Opening the door, Angelo* stepped quickly to our right, forcing us to shuffle awkwardly past him into the living room. Only after I was seated on a small couch did I notice the reason for his maneuvering.
Three small Xs of red tape were placed in a triangle in the corner of the room. They marked a protective boundary surrounding a makeshift altar that extended to the ceiling. Guests, Angelo advised, should be cautious when entering so as not to cross unintentionally into the space.
This arrangement cannot be any more cumbersome for the six men who inhabit this small apartment where the altar, despite extending only a few feet from the wall, takes up nearly a quarter of the main room. Pulling out mats, three men sleep here while the others share the cramped bedroom. A tiny kitchen stands between the rooms.
The men have arrived in the U.S. within the past two years from rural towns in southern Mexico. Following social connections and available work, they settled in a cramped apartment in a region of the country known for its single-family homes and open fields. The disproportionately large size of the sacred space here is a potent metaphor for the central role of religion for these immigrants as they acclimate to a new, often hostile home. Their home altars are also a clear indicator of the gradual transformations immigrants are making in the fabric of religious life across middle America.
A rural town in northeastern Ohio, Orrville’s claim to fame is the Smucker’s factory, a drab complex in its outskirts that churns out those rectangular packets found on every diner table. The town is working-class, pushed along by its slowly dissolving industry, and overwhelmingly white.
But Orrville, like more and more of its neighbors, is also host to a steadily emerging Latino immigrant population. Mexican restaurants and bodegas are slowly cropping up in the typical rural Ohio landscape of strip malls, churches, and dilapidated downtowns.
Orrville’s most recent census numbers, from 2000, list its population of Mexican origin at 49—a small slice of the 8,551 residents. But the Immigrant Worker Project (IWP), a local nonprofit that serves the Latino population, conducted a household survey that same year and found roughly 300 immigrants from Mexico in the town, plus an additional hundred or so from Central and South America. The IWP estimates that, in 2007, a few hundred more Latino immigrants have arrived, in addition to those who already linger in the shadows of the census.
All the Orrville immigrants I met were men and, thus, fairly representative of the new immigrants. According to the IWP demographic survey, the Latinos in the town and surrounding areas are young (median age of 23), low-wage workers (“in rural factories and service industries”), and overwhelmingly male (75%).
A small portion of the population are seasonal workers with legal documentation and return tickets home, but a majority arrives undocumented or eventually become so. (The IWP does not inquire about legal status, but its program participants will often volunteer this information, and, even if not, staffers are cognizant of the indicators of non-documentation.)
Angelo and his housemates work in local poultry and manufacturing plants. Their work schedules vary—some begin early in the morning, while others work late into the night. No matter their schedule, each man regularly devotes time, before or after work, to privately recite rosaries at the altar. Far from loved ones and familiar culture, the religious practices of these men serve as the one constant in their lives. But even the constancy of God needs liquidity to help them adapt to their new land.
In major U.S. cities, long the main hubs for immigrants, the Catholic Church has been the largest institutional pillar for Latinos. But as immigrant populations have spilled to the hinterlands, they often turn to different institutions. Just as the Catholic Church sees growing competition throughout Latin America, it is losing its monopolistic grip on Latinos in the U.S.
One of the area’s largest Spanish-speaking congregations, in nearby Canton, is Lutheran. Luis Mendoza, a congregant who grew up in Canton, serves as a lay leader supporting newcomers as they adjust to life in el Norte, many of them arriving in Ohio, following a trail of family ties, in dense national and ethnic pockets. “Most of these people come here with nothing but the things on their backs,” he told me one Sunday. “And one of the first things they look for is a church, because they know it can help.” With a bilingual Latino minister, the Lutheran congregation has rapidly grown its Spanish service through strong social networks. Many congregants were raised Catholic, but attend here because of a relative or a friend. Members I spoke with still considered themselves Catholic; some kept altars and practiced private rituals in their homes.
In this region where many immigrants are linguistically isolated, the denomination or faith of a church is almost unimportant. What matters more is its cultural familiarity and its role as primary vehicle incorporating immigrants into their new social environment. Churches are often a direct channel to material resources, connecting newcomers, through social networks and know-how, to jobs, housing, health, and other essentials.
As a church impacts the lives of its congregants, they in turn change the face of the institution. The pastor at the Lutheran congregation noted how his Spanish service has become increasingly liturgical and reminiscent of a Catholic Mass. Two years ago, the church began holding celebrations for the Virgin of Guadalupe at the behest of its predominately Mexican congregants.
For a proper Spanish Mass, the men of Orrville need to travel 15 miles away to the neighboring town—a significant barrier to a population in which driving is often illegal, risky, or simply too expensive. When I asked Angelo why he did not attend the Mass, he answered matter-of-factly: “Because I cannot afford gas.”
Even with the Lutheran Spanish-speaking church close by, Latino immigrants often adjust to a revised role of religion in their lives. Ernesto, a congregant in Canton, explained that in Mexico the church is “algo quotidiano. Here,” he said, “we’re always working and we don’t have time to go to church every day anyway.”
For some immigrants in Orrville, the lack of an institutional religious presence is nothing new. Fr. Sorek, a Franciscan who has worked over three decades with Latinos in the Midwest, has moved his ministry along with the migration patterns, from cities to rural outposts. Many new immigrants to the Midwest, he noted, come from impoverished rural regions in their home countries where official institutional doctrines are not “always accessible.”
These immigrants in Orrville are part of a long lineage of practitioners that employ creative agency in developing a faith outside the confines of a traditional structure. Theirs is a particular thread of Latin American Catholicism that evolved as an historical mixture of church dogma, Spanish mystical spirituality, indigenous beliefs, and parochial customs. This type of religion is often classified as synchronistic or hybrid.
Fr. Sorek instead describes the duality as one between institutional and popular religion. In the latter, he explained, a widespread ethos developed centered on an “intimacy” between God and people, antithetical to the rigid hierarchy of the institutional church. This popular religion emphasizes the personal and performative aspects of a faith, so many Latino practitioners arrive fully equipped with a religious tradition independent from the church.
In Orrville, the IWP fills many of the institutional roles that churches play in larger urban settings for new immigrants. Begun in 1999, it provides immigrants with access to a general network of social, health, and legal services. One staffer described the agency as “a bridge between people and government, people and church, people and new life.” The sole Catholic parish in Orrville does not offer a Spanish Mass, but struck a partnership with the IWP to lend their space for ESL classes, religious festivals, and weekly sacraments administered by a nun.
The men I met spoke highly of the IWP and its work. But they did not attend the weekly sacraments, and only occasionally joined the parish for major festivals. Instead, the center of their religious lives and the primary means for reinforcing ties to home cultures are the domestic sacred spaces.
“This altar,” explained one Orrville man “is important for the physical and spiritual well-being of all the residents.” Each sacred space in the homes I visited was unique. Religious portraits of Jesus and Mary, flower vases, and iconographic candles were staples of every altar. But these were supplemented with the touch of personal narratives—idiosyncratic photographs and figures accrued from homelands and towns across the U.S.
The altar in Angelo’s apartment, like the ones the men left behind in their homes in Mexico, is a busy pyramid cluttered with family photos, Mexican flags, and untold variations on the Virgin Mary. An antiquated stereo rests at the base, dangling red rosary beads from its end. But such altars lack some of the staples of Mexican popular religion, like rezadoras (elderly women that lead rituals and prayers) and extended family networks. Women and seniors are, for the most part, simply absent from their lives.
Detailing the altar for me, Angelo pointed to a small basin of water at the foot. The water, he said, was “blessed”—but not by a priest, for one has never stepped foot in their home. Angelo went outside the official Catholic sacramental structure not to buck the Church. Instead, he displays religious ingenuity as a natural tool for negotiating a new environment. For Angelo and his peers, these deeply personal and performative practices lie at what sociologist Manuel Vásquez calls the “margins of official orthodoxies and orthopraxis.”
The Latino immigrants in Orrville do not view their inventive faith ethos and mechanisms as defying the institutions. Instead, such practices are vital to managing and maintaining liquid identities. When asked about Mexican immigrants who may not have sacred spaces, one resident quickly responds that they “forgot their culture, their tradition.”
*names have been changed to protect privacy.