The short answer is “Yes. No.” Technically no longer a Catholic country though can one ever erase the four centuries of the Church working hand in hand with the government?
The Inquisition lasted far longer in Mexico than across the pond. Three centuries from 1520 to 1820, yet it took another revolution in the 1920s before the Church lost any real power. That, right there, is why I write, lecture and tour so much about the Church mixing with indigenous beliefs that are expressed in today’s San Miguel.
The physical signs of Roman Catholicism pervade town. We’ve ten times the number of houses of worship as a town our size normally does and are often right next door to each other. If you were a member of one the wealthy Spanish families during the Colonial era it behooved you to be seen by the Inquisitor’s representative in town building a church. It was a way to keep him off your family’s back. Colonial churches, neighborhood chapels, wayside shrines and mountaintop crosses still dot the landscape reminding us Catholicism in San Miguel is often little more than a thin veneer of indigenous practices.
Elements of pre-Hispanic religion persist to an extraordinary degree expressing, rather than contradicting, the Catholic worldview. The indigenous responded and reworked Catholic teachings according to their own needs and understandings.
Mexico does not have an official religion. However, Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and deeply culturally pervasive. Many Mexicans see Catholicism as part of their identity, passed on through the family and nation as cultural heritage. Religiosity is most visible in fiestas, fireworks and the placement of art throughout people’s homes and public places.
Today, Catholicism is synonymous with the culture and society of Mexico. It is deeply infused in the public life and visible in the language. For example, one hears the following phrases on a daily basis: “Si Dios quiere” (God willing), “Adios” (go with God) and “Gracias a Dios” (thank God).
There are multiple customs that Mexicans follow in daily life to pay respect to their faith.
For instance, many Mexicans draw a cross with their hand whenever they pass in front of a church or altar. For the typical Mexican, life is marked by seminal Catholic moments, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage and last rites (blessings for the dying). I’ve yet to go to a Mexican birthday party, or graduation, that doesn’t start with a mass at a nearby church.
The near weekly pilgrimages mark the convergence of religious fervor with equal amounts of simply being a lovely stroll in the countryside with friends and family. When teaching English to teens a lad thought nothing of asking a lass to attend a mass or pilgrimage with him. In fact, she liked it, as it showed the suitor had an interior life, always an attractive quality in either gender.
Yet many of we foreigners are strident at pretending otherwise and desperate to hold on to our ignorance. I’ve heard residents expats shout from the rooftops “I don’t care what the locals are doing.” Yet the same folks are baffled when Lupita, that cleans for them, doesn’t show up for work on the morning of December 12th being clueless it is the feast day of Guadalupe, the mother of Mexico. Much less that their Lupita is named for her.
All this being said do you have to be Catholic to successfully live in Mexico and integrated with Mexicans? Of course not. I’m not my brother, the Southern Baptist minister that will let you know, in under a minute, that if you aren’t Southern Baptist too, then, choo, choo, you are on that express train to Hell.
Sidebar: When asked how my uber-Catholic parents raised a Southern Baptist minister, I channel my Mother and her excuse of how he was born with the cord wrapped around his neck. “That lack of oxygen made him stupid.” she often quipped.
Sidebar Part 2: That brother is not to be confused with another brother that left the seminary to marry a Jewish gal and became a traveling circus clown with the act “Farmer Toone, His Wife and Their Kid (the goat)”. I’ve a lot of brothers.
My point is you don’t need to be Catholic to have a successfully integrated life in town with your neighbors and pals. In some ways it may be better to not have been raised Catholic as the faith here is different than up North – more tactile, ritualistic and wildly more feminine. However, all that said, you do need to understand what 96% or residents of San Miguel believe since it will impact what you see and experience while you are in town.
Sure, you can live in a bubble, blissfully unaware of all that is going on around you clinging to your ignorance with tenacity, but has that ever worked out well for folks from the US?
Steeple paintings appear courtesy of local artist, Dawn Gaskill.