While some families are being brought closer due to the pandemic, religious differences are driving some families apart. How would you feel if your mother were extremely religious, and you weren’t, but she judged your life so harshly that it made you feel bad?
We inherit religion and the idea of how we should praise a higher power from our Latino families, but at some point it all has to be questioned and revised so that we as individuals can find our own paths, whether traditional, spiritual or scientific. Just how to maintain a relationship with a parent who believes your non-churchgoing lifestyle is condemning you to hell is what Magdalena, a 47-year-old born-and-raised New Yorker, microbiologist, and atheist is struggling with these days. For the purpose of this article she has chosen to change her name.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting her mother’s side of the family — who are born again Christians — means experiencing extreme discomfort and intolerance directed at her. Magdalena does not believe in Jesus, and her mother, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, became a born again Christian after she divorced Magdalena’s Jewish-American father.
Feeling unhappy, Magdalena’s mom chose to baptize herself into the religion that her own mother and sister already belonged to in order to deal with the pain of the breakup of her marriage.
But for Magdalena, her mother’s newfound faith, in her opinion, is “very extreme” and has caused a lot of conflicts between them. “We don’t see eye to eye,” she says. “I was always raised to think I had to respect the family. In the Latino community you feel pressure to follow them. These days, I feel anger and guilt.”
A generational rift
Latinos are a deeply spiritual community. So for women to hear they are sinners — especially from their own family — is truly painful.
Sandra Guzman. author of “The New Latina’s Bible: The Modern Latina’s Guide to Love, Family, Spirituality, and La Vida,” can relate to Magdalena’s story. Her feminist book is considered the go-to-guide for two generations of Latinas grappling with guilt about how to break free from old world traditions and the expectations of them as daughters, wives, mothers, etc.
Guzman, an Emmy award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker — she was also a producer of the American Masters documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” — tells me she experienced a similar pain within her own family that she learned how to overcome.
The disconnect is very real with women whose mothers or family members are reading scripture in this modern day, far from the even darker strain of patriarchy in the Church’s roots. Those of us who are daughters of women who are experiencing this religious salvation are at a loss, laments Guzman. “My mother became a born again Christian when one of my siblings was going through a grave illness. She leaned on the church for support. I saw her go from a joyous lipstick-wearing, music-loving woman to a solemn conservative who began wearing long skirts, a bun and forcing us to go to church four times a week,” she shared.
“As an adult, I have compassion for her and appreciate that faith got her through, but it was disturbing and deeply confusing as a young woman. Having journeyed through these ideas of God and spirit, I realize that my mother’s way is not my way and it’s okay,” Guzman reflected. “But to this day, watching her read the Christian Bible in the morning before the sun rises is a deeply comforting sight. And while it’s not my Bible, I honor and respect her faith as she does mine.”
Magdalena’s highway to hell
During the quarantine, Magdalena’s 93-year-old grandmother was very isolated and became depressed. To cheer her up (while being sure to keep a safe distance from her), Magdalena took the low-risk option of meeting her outside of her home in a public park. She brought her grandmother Dominican takeout food and kept her distance.
After some initial chit chat, the subject of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter came up. Her grandmother was upset about all the looting and violence in the country and began preaching to Magdalena and her cousin that the reason the social upheaval and COVID-19 all happened was because everyone had turned their backs on Jesus.
“It’s not too late for you,” the grandmother tells Magdalena and her cousin. “You two can still be saved. I’ll pray for you.” While her mother and aunt nod their heads in agreement with their elder, Magdalena and her cousin try to tune the words out. But while Magdalena’s cousin is able to not let their religious talk get under her skin, Magdalena can’t. Instead, she grows upset and tells them she disagrees with them.
“I believe that all of these things are based on human actions,” Magdalena tells them. “The virus is caused by human activity, with travel and animal contact, and the George Floyd murder happened because of racism, a very human concept.”
For Magdalena, who thinks scientifically, trying to explain her perspective to grandmother, mother and aunt is like talking to a wall, she says. And when she does, they make her feel like she is being disrespectful. She assumes it’s a Dominican thing not to disagree with your elders. But she still tries. “They believe what they believe. I can’t have a rational conversation with them. They simply think we are going to hell no matter what,” Magdalena says.
When personal beliefs put lives at risk
What also irks Magdalena is the disregard her born again family members have for wearing masks and the impact they may have on others if they don’t. To them, they don’t think they need to be so careful. In their minds they know they are going to heaven, even if they don’t wear a mask. It upsets Magdalena that they believe that if they simply pray to Jesus, they shouldn’t be afraid of dying of COVID-19 or infecting others.
“This conflict feels quite ancient,” says Guzman of Magdalena’s story. “It’s rooted in the foreign idea that was violently introduced in the Americas that humans are born sinners, instead of holy. As we are becoming, we are told we are not enough. It is a dangerous and old tension that arrived with the European ships to our lands.”
Guzman points to the settler’s spiritual bullying and savage attempts to “Christianize the heathens” to eradicate our indigenous belief systems. Thanks to syncretism, those beliefs were morphed, but not destroyed. “Santeras, espiritistas suffered greatly for their beliefs. They were ostracized and burnt. Some of this residue still lingers in our families.”
Divorcing a parent and their religious beliefs
Distancing yourself from a parent, even a toxic one, is perhaps one of the hardest things to do for Latinas. Our fortress is our family, but if you are financially liberated from them it’s important to be intentional about severing ties. It’s better to save yourself from the pain, the loss of sanity, and this feeling of not being enough or worthy simply because your mother or her family believe what they do.
For Guzman, setting spiritual boundaries allows you to protect yourself from religious bullies as you figure out what works for you.
Regarding Magdalena’s situation, Guzman says she doesn’t feel comfortable judging those involved. But women in rigid religious circumstances may find power in embracing something she once said to her sister-in-law, a devout, Puerto Rican, born again Christian who insisted that Mahatma Gandhi was going to hell because he didn’t believe Jesus was his savior: ”I will respect your right to believe in what you do, but I will not allow you to impose what isn’t right for my soul.”
For Guzman, setting boundaries meant returning to her Native ancestral spiritual practices, to finding Goddess and God in everything and everyone — including nature, like the rainforest, ocean or a river — and to venerating her ancestors.
“Latinas have a rich legacy of spirituality, a mix of indigenous and African belief systems, like curanderismo, and Santería. We should be unafraid to explore the ancient ways where we can find solace and healing in the modern world.”