The New Face of Faith: Fewer Catholic Latinos

June 3, 2014 /


By Leonel Martínez, Special for South Kern Sol

I must have been in third grade at Lamont School when our teacher scolded us for being Catholic.

The cafeteria served oven-fried chicken for lunch that day, and when the kids carried their trays back to be washed, most of them were empty. Except for the chicken, much of which hadn’t been touched.

It was Friday. It was Lent. Most of the students were Catholic.

I still remember my classmates and I squirming in our seats that afternoon as our teacher gave us a tongue-lashing, saying that it was “a bigger sin to waste food” than to eat meat on Friday.

The school district should have known better. About half the school or more was Hispanic. If you were a Latino kid growing up in Lamont in the mid-1960s, you were almost always Catholic (the few Protestant Hispanic pupils were considered oddities). That oven-fried chicken was destined for the trash bin.

But for American Latinos, faith has a new face, and that face is less Catholic.

That’s one of the main findings in a study released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on Latino issues, attitudes and trends.

Researchers surveyed more than 5,000 Hispanics nationwide and found that although most are still Catholic, that amount has fallen from 67 percent to 55 percent in the last four years. About 22 percent identified themselves as Protestant, with 16 percent saying they are born again or evangelical, and 18 percent stating they are religiously unaffiliated.

In fact, in a statistic that would make my old catechism teacher, Sister Ann Theresa wince, almost one in four U.S. Hispanic adults described themselves as former Catholics.

Tune in to any television show with Hispanic characters, and you would think every Latino listens to salsa music, munches on spicy dishes, and has a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary at home. But the Pew study’s findings came as no surprise to those who actually watch demographic trends. The share of Hispanics who are Catholic has probably been in decline for decades.

The publication, “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States,” speculates that the decrease mirrors trends in historically Catholic Latin America. In those countries, the proportion of Catholics has fallen from 90 percent in 1910 to 72 percent in 2010, according to a Pew Research analysis and estimates from the World Christian Database, which provides comprehensive statistical information on religions.

Take a drive through Lamont, with a population of about 15,000 according to the chamber of commerce, and it’s hard to miss the increasing religious diversity among Hispanics. Although it’s usually standing-room only at the 9 a.m. Spanish-language Catholic Mass at St. Augustine Church, other places of worship nearby bear names like Centro Hispano de Lamont and Iglesia Adventista del Septimo Dia.

Many of these small Protestant churches didn’t exist a few years ago.

Yet the transformation of religion in Lamont isn’t restricted to Latinos or Christianity. Several years ago, I was serving myself at a buffet dinner there, wondering what I could eat as a main dish instead of the chicken fajitas.

It was Friday. It was Lent. I’m Catholic.

Behind me in line stood some turbaned Sikhs, plates in hand, probably wondering the same thing since many of them are vegetarian. The Guru Nanak Temple is just a few miles away on Weedpatch Highway.

In Lamont and in the rest of America, it’s the new face of faith.

Leonel Martínez is an occasional contributor to the South Kern Sol and can be reached at