“Heresy is a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas.”
I must have been about five years old. I remember the scent of copal burning nearby, the beautiful stained glass in the windows and the numerous candles surrounding images of women and men in ancient-looking clothing. I also recall the people who, wearing their best outfits, greeted each other effusively. But above all, I remember the image of Christ in the cross right in the middle of the altar. The sculpture of a white-blond man covered in blood and staring at me with a painful look in his eyes shocked me. I did not ask questions, but his image was so overwhelming that I sat through a two-hour service just observing his wounds one by one from head to toe.
Why would someone wear a crown made of thorns? How could someone be nailed to a cross? And, why would his image, covered in blood, be shown in such a special place?
The memories that follow that imagery are those of my mother yelling at her sister, of my cousins being scandalized because I had never been in a Church and of my mother picking me up in her arms and taking me away from her sister’s house in anger. While in the car my mother was trying to explain something to me, but I could not quite understand it. The only thing that truly stuck to my mind was the phrase: “We do not believe in that.”
My grandparents own a beautiful house in the country-side of Mexico City. It is a rustically decorated house with an extensive garden, where my grandparents cultivate roses, blackberries, lemons, apples and nopal. The rural community is composed of both Indigenous and mestizo people, who invariably engage in extensive syncretic religious rituals. My grandparents do not live in that house full-time, but often contribute to the celebrations financially, as it the community’s conventions dictate.
My grandfather is a jolly man, who collects archeological pieces and art, loves reading, plays the guitar and enjoys painting. Among his many pieces of art there is a 19th century painting of the Virgin of Miracles. The painting stands alone hung in the living room of the house. The Virgin’s painting, a family heirloom, is the only religious piece of art I have ever seen in my grandparents’ house.
The painting has its own story connected to my grandfather’s own story of heresy. Grandpa grew up within a mestizo community, raised by his mother and grandmother, who, according to the stories, were devout Catholics fulfilling non-traditional roles at the beginning of the century. I still get to hear the stories of how his grandmother, along with other women, hijacked a train carrying flags and other government goods during the times of the Revolution, when they had no money. My great-great-grandmother was a strong woman, who did not mind carrying a gun or scaring the men who tried to take advantage of her in anyway, but who also had a sense of humor. Her jokes and stories are still shared during family gatherings.
Nonetheless, stories of magic and paranormal events involving her also exist. The stories tell that she talked to spirits and even made them help her with household chores. Grandpa always dismisses these stories, perhaps hoping that they were just figments of his grandmother’s imagination… but that is where the Virgin of Miracles fits in. Despite all her “weird” experiences, as my family calls them now, great-great-grandma was exceptionally religious, and she had a rule: One was to make the Sign of the Cross in front of the painting of the Virgin of Miracles every day before leaving the house and upon passing a Church. She believed that the Sign of the Cross would protect her, without it really bad things were meant to happen.
Grandpa recalls “being forced” to do the Sign of the Cross in front of the Virgin’s painting, the same one that is now displayed in his living room, daily. As he recounts, he resented such an action because he was “rational” enough to know that there was something wrong with the logic behind that belief. One day, while in his late teens, he forgot making the Sign of the Cross in front of the Virgin, and he left the house. He reports being extremely concerned and scared about the outcome of such mistake. Yet, he discovered that his day had gone well and that nothing had happened to him. My grandfather points to that day as the moment when he realized that religion was nonsense and that he did not believe in God.
People who know I grew up in Mexico often assume that I was raised Catholic or/and “traditionally” (often made to mean religiously and culturally conservative) because such is the stereotype about Latin Americans in the West. But those descriptions have little meaning for me. I grew up in a God-less household. Grandpa quit religion when he was young and never looked back. It did not matter that a few spouses within the family were religious, the standard has remained the atheist-secular-liberal standard. For my family atheism meant the liberation from superstition, freedom from political control, disassociation with spiritual corruption and abuse, independence from “outdated” beliefs and practices and, more importantly, from a painful family past that until now we rarely talk about.
Even though grandpa celebrates Christmas, for instance, he says he does it more out of “culture” rather than religion. In fact, my family today justifies its partaking in certain religious celebrations based on the importance of such activities to Mexican culture while rejecting the religious significance of the holidays. In other words, one can celebrate Christmas without being religious and one can be an atheist and still respect culture.
The lines of culture, tradition and religion are some that are often blurred in my family.
Yet, we identify as atheist… the family members that are not as intense about religion and atheism identify as agnostic. But overall, we, as the family patriarchs will tell you, have embraced heresy in the name of freedom, choice and rationality. Little did we know that religion and spirituality would become more complex for some of us over time…
To be continued…