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‘The Saints of Santa Ana’ Shows Ethnic Identity Isn’t Far From God

By Gabriel San Román

Off The Page Series

Nuestra Señora del Pilar Sunday mass livestream (Screenshot).

Early on in The Saints of Santa Ana, author Jonathan Calvillo recounts a playful anecdote from an afterschool program at an apartment complex. Kidworks, a local nonprofit, readied to distribute bread donated by a food bank to residents. Only, a group of children had other plans. They grabbed the bread and started pelting each other with it. Doña Elvia, a resident, stepped in when Calvillo and other Kidworks staffers couldn’t stop the food fight.

“¿Que están haciendo?” asked Doña Elvia from the courtyard. “¿Que no saben que la comida es sagrada?”

The admonishment restored order, but not before one last act of youthful defiance. As a piece of bread soared through the air, a little girl did her best imitation of Doña Elvia, save for subbing “sagrada” with “sangrada.” The children shared a quiet, mischievous laugh; Calvillo later found a revelation.

“As I would discover, both Doña Elvia and the little girl were correct,” he writes in the book. “In her faux pas, the child had extended Doña Elvia’s assertion; in her faux pas she had transubstantiated the bread. So too, the very streets of Santa Ana are sagradas and sangradas.”

Calvillo, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Theology, offers readers more such salt of the earth scholarship in The Saints of Santa Ana by way of an urban ethnographic look at Santaneros and their faith.

“I love Santa Ana,” he says. “The book wasn’t just an academic project for me. Santaneros are very much my people.”

Calvillo grew up Christian in West Fullerton. He later moved to Santa Ana during his college years and began raising his family there. In the rhythm of everyday life, Calvillo took notice of how important matters of faith were to his neighbors.

“Where does religion begin and where does ethnic identity end?” he asked himself. “The life of the community was so intertwined with the life of faith, for so many people.”

Cover of The Saints of Santa Ana by Jonathan Calvillo.

In seeking insights into the religious beliefs and ethnic identities of Santaneros for his book, Calvillo interviewed 50 residents evenly split between Catholics and evangelicals. All lived in central Santa Ana, where the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church served as an axis mundi of spiritual life for much of the surrounding immigrant, working-class community. With accessible, conversational prose, he invites readers into interpretations that are, at times, as familiar and intimate as a dinner table conversation among family and friends.

“I don’t see how someone can really be Mexican and not be Guadalupano,” remarks Rodrigo, a Catholic, in a quote from the book. “I’m proud to be faithful to La Virgencita. This is something very special that we have as Mexicans.”

In that bold assertion by proud practitioners of the faith, Mexican ethnic identity is positioned as synonymous with Catholicism. But where do Mexican evangelicals fit in, especially as they’re making religious inroads in the community? A key theological difference surrounds the same figure held so reverently by Catholics.

As The Saints of Santa Ana recounts, Hilda, Rodrigo’s sister, became a born-again Christian and dropped off images of La Virgen de Guadalupe and various saints with him because they no longer had any use in her newfound faith. Rodrigo felt a challenge to his understanding of faith and ethnicity as well as suffering a familial strain.

“People have relationships to la Virgen de Guadalupe or on the evangelical Pentecostal side, they have relationships to God that they understand as telling them to let go of La Virgen de Guadalupe,” says Calvillo. “In b