Once a month, a very particular Sunday service unfolds on a patio outside a Starbucks in El Monte. When jets fly overhead, members of the congregation have to shout across the table at one another.
Some days, there’s a small crowd, and the conversation lasts for hours. On other days, Arlene Rios waits alone.
It’s not easy being an atheist raised in a devoutly Catholic culture. But here in the San Gabriel Valley, you don’t have to doubt God’s existence all alone. You can head to the monthly meetup of secular Latinos and share a latte with Rios.
There are no Communion wafers at this service, just coffee and pastries, support and understanding from Atheists United Secular Latinos of San Gabriel Valley.
“Some people are afraid to RSVP, because they’re afraid their family members might know they’re questioning religion,” said Rios, who started organizing this unusual convocation in Fresno three years ago. “I still show up just in case.”
She is up against centuries of tradition.
In Mexican and Latin American homes, saints abound. Pope bobblehead dolls adorn bookshelves. Palm Sunday branches are tacked up on walls. Paintings of the Last Supper hang in dining rooms. Abuelas give rosaries to hang on the rearview mirror of the family car. Moms say “persignate” — make the sign of the cross — when you get on the freeway or there’s turbulence on the plane.
In Mexican culture, there is no greater icon than the Virgen de Guadalupe. In Spanish, goodbye literally means “to God.” Adiós. A Dios.
Even though identification with the Catholic Church, or any church for that matter, has dwindled some among Latinos in the United States over the last decade, Latinos do not hold atheists in high regard.
Some 47% of Latinos describe themselves as Catholic, down from 57% a decade ago, according to a Pew Research Center survey on America’s changing religious landscape released in October. At the same time, 23% of Latinos say they are religiously unaffiliated, up from 15% in 2009.
Another survey from the Pew Research Center indicated that “Latinos feel more unfavorably toward atheists than they do toward any other group.”
“Religion for Latinos overwhelmingly for the longest time has been Catholic. It’s so embedded and imbued in the culture,” said Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University. “Becoming completely nonbelieving, that’s a major rupture.”
Which is something the members of this meetup know all too well.
Alex Flores’ mother discussed his loss of faith with the local priest. If the 37-year-old wanted to convert back to Catholicism, she told her son, he could get rebaptized “in one hour.”
Tomas Rodriguez Jr.'s family thinks the 54-year-old is going through a phase. His mother jokingly blames herself for his “disbelief in God.”
At Alfredo Beltran’s job in Commerce, a co-worker announced that she thought atheists were “devil worshipers.” Another asked Beltran if he even mourned death.
Beltran, 44, grew up Catholic and recalls the guilt that came with it. When it would rain, his family told him it was because he had “been bad and Diosito is mad.” At confession, he wondered why he needed to repent for forgetting to do the dishes or not taking out the trash.
He attended Mass with everyone in his family except for his grandfather.
“He would always stay home, and I would hear little comments [from him] here and there like, ‘Oh God didn’t give me that meat. I got that meat; I made the money for that,’” said Beltran, who became an atheist when he was in his 30s.
Beltran met Rios while the two stood in line in L.A. to listen to a talk with atheist activist Matt Dillahunty, host of the live internet show “The Atheist Experience.” When Rios told Beltran she wanted to start the group, he was immediately supportive.
Rios, a Navy veteran, grew up Catholic but walked away from religion when she was in her 30s because “it just didn’t make any sense to me.” But the 43-year-old said she missed one important function that church provided, “the community aspect of it.”
She started Fresno Latino Atheists after hearing about secular Latino meetups across the country. Six people came to her first gathering. The group now boasts hundreds of members online. After Rios moved to the San Gabriel Valley, she held her first meetup there in June 2018.
Her parents were supportive, she said, although at times her mother — who grew up in Mexico — still references the Bible when speaking to her daughter. Although Maria Elena Avila’s “natural being tells me to believe,” she respects her daughter’s nonbelief.
“This is a free country, and you can become whatever you want to become,” she said. “My purpose as a mother was to raise my kids being good citizens, and I think I did.”
But other family members dismiss Rios’ beliefs — or lack thereof — altogether.
“Ay mija,” her aunt tells her, “you were baptized Catholic, so you’re always going to be Catholic.”
In the U.S., a decreasing number of adults identify as Catholic, while the number of people who answer the religion question with the word “none” has steadily grown.
The religiously unaffiliated share of the population, which consists of people who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” went up from 17% in 2009 to 26% in 2018-19, according to Pew Research Center. Those numbers have grown across multiple demographic groups.
Around the country, Latinos have banded together in Facebook groups and Reddit threads to share their secret — or not-so-secret — lack of faith.
One Reddit user said he became disillusioned with religion around the time he went through confirmation in high school. His mother, who he described as “still very Catholic,” attends Mass every Sunday and prays before bed and at every meal. His father has always seemed “to just kind of tolerate it.”
“Though he grew up Catholic, too, I get the feeling he just kind of goes through the motions for the sake of keeping the peace with my mom,” he wrote. “I guess I do the same thing when I’m home visiting.”
Another Reddit user emphasized “how deep-rooted our cultures are in superstition.”
“In a nutshell, if you’re not Catholic, you’re not one of the ‘normal’ ones, so it can be very tough to fit in,” the user said. “My hope is that other atheist Latinos will help normalize atheism in their respective communities.”
Seven people gathered on the second Sunday of November for the meetup, oblivious to the churchgoers heading into the Starbucks after services. Rios rooted through a Lotería wallet for cash so she could grab coffee to keep herself warm in the chilly air, as she handed out Atheists United newsletters.
They are open about their nonbelief. Rios’ black T-shirt read “Secular Latinas.” Beltran has an atheist tattoo on his wrist and a sticker on his truck promoting Atheists United Secular Latinos of San Gabriel Valley.
The majority of Beltran’s co-workers in the Commerce Public Works Department are Latino, and all are religious, making him the “butt of all jokes,” he said. Often, he questions their faith.
After a co-worker explained that his own daughter was disabled because of all the bad stuff he did in the past, Beltran questioned believing in something that would punish an innocent 4-year-old for a grown man’s alleged sins.
When a friend died, Beltran said he called another co-worker to tell him about his pain. That colleague had once asked him: Do atheists actually mourn death?
“We don’t correlate it to religion,” Beltran said. But when “we lose someone, our hearts are broken.”
Although some friends worry about him being a nonbeliever, he stands by his moral code.
“I don’t know about you guys, but when I finally decided to say I was atheist I felt like this huge weight just fell off my back,” Beltran told the assembled nonbelievers. A murmur of agreement ran through the circle.
“I wanted to scream and tell everybody,” he said.
I don’t know about you guys, but when I finally decided to say I was atheist I felt like this huge weight just fell off my back.
At times, though, being a nonbeliever has come at a cost. After Flores’ sister gave birth to a son and it was time for the baby’s baptism, she told Flores she wanted him to be the child’s godfather.
“But you being an atheist,” she told him, “I had to go with someone else.”
Leticia Flores-Mejia considered Flores, she said, but “the church that we went to, the godparents did have to be Catholic.”
Beltran ran into a similar roadblock. When friends wanted him to be their son’s godfather, it was the priest who said no.
“Apparently I couldn’t because, how am I supposed to teach their son about God and the Bible if I’m not a believer,” Beltran said.
“Technically you can teach it,” Flores said, “just not the things they want.”
That Sunday morning, the group of seven talked about hobbies — including running an atheist and agnostic Latin dance workshop. And recent European vacations — including a visit to a church that urged tourists not to help the false poor but to “help the real ones” with an offer to the parish.
They cite evolution to disprove Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve and their immediate descendants, asking if God is OK with incest. There is comfort in swapping stories about people who don’t understand who atheists are.
“You don’t believe in God? But you’re so nice,” Rios has heard.
“You can’t be an atheist, because you’re such a sweet guy,” said Beltran’s friend, who asked him not to talk to her children about religion.
When these atheists go to church, it’s for weddings, baptisms, or funerals. Beltran and his wife were married in their backyard. Rodriguez Jr. and his wife were married at City Hall.
Still, remnants of their past lives remain. At times they say “bless you” when someone sneezes, or “oh my God” when something surprises them.
The Last Supper hangs on Rios’ wall, reminding her of her childhood; Beltran still has rosaries; and Rodriguez Jr. has a packet of “Bible stuff” from his first Communion that his grandmother sent when he moved to California.
There’s only one Virgen de Guadalupe in Rios’ home — a print of the Virgin Mary depicted as Princess Leia holding a gun.
She put it away, after her grandmother visited, took one look — and called it blasphemy.