Even if I don’t sit in on my mother’s FaceTime calls to my grandmother, I know the format by now. First fifteen minutes, someone has bad connection. Next fifteen minutes, talking about my cousins. It’s at the thirty-minute mark where things get interesting. Around there is when my grandmother asks my mother if she’s taken my brother and I to church. Or it might be at the forty-five minute mark, or at the twenty-three. As long as me, my brother or both of us are sitting there, the topic of our morals and our beliefs are fair game. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s some sort of inquisition, nor do I want to disrespect my grandmother’s or my extended family’s Catholicism. On the contrary, I sincerely believe that if their beliefs bring them comfort and give them life, then power to them. What’s interesting is looking at my Mexican heritage through the lens of secularism. What does it mean to be a non-Catholic Mexican when the majority of your heritage is heavily Catholic? How does one express heritage when most of the iconography comes from Catholicism?
There’s a lot of talk and rabble in American politics about separation of Church and state, but there’s not that type of discussion in Mexican politics. There doesn’t need to be. Many Mexican cultural traditions are heavily catholic. This trickles down to the layperson’s culture and worldview. What comes next is a general acceptance of what it means to be Mexican. Iconography of La Virgen Maria is as Mexican as it is Catholic, being grounded in both populist folklore as well as Catholic tradition of venerating the Virgin Mary.
Why separate the church and the state when the Church is seen as a basic aspect of the Culture? Not to say that Mexico is a theocracy, but in a country that is 85% Catholic (as of 2010)1, there isn’t as much mainstream fear of a state using its power to impose religion onto its citizens as there is here. To be Mexican is to be Catholic. This belief is still a vestige of Spanish Colonization, when all non-Colonizer belief systems were mostly stamped out. And it is still damn potent. I remember when I heard a friend of mine, who is also of Mexican heritage, was not Catholic but Baptist. I felt a strange sense of bewilderment that I just don’t get when I hear a non-Mexican, particularly a white American say they’re not Christian. I’ve heard it all from white America: paganism, atheism, deism, pastafarianism, and convenient nihilism, it’s whatever. That doesn’t surprise me. But a non-Catholic Mexican feels scandalous, even if there’s literally nothing wrong with that.
The closest thing to an answer I have is the Mexican flag itself. The flag, like other flags holds meaning in its colors. In particular, the symbol of the eagle and the cactus in the middle. For reference, here’s a flag:
Take note of the Eagle and the Cactus in the middle. After my ranting on Catholic iconography, you’d expect that to probably be either tied to some local catholic tradition. For the most part, it is. The green signifies the independence movement, while the white signifies the purity of Catholicism. The red represents the Spanish who joined in to help the independence. But in the middle there’s an eagle and a cactus. Those are just as Mexican as the rest of the flag, but they are not grounded in colonial traditional Catholicism. Instead, it’s a precolonial myth2 about the establishment of the Aztec capital. In the myth, the Aztec tribe had been wandering for a long time when the gods came down and gave them this advice: to keep wandering until they came upon a nopal, a cactus, with an eagle eating a snake perched on it. That seemed like an impossible thing, to find that combination in the desert. But they came upon that, on the site of where Mexico City is now located. It has been an enduring symbol of Mexico and it’s native roots. And if a Catholic country can have a non-Catholic symbol in the center, I can keep on, expressing my heritage and the community it brings. It’s not the best solution, but I’ll keep wandering until I find one.
1Pew Research Center, Global Catholic Population
2Mexican Flag – AmHistorySI