Finding faith in the U.S.A.
MARIA met her first husband in middle school, during a snack break, in a small pueblo called Santana, nine hours from Cuernavaca, Mexico. Abelardo was not handsome. He was not very smart. In truth, Maria can now remember exactly nothing nice to say about him, only that he was a jealous and controlling man who much preferred her to stay in the house, alone, and not have any friends.
Such preferences meant that the marriage felt familiar, but disappointing — almost useless to Maria, for the only reason she had married Abelardo was to escape the very similar rule of her mother who had also required that Maria stay in the house, alone, and not have any friends. Still, now, all these years later, to even mention their names together, Maria winces. And then laughs. “Idéntico,” she says of the two of them.
The couple married in a courthouse. The only guests were the groom’s father and mother, the latter visibly upset that her son had not chosen for himself a woman with more money. “We are not going to have a party for you,” she had told her new daughter-in-law.
Maria’s mother was not there. She was not there because she had not been invited and she had not been invited because the last time they’d seen one another, it had ended with a slap. Actually it had started with a slap: Maria, then 16, returned home from a two-month long date with Abelardo, who was 19, and found her mother waiting for her, furious, with a tree branch in one hand. The welts were still with her at the wedding.
MARIA’S mother, Jovita, could make tortillas, but not flan. She only wore dresses, not pants, and never jeans. These are people of the old ways, Maria says of her parents. And they did not understand.
Jovita was raised by farmers. Her parents grew squash, corn, and beans, worked hard and died young; they were 40 and Jovita was 10. Afterward she lived with her brother, and after that, she lived with a boyfriend who she had a child with — Joaquín. As it turns out this man liked to be with other women, many other women, and so Jovita left him and lived alone and might have stayed single for a very long time had she not gone to a market one morning, far away, at least nine hours from her pueblo, and met Anicefero, who was selling green chili peppers and introduced himself to Jovita at once.
Jovita and Anicefero also were farmers. Maria and her six siblings grew up on their farm and Maria did not like it: she didn’t like the weeding, she didn’t like the planting, she didn’t like how exhausting and heavy farm work was. More, she didn’t like that she had to quit school, after the sixth-grade, to work on the farm. (Her parents couldn’t afford to buy her books.) Much later, at 15, she started middle school and this time, when she quit, after only six months, it was not for the farm, but for Abelardo.
FOR most of Maria and Abelardo’s marriage, Abelardo worked as a security guard. Maria worked in restaurants, as a cook’s assistant, from morning until night, waking up at 4 a.m. to make meals for her kids to heat later in the day. She was home in time to kiss them good night and put them to bed and then fall asleep herself, so that she could again wake up at 4 a.m. to cook, first for the kids and then for the customers.
And if you ask her oldest daughter, Maria Marisol, born when Maria was 17, she’ll tell you: Who took care of me? I took care of me. I took care of all my brothers and sisters. I made their beds. I washed their clothes; I ironed their clothes. I made breakfast and dinner. And… I liked it. I liked taking care of them. We were always together, always. If I wanted to go and play outside, I brought [Rafael] with me and I played and watched him at the same time. It wasn’t hard, except when Rafael got a little older and liked to play with lighters, making fire in the street.
Maria Marisol went to school everyday from 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon. When she came home, she changed her clothes, made lunch, washed the dishes, swept the floor, helped her brothers and sisters with their homework, and then finished her own homework. It was easy, she says now. If it was easy then, it was easier still when, at age 11, her grandfather moved in to help out. Her mother had left for Los Angeles, with little Rafael in tow, to find Abelardo, who had all but disappeared there. At the time, Maria Marisol was sure her father was dead.
JOAQUÍN, Maria’s oldest brother, returned to Mexico in the spring of ’91. He found his sister living in a tin house with a dirt floor and no running water (for water, she walked to the colonia next door) working 15 hours a day and raising four children, alone, since her husband was away, in Los Angeles. What is he doing over there if he’s not sending money back to you? Joaquín asked her.
And so Joaquín sent her money, money that he’d made and saved as a gardener in the U.S., for a trip north to find Abelardo. At the time Maria had not heard from Abelardo in over a year. He had not called. He had not written. He had not made any contact. All of this changed when Maria arrived in Los Angeles and found Abelardo, at six in the morning, in his apartment, on Alvarado Street, with another woman, and a new baby, not yet three weeks old.
AND THEN it was over between Maria and Abelardo. It was also, Maria thought, over between her and all men, over between her and Los Angeles, over between her and the entire United States. (It was not.) She stayed in L.A., which she found very ugly, only one year, taking classes in industrial sewing machine operation and working in the Garment District, all to do exactly what Abelardo never did: send money home to their children.
On the morning Maria found Abelardo, with his new lover and child, she was clear and conclusive: I don’t want to live with you anymore, she told him. I’ll take responsibility for my children. I can get ahead with them [without you].
At this point, contact between Maria and Abelardo stopped.
At this point, contact between Maria Marisol and Abelardo started again. He called. He wrote. He got back in touch. Later, he invited Maria Marisol and her brother, Abelardo Eduardo, to live and work with him in Los Angeles. Abelardo Eduardo came first, then Maria Marisol and her husband, Hilario. Maria Marisol sold Avon and Mary Kay beauty products and all the men worked as gardeners. They worked often and well: people told Maria Marisol that, on the job, her father was as good as two men.
For months, they lived together, the four of them. Abelardo was, at that point, single. His girlfriend had left three, four years before, and she’d taken the baby with her.
Maria Marisol: We don’t know if it was really his baby or not. Some people say that when he started to go out with her, she was already pregnant. She was already showing. I don’t know if I have a half-sister or not. Who knows? No one knows. And she was crazy; the girlfriend was crazy. She went home to El Salvador, with the little girl, and told no one. We don’t know where she is. We don’t know anything.
She admits that she probably never will. Abelardo’s girlfriend never contacted him again. And Abelardo, just six months after Maria Marisol arrived in Los Angeles to live with him, died, at 40 years old, of a cardiac arrest.
JUAN met Maria Magdalena at a time in his life when he was dressing up every day. Not t-shirts, but dress shirts with buttons and a collar; not jeans, but slacks. His hair was slicked back with handfuls of gel.
He was looking for a woman.
Maria met Juan at what she remembers as the ugliest and most awful time in her life. This had not only to do with Abelardo, but with Maliru — Maria’s third daughter and fourth child, born after Lourdes, but before Rafael. Maliru was a hugger: every day when her brothers and sisters arrived home from school, she went outside to give them hugs and kisses. Other than this, Maria says, Maliru did not like to go outside. She preferred to doodle on paper around the house and watch her mom make molé in the kitchen. So for reasons Maria still does not entirely understand, Maliru, one day, went outside to play with a boy down the street who pushed her off the porch and onto the street where she fell, head first, onto a rock. Maria stayed with Maliru in the hospital for three whole days afterwards, but nothing could be done and Maliru died at just three years of age.
After this — after her daughter died and her husband left her, after she spent a year in the Garment District in Los Angeles, and then many more years in restaurants in Cuernavaca — Maria was tired. And very sad, filled with grief, often in tears whenever she saw another little girl with long, straight, black hair give someone else a hug.
And so Maria was not looking for a man.
She was only looking, on that sunny day in September of 2002, for her daughter Lourdes’ comadre, who owned a corner store in another colonia. When Maria found her, the comadre was sitting at the counter with a customer, well-dressed and earnestly groomed. Juan’s interest in Maria was immediate.
He called to her: “Shorty! You’re shaped like a grape.”
Maria remembers looking at him and saying nothing, but thinking: I don’t like him.
Which did not, in any way, faze Juan. This is how it normally goes with women. He walked behind her, calling her chaparrita and other sweet things until she finally stopped and turned to look at him.
Maria: Who are you? What do you want?
Juan: I want to get to know you. Can we go for a walk?
Maria’s answer was no. Juan tried again: Can I call you? This time Maria said yes, but in Juan’s excitement over her response, he wrote down the wrong phone number and a week later, had to return again to the corner store to chase Maria. In total, the chase lasted eight months and involved dates at quinceñeras, dinners with her children, flowers, and plants all over the house, until, finally, Maria said yes.
Maria: When I decided to get together with him, and accept him, it was mostly because I already had suffered so much. And I didn’t want to be alone anymore. A single woman in Mexico — no one respects her. And, in case I became ill and couldn’t work, I wanted there to be a person that would look after me. For this reason, I agreed to be with Juan. In the beginning, I only loved him a little, not a lot.
Mainly this is because Juan often drank, sometimes yelled, and, on one occasion, left for Texas for three months without telling her. So infuriated was Maria with this last act — not the first time a man had disappeared on her for the United States — that she changed their daughter Leslie’s last name in his absence, swearing Juan off forever. (About this, Juan offers no defense, goes for the maxim instead: calladito te ves más bonito. If you keep quiet, you look much better.)
Maria cannot now remember when she started to love her husband more than a little, but she does recall that it happened at church.
MARIA takes her position for the family portraits to the right and slightly in front of Juan. All around her are her children and grandchildren, her husband and son-in-law — that her own 21-year-old son is inside, asleep and uninterested, is not worth the energy and Maria neither complains nor offers an explanation in his defense. Instead she holds her little grandson close, 3-years-old and a squirmer. “Michael!” the photographer calls out, tries to bring him back. Then everyone: “Michael! Michael!” He’s somewhere else in Maria’s arms, and then as if the squirming were only a sign of more to come, the ground they stand on starts to shake.
It shakes only a little, just enough so that Juan glances back at the house and asks, “Was that an earthquake? Did you feel — ?” to which Maria does not answer, but interrupts. “Papá Jesús,” she begins.
And that fast, she’s in contact with God. “Our lives are in your hands.” Once accessed, she stays in conversation — nos guían Señor, nos proteja, nos ayuda — asking for guidance, protection, and help. She prays for a little while then, out loud and in front of them family, and is in fact still praying when the photographer asks everyone over to the steps, long after the ground has settled beneath her.
MARIA came to believe later in life, at 43. Her first trips to church some 15 years before were sporadic and unconvincing — in between Sundays, she drank beer and danced to music that was not Christian.
Her decision to go to church every Sunday, and also to go to prayer groups on Fridays, to commit to God and accept Jesus came only after she arrived in the United States. Maria recalls no single catalyst; there was no specific event, no exigent circumstance — it was simply time and from this time onward Maria sees all events only in its terms: before and after. She lost her 3-year-old daughter, Marilu, before she knew God; she was blessed with another, Leslie Marilu, after. (Leslie was actually born before her official conversion experience, but lived past the age of 3 (the age Maria’s fourth child, Marilu, died) and so Maria regards Leslie as one of the miracles of her faith.) Before, if she was angry, she shouted at her children; now, after, she is more diplomatic. It hurts me so much to see you drink, she tells Rafael. Imagine how much it hurts God.
MARIA’S church, Misión Cristiana, is now in its 28th year and fourth location. Mainly it has moved over the years when the congregation outgrows its space, but the church is in its present location, underneath a large tarp near Venice Boulevard, because the contractor they hired to renovate the building next door ran off with the half a million dollars he was given to cover construction costs. “And we thank God,” Jose Guevara, the youth minister, says, “because the people have not left.”
Inside, at the front, is a large stage for the band which includes one singer, two drummers, three guitarists, and, often, guest musicians visiting from other churches. Next to the stage is a sign which begins with a quote from Nehemia. Let us rise up and build, it reads.
At least 20 rows of chairs face the stage, always full. In between there is a small space that also functions as a stage — this is where the troupe of girls with tambourines, dressed in long white gowns and sashes sewn of satin, dances each week before the service begins. On Easter, they put glitter on their faces and the band coordinates to all wear peach. The pastor always looks fabulous: his Easter outfit, not totally unlike his other outfits, is a white tuxedo with a ruffled shirt and white patent leather shoes. It is all part of the performance that the Pentecostal service is; and it is all, every dance, every song, every word, every week, for God.
Maria does not stay after the service for the food, she does not really even linger long enough to socialize or make small talk: she’s here to hear The Word, and that is all. In this way, she’s a little unlike many of the other people who go to Misión Cristiana and count the congregation as family: middle-aged women who look after the young men far from their own moms and men who take little boys to baseball games after their father left the church, got into drugs and/or got deported. Maria has few friends at church outside her family of origin, a habit that may or may not be related to years of marriage to a man who forbade all friendship as if it were adultery.
And yet, in other ways, Maria is decidedly similar to her Pentecostal peers. In fact in at least three ways it turns out that Maria is the quintessential Latina Pentecostal: she is female, older (>40), and without a high school degree. Most typical is the location of Maria’s conversion and the familiar trajectory of her spiritual path: vague religious affiliation in her home country followed by a move to the United States where there seemed to be a new need for church and God. (Most Latino immigrants make one of two decisions about religion once they move to the United States: they move towards a conservative, evangelical church or they become secular. Very few choose a middle ground.) Maria came to Misión Cristiana at the invitation of her brother, Joaquín, who, as well, found religion after his arrival in the United States. Now their families go to church together. Usually they are the first to arrive, at 11 a.m., for the songs that start the service. Always they are carried by the music, swaying side to side, hands open and above their heads, so far from their own country, not recognized legally by this country, tethered only to The Word and they church that they hear it in.
LIKE other churches which adopt Pentecostal practices, Misión Cristiana is its own blend of open and closed, old and new. The church is inclusive racially (true in some ways from the beginning: one of the movement’s earliest and most central revivals, in 1906, was led by William Seymour, the son of slaves), but exclusive theologically (only those who have a defined conversion experience and accept Jesus go to Heaven). It tends to be literal in its interpretation (no homosexuality, yes walking on water), but decidedly modern in its expression (the band does not sing hymns or use church organs, but instead plays salsa, meringue, and ranchero music). What they ask for each week is nothing less than a miracle, which the pastor says is coming:
When you think you cannot make it,
when you do not have enough money
The Craftsman wants to come in.
He wants to touch your life.
The Craftsman is coming on his way when there is a crisis.
I hear his steps, I know he’s coming!
And at this news, the woman sitting in front of Maria begins to weep, she is in tears: this is the news she has come to church to hear. In a minute, the weeping turns to wailing and in another minute, the wailing becomes something altogether more overwhelming so that she not only loses control of her mouth, but also her body. Misión Cristiana is prepared for this: they have greeters stationed all along the aisles to help, to make sure a person moved does not crash into a chair and hit their head or fall to the floor and take a bystander with them. Always ready, the greeters leave their posts and come toward the woman, now crying and shaking — now speaking in tongues — and they stand on either side of her and hold hands to create a circle so that the woman can speak and scream, weep and flail, do whatever it is that God moves her to do, and do it safely.
All of this happens in such a profoundly public way. It is O.K. to weep, it is O.K. to wail — in fact, it is part of the point. Most people who join evangelical churches do so for the promise of a more personal experience of God, but it’s the public expression of this personal experience that gives others a reason to believe. As a testament to this power of public witness, the pastor calls out, each week, to those who are sick, asks them to come forward and heal.
“If you’ve turned your back on God,” he says, “come forward.”
And people in the pulpit go. They walk to the same place where, an hour ago, girls with tambourines danced, and now the sick and the defiant, the hurt and the lost, are here to demonstrate another, entirely different, sort of show. Everyone watches the healings. And everyone watches the tithing: people, some who wept a moment ago when the pastor spoke of poverty, walk to the front of the church with their envelopes of money, shake hands with the long line of church helpers, maybe hug a greeter or two. All the while, the band plays and people clap.
Maria claps as well, but she doesn’t tithe, and she doesn’t, ever, speak in tongues. She’s been given another spiritual gift, that of healing. Even those who don’t know her through church or religious affiliation see this to be true: neighbors ask her which shampoo to buy after their daughters are sent home from school with lice and people she knows only a little come to her for prayer, sometimes Herbalife.
Maria is nothing if not practical, in all matters, even when it comes to faith. It is a grating thing to walk past the graffiti, the borrachos, the cement and the trash and the filth — all the things she hates about this part of Los Angeles. Here she asks for more. She has no faith in government, no real relationship with the law. Her appeal is entirely to something else. And what she hears, she shares: cuando estás conmigo, no te puedes estar triste, when you’re with me, you cannot be sad, with all of us who laugh at her jokes — which are not always, but often, about being chubby. And she says it with the kind of rhythm and certainty of someone who has heard it before. Which she has. It’s what she hears when she thinks about her daughter, Marilu, or her sister, Juana, still missing in Mexico. If even for a minute she considers the graffiti and the gangs and the shootings on the street next to us, always she hears this and prays again for the way the world is going here in MacArthur Park.