Reviewed by Anthony J. BLASI, Tennessee State University, NASHVILLE, TN 37202
Scholars in Mexican American studies have generally neglected the study of religion and spirituality. In an odd way, the spokespeople and advocates for the Mexican American presence in the academy have conformed to the hegemonic public culture in this respect since silence about religion is part of the Anglo academic code, not Mexican American tradition. Anyone familiar with traditional Mexican American life knows of the deep spirituality that pervades it. It is therefore a welcome development that Alberto López Pulido has begun to fill the void.
Dr. Pulido, associate professor of American studies and director of the Ethnic Studies Program at Arizona state University West, was a student of the late Julian Samora, the first Mexican American to earn a Ph.D. in sociology and founder of Mexican American studies as an academic subject area. Samora, himself an active Catholic who undertook charitable works, realized that his own work and those of the first generation of his students (among them Jorge Bustamante, Gilberto Cardenas, Miguel Carranza, and Alberto Mata) had neglected the study of religion. He urged Pulido to pursue the subject. In his first works, Pulido studied race relations in the Catholic Church in southern Claifornia, writing a dissertation and a number of articles on that topic. But the more significant feature of Mexican American religiosity is lay spirituality, not organized religion. And in this book Pulido takes up the study of lay spirituality in New Mexico, specifically the penitentes.
The first generation of scholars in the sociology of Mexican American life had to contend with prior false depictions and stereotypes. In what little work Samora did on religion, he found it necessary to show, on the basis of ethnographic work, that religion did not substitute prayer for medicine in times of illness, that Mexican Americans typically prayed for the strength to endure illness even while they sought medical help from physicians. Bustamante in his early work sought to humanize the "border phenomenon" by posing as a migrant worker, illegally crossing the Rio Grande, experiencing arrest and detention, and writing of the experience from a first hand perspective. Cardenas developed a sociology-of-knowledge account of migration issues, demonstrating how the official production of information left out the most significant fact—that the international border and the attendant illegality of a large number of workers contributed to the "surplus value" garnered by agricultural capitalists. In this tradition, Pulido develops an account of how a stereotype of the penitentes as ignorant ritualists was created and came to be accepted as truth, ritualists who allegedly pressured some of their members to undergo bloody torture during the Passiontide.
Thus this book is not an ethnography of a religious brotherhood, and certainly not a description of some religious exotica. It is a study in comparative narratives—the narratives of the penitentes themselves and the narratives of foreign bishops and sensationalizing journalists. A penitente’s life history is used to typify the former narrative tradition; archival materials and popular articles are used to characterize the latter narrative tradition. We find from the penitente narrative that the brotherhoods focus primarily on practical acts of charity, not Good Friday spectacle.
The book is highly recommended. Its principal shortcoming is that there is not more of it; I felt I wanted to know more after reading it.