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STANFORD -- Religious scholars traditionally have viewed Mexican Americans as "bad" Catholics who don't attend church regularly and who mix "pagan" practices with Christian ritual, says a Stanford University doctoral candidate.

In reality, though, Mexican Americans are devout in a more daily and domestic way, and for strong historical reasons, said Susana Gallardo, who plans to draw on oral histories for her doctoral dissertation on religion and culture in the Southwest.

While surveys do show that Chicano Catholics attend church less frequently than other American Catholics, she said, that is not the whole story. Mexican Americans have a tradition of Catholicism being maintained in the home, primarily by women, Gallardo said.

Central to this tradition are home altars, which some women refer to as their "church in the home." The altars, where women gather for daily devotions, Gallardo said, usually contain pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe and saints, along with candles, rosaries, religious statues, pictures of family members and perhaps even pictures of John F. Kennedy, honored as a famous Catholic who supported civil rights.

Mexican American Catholics make religion part of their daily lives in other ways, Gallardo said, for example, by placing a statue of the Mexican Virgin on the car dashboard or hanging a rosary from the rear- view mirror.

In one of the first oral histories she has begun to explore, she has found the story of a midwife, who in the course of delivering 12,000 babies, follows religious practices that had been handed down to her by her grandmother. It is her habit to place a picture of the Virgin on the ceiling, where it can be seen by the mother in labor, and to say a special prayer as she delivers the infant.

Another woman explains that every morning when she makes her tortillas, she makes the sign of the cross and recites a short prayer, a routine that Gallardo said could be understood as a "communion ritual."

Mexican history provides some insight into why Chicanos' Catholicism is more focused on the home and on daily life than on weekly church attendance, Gallardo said.

"In Mexico, the church has had a negative image as a large landowner and an oppressor, a center of power and privilege," she said.

This negative image of the church was reaffirmed in the United States, Gallardo said, "with segregated services and church-sponsored 'Americanization' programs that sought to strip Mexican Catholics of their traditional practices and beliefs."

In addition, she said, both in rural Mexico and in many parts of the American Southwest, churches were few and far between, leaving many Catholics with no access to weekly church services.

Nevertheless, Catholicism remains a central part of Chicano identity, she said, in much the way that many American Jews retain a strong Jewish identity while infrequently going to temple services.

"I want to acknowledge and explore the diversity of forms of Catholic religiosity," Gallardo said. "I want to ask, what do Chicano Catholics value most about their Catholic beliefs - that is, how do they make Catholicism their own?"



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