By Sikivu Hutchinson
Bitch, ho, honorary mammy, Buena mujer. When it comes to images of Latinas in American mainstream media it’s either Sofia Vergara jiggling out of her shirt channeling Charo or caregiver/maid extraordinaire Lupe Ontiveros clutching her rosary beads, eyes rolling heavenward. Similarly, the range of casting opportunities for African American women is just as limited, with over 70% of TV roles still going to whites. Cultural and historical stereotypes about hypersexual women of color continue to define public perceptions of black and Latina women. And while African American and Latina women have some of the highest poverty and intimate partner violence rates in the country they are also two of the most “churched” groups in the U.S.
Over the past decade the number of Latinas involved in Pentecostalism has skyrocketed. Many Latinos are breaking away from the pedophile culture, scandal, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church in a quest to find religious traditions that offer greater community involvement, accessibility, and social connection. According to the U.S. Latino Religious Identification Report, authored by Juhem Navarro Rivera and colleagues, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%).” Given these challenges it’s not difficult to see why fewer Latinas can publicly risk coming out as atheist or find safe humanist spaces that are culturally responsive. Until there are secular community-based social, cultural, and economic institutions that redress systemic racism, sexism, patriarchy, and economic injustice secularism will be hollow, abstract, and white-identified for the majority of working and middle class people of color. Addressing these issues, Los Angeles-based feminist artist and undocumented youth advocate Diane Arellano breaks down the politics of being a Latina non-believer in a reactionary misogynistic era:
What is your cultural/religious background (i.e. were you raised in a religious household) and when did you make the shift to your current belief system?
I’m a Mexican. I was raised in a de facto secular household. We were peripherally Catholic. Our observance of the Christmas season was more aligned with American mainstream consumerism than the traditional Mexican/ Mexican-American holiday rituals (Posadas, attending Christmas Mass, Christmas donkey song, etc.). We did and still do observe the Christmas tamales or pozole traditions though.
Somewhere in college, I felt the need not to proactively counter the general assumptions that as a Mexican woman, I must be a Catholic or Christian. This is conscious shift in my identity was informed by my interests and participation in activism. When I searched for models of Latino activists, I was very disappointed to see or read about “seeking strength” from “La Virgen” or claiming their work is the work of “God.” I thought about how oppression functions in communities of color and asked myself, “isn’t there a good argument that can be made about the Church’s role in institutionalizing the oppressive gender, race, class, and sexuality paradigms that these activists are fighting so hard against?”
How have atheism, free thought and/or secular humanism shaped your world view?
I don’t feel the shame or guilt that many of my religious women of color peers carry on their shoulders. In my experience, my religious friends often feel the pressures of complying with “good womanhood.” These pressures include having children that they aren’t at the very least economically ready for at an early age. Another pervasive cultural pressure is “where to find a good man?” This quest for “Prince Charming” is a burdensome weight on many young women, who often attach themselves to men not worth of any kind of attention. I used to feel those pressures too but at this juncture in my life I want to focus on things that matter to me. Leaving my religious identity has allowed me to do that. In essence I believe all women, but especially women of color, are policed so heavily that we seldom ever question or see beyond gender roles and gender expectations. Few of us ever think about what it would be like to pursue our own dreams vs. supporting “our man” or catering to the best interests of the family. What kind of world would this be if women were provided with the same encouragement, interest, and networks that are provided when a boy or man talks about his dreams and goals?
As an atheist/freethinker what are some of the main issues you’re concerned with?
I’m primarily interested in addressing violence against women of color (sexual abuse, emotional, and physical); the quality of educational opportunities in communities of color; job opportunities and promotion for people of color; and access to non-religious community resources for communities of color (day care, quality schools, food banks, shelter, Narcotics Anonymous).
How can atheism, freethought and/or secular humanism be promoted to appeal to larger numbers of Latinos?
I believe that having non-religious community resources can help people shift from a church-dependent consciousness into a secular or humanist one. I think, especially in communities of color, we tend make the assumption that if you do work helping people, then you must be a “Good Christian.” I can’t tell you how many times the parents of students have told me they include me in their prayers or “God bless me” for helping their children.
As an out atheist what has your experience been with family and other Latino or people of color community members?
I have no problem telling people I don’t believe in God. I’ve definitely encountered the hesitation that registers in expressions of people of color when you matter-of-factly, and without shame, announce, “I’m an atheist.” Most people quickly recover and move-on.
What are some culturally specific reasons Latinas should question and/or forgo organized religion?
To clarify when addressing your question, I’m speaking about Latinas in the US, particularly coming from the Latino experience of the Southwest. I am not including the experiences of Latin America, which range from hyper Catholic countries where religion and the government co-exist yet gay marriage is legal (this would be Mexico) to communist countries that have a historical distrust of and opposition to religion yet exhibit a schizoid hyper-religiosity. Latino communities are disproportionately impacted by high poverty rates, low college graduation rates, high rates of violence against women & children, and the highest teen live birth rates in the country. Statistically Latinas are not engaging in higher rates of sexual activity than other groups, yet our high live birth rates are probably being caused, in part, by hyper- religious homes where contraceptives fly in the face of what the Pope has declared, “good Catholic” behavior. Also, Christianity tends to construct sex as “dirty,” and many Latino parents don’t speak to their children about sex. Unfortunately not speaking to children about sex puts them in danger of being sexually victimized or engaging in unsafe sexual practices which make them more vulnerable to STIs/STDs or getting pregnant.
The Christian/ Catholic stance against abortion continues to deprive women of their right to self-determination. Given our communities’ high poverty rates and sky high teen pregnancy rates, I don’t understand how the Church, a moral leader in the lives of many Latinas, demands that women—often times teen age girls—give birth to children they are not prepared for economically and emotionally. Of course, the quality of life for that mother and her children is not as important to the church as imposing rule and having Latinas faithfully obeying.
How can atheism and/or secular humanism aid Latinos in developing a moral outlook on life and the world?
First of all the atheist American landscape is dominated by science preaching white men; and this is not a welcoming environment for Latinos or people of color. If the American atheist movement wasn’t so dogmatic about science as the great equalizer, and/ or so condescending about the religiosity in communities of color, then we could have a conversation that doesn’t replicate the racial and religious hierarchy that people of color are familiar with. White conference organizers often construct atheism and race as a black and white issue, so this leaves us feeling unwelcome. And why would we go somewhere that ignores us or thinks so little of us? A form of humanism which addresses social issues that have the greatest impact on people of color could help Latinos achieve self-determination. More Latino atheist leaders are necessary as are public voices opposing religion, and more people willing to share their non-believer status.
If you have traveled and/or lived in other areas have you noticed any regional differences in acceptance or “tolerance” of Latino atheists?
Yes, there are big differences in every Latin-American country. It’s important to remember that even though we (Americans) construct Latin America as a monolithic hyper macho culture; that’s not the truth. Every country has famous atheist thinkers, poets, artists, and pockets of atheist cultures.