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.”
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 both cases, people have a sense of a divine imperative.”
In other words, it’s hard to persuasively argue one away from the other.
The most original insights offered by the book come when exploring how the two prominent faith traditions see Santa Ana’s barrios. Calvillo takes readers into places like Myrtle and Townsend Streets, neighborhoods with tough reputations that are softened by the sense of religious community within them. Since Catholics form a majority, it’s easy for them to celebrate their faith communally. In the past, parish churches organized “jamaicas.” More recently, Calvillo detailed a procession for La Virgen de Guadalupe that spanned from Myrtle to Townsend without a whiff of trouble from rival cholos.
For evangelicals, they tend to see the barrio more as a place for conversion. Whereas Catholics may congregate in courtyards for various religious celebrations, evangelicals are more likely to invite people to Bible studies within their homes. Victory Outreach churches that preach the gospel to former gang members and Teen Challenge, a faith-based nonprofit, show that they’re not indifferent to the social ills of barrio life, though favoring a salvation solution above all else.
“When they see the problems of drug abuse and gang violence, they want to engage those issues,” says Calvillo. “A lot of it revolves around individual conversion.”
A brief religious history of Santa Ana offered in one of the book’s chapters shows that both faith traditions hold a claim to the past. Though Catholicism can trace itself back to the times of Spanish colonization, evangelicalism isn’t brand new by any means. Templo Calvario, a counterpart to Immaculate Heart, traces its existence back more than 80 years in Santa Ana.
Since that time, the city’s become majority-Latino with a sizable immigrant population. That shift has changed the dynamics of faith in Santa Ana where assimilation isn’t a one-way street.
“The support network that immigrants get from the church community, that’s a huge aspect of the immigrant experience for those that are religiously inclined,” says Calvillo. “A lot of Pentecostal and evangelical churches are smaller. Often, they’ll offer a very tight-knit community.”
Will evangelical Christianity always be small and tight-knit amid Santa Ana’s Mexican majority? Looking towards the future, Calvillo doesn’t see a path for it becoming the city’s dominant faith. Current trends show that non-religious affiliated residents represent the fastest growing community. But that doesn’t mean the next generation of those Santaneros will be wholly divorced from spirituality, either.
Driving that point home, The Saints of Santa Ana ends with a scene from the massive Día de los Muertos street festival organized every year by El Centro Cultural de Mexico. “Noche de Altares is an open space that doesn’t force you to say what religion you are,” says Calvillo. “People commemorate their loved ones who’ve passed away, but it’s a deeply spiritual experience for many people.”
Whatever fate awaits, Calvillo’s impressive contribution to the study of Santa Ana, its people and their religious beliefs offers a contrast to racist stereotypes that are crudely thrust upon them from callous corners of the county.
Don’t believe the hate hype. The Golden City is home to a Godly people, both diverse and devout in their own meaningful ways.
The Saints of Santa Ana by Jonathan Calvillo, published November 13, 2020, Oxford University Press, 288 pages. $24.95 (paperback)
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.