The latest book by Prof. Brett Hendrickson explores complex religious experiences and practices that have shaped Mexican American life in the U.S.
Despite being part of the largest minority community in the United States, Mexican Americans are seldom given their due recognition for their impact on the history and religious landscape of the U.S. In an effort to help tell their highly influential story, Brett Hendrickson, associate professor of religious studies, has published his third book, Mexican American Religions: An Introduction.
Released last month, Hendrickson’s newest publication spotlights Mexican American religious history and practice—from the Spanish colonization and conquest of Mexico, all the way up to the present day in the United States—with a main focus on Mexican Americans north of the border and how religion has been a part of their lives, history, ethnic identity, and thriving and survival in the U.S. Here, Hendrickson gives us a behind-the-scenes look at his work.
Why is Mexican American religion something everyone needs to know about—not just those who are interested in religious studies?
There are approximately 37 million Mexican Americans in the United States, which is about 11% of the population. This is also about the same number of people who live in Canada. Demographically, it’s a huge chunk of people and a major part of the U.S. experience. This book doesn’t just follow Mexican Americans in Catholic or Protestant churches, or in other religious settings. It also sets the scene for the way Mexican Americans have been included and excluded in various historical contexts in the United States, and it shows how changing immigration patterns and understandings of race and ethnicity in the United States have also affected the story.
Which chapter did you personally enjoy writing the most?
A chapter I think is really important is the one that talks about what happened to Mexican Americans during and after the U.S.-Mexican War, which was from 1846 to 1848. It’s the war where the U.S. fought with Mexico and ended up taking about half of Mexico’s national territory, which includes all of what we consider the U.S. southwest, California, and Texas today. That really changed the dynamics for a lot of people. Overnight, Mexican Americans went from being the majority in their own space to being a minority in somebody else’s space. The phrase that often gets used is, ‘We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.’ This chapter looks at what it meant to be part of a conquered territory, what that looked like for people in a religious sense, and the incredible historical impact that would have for our whole country over time.
What’s the inspiration behind the book?
I’ve been teaching, researching, and studying Latino religious devotion for many years. Now that I’ve written a couple of other monographs about some religious practices among Mexican Americans, particularly related to healing and pilgrimage, this was just an opportunity to tell a broader story and bring together a lot of different threads instead of focusing deeply on one topic. It allowed me to paint a broader picture over time. I had undergraduates in mind when I wrote the book, and I hope it will be useful in classrooms and for readers wanting to get a big-picture look.
How did you get into this field of study?
Before I started college and during college, I spent a total of two years in Argentina. In high school, I went there with a volunteer program with my church, and I worked at a community development organization that was similar to Habitat for Humanity for a year. When I started college, I studied abroad there for a year. I was a Latin American studies major as an undergrad and learned a lot about Latin American history, politics, and society. Then I went on to study the religious devotions of Latin Americans in grad school, and I earned my Ph.D. from Arizona State. I had lived in a variety of western and southwestern states at that time, and I was familiar with Mexican American communities and had a lot of opportunities to dig down and study it during grad school. It was just a good fit.
How did you tackle writing about such a complex topic?
I’m in a writing group here on campus with different colleagues, and we meet on a weekly basis and talk about the writing and research we’re doing. That was a really important part of my process, having these colleagues on campus who held me accountable. We’d talk about strategies, how not to procrastinate, and how not to get overwhelmed by big goals and things like that. That was really helpful.
Also, in fall 2020, I taught Latino Religions. Instead of using a textbook, we used my manuscript, which was more or less done at the time. And so the students gave me feedback about the manuscript, about parts that were unclear, about questions they had, or about anything they thought didn’t make sense or needed to be rewritten. That was really awesome. I got a workshop with Lafayette students, and it helped me get the book to a better place before I turned it in.
What do you hope your readers will take away from this book when they’re done reading it?
I hope that they will realize that U.S. history is not merely the history of British people colonizing the East Coast, Puritans, and of Protestant hegemony. There’s also an entire story of the Spanish empire, Catholic colonization, and the Latin American roots of North America. I hope that when people think about American religions after reading this book, they think about it in a much more varied way—recognizing the diversity that we have and appreciating it.
I continue to be surprised by how little people know in the United States about Latino history and culture, especially given the fact that the Latino and Latinx community has been the largest minority community in the U.S. for several years now. I feel that there’s a lot of time to be made up in elementary, high school, and college education in giving fair due to this extraordinarily vibrant and important part of the United States population that their history is not getting. It needs to be more told than it is, and I’m excited to be part of that.