As I celebrated Easter today I meditated on the meaning of the resurrection. While interviewing Latinos over the years I have heard many respondents tell me about their devotion to Jesus Christ, the importance of the resurrection, and their faith in life ever after. What may not make a lot of sense at first glance is that, while Hispanics believe strongly in life after death, they also have a dumbfounding fear of death.
The fear of death is very strong in the Latino community. It is a subject that everyone loves to avoid. Yet, the Hispanic reasons for fearing death may be different from those of the general population. Latinos generally believe in life after death. The actual fear of the unknown- which is predominantly the reason why most people fear death, may be to some extent addressed in the Hispanic community by the religious beliefs Latinos hold regarding the afterlife. In fact many Latinos, especially those of Mexican origin, see the afterlife as an end to their Journey of suffering.
We know that suffering and disappointment are part of life, but they cannot destroy us. If even God suffered the crucifixion for us, there must be something good in suffering, especially in suffering for the sake of others, that we don’t fully understand. In our Latino realism, we do not go looking for suffering as if it were something desirable, but neither do we deny it or run away from it. We assume it, transcend it, and dare to celebrate life in spite of it. [Virgilio Elizondo “The Sacred Latino Experience” Americanos – Latino Life in the United States (Little, Brown and Company, 1999) p.20]
Mexicans often see death as the promise of life. In fact, the popular Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration of life.
In Mexico, this holiday is celebrated at night and in the cemeteries. The family of the departed makes offerings of food and drink and places the traditional flowers, marigolds, at each gravesite. During this offering the family members also offer prayers or speak to the dead. – The day of the Dead is one of the more mystical Hispanic celebrations, and it can be the most fulfilling. It represents a clash of pagan and Christian beliefs, but its message of death as a continuance, not an end, can be uplifting. [Valerie Menard “The Latino Holiday Book” (Marlowe & Company, 2000) pp.110-111]
The subject of death is also addressed by religion in other Latino subgroups. In the book Transitional Villagers [Peggy Levitt “God Is Everywhere- Religious Life Across Borders” (University of California Press, 2001) p.159] the author relates the story of the Dominican immigration to Boston and the Latino strife to maintain their religious beliefs. “Death is viewed as a transition to another place where the deceased, who is present in a different form, can be visited, consulted, and petitioned.” She goes on to say that the inability of Dominican immigrants to visit their diseased relatives at the cemetery in their homeland makes dealing with death much more difficult.
Latinos generally do not fear death because of the unknown. The Latino fear of death includes other areas like:
- The fear of not accomplishing the person’s life mission.
In research I have conducted on this subject Latinos appear to regard death as the ultimate deadline. They see themselves as being placed on earth for a reason, and see their death as the ultimate deadline before which they need to get their life’s purpose accomplished. Religion also plays a large part on this fear. If God brought them to earth with a mission, and they procrastinate or somehow get derailed in doing whatever it is that they feel they are here to accomplish, what will happen when they have to face God?
- The physical and emotional suffering one may have to endure as death approaches.
Latinos also worry about how much they may have to suffer with a terminal illness, accident, or other condition leading to their death. Many Latinos, however, view suffering as a necessary evil and mainly worry about how their suffering will affect their family (see below).
- The effect that death may have on the individual’s family and loved ones.
Most Latinos worry the most about being responsible for the suffering of their loved ones. Their own suffering could be justified as the road to salvation, but in their view they cannot justify inflicting suffering on others. They constantly worry about how their death will affect their family.
In my research I have also learned that moving away from a religion that is largely centered on suffering presents an interesting conundrum for Latinos. In their upbringing they learned that salvation is reached through suffering, yet in the American society they are learning that it is not necessary to suffer. In fact, many Latinos came to the US looking for the American dream- a dream that has little to do with suffering or with life after death. Searching for heaven on earth and striving to reach eternal life are not compatible goals for many Hispanics. Their ingrained religious beliefs from generations ago still linger. In the minds of many Latinos, not suffering in this journey may compromise the hereafter. At that point, the fear of the unknown resurfaces. Generally, however, Latinos can believe in life after death and still fear death because the fears are not usually based on a fear of the unknown.