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Popular Catholicism in Mexico and the Influence of Tradition on Religion

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    Latin America has been a very marginalized part of the American continent. Since different cultures from another continent came to colonize the indigenous civilizations from long ago. For example, in Mexico the Spaniards came to colonize a lot of different indigenous tribes. Spaniards came to Mexico and wanted to convert the indigenous people into Catholicism. One strategy the Spaniards use was to build churches over the ruins of the temples of the indigenous people. Catholic clergy of the time try to make their religious rites to coincide with the beliefs of the Indians. Nowadays most of the traditions and different Saints we worship in Mexico and in most of Latin America is part of something call popular Catholicism.

    Popular Catholicism differs from formal Catholicism in different ways. Popular Catholicism expresses popular aspirations and sentiments by focusing in three different examples: The Virgin of Guadalupe, the Santa Muerte and the Day of the Death, and on the different ways popular Catholicism differs. According to Harry Sanabria, “Popular Catholicism is defined as a religious system that emerged from the fusion of medieval Catholicism and diverse indigenous and African traditions.”

    The Virgin of Guadalupe is a very good example of popular Catholicism. She first appeared in 1531 to an indigenous man call Juan Diego. As stated by Jeanette Favrot Peterson, “She showed herself to a newly Christianized native, whose baptismal name was Juan Diego. Using the Aztec language of Nahuatl, the Virgin asked that a Church be erected in her honor.” She is also known as La Guadalupana. The native worshipers referred to the Virgin as Tonantzin, a name that is still use in some regions of Mexico. Virgin of Guadalupe is consider to be the patron saint of Mexico and a powerful icon of Mexican identity. As stated by Jeanette Favrot Peterson, “In order to prove that Guadalupe was an authentically American Virgin, her appearance to poor, humble, and virtuous natives was emphasized as well as her use of the Nahuatl language.” The Virgin of Guadalupe from the sixteenth century on served as a symbol of freedom for the oppressed native populations.

    Virgin of Guadalupe is more than just a saint in Mexico. According to Carlos Fuentes, “His victory is a triumph of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. She is the only true reality in Mexico. She is all that people really believe in.” The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is seen not only as religion, but she changed the presidential election of 2006. The Virgin of Guadalupe is so loved by the Mexican people that they see her as a political figure. The Virgin was capable to make Felipe Calderon won against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the 2006 presidency election, because Calderon declared himself as a Catholic. Carlos Fuentes stated, “Calderon was able to present himself as the Catholic candidate, he won. In California, 57 percent of Mexican immigrants voted for the Catholic Calderon.” Many Mexican-Americans chose to maintain the Virgin of Guadalupe as a symbol to create communal solidarity.

    The Virgin continued to give a contradictory message that was manipulated for political purposes. Since the days of the Mexican independence, father Miguel Hidalgo gave the Virgin the title of “General Captain”. She is still recognized as a symbol of freedom and submission. The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is a very popular tradition in Mexico. November 2 is the day that the people of Mexico remember the love ones they have lost.

    The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico developed from ancient traditions among its pre-Columbian cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors had been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500–3,000 years. The festival that developed into the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August. The Aztecs celebrated it for the entire month. In the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre, the opening sequence features a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. At the time, no such parade took place in Mexico City; one year later, due to the interest in the film and the government desire to promote the pre-Hispanic Mexican culture, the federal and local authorities decided to organize an actual ‘Día de Muertos’ parade through Paseo de la Reforma and Centro Historico on October 29, 2016, which was attended by 250,000 people. Since the pre-Columbian era Mexican culture has maintained a certain reverence towards death, which can be seen in the widespread commemoration of the Day of the Dead and Saint Death.

    Santa Muerte is a folk saint in Mexico. Consider as a saint in Mexican popular Catholicism. It is a personification of death, she is associated with healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife by her devotees. It is mostly venerated by people that were in jail, mainly marginalize Catholics in Mexico. La Santa Muerte has become so attractive for many who consider themselves Catholics because she is believed to be a messenger and a mediator of death. Santa Muerte appears as a skeletal female figure, wearing a long robe and holding one or more objects, usually a scythe and a Bible or just the scythe. The robe that she wears can be of any color. The worship of Saint Death was condemned by the Catholic Church in Mexico as invalid, As the worship of Santa Muerte had to be done in secrecy until the 20th century, most prayers and other rites have been traditionally performed privately at home. La Novena are a collection of prayers that offer guidance for people on how to approach Saint Death.

    Since the beginning of the 21st century, worship has become more public, especially in Mexico City after a believer called Enriqueta Romero initiated her famous Mexico City shrine in 2001. According to Regnar Albaek Kristensen, “The son had been accused of much more serious offenses than what he was actually guilty of and feared that he might receive a prison sentence lasting decades. Encouraged by his mother, the son prayed to La Santa Muerte for protection during his time in jail.” The number of believers in Santa Muerte has grown over the past ten to twenty years, in Mexico, the United States, and parts of Central America. According to Regnar Albaek Kristensen, “Over the last decade, the cult of La Santa Muerte (St. Death) has attracted a remarkable number of followers in Mexico and the USA.”

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