Thursday, April 19, 2007

For Some Hispanics, Coming to America Also Means Abandoning Religion

For Some Hispanics, Coming to America Also Means Abandoning Religion
The NY Times
Published: April 15, 2007\

RICHMOND, Va. — On Sunday afternoons, when the local Roman Catholic church
holds Mass for Spanish-speaking Catholics, Edgar Chilín is playing soccer in
a league with hundreds of Hispanic players.

As a child in Guatemala, Mr. Chilín attended Mass every Sunday. But after
immigrating to the United States 25 years ago, he and his family lost the
churchgoing habit. “We pray to God when we feel the need to,” he said, “but
when we come here to America we don’t feel the need.”

A wave of research shows that increasing percentages of Hispanics are
abandoning church, suggesting to researchers that along with assimilation
comes a measure of secularization.

Several studies show that Hispanics are just as likely as other Americans to
identify themselves as having “no religion,” and to not affiliate with a
church. Those who describe themselves as secular are, without question, a
small minority among Hispanics — as they are among Americans at large. But,
in contrast to many of the non-Hispanic Americans who identify themselves as
secular, most of the Hispanics say they were once religious.

The Roman Catholic Church, the religious home for most Hispanics, is
experiencing the greatest exodus. While many former Catholics join
evangelical or Pentecostal churches, the recent research shows that many of
them leave church altogether.

“Migrating to the U.S. means you have the freedom to create your own
identity,” said Keo Cavalcanti, a sociologist at James Madison University in
Harrisonburg, Va., and a co-author of a recent study that found a trend
toward secularization among Hispanics in Richmond. “When people get here
they realize that maintaining that pro forma display of religiosity is not
essential to doing well.”

A separate study of 4,000 Hispanics to be released this month by the Pew
Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center found that 8
percent of them said they had “no religion” — similar to the 11 percent in
the general public. Of the Hispanics who claimed no religion, two-thirds
said they had once been religious. Thirty-nine percent of the Hispanics who
said they had no religion were former Catholics.

Hispanics from Cuba were the most secular national group, at 14 percent,
followed by Central Americans at 12 percent, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans at
9 percent, and South Americans at 8 percent, the Pew poll found. Mexicans in
this country were the least likely to say they had no religion, at 7

A larger survey, called the American Religious Identification Survey, a
study of 50,000 adults, including 3,000 Hispanics, found that the percentage
of Hispanics who identified themselves as having no religion more than
doubled from 1990 to 2001, to 13 percent from 6 percent.

This change is happening even though many Hispanics immigrated from
countries steeped in religion, where saints’ days and festivals mark the
passage of time, and grandmothers round up their progeny each Sunday to go
to Mass.

“They come, they adopt the American way, and part of the American way is
moving towards no religion,” said Ariela Keysar, associate director of the
Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity
College in Hartford.

Each year, Diana Lemus — a real estate agent and owner of Happy Mart, a busy
Latino market in Richmond — makes New Year’s resolutions that include
working out more, getting out of debt, being a better mother and attending
church once a week.

Ms. Lemus, a first-generation immigrant, said that this year she had kept
all of them, except going to church — and spends Sunday mornings at the gym.
She thinks her faith is important, but said that perhaps she has grown “too

“I need God in my life, but I told the pastor, I get sleepy,” she said. “You
have to stay in church from 1:30 to 5. I think if services were shorter,
more entertaining.”

Like Ms. Lemus, many Hispanics in Richmond said that even though they no
longer attended church, their religion remained important to them. This
confirms research findings that Hispanics who said they had no religion
represent a small subset; many more Hispanics are living rather secular
lives but still identify themselves as Catholics or Christians. The
phenomenon is similar to that of “cultural Jews,” said Roberto Suro,
director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

“You can feel very strongly about the Virgin of Guadalupe and believe your
children ought to be baptized, and still not participate in the Catholic
Church or make it a major factor in your life,” Mr. Suro said.

Richmond and adjacent Chesterfield County have a rapidly growing and diverse
Hispanic population, with immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America,
Colombia and Mexico. Some are new arrivals, but many have been in the United
States for years and resettled here from Northeastern and Southern states,
attracted by the area’s jobs, relatively affordable housing and receptive
local governments.

The increase in the Hispanic population has meant a proliferation of
churches. But even when their own churches are thriving, Hispanic ministers
say that most Hispanics they approach are not interested.

“Church is not very popular,” said Francisco Hernandez, who is pastor with
his wife, Connie, of the Iglesia de Dios Alfa y Omega, a Pentecostal church
with 400 members. “The majority don’t go, and those who go, go one time.”

Asked why, he said that his church’s strict rules were a hard sell, adding,
“People like a superficial religion.”

This may be true, and a few young Hispanic women said in interviews that
they avoided strict evangelical churches because they frowned on women
wearing pants or makeup. However, many more Hispanics said they were simply
too busy to attend any church. They said Sunday is a work day, or it is
their only day off to wash clothes, go to the market, do errands and relax.

Before Mirna E. Amaya and her husband bought their restaurant, Palacio
Latino, three years ago — and when she lived in Maryland — she went to Mass
every Sunday. Now she says she is working too hard to go, even though she
says she misses it.

“In El Salvador, people went to the church because there’s nothing much else
to do,” Mrs. Amaya said.

She said that some of her women friends had stopped going because they
became disillusioned with the Catholic Church after the priest sexual abuse
scandals. But she said the Roman Catholic Church was still her preference.
The closest parish, St. Augustine Catholic Church, has bent over backward to
minister to Hispanics. It offers Mass in Spanish, classes in English, a
medical van, job assistance and an instant community for lonely new
arrivals. The Sunday Spanish Mass is standing room only.

And yet, the pastor, Msgr. Michael Schmied, also the vicar for the diocese’s
Hispanic Apostolate, said: “My fear is the strength of secularization, the
influence of Americanized pop culture. Is the spiritual tradition of the
church, Catholic and Protestant, strong enough to withstand the secularizing
cultural influences?”

Jesus Cerritos, a 37-year-old construction worker who immigrated from Mexico
18 years ago, said he spent his weekends running errands, going to Wal-Mart
and watching television. His children, ages 11 and 9, tell him that church
is boring and that they have no desire to go, but Mr. Cerritos has mixed

“Here, the people get more materialistic,” Mr. Cerritos said. “The culture
here is really barren. There’s no traditions.”

If he were still living in his hometown of Guanajuato, he said, “I would
probably go to church.”

No comments: