Espino“Faith in Words,” Fernando EspinoAs children growing up in the outskirts of Mexico City, my parents were never avid church-goers. For various reasons, none perhaps more important than the entire family needed to work, they never found the time. 

But they prayed. A lot.

As is customary in many Mexican households, their respective houses contained a humble but well-decorated altar covered in flowers, candles, crosses and the porcelain figures of Jesus and countless saints. At first, I found it amusing at how ridiculous it looked to have 10 family members kneeling over a small table praying to inanimate objects in unison.

That, however, was only until I realized, years later, that if it weren’t for my parents’ prayers to the Virgensita, the Virgin Mary, and el Santo Nino de Atocha, the Holy Child of Atocha,  I, and perhaps my mother, wouldn’t be alive; she had severe complications in the months leading up to my birth, to the point where we might’ve not made it.

At least within Mexico, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see several groups, with numbers in the hundreds, processing down the main avenues of various towns and cities making religious pilgrimages, often lasting several days, to treasured sanctuaries.

For a long time, it was hard for me not to see this as a near-fanatical approach to our faith. But, as my mother recently described to me, “It isn’t fanaticism. Our spirituality is rooted in our devoutness, our blind faith and confidence in Jesus and the Virgin Mary that they will lead us to where we need to be.”

When I was about 1, my parents, due to terrible economic conditions in Mexico, immigrated into the United States, leaving behind almost all our family members, all of the comforts of a known lifestyle, to seek a better life for me and, eventually, my younger brother. All except our faith.

Regardless of the radically different way of life that we encountered here in Milwaukee, my parents sought to continue their religious traditions and pass them on. And so, I learned my faith the “Mexican way.” Everything was in Spanish: the Sign of the Cross, simple prayers, Bible passages, and even my catechism classes. We made a stronger effort to attend Mass, join and become more involved within a parish, but the complete-faith-in-God focus never changed.

As time passed, I was unsure how I felt toward all this. I didn’t hate it, but the approach, the rigidness of blind devotion, didn’t appeal to me.

High school brought with it many changes in my personal life, none so profound and, to a certain degree, as problematic, as the exposure into a “new”Catholicism: the Jesuit approach.

The stark contrast in the profession of faith became evident almost immediately. I participated in a Mass given in a different language. I talked, prayed and reflected in a different language, with a different focus besides just the Virgin Mary. I guess the approach and the philosophy in practicing Catholicism was different. It felt more personalized, more conversational. I liked it. As I considered the dilemma of possibly having to decide between dissimilar ways of practicing my faith, my first concern was: What language should I use? Should I use Spanish or English during Mass? How about when I pray?

Looking back, it does indeed seem a naïve concern, for, really, it could be Chinese or Arabic or any other language of choice and it wouldn’t make a difference. The real concern lay in how I wanted to approach my faith.

On the one hand, the zealous spirituality represents such an integral part of my Mexican heritage, one I didn’t want to suppress. My problem was rooted in my lack of connection, not sensing that I had a relationship with Jesus, or the Virginsita or God.

On the other hand, the fact that I felt more in touch with God, with my friends and family through prayer and reflection perfectly embodied what I wished would help define my faith: those relationships. And yet, I felt that embracing this approach would be turning my back on my parents and my culture.

How did I resolve this? I didn’t. I never brought myself to a straight answer. However, that is not because of overwhelming confusion. Rather, it’s due to the conclusion I formulated as I listened to the words of a very special mentor of mine.

“Don’t be bothered by what others think. Your faith depends on you alone. It’s yours to believe.”

So that’s where I am. I’m working on balancing the best of both worlds. Today, my little book of daily prayers, given to me in high school, sits below my small wall hanging of the Virginsita in my dorm room. I don’t know how to describe my spirituality, but I do know that I feel comfortable and pleased with what I believe and how I profess it. Es mi fe. It’s my faith. 

(Espino, a 2011 graduate of Marquette University High School, is studying economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His home parish in Milwaukee is St. Vincent de Paul.)