Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh is associate professor of Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Society, and Self (2003) and numerous essays on Latino faiths.
My first encounter with Jesus was with Jesús, a darkened figure with blood streaming from his head looking upward. It was a partial re-production of a more famous portrait, “Crown of Thorns” by Pieter Paul Rubens, this one hung in a frame above the mantle in my great-grandmother’s house. There were leftover Christmas lights strung around the mantle and around the picture, so as an inquisitive 8-year old, I was not sure what this mixed signal meant--was it a happy Christmas for Jesús? He seemed to be in pain that was clear.
I stared at that picture from December through the middle of January every time I went over to visit, until the lights came down and then Jesús just looked sad--forlorn, forgotten. I am reminded of things like the smell of velas (candles), home cooking, and I hear my great-grandmother praying the Rosary in Spanish everyday as I ran through the house afterschool on my way to watch tv. On occasion, I stopped to listen to her, as she finished--she patted my head, told me that El Señor (the Lord) was watching over me and then went outside to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette--she did not let me go with her--since it was muy mala (very bad).
That picture is still up at my great-grandmother’s house, my parents still live in the back house, and every time I visit, I hear the whispers of Rosary, the smell of canela (cinnamon), and remind myself that the material culture of the Mexican Catholicism that surrounded me when I was a child never really leaves me--and I can never simply pack it away like many of my Latino/a Pentecostals do--I can’t separate the “stuff” of faith from faith itself--and I am sure that I don’t ever want to do that--because that means that I’d have to take that picture down, since its dour, suffering Christ is de riguere in my Pentecostal circles--for me Jesús looking lost, feeling the suffering of humanity, and the bittersweet irony of being surrounded by Christmas lights is the Jesus that I can relate to--the one my great-grandma told me about--the one that watches over me.