What does it mean to have a pan-national ethnicity? What sort of spiritualities might be seen as authentic to Latinos/as share in spite of tremendous and growing religious and experiential differences? Aponte offers a response to these questions in this extended essay. Offering an historical and cultural recitation that incorporates references to his personal experiences and observations as well as newspaper accounts and Internet sources, buttressed by numerous textual citations from an interesting range of scholars from a diversity of fields, Aponte emphasizes the characteristic focal areas for contemporary religious studies: rituals, rhetoric, sacred spaces, and spiritual practices. As he puts it, his work considers “the sacred, spiritual, and religious practices, life passages, rhetoric, traditions, and sacred spaces of the peoples called Hispanic and Latino/a” (p. 77). His work is enriched by his portrayal of his own personal background as a Presbyterian minister raised in a Puerto Rican Catholic household in Connecticut in the 1950s.
What makes the text of particular interest is the breadth and scope of his survey, as well as his unique focus on notions of “santo” and “sagrado” – the holy and the sacred. He helpfully problematizes traditional stereotypes that would pigeonhole Latinos/as into a single religious tradition – indeed, he more than once quotes newspaper accounts of Latino Muslims, using the term some have coined for themselves of “reverts” (as opposed to “converts,” since present-day Spain was at one time under Muslim rule). Aponte is most passionate when he emphasizes the diversity of Latino/a religious options, and sensitively discusses those who have chosen a wide variety of religious and spiritual paths, including Buddhism and other non-theistic ones. One of the central claims of the work is that the very notion of “Latin” is problematic (p. 68) yet nonetheless helpful insofar it implies hybridity and heterogeneity (p. 75, 139). He argues that it is “appropriate and legitimate” to explore Latino/a spirituality, “with the proviso that there are different definitions of spirituality, just as there is in a variety of Hispanics who have ethnic and regional differences and generational distinctiveness. Shared characteristics across groups include the importance of community and family and the shared experience of assigned identity in the United States [italics in the original]” (p. 76).
The text contains a number of critical insights well worth further empirical study. “What might be initially labeled as Roman Catholic appears in various Protestant contexts and vice versa” (p. 11). Aponte argues that the deep background of U.S. Latino/a identity, no matter the religious tradition, or none, of a person, is ultimately cultural Catholicism (p. 12). Later in the text, he argues that popular religion offers “the greatest access to the varieties of santo in Latino/a spirituality.” He wisely points out that issues “arise when one understands only predetermined categories, [and] also the ways that race and religion are used for scripture social constructions of identity (p. 43). His definition of santo
is perhaps clearest when he writes that it “represents a mutual human search for relational meaning that encompasses an aspect beyond the physical” (p. 55). He helpfully quotes the work of Manuel Vasquez which highlights, among other things, the “rapid growth of ‘pneumatic’ Christianity, the revitalization of traditional popular Catholicism” (p. 67). Aponte’s work rightly argues that “Everyday beliefs and practice of Latino/a peoples need to be expressed and deposited to be drawn upon in the future, and the sacred spaces they create enable them to do so” (p. 132).
Yet this work also real limitations. While certainly not his intention, at times the text reads as a kind of Orientalism directed toward ordinary lived religion of Latinos/as, rendering an exotic feel to descriptions of religious practices that are quite quotidian and unexceptional, not only for Latinos/as and Latin Americans in general, but for many other persons as well, particularly Catholics. The religious statues and home altar in Aponte’s home as a child, or the religious medals and statues his father kept on the dashboard of his car, need not be seen as uniquely Hispanic/Latino, though at times the text can suggest this. Though home altars do indeed have a particular role in popular religious practice among Latinos/as today, in the 1950s when Aponte when coming of age, they were very much a part of a broader Catholic immigrant experience and religious pictures or statues were not at all uncommon within Catholic households in the mid-twentieth century, particularly those of first generation immigrants. In a related way, he writes of funeral cards as if they are a uniquely Hispanic/Latino tradition (p. 112), but the funeral card designs he describes would be common in many Catholic contexts. He seems unaware of elementary Catholic sacramental theology, particularly the sacrament of orders, when he uses the oxymoronic term “lay deacon” (p. 92) to describe such a Catholic minister. This is perhaps where his work suffers the most – he emphasizes Catholic popular religiosity but does not connect it to notions of sacramentality or the “sacramental imagination.” There are minor gaps as well in terms of Catholicism: he refers to Miami’s Catholic “Diocese” (p. 118), rather than “Archdiocese,” for example. Other textual issues are primarily questions of precision or turns of phrase. For example, it is odd to refer to “Muslims who made their Shahaddah” (p. 142), since those who have not made the formal statement that “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” (the Shahada) are, in fact, not Muslims. There are passages that would have benefitted from citations. It would have been helpful to know what research he has in mind as supporting the claim that many Latinos/as celebrate feasts in the Christian liturgical year “regardless of their profession of Christianity (or lack thereof)” (p. 79).
This text represents a promising enterprise, and more work, particularly empirical theological work, is clearly needed in the area of comparative spirituality and certainly in terms of Latino/a spirituality. There is much to be learned from comparing understandings and practices of the holy across a single broad category such as Latino/a. Aponte surely has a point when he argues that the Latino/a label reflects a “sense of a collective pan-ethnic and pan-racial identity that paradoxically maintains much of the diversity of the component parts” (p. 74). It would be helpful to examine the assertion, quoting from the American Baptist theologian who did her doctoral work at Fordham University, Loida Martell-Otero, that “U.S Hispanic Protestants are in some sense ‘cultural Catholics’” (p. 109). To what extent is this the case? Much existing data, including from various Pew surveys, could help examine this claim.
Future work will need to show the precise degree to which lived Latino/a spirituality in the United States today has a collective identity, or not, and what its scope and dimensions are. One hopes that such works will build on the diverse and rich literature on popular religiosity, whether in Latin America or among Latinos/as in the United States. One also hopes that there will also be more discussion of the degree to which particular understandings or practices are widespread, or not. There is clearly a value to a mixed method approach that goes beyond simple recitation of unique spiritual events and practices among Latinos/as in the United States, or the assertion of a common identity or uniqueness. Use of careful empirical measures, already widely available on a range of practices, could be analyzed and presented in a theological context so as to advance understanding of the traditions, practices, sayings, and other experiences being described.
This work is recommended to scholars who have not considered the full diversity of the Latino/a community today, or the full scope of contemporary Latino/a religious practice. It might also be useful for those in ministerial or pastoral counseling type programs, should they be likely to encounter Latino/a congregants or clients. It is probably not useful as a text for undergraduate or beginning graduate courses, since it fails to contextualize and generalize the extent of the practices under discussion. Students encountering the Latino/a religious reality will get an incomplete picture from this text. Similarly, this text is probably not especially useful for advanced graduate students, since many statements lack citations that would be helpful to scholars, and much of the information is pitched at a broad survey level. Read together and complemented with other texts, however, such as Tim Matovina’s fine Latino Catholicism (2012), could make for a rich smorgasbord of religio-ethnic cultural exploration.