A Letdown for Mi Madre

Hector Tobar is The Times' Buenos Aires bureau chief and the author of "Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States" (Riverhead Books, 2005).

My mother is not now, and has never been, one to join a radical crowd. She arrived in California from Guatemala as a teenager in the early 1960s but was immune to the bra burnings and the marches of militant sisterhood later that decade.

My mother is now, and I expect she will always be, crazy for Jesus. My father, a former lefty who divorced her 34 years ago and hasn’t been particularly nice to her since, likes to call her a cachureca. That’s dismissive Central American slang for someone fascinated with all things Catholic.

But being a Catholic, in the context of Latin America, can make you do things that look radical to outsiders. My mother returned to Guatemala some years ago and decided to devote herself to God and the poor. This has entailed, among other things, rubbing the feet of a weary street prostitute in one of Guatemala City’s most notorious brothels. Jesus did something similar 2,000 years ago, and it still seems like a pretty “out there” thing to do, no matter which way you look at it.


Until Tuesday, my mother had some fleeting hope that the next pope would be Latin American, and thus a stealth radical like her. She wanted someone who would dress himself in church tradition, embrace its seemingly conservative and staid rituals and symbols and yet speak and act in the interests of the poor and hungry masses. But my mother didn’t get a Latin American pope. She got Benedict XVI.

It’s not certain what this new pope will mean for Latin America. What we do know is that before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German-born champion of church orthodoxy, helped lead the charge against “liberation theology.”

Liberation theology took the old Marxist dictum that “religion is the opiate of the people” and turned it on its head. It gave the flock “warrior priests” like the Colombian Camilo Torres and dozens of new Christian martyrs: priests, nuns and even cardinals assassinated for taking the position that God doesn’t like dictators, inequality or death squads.

The Sermon on the Mount was the liberation theologians’ manifesto. For them, when Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to the poor, it meant that he wanted a world without poverty, a “kingdom of justice” for the living.

My mother was never one for reading heavy theory, and the tracts of liberation theologians such as the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez wouldn’t have interested her. But the new culture of worship they created within the church swept her up as it did countless others.

Sometime after she moved back to Guatemala from California in the early 1990s, I went to visit her. She was living with my grandfather, on the edge of a slum. I found her one afternoon with a group of children, practicing a hymn. Guatemala was still controlled by the military then, and the hymn was a thinly veiled attack on the generals, with Jesus leading the multitudes forward in the “struggle” for justice and equality.


“Mother! What are you doing?” I spat out in English, in an angry whisper, looking around to see how many neighbors had been listening to her lead a group of 10-year-olds in an act of anti-government subversion. “What is this song? You could be killed for this!”

She gave me an incredulous look, as if I had suddenly started speaking in foul, offensive language. “It’s a song. A beautiful song,” she answered. They were just children singing, she said, children practicing for the midnight Mass. Who could be offended by a Mass?

I went to that Mass, half expecting soldiers to come slamming through the doors, especially after the power went out and the congregation was plunged into darkness. But all that happened was that the priest leading the Mass worked it into his sermon. He reminded the congregation that when the baby Jesus came to this world he did not appear in a rich neighborhood. He was born in a manger in Bethlehem, a place much like the colonia we were standing in.

The days of dictatorship were winding down then. Thankfully, the priest who gave that sermon lived to give many others. Cardinal Ratzinger helped sweep the liberation theologians from the more influential positions inside the church hierarchy. But their ideas did not disappear.

Today, even many conservative Latin American cardinals, such as Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, make the empowerment of the poor a focal point of their ministry. Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has often spoken out against “neoliberal” economics and its effects on Latin America and its poor. Both were considered leading candidates to be the next pope.

The truth is that my mother will keep on being a devoted Catholic even now that Benedict XVI is pope. But going to church, professing the faith and working with the poor might have been a bit more interesting if the cardinals meeting behind closed doors in the Holy See had chosen a latinoamericano to be God’s representative on Earth.