My Faith in San Judas, San Sebastián, and the Queerness of the Church

El arzobispo ha muerto.

My mother didn’t send for me when the gas pipes beneath the street crumbled like milk candies, unleashing a series of explosions that leveled whole city blocks and smothered two-hundred beneath rubble. She did not come to take me with her when the peso collapsed or when the kidnappings intensified and the cracked fingers of loved ones began arriving joint by joint via post. It was the image of a bullet-riddled Juan Jesús Posada Ocampo—the Archbishop of Guadalajara—in his black robes and pectoral cross, slumped over the passengers seat in a car parked at Miguel Hidalgo Airport that convinced her it was necessary to join her in the North. She could not stand to leave me in a country that seemingly had lost its fear of God. It would take her half a year to save enough money, but we shortly after crossed the border on foot together and arrived at the peregrine edge of the Mojave Desert to a city named Lancaster.

Other families of clandestine Spanish-speaking migrants, like mine, similarly flocked to Lancaster chasing $300 a month rents on arrival or after being pushed out of Greater Los Angeles by police violence, immigration raids, and early efforts to gentrify communities. They arrived in hostile territory, in a then-predominantly white town a 1997 New Yorker piece described as “a pretty harrowing, dispiriting affair.” Lancaster was an economically depressed military-industrial outpost at the mercy of Nazi skinhead gangs who recruited white high school students by utilizing methamphetamines as both carrot and stick. The spread-out, still-growing community of Mexican immigrants relied on just one Mexican grocery, Carnicería Gonzales, for their earthly needs and, just one weekly Spanish language mass, at Sacred Heart Church, for their social and spiritual ones.

Sunday’s 12PM mass at Sacred Heart was all the space and all the time we had, one of the only places in the region where Spanish was spoken openly without provoking threats of a call to immigration or verbal, sometimes physical, abuse from the community’s original stock. Catholicism was a refuge, a second México for those of us displaced by humiliating economic and social forces and a living connection to families we had been forced to leave behind. Reciting the Credo and the Padre Nuestro, I imagined my grandmother 1500 miles away reciting the same words;  Dios de Dios, Luz de Luz, distance collapsed, time begrudgingly slowed. It was the Church that kept my Spanish alive through the recitation of prayer. It was the Church through images of La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos on telephone cards, scapulars and figurines that drip-fed a bruised, superficial understanding of Mexicanidad whose growth was stunted in isolation.

By early adolescence, however, as I began developing romantic feelings for men, my relationship with the Church inflected. The homilies of the doctrine on the family, the exhortations that men should be men and women should be women, turned mass into excruciating sessions where I sat in fear that I would be outed or condemned. Every one of my grandmother’s que Dios te cuide felt like a dare and my mind raced with thoughts that people might suspect I was uno de esos. I spent the subsequent years struggling to reconcile the words of the Church, growing enraged watching Cardinal Mahony give speeches on the rights of migrants to television media and politicos of Los Angeles, as the machinery of the Church turned to fight the advancement of queer and trans rights that culminated in California’s Proposition 8. I began calling myself an atheist.

It was by some strange twist that some years later I should find myself sitting in Santa Clarita with representatives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to discuss immigration issues. The instruction was simple: stick to the sanctity of the family and the need to keep families together as policy and, most importantly, to avoid distractions. I asked if I was a distraction, if the idea that illegalized migrants might also be queer was a distraction. I could no longer prioritize what part of myself, the queer, the Catholic or the Mexican needed the kindly bishops’ advocacy the most.

Since that meeting, the Church’s role weighs on my mind all the same, but I feel closer to my faith. In being able to confront the hierarchy of Catholicism, I reclaimed what was important to me—community and ceremony. I sought out others who wore rosaries and devotional bracelets to gay bars and who saw, like I did, the queerness within the rituals and iconography of the Church or those who playfully invented it.

Today, when asked if I believe in God I reply that some days I do, some days I don’t, other days I need to and find I can’t. But, I always believe in San Judas, patron saint of lost causes, and San Sebastián, patron saint of exiled faggots.

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