I don’t know what percentage of Hispanics are practicing Catholics- I imagine most are. Even the non-practicing ones are still kind of Catholic. Catholicism is embedded into the culture. If you aren’t Catholic then you used to be Catholic. And if you didn’t used to be Catholic you’re some other kind of Christian that still incorporates some seemingly Catholic traditions and symbols into its practice.
Unless you’re me. Then you’re Jewish.
I identify as half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, and culturally I am. But “Jewish” has more than one meaning so while I’m genetically half Jewish, religiously, I was raised all Jewish. My Puerto Rican dad (who used to be Catholic go figure) converted to Judaism. I’m Jewish in a Catholic culture. I’m a stranger in a familiar land. A land so familiar that most of my landsmen (yiddish for compatriotas) just assume that I’m also Catholic.
Most of the time this isn’t a problem but it can lead to some…funny… situations.
Like the time I was attending mass for the baptism of my neighbor’s baby. Everybody started filing out of their seats so they could stand in line for crackers and wine from the priest. I moved to the side so the elderly woman (who also lived in my building) seated next to me could get out of the pew and on to the line. She gestures for me to go ahead of her. I shake my head no and motion for her to go ahead. She, perhaps thinking I was just being polite tried to gently push me on to the line. I whispered ‘soy judia’ but of course since she was elderly she couldn’t hear me so I had to progressively had to say it louder and louder until everyone at Our Lady Of Perpetual Awkwardness heard me proclaiming my Judaism.
Or the time during Christmas when someone in my building offered to give me a wreath for my door because she thought I just didn’t have money for one.
Or when my daughter was born and I had to turn away gifts of statues, candles, coins, and other things with the image of some guy who I can only imagine is now the patron saint of offended elderly Dominican women. (Of course if I felt the person would be absolutely heartbroken if I didn’t accept, I would take it and then give it to someone who would appreciate it). My faith requires me to put my foot down and insist that I not accept what is, all religion aside, a very heartfelt and thoughtful gift.
Statues are a big deal around here but the thing is, Judaism frowns on statues of ‘sacred people’. That’s kind of an understatement. Judaism explicitly forbids it. As a practicing Jew, I don’t have any ‘graven images’ in my home and I will not give anything to my daughter that contradicts how my husband and I are raising her. The end.
As hard-ass as that might appear, I’m not bitter about it. I’m not offended when people do the sign of the cross thing at my baby or offer her pernil, I just have to try to politely say no thank you. (full disclosure: every Yom Kippur I end up having to repent for all the pernil I myself have eaten during the past year and will probably eat during the next year). I have to explain to neighborhood parents that I need to know what they’re having for dinner before I let my daughter join them. I’ll have to explain to my daughter that she can’t participate in the local Christmas or Easter pageants and that we don’t go to church unless it’s for a ceremony for someone we know.
It won’t always be like this awkward. Religious diversity is gradually becoming the norm in the Hispanic world. When my daughter has her eventual child I hope she won’t have this hard of a time.
If she does, I hope she’ll see it as humorous and find a friend who appreciates statues :-)
Rachel Figueroa-Levin is a soapmaker, cofounder and educator at Urban Babywearing, a hyperlocal Inwood blogger and organizer, a political/life/religion/parenting satirist, and all around trouble maker. She is also the creator New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish-speaking alter ego @elbloombito. You can reach her via twitter @Jewyorican.