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Religion has been ingrained in Latino culture for centuries.
Catholic homes, for instance, often display altars with figures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and various saints. Sacraments mark important milestones in worshippers’ lives. In some Latin American countries, children ask for their elders’ blessing when they greet them.
But these dynamics are changing as more and more Hispanics, especially younger people, across the U.S. retreat from their religious ties. In 2007, 84% of Hispanic adults identified themselves as Christians, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Studies. By 2019, that number had dropped to 72%, and Catholic affiliation among Hispanics fell below half, from 58% to 47%.
At the same time, the tally of Latinos who don’t affiliate with a religion rose by 9 percentage points.
Despite this trend, religion remains a fundamental part of life for many of Utah’s nearly half a million Hispanics, who make up 15% of the state’s population.
And while the overall figures are telling, each person’s individual journey toward — or away from — a faith tradition is unique. Here, four Utah Latinos share where they are on this path:
A father’s faith
At 32 and with a 10-month-old son, Greg Sanchez already ponders the legacy he wants to pass on to his child. He hopes it is one that includes the values and community he has found in Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sanchez grew up attending church in New Jersey. Worshipping was important to him then and there and it remains so here and now — in the Beehive State.
It was in Utah that he had one of his most profound religious experiences, naming and blessing his son, Milo. During that religious rite, he asked God to protect his boy, bless him and guide him throughout his life.
“Just saying that prayer was really enlightening for me because it put in perspective what I felt that God felt about us. And he just wants us to be good people. He wants us to progress and become better,” Sanchez said. “And it’s just that kind of relationship that I have with my son, or something that kind of solidified my belief that there is a God that cares about us.”
Being apart from his extended family, he found a community to rely on in a Spanish language ward, or congregation, in west Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood. There, he also found common ground with Latinos from other countries.
“We don’t speak the same Spanish dialect. But we understand each other,” he said. “And we know the struggle of being immigrants, or having children, or trying to find a job, etc.”
In Rose Park, and especially in Spanish-speaking groups, religion plays an essential role, Sanchez said. Many events and volunteer opportunities arise from his church affiliation.
“If you’re just stuck with your friends, and you don’t have that social aspect of a church, you may miss out on these great opportunities to serve,” he said. “And that’s probably one of the reasons, one of the biggest reasons, why I enjoy going to church is because I like to serve to help others.”
He once distanced himself from church, he said, because he didn’t feel the need to attend regularly. That started to change when he became an adult.
“I still need the help and support that comes through the spiritual aspect of church,” Sanchez said. “Also the social aspect of going to church, which is within a congregation of people that are like-minded and that support each other when they are struggling.”
A complicated relationship with church
Religion has always been “tricky” for Kearns resident Osmar Ramirez.
“Science has its theories of evolution and whatnot. And that’s plausible,” he said. “But who’s to say that there isn’t a higher power that put us all here for a reason?”
The 19-year-old was born into a Mexican Catholic family and, for some part of his life, he participated in that tradition.
But he often found keeping up with religious expectations “stressful.” He feared “going to hell,” making mistakes in life and facing dire consequences in an afterlife. There was also a pressure to behave and look “a certain way.”
Ramirez was curious about the catechism. He enjoyed learning about his religion, but that interest didn’t extend to usual Sunday service.
“Whether it be the Christian church, the LDS or the Catholic Church, I never really felt welcomed,” he said. “I felt that it was more for the older people…. It wasn’t really engaging with me.”
His mother and sister distanced themselves from Catholicism when he was around 10. With that shift, his interest in other religions, such as different brands of Christianity, and Islam grew.
“I don’t think I’m really learning to see anything specific,” Ramirez said. “I just want to know how other cultures see religion through their eyes and through their beliefs.”
As for himself, he no longer affiliates with a church and doesn’t expect to do so in the future. He sees himself instead continuing to learn on his own, not regularly attending any denomination.
That doesn’t change how he feels about God, though.
“I think I’ll always believe in a higher power, definitely. There’s just so much unknown,” Ramirez said. “The thought of having a higher power, I think, is kind of comforting.”
A personal, engaging religion
It takes a few essential elements for Stephanie Griswold to connect with a church: services in Spanish and feeling “something” when she worships.
“When I’m sitting in Mass and hearing the homily or the readings for the week, I want to feel moved. I want to feel connected,” she said. “And, unfortunately, Catholic Mass can sometimes be a little static.”
In Hildale — a remote southern Utah community known for its polygamous ties — that’s hard to accomplish. She has to drive 30 minutes to reach the nearest Catholic church. The 34-year-old also is a graduate student and cares for her paralyzed husband, so day-to-day obligations get in the way of any meaningful connection to a parish.
Still, she identifies as Catholic, just like many of her Nicaraguan-Mexican family. But she hardly ever attends services. In a way, she’s following her family’s practices.
“[Religion] was such a big part of my family’s identity even though we weren’t regular churchgoers,” she said. “I can’t say, necessarily, that I’m certain that there is a God, but I think that it’s a comfort, and it’s just also part of my upbringing. It’s something that’s possibly there.”
She sees parts of her church as “man-made” and emphasizes that the “relationship anyone has with God is private and personal.”
She finds commonalities with other Catholics in regards to religious symbols. Her family always had a Virgen de Guadalupe figure at home, which, she said, is a symbol of comfort and motherly support. Griswold had her first Communion, her confirmation and her marriage in the church.
But she has abandoned traditions that don’t make her feel good.
“It’s OK to doubt and question and not just be a blind follower of any particular thing,” Griswold said. “Instead of being like, ‘Oh, I have to go to church every Sunday because I have to keep the Sabbath.’ Well, sometimes I would keep the Sabbath by doing good things on Sundays like charitable work, or watching something, or reading something that made me reflect on my relationship with religion.”
A nuanced view of religion
Joyce Schwenke grew up a Latter-day Saint. She married and is raising her kids in the faith. She works with a youth group in her Vineyard ward and every weekend she’s not working, she spends at church. She has no intentions of ever leaving the fold, but she sometimes struggles with what she hears there.
“Mostly by the way we treat the LGBTQ+ community. I feel like the norm is to exclude them, and I don’t really appreciate that. I have a cousin that’s like a sister to me and she came out about 10 years ago,” Schwenke said. “I was really sad to hear that she expected I would reject her because I was active in my faith.”
That was the moment she decided to become an LGBTQ ally, studying ways to discuss sexual orientation and ensuring all could feel loved and comfortable being themselves around her.
“That’s what Jesus would have wanted,” the 36-year-old said, bemoaning that many fellow members don’t feel the same way. “Unfortunately, I’m kind of one of the outliers.”
Her parents are Mexican and have a “less rigid” culture, and now that she’s a mom, Schwenke wants to transmit that to her children. She wants them to love others and accept them for who they are.
Still, she believes in the core values of the church — faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, enduring to the end. She just adds to that formula more acceptance of those who may be seen as different and those who have left the church.
Some friends, Schwenke said, have noticed how she is navigating her faith.
“It stems off of several things with my cousin coming out. I’ve also lost a brother to suicide,” she said. “And that took me to a different course of finding my own faith and really digging into what I believe.”
Schwenke said she is “fortunate” to be living in a diverse area.
“We have people from Nigeria, Guatemala, Paraguay, Mexico and all sorts of places. They’ve lived in different states as well. They’re not just Utah-bred Mormons,” she said. “So I’ve really enjoyed meeting them and seeing what their experience has been like outside of this area and the ways that they can contribute to our community. It’s really awesome.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.