Mexico does not have an official religion. However, Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and deeply culturally pervasive. It is estimated over 80% of the population identifies as Catholic. Many Mexicans see Catholicism as part of their identity, passed on through the family and nation like cultural heritage. However, not all Mexicans attend church services regularly. Religiosity is most visible in festivities, events and also the placement of idols throughout people’s homes and public places. While approximately 5% of the population is thought to be unaffiliated with any religion, many non-religious Mexicans still engage in Catholic celebrations.
Mexican society is generally quite tolerant of other faiths. Indeed, adherents to different Christian churches are growing. There are a number of Pentecostal Christians, Evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Much conversion to other variations of Christianity has occurred in recent decades as some Mexicans have become disenchanted with the Catholic Church, or sought a closer relationship with God. Indeed, the Pew Forum found that 44% of current Protestants were raised Catholic.1 Members of these minority religions are more likely to actively. For example, 31% of Mexican Protestants reported that they share their faith with others outside their religious group at least once a week.2 The corresponding portion of Catholics who claimed to do the same was 7%.3
Catholicism in Mexico
Spanish colonists introduced Roman Catholicism to Mexico in the 16th century. This religion teaches the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy Trinity’, consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Today, Catholicism is synonymous with the culture and society of Mexico. It is deeply infused in the public life and visible in the language. For example, one might hear the following phrases on a daily basis: “Si Dios quiere” (God willing), “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you) and “Gracias a Dios” (thank God).
There are multiple customs that Mexicans follow in daily life to pay respect. For instance, many Mexicans draw a cross with their hand whenever they pass in front of a church or altar. For the typical Mexican, life is marked by seminal Catholic moments, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage and extreme. These rites of passage mark key turning points throughout one’s lifetime. According to the Pew Forum, Catholics living in Mexico tend to hold more traditional views than Mexican living in other countries. For example, Mexicans in the US tend to hold more lenient opinions about the constraints of priesthood.4 However, not all Catholics in Mexico are strictly observant. It is estimated only 16% pray daily.5
La Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin of Guadalupe)
Mexico has a patron saint, known as the ‘La Virgen de Guadalupe’ (the Virgin of Guadalupe). She is depicted as a darker-skinned version of the Virgin Mary, with more Mexican features. It is believed she appeared to a peasant, identifying herself as the Virgin Mary by speaking in his native Aztec language. This image and story of the Virgin Mary is unique to Mexico, representing the way Catholicism has evolved to suit the Mesoamerican context. The incorporation indigenous heritage and culture into her origin story and legacy means that the Virgin of Guadalupe is believed to be the ‘mother’ of all Mexicans. She is Mexico’s most important national icon and religious cultural symbol.
In the Mexican practice of Catholicism, the Virgin of Guadalupe serves the role as the appropriate messenger and means for reaching God. She is believed to answer and grant the prayers of those who revere her. Therefore, it is common for Mexicans to have a shrine in their home where they pray to an image or emblem of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Basilica built in dedication to her (the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. On the anniversary of her apparition, the number of Mexicans that visit this sacred site exceeds millions. Her deep veneration means any perceived criticism of her can seriously offend Mexicans. It can be interpreted as an insult to their faith as well as their national identity.
Folk Religions and Magic
There are cultural forms of superstition and folk religions (unrelated to religious institutions) that are generally known to almost all Mexicans. According to anthropologists, one-third of all Mexicans believe in magic and its potential influence over events in their life.6 This phenomena is common across all social classes, both rural and urban. It is thought to help offer a solution to those areas in people’s lives where both science and Catholicism have not been able to provide comfort.
As part of a widespread belief in supernatural elements, some Mexicans have a fear of black magic, curses, witches (brujos) and/or the evil eye (mal de ojo). There are many ‘curandero(a)s’ (healers) throughout Mexico. These are traditional native healers that use folk remedies (such as herbs and ointments) to cure physical ailments as well as to offer relief from bad luck. Curanderos are often cheaper than doctors. They combine both religious and supernatural elements/levels. Many people may pay a curandero to protect them from a spell or dissolve it. These traditions continue to be practised throughout many regions and cities of Mexico. People also seek fortune-tellers that read candles and tarot cards to interpret events in their daily and professional lives.
La Santa Muerte (Saint Death)
Many contemporary religious practices intermingle indigenous traditions with Catholicism to suit modern needs. A well-known example is the growing veneration of the pseudo-saint, 'Santa Muerte' (Saint Death). Santa Muerte is a female figure believed to provide healing, protection and favours to those that worship her image. Her image personifies death – a skeleton wearing a long robe holding a scythe. As such, she is thought to be associated with a continuation of the Aztec goddess of death (Mictecacihuatl). While she is not associated with Catholicism, rituals asking for the grace of Santa Muerte mimic Catholic traditions.
Millions of Mexicans have turned to Santa Muerte under the belief that she will have more power and control over events in their lives than Catholic forms of worship.7 Her followers believe she is less judgemental and often feel more comfortable asking her for favours that may be morally ambiguous in the eyes of the Catholic Church. She is also believed to have a vengeful spirit that seeks reprisal if a follower abandons her.
Many Mexicans condemn the Church of Santa Muerte (known as the ‘Shrine of Most Holy Death’). However, it has growing popularity with economically and socially disenfranchised members of society. Followers come from all backgrounds, but most particularly the lower class. The morbidity of Santa Muerte is also relatable to those who have experienced the hard realities of violence.
1 Pew Forum, 2014
2 Pew Forum, 2014
3 Pew Forum, 2014
4 Donoso, 2014
5 Pew Research Centre, 2014
6 Arana, 2016
7 Chesnut, 2012