In a church of their own, Latino atheists fear no God. But Mom? That's another matter

Brittny Mejia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

LOS ANGELES -- Once a month, a very particular Sunday service unfolds on a patio outside a Starbucks in El Monte. When jets fly overhead, members of the congregation have to shout across the table at one another.

Some days, there's a small crowd, and the conversation lasts for hours. On other days, Arlene Rios waits alone.

It's not easy being an atheist raised in a devoutly Catholic culture. But here in the San Gabriel Valley, you don't have to doubt God's existence all alone. You can head to the monthly meetup of secular Latinos and share a latte with Rios.

There are no Communion wafers at this service, just coffee and pastries, support and understanding from Atheists United Secular Latinos of San Gabriel Valley.

"Some people are afraid to RSVP, because they're afraid their family members might know they're questioning religion," said Rios, who started organizing this unusual convocation in Fresno three years ago. "I still show up just in case."

She is up against centuries of tradition.


In Mexican and Latin American homes, saints abound. Pope bobblehead dolls adorn bookshelves. Palm Sunday branches are tacked up on walls. Paintings of the Last Supper hang in dining rooms. Abuelas give rosaries to hang on the rearview mirror of the family car. Moms say "persignate" -- make the sign of the cross -- when you get on the freeway or there's turbulence on the plane.

In Mexican culture, there is no greater icon than the Virgen de Guadalupe. In Spanish, goodbye literally means "to God." Adios. A Dios.

Even though identification with the Catholic Church, or any church for that matter, has dwindled some among Latinos in the United States over the last decade, Latinos do not hold atheists in high regard.

Some 47% of Latinos describe themselves as Catholic, down from 57% a decade ago, according to a Pew Research Center survey on America's changing religious landscape released in October. At the same time, 23% of Latinos say they are religiously unaffiliated, up from 15% in 2009.


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