It doesn’t matter what part of Latin America your family comes from, if you’re Latina, chances are you grew up Catholic. That’s because Latin America has more than 425 million Catholics and close to 40 percent of the world’s total Catholic population. Even our current pope, Pope Francis, is Argentine to be exact. Yet there seems to be a serious decline in Latinos (especially young adults) who identify as Catholics in the United States. Why is that? In 2013, 55 percent of Latinos identified as Catholic versus 67 percent in 2010.
Engaging in meditation and other alternative practices outside of what we were raised with seems to be increasingly popular for today’s young Latinas stateside. Over the next few weeks, Vivala will publish a series of articles on how Latinas are exploring our spirituality. Spirituality is still a strong force in our lives, it’s just not the same as it was for our parents and older generation Latinos.
Sandra Ortiz, a 31-year-old Mexican American from Hoboken, New Jersey, regularly visits the Sukyo Mahikari Center For Spiritual Development in Murray Hill, Manhattan. Ortiz was born and raised in Mexico and grew up Catholic. “I do believe in God, I do believe in church,” Ortiz says. “But I also think you can be connected with a superior or supreme force in your house. You can experience what you experience in church by yourself, just by meditating."
She started visiting the center during a health crisis. Sukyo Mahikari is an old Japanese practice not associated with organized religion. Instead, it combines universal principles regarding positive energy and helps transmit "the light,” a form of purifying energy, to others. “It’s important to understand it as a spiritual practice,” says Robert Takagi, Staff Assistant at the center. He says most people that visit the center leave feeling relaxed and gain a greater sense of well-being and intuition. “We are simply a channel of this energy and serve god in that way. The results are really between that person and god.”
Ortiz shared, “I was experiencing a very difficult time in my life before I started visiting the center. I was facing some health issues.” She spent two weeks in the hospital and had her gallbladder and appendix removed. She even caught the H1N1 virus.
Doctors told her that her problems were triggered by stress. “So after those surgeries I was told that I had to start working more on techniques that would help me to relax and take it easy,” she says. A friend of hers told her about the center and it instantly changed her life. “I went there and it was very peaceful. I felt welcomed in that community even though it was my first time there.”
Ortiz learned how the light helps heal you mentally, spiritually, and physically. “That’s what I liked about the center. That I could get those three things that I was looking for in my life at that point. I knew I had to work with my body and with my spirit. I felt more connected with the universe,” she says. “It was a very important phase in my life because I had the opportunity to experience spirituality.”
But despite the fact that her Catholic family doesn’t practice, she still has to grapple with traditional and cultural expectations. “For example, now that I’m about to have a baby I know that it will be, not an issue, but it would be weird for them if I don’t baptize the baby. I think that in my family religion is not so much about practicing but it’s more a tradition for us. It’s weird. We don’t go to church every Sunday or do other things that other Catholic people do. But we follow the traditions because we were raised in that religion.”
Ortiz has recognized a trend among Latinas trying out different forms of spirituality, like Andressa Costa, a 35-year-old Brazilian model living in NYC who is also a fan of Mahikari. Costa was exposed to the practice when she was just 8 years old. Her mom was struggling with health problems and looking for a spiritual center to heal her. Before that, the family practiced Catholicism, which never appealed to her.
“What I like about the Mahikari practice is that everybody is welcomed. They don’t judge you if you’re Jewish or Catholic. They don’t judge your background. They welcome everyone, regardless of where you’re from or what you do. It’s very non-judgmental.”
Costa has also noticed more and more young adults open to different kinds of spiritual practices. “Now we have more freedom and more knowledge of other things. Before how would you know that something like this existed?” she asks. “We didn’t have the Internet. It was totally word of mouth.“
George Houston, Director at the Sukyo Mahikari Center, agrees with Costa. "I think millennials are living in a time of instant access to information about the world and so it’s hard for them to stay confined to small ideas whether it’s the religious beliefs of their parents or the societal belief that they were acculturated in,” says Houston. “They look at life with eyes wide open, with a lot of scientific knowledge, they know about quantum physics, they know about subatomic particles, they don’t want to hear about men flying around with wings. They want to know the truth and they have more access to the truth.“