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Keeping the Faith

Only 41 percent of U.S. Hispanics are practicing Catholics—one of the surprising results in our exclusive poll on faith and religion.

Tucked in a pink pouch smaller than a prayer card were a medallita of the Virgen de Guadalupe, reliquias, and a tiny vial of holy water from Medjugorje, Bosnia, all sent by long-distance relatives. The little bag held faith, and though I'm a lapsed Catholic, it helped me face breast cancer surgery that morning in 2002.

Hispanics live and transmit their faith in many ways. In our study of bilingual U.S. Hispanics ages 40 and older, AARP Segunda Juventud explored attitudes about religion, why Latinos remain in or leave the Catholic Church, and how they pass their faith to the next generation. The survey uncovered some surprises and also reinforced some general perceptions.

As I read the data, I found another surprise: my own extended family closely reflects the study's findings. And from the most devout to those who have defected, each still holds faith close—just as I had held that little pink pouch.

Tell Me Where You Came From...
The spirit moves us—in many ways, and often. More than nine in 10 Hispanics surveyed believe in God and pray. Three-quarters go to church. But when it comes to religion, Hispanics aren't as alike as you might think. Only 41 percent are practicing Catholics; 29 percent are Protestant and 30 percent practice no religion.

The study found no relation between religious affiliation and language dominance, education, or time spent in the United States. What does matter is country of origin. Those of Mexican descent are more likely to be Catholic. That's certainly true of my blood relatives. Hispanics from Central and South America are more likely to be former Catholics. Those from the Caribbean are more likely to never have been Catholic.

Show Me the Faith
A four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary stands atop a table in my parents' home. Her crown reflects the glow of candles my mother, Julieta Saucedo Bencomo, 84, keeps constantly lighted.

Mom is among the 75 percent of Hispanic Catholics who have a statue of Mary or Jesus in their home, and of the nearly six in 10 who light candles as a prayer for the dead.

But not just practicing Catholics perform such rituals. Many ex-Catholics still give blessings before someone goes away, pray to the Virgin, and cross themselves when passing a church. And among those who have converted to Protestantism, two-thirds give blessings, even if their new religion doesn't have such rituals.

Faith of Our Fathers (and Mothers)
Whatever their religion, parents and grandparents overwhelmingly say it's important to transmit their faith to the next generation. They do so in a variety of ways, from saying grace at mealtime to taking children to church or reading the Bible with them. Some 90 percent of parents with children at home and 76 percent of grandparents think they've been at least somewhat successful. And those who feel they've failed say that among their biggest challenges are trying not to force religion on their children and competing with popular culture.

My cousin Armida Álvarez, 58, recalls her father—my 104-year-old Tío Lito—telling of how, as a shoeshine boy in El Paso, Texas, he found a tattered statue on the street. "He didn't know who it represented, but to him it was God," she says. "He took it home and made a little altar under his bed. He'd slide under his bed and pray to his little statue."

He passed his faith to her, and she passed it on to her kids. Now the owner of a Christian bookstore, Armida says that until seventh grade her two children attended a Christian school, where, she says, "they learned the Bible backwards and forwards."

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