Religion Plays a Strong Role in Lives of Central American Immigrants

June 30, 2008

Author: Jack Spillane

Source: The Standard-Times

On a cold Friday night on Dec. 20, a small procession made its way down the ice-clogged sidewalks of New Bedford's North End.

The temperature was well below freezing and the wind-chill far below that. But it didn't seem to bother the Central American marchers, most of whom had never experienced anything like a below-zero wind before coming to New England.

The "Advent" procession, sponsored by St. Killian's Church in the North End, is called "the posada," and is part of a "novena" (nine days of prayer) that is a longstanding Catholic tradition but which is more common in Latin America.

The posada is just one of a number of religious customs that Central American immigrants have brought with them to New Bedford over the past two to three decades.

Others include the "presentation" of a newborn baby at Mass (even before the baptism), the blessing of a new house or apartment, or the emotional prayer groups of the city's Latino Pentecostal groups.

At the center of the St. Killian's procession was "Pedro," a burly laborer who has lived in New Bedford for five years, and who was carrying what looks like a small cupboard on his shoulders.

Inside the wooden box were statues of Mary and Joseph but not the baby Jesus who, in keeping with Spanish custom, would not come until Christmas Day.

Surrounding Pedro were 20 or so fellow immigrants, some holding aloft battery-operated candles, some reading from prayer pamphlets, all of them singing Spanish hymns, alternated with praying the Catholic rosary.

Every once in awhile, Father Walter Bejarano, a missionary from Argentina, led the marchers in what sounds like a football cheer.

"Jesus!" he shouted, and the marchers responded "Viva!"

"Maria!" he shouted, and again came the response, "Viva!"

And finally, "Jose!" And one more "Viva!" back at his cold face in the winter night.

Some of the North End residents opened the windows over the tenement storefronts as they heard the melody of the Spanish words of "Little Drummer Boy."

The strains of the Acushnet Avenue hymn seemed other-worldly as it competed with the car engines and the busy street of a Friday night in New Bedford.

"It's a special honor to carry the statues," said Jose Maria in Spanish through an interpreter. "It was a little cold, but I didn't mind."

When the procession reached the home of Loreto and Ruby Quiroa, a Guatemalan family who would host a party of soft drinks and homemade traditional pastries, the marchers enacted the role of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, asking to come in. The occupants of the apartment played the role of the innkeeper, asking why they were there. The two sides sang back-and-forth for a full 10 minutes as they performed the ritual.


"Religion is very important in the Spanish community," said Edwin Aldorando, a former Puerto Rican activist, who after many years in America, has turned to religion as his way of coping with the dominant Anglo culture.

Though the majority of Latino immigrants remain Catholic, religious leaders estimate that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the immigrants are now Protestant evangelicals or Pentecostals. Their simple storefronts — with names that advertise a relationship with Jesus as opposed to the Catholic names devoted to the Blessed Virgin or the saints — now line the city's commercial streets, from Acushnet Avenue to County Street.