One thing I notice in many stories of leaving religious Faith is the pain of telling family members of newfound faithlessness. The United States has no state religion, so religious traditions are passed down solely through family ties. Even the most religiously apathetic are raised in some kind of religious tradition cemented through deep roots in the family. Leaving Faith often means painful breaking with unquestioned family traditions. Fortunately, I never had this problem. I had no deep family traditions to concern myself with. My mother’s parents were the most religious of my family, but they did not successfully pass that tradition down through their children. My grandfather, Papa as everybody called him, died well before I left the Faith. I callously insulted my grandmother’s Faith soon after Papa’s death. I had not yet learned that when religious tradition is insulted, the person who holds the tradition is also insulted. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Mama is the sole torchbearer of any religious tradition in my family. She is still alive and well at 95, and still lives with the rest of my mother’s family in north-central New Mexico. I never felt the burden to tell her that I left the Christian Faith, and although there are other religious people in my family, they do not carry the tradition that Mama failed to pass down. I have some family members who are Protestant Evangelicals. Mama and Papa were strict Catholics.
Mama was born in Cabezon, New Mexico in 1916. Cabezon is a ghost town now, although I have visited the collapsing mud-brick homes of that town many times. It was abandoned around 1940 when the Rio Puerco, the sole source of the town’s water, dried up. Coincidentally, this was when the War was beginning to consume the planet, and work was to be found in Los Angeles. So Mama and Papa moved to Los Angeles and Papa found work by joining the Navy. The strict, Catholic, isolated, Wild West town in New Mexico was abandoned for a new life in the city.
‘Wild West’ is not hyperbole when describing Cabezon. To this day, there is a single, 20-mile long dirt road connecting the abandoned town of Cabezon to the nearest paved highway, then from there another 30 miles or so to the nearest small town. Mama never spoke much about what life was like living there when she was young, only that it was nothing but pleasure. I think that kind of talk is all romantic nostalgia. I do know that farming in the deserts of New Mexico at any distance from the Rio Grande is immensely difficult, and water is the precious gold of the rural highlands. I do know that the tiny Rio Puerco created a heavily eroded arroyo just outside of town, and navigating down to the water involves a treacherous hike down soft silt and packed desert dirt. Water had to be hauled up daily from the muddy river, first for cooking and drinking, then for farming and the animals, then, if there was any left, for washing.
Back around 1995, some volunteers refurbished the long abandoned Catholic Church in Cabezon. The graveyard in the back was cleared of brush and tumbleweeds, the old Stations of the Cross were fixed, the pews repainted, the old adobe bricks replastered, and Mass was held there for the first time in about 40 years. I was there during that celebration, and some of the older people from the area, people who remembered living there decades before, came to attend the Mass. I was certain I was related, in some distant and remote way, to most everybody there. Everybody, good Catholics that they were, knew the routine once the Mass started. I could only follow along by watching what everybody else was doing. Mama and Papa did not pass their religious traditions down to their grandchildren, and my cousins and I did not understand the religious celebrations and rituals there that had tied the entire community together. We were just thinking of the enchiladas, beans and red chile that waited to be eaten after Mass was finished.
The community planned to hold Mass in the old Cabezon church four times per year for all the old-timers. Unfortunately this plan did not last long. People who had once lived in Cabezon got older and died, and the younger generations did not remember the old ghost town of their grandparents. Today, the entire town is again melting into piles of mud where adobe bricks once stood, desert scrub again clogs the town cemetery, and the dirt road into town is gated and locked. The recently refurbished Catholic church is the only building in town not in danger of completely eroding again into the surrounding red earth.
I have often wondered why Mama and Papa were not able to pass down their Catholic traditions to their three children. I have never seen my mother, my aunt or my uncle all together in a Catholic church except at Papa’s funeral – and none of them participated in the Mass. Most families that I have witnessed, both here in the Catholic Southwest and in Philippines pass their religious traditions down through their children with seemingly no effort. Why was my family so different? This is one mystery that my mother has never given the complete explanation for, but I suspect, and it is only a suspicion, that it was the culture shock after moving from Cabezon to Los Angeles in 1942. My uncle and aunt, their two oldest children, were born in Cabezon and were raised speaking Spanish. My mom was born in Los Angeles and the Spanish language was dropped after the children entered public school there. During the wartime culture in Los Angeles, American citizenry was the top priority. The Spanish language was dropped when English became the only permissible language. I suspect that the Catholic Faith, while not dropped, was just no longer emphasized.
My mother once told me that she never accepted the Catholic Faith. She just never believed it because it never made sense to her. I think there is something more to this story, just because neither her older sister nor brother ever became devout Catholics, and that coincidence just makes me somewhat suspicious. I will have to ask her about this when I see her next week over Christmas. The three children, my mom and her older brother and sister, were baptized, went through confirmation, occasionally attended confession, and performed all the other expected Catholic rituals. But for some reason her oldest brother, the only one of the siblings to enroll in college, rejected the Catholic faith. Because of the pressure from her parents, mom remained a Catholic in name only. I was baptized as a baby in order for mom to keep peace with Mama and Papa, but that was the last of my sacraments. I never attended catechism, received first communion, or went through confirmation. I had no idea what a Catholic really was until decades later.
My young non-believing mother was still influenced by strict Catholic culture in one small but significant way. Mom married her tall, handsome, and non-Catholic high school sweetheart. Somehow, these two young, mismatched and immature people wed in a non-Catholic ceremony. I was born in Los Angeles, California in 1964. Dad was 19 years old when I was born, and was woefully unprepared for the responsibilities of fatherhood. Mom had certainly forsaken her parents’ religious tradition, but I don’t think dad ever had a tradition to forsake. The first few years of my life were completely and totally devoid of God, Jesus, tradition, ritual or religious character of any kind.
Edit 09 April 2012:
My mom read this article, and as I suspected I got a few details in this story wrong. A few factual errors have been fixed.
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