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Hispanics' customs on rise
Arizona Daily Star
By Stephanie Innes
Easter's new look in Tucson
In an area where Hispanics are at 40 percent of the Catholic population and
growing, Easter Sunday in Tucson may soon take a back seat to the Latin American
traditions of Semana Santa - Holy Week.
"You have to see and feel and experience Holy Week to know how much God loves
you," said José Jimenez, 25, who spent four hours each day of last week at the
rigorous "Pascua Juvenil" Easter youth program at St. Monica's Catholic Church,
212 W. Medina Road.
Pascua Juvenil is one of many local Semana Santa traditions imported from Latin
America by Hispanics, who are now the largest ethnic group in the United States
and have accounted for 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic Church's growth since
1960. With such steep Hispanic population growth, colorful and emotional Latin
American religious traditions are having an increased influence in the United
About 140,000 of the Diocese of Tucson's 350,000 Catholics - 40 percent - are
Hispanic. As the Hispanic ranks continue to grow, the Catholic Church is
anticipating changes, like incorporating Hispanic customs into more churches.
"I think the changes are already taking place. There is a significant crossover
going on," said Timothy Matovina, a professor of theology at the University of
Notre Dame and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American
Catholicism. "The kind of vivacity of Catholic rituals and devotions I think
will increase because of the Hispanic presence, the pageantry. They have very
involved, engaged processions and a lot of non-Hispanics are very attracted to
"It gives me chills"
Jimenez's week culminated with a 16-hour day at church along with 55 other
Pascua Juvenil participants on Holy Saturday. This year was Jimenez's seventh in
the program, which is conducted entirely in Spanish.
"It's been very hard work," said Jimenez, who balanced Holy Week duties with a
full-time job at a local construction company. "You see in the faces of the kids
who come, a lot of them are frowning. But once they get into the prayer and
connect to God, it's hard to explain, but they completely change."
Jimenez and his family, who moved to Tucson from Nogales, Sonora, have continued
with the Holy Week customs they grew up with in Mexico. Those traditions include
Pésame - a Good Friday service when parishioners console Mary for losing her
son, Jesus; Good Friday processions of the cross with re-enactments; and the
Siete Palabras - a recitation of Christ's last words as he hung on the cross.
"It's not just a question of being inside the church, we do the Stations of the
Cross through the barrios," said the Rev. Gilbert Levario, pastor of the
predominantly Hispanic Santa Cruz Catholic Church, 1220 S. Sixth Ave. "They
bring in their own style of faith, especially in the devotional aspect. It
brings in the whole person."
Petra Meza, 32, a parishioner at St. Monica's, lived in Mexico until she was 15
and remembers Holy Week as so sacred and sober that her mother would not allow
her to turn on the television or go out with friends - far different from the
culture of Easter bunnies and chocolate she found after moving to Tucson.
"In Mexico on Good Friday the condolences to Mary are so important. It's very
moving," Meza said. "They put a statue of Mary in a black dress and pray the
rosary and share sorrow that her son died. The older ladies will offer incense,
the young women offer perfume to Mary, the men give palms, and the children give
Meza now helps out with the Pascua Juvenil at St. Monica's. Celebrants on Good
Friday joined in a procession of the cross and recited the last seven
expressions of Jesus before his death, called Siete Palabras, or the Seven Words
of Jesus on the Cross. The first expression is, "Father forgive them, for they
know not what they do," from the Gospel of Luke and the last, seventh
expression, also from the Gospel of Luke, is, "Father, into your hands I commend
"It gives me chills just to think about it," Jimenez said.
Hispanics typically place more emphasis on the three days of Holy Week called
the Paschal Triduum - Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday - than on
Easter Sunday itself.
"Unlike Anglos, many more Hispanics are in church on Good Friday and fewer on
Easter Sunday. You will see huge crowds on Good Friday," said Matovina.
Matovina said North American Catholics are more likely to see Easter as a
celebration of God's victory over sin and death, while Hispanics identify more
with Jesus and see God as someone who suffers with us.
"There are deep cultural reasons that North Americans are more attracted to
Easter Sunday," Matovina said. "I don't know why there's all the talk about Mel
Gibson's 'Passion' - Hispanics have acted out the Passion for years now, often
graphically. In just about every country in Latin America there is acting out of
"Vivid and impacting"
Pésame on Good Friday is one of the most moving services of Semana Santa, said
Ruben Davalos, director of evangelization and Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese
of Tucson, who compares the service to a wake.
"Especially in families that have lost someone, particularly an eldest son. It
is very vivid and impacting," Davalos said. "All day on Thursday and Friday most
of the time, it seems windy and overcast and people are in mourning.
"They bring an inborn faith in the spirit of popular piety and religiosity."
One of the most visible local examples of Mexican Holy Week pageantry is
performed by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, which was formed in the
early1900s from Yaqui refugees who had fled political persecution in Mexico.
Pascua is Spanish for Easter, underlining the importance of the holiday for
tribal members, who blend their prominent American Indian deer dancer symbol
with Mexican Catholic traditions throughout Semana Santa. Like people in
Spanish-speaking countries around the world, they burn an effigy of Judas the
betrayer on Holy Saturday and hold an all-night vigil between Holy Saturday and
Yaqui Easter ceremonies in Tucson communities end at midday today, when flowers
will be prominent as a symbol of good triumphing over evil. The Yaquis believe
flowers grew from the blood that Jesus spilled when he was crucified. In
Spanish, Easter is often called "Pascua Florida," which roughly translates into
"Festival of Flowers."
Meeting needs of Hispanics
The American Catholic Church is now trying to catch up with meeting the needs of
its Hispanic parishioners and curb a steady stream of defections to
Protestantism. If the Catholic Church is able to retain its Hispanic
worshippers, then by 2020 Hispanics will be the majority of American Catholics,
according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
While Hispanics comprise 39 percent of U.S. Catholics, they represent just 6.3
percent of the country's 46,000 priests. The Diocese of Tucson is trying to
attract more Spanish-speaking clergy, exemplified last year when all five of the
new priests ordained in the diocese were men from Mexico.
"Every parish in the diocese has a Hispanic presence. Some parishes are 90
percent," Dava- los said.
The Rev. Raúl Valencia García, associate pastor at St. Monica's, was one of the
five Mexican men ordained by the local diocese last year. He grew up in Mexico
andentered the priesthood after a career as a dentist in Nogales, Sonora. St.
Monica's added another Mexican tradition to Holy Week this year, Valencia García
said, by not starting its Holy Saturday vigil until 11:30 p.m.
"It is so that we can celebrate the death and the resurrection. This is really
different, not so common in the United States," Valencia García said.
Reggie Diaz, 27, a St. Monica's parishioner who works in a loan office and
volunteers for the Pascua Juvenil, fears the vibrant traditions of Semana Santa
will be diluted and lost without continued education of the children of Latin
"Not enough Catholic teachers in the United States speak Spanish," said Diaz,
who is bilingual. "The English-speaking theologians are very knowledgeable. We
need some more who speak Spanish because our traditions are different and
important. Our faith is rooted in believing in Christ first, and Good Friday is
the day Jesus took all sin and we remember he died for us. There is so much
beauty in it."
In parts of Mexico, Semana Santa today will turn into a second weeklong
celebration called Pascua. Like other Christians, faithful Hispanics look
forward to Resurrection Sunday as a release from their Lenten sacrifices and a
symbol of the renewal of spring.
"It's a continuation of the gift given to us of eternal life in heaven," said
George Rodriguez, 62, a deacon at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church, 1800 S.
Kolb. "We should actually be celebrating it every day of the year."
Rodriguez believes Hispanics have a deep-seated faith they will continue to
bring into worship, even through generations in the United States.
"Gracias a Dios - thanks be to God. It's ingrained in the Hispanic person."
° Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.