BY AVA BLUM-CARR ’21
Daisy Vargas, a graduate student at the University of California Riverside, visited Mount Holyoke last Thursday to present a lecture on the criminalization of Mexican religious symbolism within law enforcement, border patrol and legal proceedings in the United States. The talk, which was held in Skinner Hall, was sponsored by the religion department.
Vargas’ lecture centered on the spread of culture across the legally defined border between Mexico and the United States. An 1848 treaty that expanded the United States’ southernmost territories and absorbed 80,000 Mexican citizens into the country defined the border. Mexican religious culture, specifically Catholicism and the material objects and iconography that accompany it, is one element of the culture that has spread, according to Vargas. Depictions of specific saints, holidays and objects of religious significance such as rosaries have all become recognizable in American culture due to the significant presence of Mexican communities within the United States.
However, Vargas said, the continuous dispute over immigration in the United States has resulted in brutal law enforcement practices that extend far beyond the U.S. southern border. Focusing on the intersecting themes of race, religion and the law, Vargas analyzed racial profiling by police and border enforcement in her talk, paying special attention to the role of Mexican Catholic material religion.
To illustrate this concept, she highlighted three court cases from recent years. In one example, a police officer in Tennessee pulled over and searched the vehicle of a couple after observing that they were of Latin American origin and had a rosary hanging from their rearview mirror. A case earlier that year had ruled that religious symbols could not be used as justification for “reasonable suspicion” of drug dealing and criminal activity, yet the U.S. District Court of Chattanooga, Tennessee still used the presence of the rosary as evidence. The arresting officer testified that his suspicions were raised when saw the rosary because he recognized it as a symbol of the Roman Catholic faith, which he knew was widely practiced among people of Hispanic heritage. He added that it is well known in law enforcement circles that Hispanics are disproportionately represented among drug traffickers.
“Law enforcement officers are taught to use Mexican religion’s material objects as evidence of reasonable suspicion during routine traffic stops. In training seminars, law enforcement officers are taught to conflate even the most normative of Roman Catholic practices with so-called ‘narco-religion,’” said Vargas.
Vargas described a training course popular within various state law enforcement agencies that teaches the identification and interpretation of popular symbols within Mexican Catholicism that are presumed to be linked to the drug trade. The promotional materials for the course include images of the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. Vargas pointed out that the Day of the Dead has become extremely well-known in American popular culture, but in these law enforcement materials it is nevertheless portrayed as evidence of possible criminal activity.
In another example, Vargas showed an image of a T-shirt marketed to police officers. It depicted St. Michael, the patron saint of police, positioned behind two policemen who are in the midst of violently arresting another man, potentially of Mexican origin. All figures were superimposed over an image of the American flag.
Vargas explained that the believed relationship between St. Michael and the police positions law enforcement within the realm of “legitimate religion,” as opposed to the Mexican religious symbolism that is rendered illicit and indicative of criminal behavior.
“These materials point to the idea that Mexican views on theology and devotion to images fall outside of a recognized Christian orthodoxy,” said Vargas. Saints and other holy figures venerated in Mexican Catholic tradition are then dismissed as products of superstition and used to strengthen the concept of Mexican religious culture as alien, dangerous or invasive.
“I found the shirt which law enforcement officials were given particularly interesting,” said Sophia Dwinell ’19, who attended the lecture. “It was just so clear how our justice system, as a reflection of this country’s values, legitimizes white Catholicism and deems Mexican Catholicism a perversion.”
The classification of Mexican religious tradition as pure superstition is central to its criminalization in the eyes of American law enforcement and relates to the broader issue of political fear-mongering regarding immigration.
“The American judicial system is in charge of determining what constitutes religion, that is, what practices and organizations are worthy of defense and fit the criteria for First Amendment protections,” said Vargas. “Practices that fall into the category of superstition are policed and targeted for elimination.”
In 2017, the number of arrests and deportations made by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in the U.S.-Mexico border region declined, while arrests and deportations in the U.S. interior increased. According to Vargas, this exemplifies the expansion of anti-immigration rhetoric in the American political landscape.
“When the president refers to the need to build a ‘big, beautiful wall’ at the Southern border of the country, he taps into a fear-based impulse to protect the country from that monstrous alien, the religious other, who is incompatible with American citizenship,” Vargas concluded “To border patrol agents, police officers and the people who train them, Mexican religion signifies non-belonging, non-citizenship and the potential for criminality.”
The event was part of the religion department’s ongoing lecture series entitled “Religion, Race and Ethnicity in the Americas.”