Religious practices infuse the daily life of Mexican Americans. Including the foreign- and U.S.- born, Mexican Americans (also referred to as Chicanos) are the largest Hispanic group in the United States. Although their customs vary widely from generation to generation, 70% of Mexican Americans are followers of Catholicism, but in recent years, many have looked toward Protestantism for spiritual nourishment. Mexican Americans figure significantly in several Protestant faiths, including the Latter- Day Saints (Mormons) and the Presbyterian Church. Over the past 10 years, however, Chicano membership has greatly increased in evangelical denominations such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Pentecostals. Despite these trends, the religious beliefs of Mexican Americans remain predominately influenced by Catholic traditions rooted in Mexico.
When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico in 1521, he imposed Catholicism on the indigenous population. Priests accompanied Cortes into New Spain, the name given to Mexico under Spanish dominion. Once under the cross and crown of Spain, indigenous people struggled to maintain their polytheist religious practices in the face of fierce pressure to convert to Catholicism. The Spanish clergy, demanding that the indigenous people acknowledge only one god, viewed the worship of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (the smoking mirror) as acts of heresy. While priests forbade indigenous religious practices, they also placed restrictions against the exercise of Protestantism and Judaism. As a result, the Mexican population remained largely Catholic, although Catholicism varied considerably among its indigenous rural followers. These differences occurred because local priests and bishops tolerated the combination of native religious practices with the rites of Catholicism. Today, the Mexican American laity adheres to a multidimensional brand of Catholicism that is both tightly and loosely connected to traditional practices. The changing image of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin of Guadalupe, also known as The Virgin Mary) reflects this dynamism.
La Virgen de Guadalupe is the most sacred figure of Mexican Catholics. The popular story of how Guadalupe came to Mexico begins on December 12, 1531. According to Roman Catholic belief, the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared on four occasions to a Christian Aztec, Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepeyac, just north of Mexico City. La Virgen spoke to Juan Diego in the Aztec language of Nahuatl and identified herself as the compassionate, entirely and ever virgin, Guadalupe. Juan Diego sought out Bishop Juan de Zumarraga to convey the miraculous sighting and to inform him of La Virgen's desire to have a basilica built in her honor. After thrice dismissing the humble peasant's apparition as imaginary, Bishop Zumarraga urged Juan Diego to request from La Virgen an infallible sign of her presence.
Juan Diego's fourth encounter with La Virgen proved the last, as the Blessed Mother provided the humble peasant with proof of Her identity. Five-petal, bi-colored Castilian roses adorned a portrait of La Virgen on Juan Diego's tilma, a cloak made of cactus fibers. As Juan Diego unwrapped his tilma for Bishop Zumarraga, roses tumbled to the clergyman's feet and suddenly the sacred portrait of the Ever Virgin Holy Mary appeared. Nearly 200 years after the miraculous event, the Basilica de Guadalupe was dedicated in 1709 in Mexico City. Five hundred years later, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego acknowledging the humble peasant's wondrous witnessing of La Virgen. Mexicans in the United States and Mexico commemorate the apparition of the Blessed Mother with feasts, pilgrimages, and prayers on December 12. The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe remains significant in the religious and spiritual life of Mexican Americans. However, the portrait of the Blessed Mother has changed from her original likeness. Chicana artists reimaged La Virgen as a feminist symbol of womanhood. Inspired by the Chicano and feminist social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, artist Yolanda Lopez fashioned the Virgin Mary as an independent Mexican American woman. Lopez's most famous painting of the Blessed Mother, "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe," represents La Virgen as a powerful and virtuous role model for Chicanas. Most recently, digital artist Alma Lopez recast the image of the sacred Virgin and the angel Gabriel as two modern Chicanas uninhibited by nudity and religious convention in her work, "Our Lady." Nonetheless, the Lopez renderings of La Virgen de Guadalupe remind us that the Chicano experience is a constant interplay between American and Mexican cultural dynamics.
Mexican American Catholics celebrate a multitude of holidays throughout the year. Las Posadas marks the beginning of the Christmas season with 9 days of celebrations, called the "novena" or 9 days before the Nativity. From December 16 to December 24, posada (the inn) observances reenact Mary and Joseph's difficult sojourn from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter. Children figure prominently in these rituals. At dusk, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession of peregrinos (pilgrims) in a search for the posada. Small statues of Joseph and Mary usually carried by teenagers accompany the house-to-house quest for refuge. While the pilgrims request lodging in three different houses, only one will provide shelter. Each observance ends in prayer and song at a Nativity scene. The last posada signifies the beginning of Jesus' birth. Christmas Eve or la nochebuena commonly includes the gathering of family and friends, the opening of gifts, and the attending a misa de gallo (rooster's mass). This mass's name is in honor of a rooster that crowed to announce the birth of Jesus. After mass, all enjoy tamales, bunuelos, churros, and chocolate caliente into the early morning of Christmas day or El Dia de Navidad.