As I mentioned in my last post, I want to examine the two bookend holidays of the Lenten season, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, from the particular perspective of Mexican-Americans, drawing from Virgilio Elizondo’s excellent book, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise.
As I’m sure you know, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. For the majority of Christians across the globe, especially those that follow some sort of liturgy, this is a very special day, a time to remember our mortality and confess our sins. For many in the Euro-American West, it is a time of fasting and self-sacrifice. Interestingly enough, for Chicanos, Ash Wednesday takes on a different nuance. As Elizondo puts it:
To anyone who knows anything about the religious practices of the Mexican-American people, it is obvious that one of the most sacred rites of the year is the reception of ashes on Ash Wednesday. For the masses of the people, it has little to do with the beginning of Lent. Lent as a season of self-sacrifice is not really of special interest to the people: the entire year is a time of suffering and abnegation.1
“The entire year is a time of suffering”? Come on now, you might be thinking. Maybe Latinos, especially immigrants, have to work in some rough conditions, and y’all have to eat that menudo-y stuff. But, life’s not that bad!
And, to a large degree, that would be correct. Life in the United States today is fairly comfortable, especially when compared with how many people throughout the rest of the world live. In fact, it is precisely the ease and opportunity that many immigrants experience in the U.S. that brought them to this country in the first place. We have freedom of speech, we have air conditioning, we have Netflix, and we still have menudo (not the boyband, the good stuff)! Most of us are well aware of these privileges.
So, please don’t take Elizondo’s words as trite complaining. But to say that Mexican-Americans experience the same social status as our Anglo neighbors would be to miss some of the very real systemic oppression that many do experience. Not only are there palpable prejudices facing Latinos in the U.S. (which I’ll talk more about in the Good Friday post), but this is a narrative that goes back a long way.
According to ancient Aztec mythology, the people of Mexico were originally born out of the earth, Chicomoztoc (“the place of the seven caves”). Regardless of how we choose to interpret this legend today, it is undeniable that the Mexican people, and subsequently Mexican-Americans, have a strong affinity with the earth. Much like the ancient Israelites, land is sacred and provides a sense of identity. And, much like the Old Testament people of God, losing our land is a devastating thing. “To deprive a people of its own land is like depriving children of their mother. Mexican-Americans sense that the earth belongs to them and they to it – like a mother and her child.”2
You see, one of the most interesting questions that I get sometimes when I tell people about my Mexican heritage is, “When did you come to our country?”
“Uh… I didn’t. Er… I mean, I was born here.”
“Oh, okay. When did your parents or grandparents come here?”
“Um… they were born here too.”
Despite what many people (probably unwittingly) presume, not all Hispanics are immigrants or children of immigrants. In fact, many of our families have been in this country longer than that of many of our white friends. A sad symptom of not knowing American history, or perhaps having only an Anglo-colonial take on American history, is folks forget that a significant chunk of what is now the United States used to actually be part of Mexico. To be exact, upon signing the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, Mexico surrendered nearly half of its land to the U.S., including what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, and large pieces of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah.
And what happened to all of those Mexican citizens living in those territories? They stayed there and accepted their new status as citizens of the U.S. along with promises of property and political rights, and guarantees that they would be allowed to keep their own cultural autonomy, their own language, their own religion, and their own traditions. As you can guess, the United States’ ability to keep its promises to the former Mexican citizens was about as reliable as it was for other native peoples. Elizondo writes, “Since 1848 there has been a nearly unbroken history of direct and indirect, spontaneous and institutionalized, violence throughout the West and Southwest… There is an abundance of well documented cases of the most inhuman types of discrimination in schools, churches, work places, social agencies, law-enforcement agencies – even cemeteries.3 Nor is this just past history; it is still prevalent.”4
In light of all this, we can see why Chicanos feel a pervading sense of loss. We lost our land to white conquerors and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in a war that we were ill-prepared to fight. Our people have been made to feel like intruders in our own bit of earth, and our culture has taught us that the best sort of person to be is not who we are or have been. I remember in middle school once watching a teacher berate a couple of my classmates for speaking Spanish to one another. “You’re in America, so speak English!”5
Take some time to think through the movies and television shows that our culture produces. With very few exceptions, Chicanos are rarely the heroes. We are the villains, the sidekicks, the comic relief, or the helpless victim in need of a savior. Unless you are Antonio Banderas starring in a Robert Rodriquez flick, you probably won’t be the main protagonist of the film.6 Like it or not, Latinos just aren’t usually shown in positions of leadership. And even when they are (e.g., Caesar Chavez), it tends to be in the midst of controversy; it’s not the norm for a Mexican-American to be in leadership.
All of that to say, Ash Wednesday means something significantly different for Chicanos than it does for most other believers. I’ll simply end this with Elizondo’s own words:
The rite of ashes becomes all the more significant in this era when Mexican-Americans are living as captives in their own land. They are called “foreigners” and are treated as illegal intruders by another society that imposed itself on them by violence, power plays, and even religion. In their own land, their ways and their religious expressions are despised and looked down on as backward and primitive.
Their children become embarrassed about their identity because the schools and churches of the invaders tell them that the ways of white, Western civilization are best. Culturally speaking, Anglo-American society is kidnapping the children of the Mexican-Americans, taking them out of their own households, their own familias, their own barrios, their own land.7
Something to reflect on as we begin Lent.
1: Virgilio P. Elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American (Orbis Books, 2005), 32-3.
2: Elizondo, Galilean Journey, 33.
3: See R. Acuña, Occupied America (San Francisco: Canfield, 1972); Thomas P. Fenton, Education for Justice: A Resource Manual (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1975); C. Hernandez, N. Wagner, and M. Haug, Chicanos: Social and Psychological Perspectives (St. Louis: Mosby, 1971); United States Commission on Civil Rights, Mexican-American Education Study, reports of 1971, 1972, and 1973.
4: Elizondo, Galilean Journey, 16.
5: To which the student replied, "Miss, you're in America. Speak Navajo!" If I recall correctly, that didn't end very well for the student.
7: Elizondo, Galilean Journey, 33.