able to return home, and those who been deported and separated from their families in Arizona.
Lorena’s a mother of four children: Jesús, Tobías, Carlos and Mayra, all born in the U.S. She’s instilled in them the tradition of honoring la Guadalupana every December 12.
They placed the altar to the patron saint of Mexicans in the park of a small neighborhood of mobile homes in Avondale. A city with a deep Latino history on the outskirts of Phoenix. Of the almost 86,000 residents, more than half are Latinos. They are a united community, despite living with racism and with families who have been arrested and separated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.
Ignacio Molina, Lorena’s husband, knows what it is to live in fear of being deported. He believes the Virgen protects him. That’s why he seeks to preserve the Mexican traditions wherever he goes.
“It is a belief instilled by our parents from México. We have not left that faith we have in the Virgen de Guadalupe,” he says. “That’s why we celebrate it.”
Living by their faith inspired the Molina family to form the group of matachines dancers that they named: “Religious Saints.” They dance in front of the image of the Virgen, dressed in sequins, sounding maracas and drums.
“I feel happy to dance to the Blessed Mother. I do it with devotion and joy,” Lorena says. “She who gives us a lot and we give so little. It is the tradition that I like, the dance of the matachín.”
Lorena’s the leader of the group of religious dancers who honor traditions of Indigenous people.
Mexican tradition recounts the story of the Virgen, dating back to December 1531. The Virgen appeared before an Indigenous man named Juan Diego, on a hill known as Tepeyac, northwest of México City. She asked Juan Diego to show acts of devotion.
The Basilica of Guadalupe was built on Tepeyac Hill as a Catholic shrine to the Virgen. Millions of people, including devotees who call themselves Guadalupanos, make the pilgrimage each year to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Devotion transcends borders.
It is common in homes of Latina, Latino and Latinx immigrants who live in the U.S., to see loving altars to the Brown Virgen of Tepeyac. She’s cradled with candles, flowers, prayer cards, photos of loved ones.
Tobías Molina is 15. He continues his parents’ tradition of celebrating the patron saint of Mexicans. He continues dancing with them for the Virgen, despite being born far from the traditions of their home country.
“I feel that they are my traditions, although I was born here. I carry those traditions from my family,” he says. “Sometimes I worry about them (my parents), but I feel that the Virgen protects them.”
The Molina family believes that the Virgen has already granted them miracles. Keeping them safe and together as a family and restoring the health of their parents. Now, they hope that their dream of being able to return to México legally will come true.
Holy Week: ‘My faith was instilled by my parents’
The pandemic has endured. After two years of quarantine, Guille and Edith Vargas are resuming their Catholic activities in person at the parish, where they have practiced their faith for more than 20 years.
As the Arizona sun burns with heat that’s already being felt in April, both women sit in the church courtyard at a folding table covered with a white tablecloth. In the center, the replica of the Virgen of Luján is framed inside a glass box. Two framed images of Saint Joseph and the Virgen of Fátima watch over the congregation.
Guille and Edith welcome parishioners to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Parish. On Sunday, they invite the Catholic men to take part in the service. They support the Holy Mass, helping with readings and guiding parishioners to pews.
Both women are Mexican immigrants who find peace in attending mass in person. They waited through the pandemic to be with their congregation, their community.
Edith, a native of Puebla, shares how she lives on these days of reflection.
“It is a time of penance, prayer and repentance,” she says. “We approach the church to live the passion of Jesus Christ and try to carry that cross, as he carried it for us.”
Like Guille, Edith practices fasting and prays early in the morning.
“This is how we Latinos are most attached to our Catholic beliefs,” she says.
She remembers the past:
“My faith was instilled by my parents.”
“It was instilled in our parents by our grandparents.”
She thinks of the future:
“We inherit it from generation to generation and pass it on to our children.”
And if the children no longer want to continue with the tradition?
“Therein lies the work of parents, to instill the Catholic faith in them.”
“If one sows the seed … the fruit will grow.”