Cenizas A Cenizas (Ashes to Ashes

Jesús wanted to be cremated and have his ashes mixed with some weed.  I found that to be a funny line from an otherwise sad and poignant story I read yesterday from the Los Angeles Times, and writer Thomas Curwen’s deft storytelling of a Latino Pentecostal family living in a garage in the Exposition Park area of Los Angeles. Here is the link to the story and the photo essay, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-jesus-20121223,0,4762028.story

Reading the story of a terminally ill young man, whose family had converted from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, brought a few things to mind for this post about Christmas, as I am sure all posts should reflect on the season for a time.

The depiction of the sick young man being anointed with oil and the pastor praying intensely over him clued me into the idea that this was an evangelico family, and possibly Pentecostal.  Having read, heard, and participated in these services for over 25 years, I marvel at the faith of the participants–even in the face of cold medical reality. It is a faith that I am not sure outsiders understand, aside from perhaps the comfort it brings to the family, while in the back of most minds, is the reality that this young man, sick for months with an aggressive brain tumor, was not going to be healed.

The story of this family was stirring.  Jesús’ mom left an abusive partner and now lives with her extended family in a garage, where carpet helps prevent a wholesale infestation of roaches, but does not deter the rats.  Jesús comforts himself with music and wishes he were able to toke up every now and then. There is no hint in the article that this is marijuana for medical purposes, it seems that Jesús just likes to smoke–and that got me to thinking–his pot smoking no doubt has been the subject among church folks and his family.  If not when he was healthy, certainly now as he lays dying with the specter of the charitable organization offering to cremate him, with this most distasteful request that he wants his earthly remains intermingling with that devil weed.

So what do these Latino/a Pentecostal church members do with Jesús’ last request? Do they ignore him? Do they try to talk his family out of it? Does it even matter?   One thing I knew that Curwen corroborated, was upon conversion, Jesús’ Pentecostal church asked him to stop wearing his St. Jude medal and that Jesús resisted that casual dismissal of one of the most important devotions of Mexican Catholicism.  I can imagine the dialogue around St. Jude medals and if my years of listening in on these conversations offer any clues–the last request of a 19-year old Mexican immigrant dying too young was the subject of some debate.  “…ha salvado, no podemos hacer eso…” He’s saved, we can’t do that.”  ¿cómo vamos a explicárselo a los niños? “How are we going to explain it to the kids.” For Pentecostals, ensuring that their youth follow in their footsteps is of singular importance, so setting examples, inculcating very strict rules about piety, and making sure that their youth understand that these are not arbitrary rules, these are from God–goes a long way to translating the high-tension piety that would make Jesús’ burial wish difficult for church members to accept.

First-generation immigrant Latino/a Pentecostals tend to be among the more conservative  groups I have studied and worshipped with–there are a number of theories as to why this is, but I will not bore you with those now, we can always retreat to the obscurity of academia at a later time, for now, you’ll have to believe me.

Curwen’s article painfully recounts the last gasps of Jesús’ life as his mother holds his face–trying to hold on to whatever she can–it is a beautifully written piece and it evokes for me at least, an utter lack of concern for how Jesús wanted to be “buried.”  “Mary Jane and me” Jesús told Curwen, before he died.  Such irreverence, such honesty, is often not acceptable truth-telling in a Latino/a Pentecostal context that puts up all kinds of bulwarks to prevent what they view as the corrosive nature of “el mundo” from seeping into their world.  No where in the article is there any hint that Jesús had learned the language of Pentecostal piety sufficient to blunt his own irreverent request ( no pun intended). Perhaps that, and not his request was the subject of discussion at church–learning how to deploy the language will often suffice–for a while.

I have had the pleasure of discussing issues like this with Latino/a Pentecostals in various settings–prohibitions against drinking, dancing, (drugs were never mentioned), and oddly enough, the accoutrements of holidays have lead to some animated discussions.  One such discussion, where I queried the group as to whether they’d debated or prayed about whether to have a Christmas tree left me literally speechless ( a rare thing indeed).  I heard the typical discussion that it was a pagan tradition–but more importantly for my analysis of the situation, was that those who were most against the practice, were raised in homes where upon conversion, (usually from Catholicism), everything with any hint of liturgical taint was abandoned.  This group had the Pentecostal piety and ethos down pat–and something tells me Jesús’ pot-smoking would not go over well here.

I spend most of my time studying Latino/a Pentecostalism & the people who inhabit this growing community probably, because as my undergrad mentor once told me, “you are probably trying to understand yourself.” He was right. I would have prayed with Jesús’ church group, I would have anointed him with oil and spoken in tongues over his terminally ill body–then when he died, I would have joined his family as they scattered his ashes mixed with Mary Jane–praying that Jesús meeting w/ Cristo Jesus was filled with hugs and laughter over his request.  Then I’d get to go home, hug my kids, and have drink by the Christmas tree. Salud Jesús y paz de Cristo a tu familia.

Feliz Navidad!

About Arlene Sánchez-Walsh

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