UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Puerto Rico - Religion

Historically, the religion of the islandĺs people has been mostly Roman Catholic. Many non-Catholic denominations actively came to Puerto Rico looking for converts, especially the Adventists and Mormons. Today the people are 40 percent Roman Catholic [some estimates range as high as 95%], 40 percent Protestant, and 20 percent other religions.

Hispanic Catholics established a number of "firsts" vis-Ó-vis Christian institutional and ministerial presence in North America. The first diocese in the New World was established in 1511 at San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even as some natives were incorporated into Catholicism and Hispanic society, to varying degrees they exerted their own cultural influence on the Hispanic newcomers. Nascent 19th-century Hispanic immigration to the U.S. quickened over the course of the 20th century, further expanding the diversification of national origin and religious groups among Latinos in the US. The increase of Latino faith expressions is a visible sign of this expanding diversity, such as the Puerto Rican devotion to their patron San Juan.

The institution of "compadrazgo," the system of ritual coparenthood which marks baptismal and other life-crisisceremoniesin Catholic societies, is an aspect of culture, a part of the historical aggregate of Catholic societies. But it is the particular interpretation made of its character, its uses in the establishment, maintenance, and changing of societal forms, its particular significance and utility, that give it its distinctiveness.

In Puerto Rico, Catholics of all classes and regions select godparents for their children on the occasion of baptism, and frequently for other life-crisis events (e.g., marriage) as well. So important is the institution that some lower class people acquire several sets of godparents in different ceremonies, and at least one form of compadrazgo is no more than ritualized friendship, as when two men simply seal their formal relationship by agreement, and are ever after coparents (compadres) to each other.

The institution serves to tie together families in cordial and sacred ways, to give religious sponsorship to children, and to fulfill many psychological motives of the participants. A man who fears that another has designs on his wife may choose him as a compadre to forestall sexual aggressions; while reciprocal giving of foodstuffs, labor, and work opportunities may hinge on the compadre relationship.

In proletarian communities, workers normally picked men of their own class as coparents; in stratified communities, poorer men seek richer ones because of the help they can give, while richer ones accept compadre obligations in order to tap the laborof their subordinates.

At the town of LoÝza in northeastern Puerto Rico, traditional activities honoring St. James manifest a mix of indigenous, African and Hispanic cultures, but the African elements are the most notable. The 10-day celebration is an expression of an alienated, sometimes clandestine, culture, rooted in the centuries' old mistreatment of blacks that have lived in the area. First settled in the 1500s, the town became home to a large number of African slaves brought to work in the sugarcane fields. Even today, LoÝza is known as a predominately Afro-Puerto Rican town.

St. James, the Apostle, originally earned the devotion of Spaniards by aiding them in their struggle against the invading Muslims centuries ago. It is said that St. James scared off the enemy by disguising his troops as vejigantes, the origin of the peculiar costumes used today in the festivities. The costumes represent giants with long, horned African masks. Puerto Rico's first conquerors and the Spanish clergy who accompanied them to "evangelize the pagan natives" invoked St. James, the Apostle, as their patron to protect them from the neighboring Indians (Caribs) and the European pirates that attacked the island.

Once evangelized, the conquered Indians, and later the black slaves, also called on St. James, to relieve their oppression and suffering. St. James, not unlike Changˇ , a warrior god in the African Yoruba tradition, carried an iron sword in his hand. The holy warrior became popular with all three cultures -- the native, the African, the Hispanic -- and the celebration's symbolism and traditions became mixed. But the Spaniards no longer determined the festival's rhythm and style. The people declared themselves loyal to their patron-warrior, and turned him into a symbol of defiance in the face of oppression. St. James became a further symbol of defiance when during the 19th century the Church, yielding to pressure by newly arrived Irish families, declared St. Patrick to be the town's official saint. The townspeople considered St. Patrick the oppressor's protector, an imposed "foreign" patron saint. Thus, today's festival of St. James recalls memories of suffering and struggle against foreign peoples and foreign values. By giving him homage, the people believe, they and their lands receive God's blessing.

In today's celebration, a parade of masks carved from wood and coconuts is featured. The masks may represent a deity, an ancestor, an animal, or a mythological or historical character. Even this parade is not without "oppression"; in 1984, a municipal order entitled "Public Order on Religion and Morality" was published, defining the correct way a loice˝o (native of LoÝzo) must carry on religious processions and prescribing the correct costumes, meeting resistance from the loice˝os.

Mercury is used in conjunction with some ethnic folk medicine and religious practices. Known as "azogue" in Latino botanicas (stores selling folk medicines and religious items), mercury is used in several Caribbean-based cultural practices: Esperitismo, a spiritual belief system native to Puerto Rico; Santeria, a Cuban-based religion that venerates both African deities and Catholic saints; and voodoo. The use of azogue (mercury) in religious practices is recommended in some Hispanic communities by family members, spiritualists, card readers, and santeros. Azogue may be carried in a sealed pouch prepared by a spiritual leader or sprinkled in the home or automobile. Some botanica owners suggest mixing it in bath water or perfume and placing it in devotional candles. These activities can rapidly vaporize the mercury, posing a great health risk to those who frequently engage in such religious practices.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list