Hybrid Spiritualities in Ana Castillo’s The Guardians

Alexia Schemien,

University of  Duisburg-Essen


This article focuses on religion and spirituality in Ana Castillo’s latest novel The Guardians; it seeks to demonstrate the U.S.-Mexican border’s religious transnationalization. The aim is to show: (a) how the term hybrid spiritualities can be understood as a unifying link between religion and other discourses, such as femininity, crime, politics and (b) to uncover different levels of religion and spirituality in the novel, applying the notion of hybrid spiritualities. Individual characters in the novel embody various forms of religion and their interconnection with the other aforementioned issues and the corresponding discourses. The analysis reveals that no form of hybrid spirituality is privileged over another. The resulting impression that the novel creates is that of a Mexican American community permeated by diverse forms of spirituality. By displaying the corresponding interconnectivity of discourses, the article proposes a better understanding of the spiritual mixing and mingling in the context of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands.

1. Defining the Term Hybrid Spiritualities

Ana Castillo’s latest novel The Guardians (2007), has gained widespread academic recognition as a “border novel” (Carson, “Castillo” 486) concerned with questions on nation and nationality. This article, however, focuses on religion and spirituality in the text. The aim is to demonstrate: (a) how the term hybrid spiritualities can be understood as a unifying link between religion and other discourses (femininity, crime, politics) and (b) to uncover different levels of religion and spirituality in the novel applying the previously defined term hybrid spirituality.

Religion or spirituality as a main aspect of analysis in literary texts of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands turns out to be a promising field for future investigation. As Gastón Espinosa has remarked, “[d]espite the fact that the vast majority of U.S. Latinos claim to be religious or spiritual, little has been written on Mexican American/Chicano religions” (Espinosa, “Introduction” 1). Espinosa is correct in claiming religion as a main aspect of study. Castillo’s work So Far from God has already been studied extensively in regard to its spirituality. What remains to be shown in detail is whether spirituality can also be encountered in The Guardians.

At the same time, this article proposes a better understanding of the mixing and mingling in the context of the religious borderlands. In the following, the concept of hybrid spiritualities in the context of Mexican American Catholicism will be explained. After that, I will narrow down the scope of the concept to Catholic hybrid spiritualities because these will eventually be identified in the novel. The very specific Mexican Catholic practice, termed ethno-Catholicism by Robert R. Treviño (Church in the Barrio), represents the blending of Spanish Christianity and indigenous beliefs not only in Mexico but in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands as well. Consequently, it is useful to understand religions as transamerican products of cultural contact. Mary Louis Pratt’s term of the borderlands as a ʺcontact zoneʺ emphasizes the connection of people, and supports new cultural forms and identities regardless of actual geopolitical borders. The concept of ʺthis sideʺ or ʺthat sideʺ of the border is challenged by Pratt’s reference to ʺthe social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each otherʺ (35). Speaking with José Saldívar, this analysis of Castillo’s novel seeks to contribute to a “theoretical scenario of Americanity […] mov[ing] away from a nationalist American studies to an outernational comparative critical U.S. studies” (Trans-Americanity xxvi). The discussion of spirituality and its interconnectivity of (different types of) Catholicism and various socio-political discourses emphasizes the novel’s Inter-American perspective which closely links the U.S.A. and Mexico rather than separating them. [1] Consequently, not only the topic of migration and border proximity makes this novel a border novel. It also synthesizes religious and spiritual beliefs connected to the borderlands and beyond. Therefore, Stuart Hall’s concept of an “ˈidentityˈ which lives with and through, not despite, differenceʺ (ʺCultural Identity and Diasporaʺ 235) can be applied to the novel as well. His idea of “intersecting and antagonistic discourses, practices and positionsʺ (236) is exactly what Castillo expresses with her characters and the way they are connected to various discourses.

There are many ideas, influences, and beliefs that come together in the U.S.-Mexican border region, which make its people, culture, and literature hybrid, since they assemble elements from diverse sources into a new, dynamic whole. One of the most significant phenomena within this global movement is the development of transnational communities with growing political, cultural, and economic influences. Consequently, speaking with Homi Bhabha,

the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity […] is the ˈthird spaceˈ which enables other positions to emerge (“Third Space Interview” 211).

Adding to the idea of the third space and hybridity, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera needs to be mentioned, which remains the most influential work in the understanding of a new mestiza consciousness, a ʺconsciousness of the Borderlandsʺ (Anzaldúa, 77). This consciousness helps to identify a new ethnic identity of Mexican Americans, mainly concentrated on Chicana women who want to be recognized in their fullness and not only as either/or. Her understanding of border identities is expressed with her idea of ʺthe lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border cultureʺ (Anzaldúa, Borderlands 25). Additionally, she distinguishes between borders as dividing lines and the borderland as ʺa vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary [which] is in a constant state of transitionʺ (26). This ʺundetermined placeʺ has been agreed on by scholars in terms of intersecting ethnicities in general but it can also be applied to religion in the borderlands. Some scholars even speak of segundo mestizaje in connection to the development of Mexican American religion and culture, pointing at the “dramatic encounter and clash with the pluralistic U.S. milieu and a majority-culture Catholicism steeped in European […] roots” (Matovina/Riebe-Estrella, 8). [2]

In the context of this article, however, the expression hybrid spiritualities, which functions as a discourse by exploring the development of Mexican American religiosity, will be applied. The term has been used before but a detailed description of what it means is still lacking. Therefore, the following pages will argue for the usefulness of this concept in the context of the religious borderlands and will focus on its potential for discussing the religious practice of individuals.

Hybrid spiritualities refer to the actual mixing of spiritual beliefs, as can be seen for example in the adoration for the Virgen de Guadalupe, indigenous beliefs, or curanderismo. Josef Raab describes these ʺ(Latin) American specificitiesʺ as a combination ʺin which there is deep Catholic devotion but also an adherence to other religious models and practicesʺ (ʺVisions and Revisionsʺ 256). For the purpose of this article, I will take a closer look at the Virgen de Guadalupe as an instance of hybrid spirituality. She is not a distant saint in heaven or in antiquated, institutionalized churches but rather can be seen as ʺimages of the sacred in buses, bars, homes, bodies, jets, brothels – everywhere!ʺ (Elizondo, ʺForewordʺ x). Jeannette Rodriguez captures the sentiment often expressed by people living in the borderlands:

To be of Mexican descent is to recognize the image of [her]. […] She shares the theological, fast-paced, elitist, and secular milieu of the United States with her many compatriots, who also share her dark skin and her language. (Rodriguez, Faith and Empowerment xxv)

Many times the adoration of the Virgen has been underestimated especially by theologians because it was ʺdelegated to the realm of popular religiosity […] or the piety of the simple folksʺ (Elizondo, Faith and Empowerment xii). Ana Castillo, on the contrary, emphasizes in the collection of essays Goddess of the Americas, which she edited, the importance of the Virgen for Mexican American (female) identity:

If we look to our past in order to help explain why we are here, the Conquered Mexic-Amerindians may have turned to the Mother – and it was She who responded – to bring comfort, assurance, hope when their mighty male gods became silent […] Our Lady of Guadalupe led the battle for independence from Spain by way of the banner held by Father Hidalgo. In the United States, in recent times, the late leader of the United Farmworkers Union, César Chávez, carried Her banner forth in his relentless struggle for economic justice for the farmworkers. (Castillo, “Introduction” xvii- xviii)

Castillo writes that as an ʺheir of Mexican sentimentsʺ she remains mystified by the power of the Virgen (xvii). The Goddess has a prominent role in Castillo’s academic as well as literary work. Her fiction is often described as ʺChicana magical realism,ʺ which she strongly opposes because she ʺis not juxtaposing the magical with the real. But rather, she is representing the realʺ (Calvin, ʺWriting the Xicanistaʺ 24). With this statement, she points at a distinct Latin American worldview which cannot be described thoroughly by simply employing the term magical realism.

So why do we need the term hybrid spirituality to illustrate the religious aspects in Castillo’s work? The term syncretism, as an expression for the mixing of two or more beliefs, would be too simplistic a notion to describe the situation in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands in general or in Castillo’s work. Syncretism is a rather static term that combines two or more established religions. It purports to fuse traditionally structured religions that evolved but did not really change over time. Medina and Cadena define this practice as follows:

Syncretism is the term most often used to describe the fusion of distinct religious systems into a new one. Many scholars acknowledge the limitations of this term, which implies a blending of two or more separate and ʺpureʺ religious systems resulting in a new and unique form. The term suggests simple historical contexts and static religions and ignores power relations involving physical and spiritual violence. To make sense out of Christianity, the Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica had to appropriate Christian rites and symbols in a way that would enable them to maintain balance and harmony with their drastically changing world. Indigenous Mesoamericans had to decide how the religious systems could work together and what aspects of each enabled communication with transcendent powers. (Medina/Cadena, ʺDías de los Muertosʺ 75)

I agree with Medina and Cadena’s skepticism concerning the notion of syncretism. While syncretism is directly connected to at least one established religion, the term spirituality also allows for the inclusion of other forms of religious practice. As the theologian Kees Waaijman points out, ʺ[s]pirituality occupies an important place, not only within the churches, but also between the churches, and in interreligious dialogueʺ (Waaijman, Spirituality 1). The term religion can therefore be taken to refer to the institutionalized form of spirituality, while spirituality is best used to designate lay spirituality and everyday practices, which play an important role in the family and in the community. Consequently, spirituality is rather an individual decision that links the believer to other individuals believing in the same supernatural force. Religion, on the other hand, is closely linked to the institution of an established church and its more or less rigid rites, rules, and value system (cf. Waaijman 5). It is important here not to misunderstand spirituality as a trivial form of religion, as is often the case in the everyday use of the word. Spirituality, in religious studies, refers to everyday practices and individual beliefs within a faith. In a nutshell: ʺReligion asks you to learn from the experience of others. Spirituality urges you to seek your ownʺ (Heelas/Woodhead, Spiritual Revolution 12). [3]

Additionally, we have to be concerned with ʺthe contexts in which religion and spirituality are practiced. Politics, gender, the media and the law are four particularly important contextsʺ (Spalek, Religion, Spirituality viii). This interconnectivity with other aspects of daily life is what makes the term hybrid spiritualities useful for the analysis of Mexican American literature. Furthermore, it uncovers the constructedness of the Mexican American spiritual identity in the media and in literature and shows its interconnection with other discourses like Chicana feminism, gender, understandings of violence and crime as well as political activism. What is new here is the central position of the religious discourse in relation to other discourses. This second point will be an essential aspect in this essay, which seeks to analyze the interrelatedness of discourses in Castillo’s most recent novel, The Guardians.

According to the social linguist Siegfried Jäger, a discourse is a theoretical tool to help scholars understand the functions of language and its usage in society. He identifies different levels of discourses that help to cope with the variety and confusion of distinct discourses in connection to one another. He especially concentrates on the entanglement of discursive strings (cf. 16) and therefore emphasizes the concept of discourses being closely related and linked to each other, which can be called the interconnectivity of discourses (cf. 18). This interconnectivity can be identified in the spiritual borderlands of Mexican American culture and literature.

Jeannette Rodriguez, together with many other scholars, understands religion as inseparable from Mexican American culture (cf. Faith and Empowerment xx). This direct connection between ethnicity and religion, however, is of course too simplistic because, as Gastón Espinosa has pointed out, ʺreligion is in the marrow of Mexican American culture and identityʺ (ʺReflections on Mexican American Religionsʺ 381). Only recognizing the connection between ethnicity and religion as a ʺnaturalʺ link does not capture all the facets needed for an extensive analysis of Mexican American literary texts. This is not an article on Mexican American spiritual reality but rather on the discourse that has been constructed around it and that prevails in the perception and representation of Mexican American identity. For the purpose of this essay, I will concentrate on the interconnectivity of discourses that is implied in the term hybrid spiritualities. For example in a study on Korean American spirituality, Sharon Kim has previously used the term hybrid spiritualities by emphasizing its potential of portraying the ʺintersection of race, generation, and ethnicity in the context of […] Christian faithʺ (Kim, ʺHybrid Spiritualitiesʺ 225). [4]

This is also the artistic as well as cultural space in which Mexican American spirituality is expressed, as can be seen in the interpretation of Chicana art by Laura Pérez who has used the term hybrid spiritualities. Her primary aim is to open up a space for continuous conversations engaging the essential intersections of Chicana spirituality and visual culture. The spiritual, according to Pérez, originates in Chicana art and is

another terrain upon which to challenge the cultural blind spots in mainstream values, in our assumptions and dismissals, in our pretensions to the universality and superiority of our beliefs, and in our anti-religiosity or religious dogmatisms. (3)

As Russo Garrido argues, spirituality is one of the main aspects in Chicana feminist writing but has largely been ignored in critical discussions of this literature. Spirituality is often associated with the irrational and is therefore considered out of place in academia (cf. Russo Garrido 3). Together with other scholars, she rightly resists this idea by stating that if Mexican American writing deals with spirituality, so should the study of these works.

Theresa Delgadillo uses the term hybrid spiritualities in order to show how ʺa pervasive stereotype of Chicanas as passive individuals victimized by oppression or subordinated by a patriarchal church [is opposed] by presenting a cast of female characters who resist dominationʺ in Castillo’s novel So Far from God. Delgadillo’s main focus is on the empowerment of Chicanas in a church- and therefore male-dominated world. She understands ʺreligion as an obstacle to progressive actionʺ (888), which makes hybrid spirituality, in her view, a means for political activism. Consequently, her understanding of hybrid spiritualities is closely linked to what Ana Castillo calls Xicanisma and therefore does not really introduce a new insight but she rather conflates terms. [5] Her facile way to inextricably connect Chicana feminism and the analysis of religious/spiritual depictions in Mexican American literature denies the genuine potential of the term. The true prospect of using the concept lies in its applicability to the description of the variety in the spiritual borderlands, detached from any particular politically or socially motivated writing. Therefore, in my opinion, feminism is not the only defining objective that determines the notion of hybrid spiritualities but other discourses are equally important and should be recognized.

2. Interconnecting Discourses in The Guardians

Regina, a widow in her mid-fifties living in rural New Mexico, takes care of her teenage nephew, Gabo, who believes he is destined to become a priest. Gabo’s father, Rafa, constantly crosses the border illegally until he vanishes one day. While Gabo intensifies his prayers and relationship to the church and seeks the assistance of the local gang, The Palominos (with which his best friend is involved), Regina asks Miguel, an activist Chicano history teacher, and his grandfather, el Abuelito Milton, for help. Castillo employs a nontraditional narrative structure, by using these four characters as multiple narrative voices, which has already been observed by Ritch Calvin in relation to her previous novels (cf. ʺWriting the Xicanistaʺ 31). They all try to fill their role to find the missing father, while functioning as strong alternating voices telling the story from their very own perspectives.

Individual characters in the novel embody various forms of religion and their interconnection with other discourses. Miguel represents the link between the Chicano Movement and religion, Gabo stands for the belief in the Catholic Church as an institution but is also linked to a discourse on crime, Regina represents a modern version of the Virgen de Guadalupe together with the discourse on the American Dream, and ʺupward mobility,ʺ and el Abuelito Milton is a witness to all these spiritual instances. [6]

2.1 Regina, the Modern Virgen de Guadalupe

Regina Ana, the leading character of the novel, is a self-made woman who tries her best to cope with life. She not only works as a teacher’s aide to earn money but she also has her ʺget-rich-quick schemes,ʺ (like a pie baking business) as she calls them (cf. The Guardians 7, 25). Her character very much represents the American Dream – or at least the search for the American Dream: ʺWhen I was a girl and came up to work in the fields, I’d feel like the way immigrants must’ve felt seeing the Statue of Liberty. Those puffing chimneys were a pair of lamps, calling the huddled massesʺ (51). Together with her mother she had come to the United States to search for a better life and she became an American citizen: ʺThat’s all every immigrant in the world wants, to get her papers in order. To officially become a personʺ (116). With this last sentence, Castillo criticizes the way Mexicans and Mexican Americans are often treated, by stressing the obligation to obtain papers in order to be recognized as “a person” and not being “an alien” (in the double meaning of the word) anymore. She works very hard to fulfill her mother’s wish for a better life and to provide for her nephew Gabo. Here, Castillo illustrates her novel as ʺˈ culturallyˈ autobiographical in that it is based on [her] background […] [and her] extended family, which went from harvest to harvest doing migrant workʺ (ʺAfterwordʺ 216).

Regina is a strong and independent woman who does not seem to need spirituality to cope with life because she thinks she only has to depend on herself. However, Castillo casts her – unbeknownst to the character herself – as a modern version of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Her first name (Regina, the queen, the mother goddess) already foreshadows her role in the novel. She combines virginity on the one hand with motherhood and caring love on the other. Her husband died in Vietnam before they could consummate their marriage (cf. The Guardians 3), so she remains a virgin widow (21). Even her priest does not understand her abstinence:

Over twenty years of Father Bosco as my confessor and he never once let up on me about my not knowing a man. ʺHow could you not, Regina?ʺ His silhouette would lean against the screen, all ears. ʺYou were married.ʺ (98)

Her diffidence and shyness towards men increases the attraction Miguel feels towards her (cf. 27) and add up to her role as the Virgen. Herewith, Castillo focuses on genuine holiness achieved by a decent and modest person in real life as opposed to institutionalized abstinence as in priesthood. Besides, the priest does not respect abstinence anymore as he has a mistress and also brings her along to Gabo’s birthday party (79); an incidence which makes Regina see her prejudices of an untrustworthy and disgraceful priest fulfilled.

There is only one instance, in which Regina feels close to the saints for her life of abstinence:

Gabo and I are figuring these things out – he, with his suspicious signs of priest potential and me, a woman who has been living alone so long I may as well become beatified […] I always think of things like that – imagining myself tied to a stake […]
ʺMaybe you used to be a martyr or a saint in another life,ʺ Gabo said when I talked out loud about these ponderings.
ʺAccording to the Church, there is only one life and this is it,ʺ I told him (9).

This scene shows that Gabo believes in the purity of his aunt and that even she has dreams of being a saint, or at least a saintly person. Nevertheless, the situation is desecrated by Regina abruptly ending the conversation. Castillo does not let her character recognize her divinity to again make her the perfect Virgen who rather behaves to the best of her knowledge and belief. Her behavior remains exemplary which results in a holy apparition (probably the Virgen but this is not specified) in which Gabo and Regina are working in the garden and then are surprised by a shining light (cf. 175-176). Gabo reports about this incident: ʺFirst, it was my tía [Regina] who saw what was happening. (That is how I know she is so blessed.) ʺ (175).

Moreover, Castillo repeatedly emphasizes Regina’s passion for gardening and growing her own vegetables, so that a connection to the Earth goddess Coatlalopeub is conspicuous. Gloria Anzaldúa writes about this indigenous Earth goddess: “La Virgen de Guadalupe’s Indian name is Coatlalopeub. She is the central deity connecting us to our Indian ancestry” (52). Also Regina’s way of making and creating something new and productive from the earth (planting and selling vegetables, baking cakes etc.) adds to the inspiring energy of Coatlalopeub (cf. Herrera-Sobek, Chicano Folklore 209). Accordingly, Regina’s passion for nature and the earth can be interpreted as indigenous rootedness and connectedness to the land she is living on. By stating that ʺ[t]hese lands, this unmerciful desert – it belonged to us first, the Mexicansʺ (5), she furthermore claims the mythical land of Aztlán as well as the actual land regulated in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo using her voice as a Chicana.

Her second name, Ana, which means ʺpatroness of late-in-life mothers,ʺ (152) rounds off the picture of her character. She functions as a mother to her nephew Gabo not only because she never had children of her own but cared for children that were given to her, like in Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception of Jesus. At first, this child to care for is Gabo, and at the end of the novel, when she loses him, she assumes care of the little baby girl of the gang member Tiny Tears, whom she baptizes ʺGabriela.ʺ This last action symbolizes the hopeful continuance of forthcoming generations through the loving hand of Regina, the mother-figure (cf. 209). This delivery of a new child as a substitute for a lost son can be understood as a parallel to the Bible, in which Jesus promises his mother Mary a new son after his crucifixion. Castillo uses her main character to show divinity in the average female as opposed to the institutionalized Church by showing Regina’s skepticism towards religion and towards the Church as can be seen in her nephew’s statement:

My dad and my tía are a lot alike when it comes to not trusting the Church. ʺMillions,ʺ they each say, like they had been saying it all their lives, ʺmillions of mexicanos among the faithful, living in poverty. And the Church – so rich.ʺ ʺReligion is the opium of the masses.ʺ Mi papá liked to quote Marx (21).

Not only the Roman Catholic Church as a global institution, but also the priest of her home church arouse suspicion in her. Especially when Gabo turns to this priest in despair because of the loss of his own father, Regina becomes very distrustful towards the clergyman: ʺEverybody liked Padre Juan Bosco. Except me. More than ever now […] Los curas had always been […] hard to decipherʺ (99). She rather believes in the power of love coming from within a family than in letting an institution take over the responsibility of caring for Gabo. Because of her great distrust and skepticism towards the Church, she does not understand, or even respect, her nephew’s strong religiousness: ʺMy biggest fear is he’s gonna become a priest. Wait ‘til Rafa hears about it. He’ll be so disappointedʺ (7). Through this character, Castillo demonstrates that not all Mexican Americans are proud Catholics who obey the law of the church without questioning it, which points to the deconstruction of the aforementioned constructed discourse on Mexican American religion. Regina is respected to some extent by her nephew Gabo but she at the same time is not a role model for him because she lives her life differently from what he would do. ʺTía Regina, she is so simple. (Am I simple, too, Padre Pío?)ʺ (22). Gabo does not want to be simple; he prefers to have this long hoped for connection to God. Nevertheless, Regina remains the stronger and more powerful character in the novel, who survives and provides for the continuity of life. Gabo’s feeling of superiority results from his belief that he will receive God’s blessing but it remains only an unfulfilled expectation.

Furthermore, Castillo uses her main character Regina as a spokesperson for political as well as social justice in the form of ʺWhat-if,ʺ sentences that question the political system and the lack of equality for Mexican Americans in the United States (29). The author also conveys through Regina a sense of Chicano identity as hybrid, when she has her say: ʺCabezahead is one of our made-up words, Gabo’s and mine. A hybrid vocabulary for a hybrid peopleʺ (58).

2.2 Gabo, the Messenger from God

Regina’s nephew Gabo is the complete opposite of his strong, independent, self-made tía [aunt]: he depends on his aunt very much and does not seem to be able to cope with life – especially after his father’s disappearance. At one point in the novel, he says, ʺMy faith in Cristo is enoughʺ (147); a statement which establishes him as the most devout of all the characters. The loss and hardship he has to suffer, make him turn to his religion and this is how he gets the support he was seeking. While the other characters narrate their stories from their own points of view, Gabo uses the very personal medium of a letter to Padre Pio to tell his story. [7] It is noticeable that he is the character who uses the most Spanish expressions of all. Being a Mexican citizen and having grown up speaking Spanish, this is the language of his innermost feelings. Gabo’s style is very personal, emotional, yet filled with great respect for the saint he is writing to. (He often opens his letters with: Su Reverencia [Your Reverence]). The formulas of salutation (e.g. ʺAs always, your devotee tan desmerecidoʺ, 22) are filled with Spanish words of love and care, sometimes expressed in English with Spanish phrases inserted or vice versa. This code-switching may be for the benefit of Castillo’s English-speaking readership; but it also signifies Gabo’s cultural in-betweeness. Castillo tries to reflect real language in her works: ʺ[T]he English and Spanish in my books – and what may sound like a mishmash of both – are spoken by millions […] it’s [about] getting the perfect pitch of the oral storytellerʺ (Castillo, ʺAfterwordʺ 218).

Gabo has a close relationship to God and he has his very own spirituality. When he feels lonely in real life, he turns to his spirituality, e.g. when Regina informs him about his missing father, he looks up to the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on the wall: ʺMy palms hurt. Sometimes I wake at night and they throb as if they have been punctured. I look but there is nothing unusual about them. (You know how long I have prayed for that grace.)ʺ (21). Here, he feels closely related to Padre Pio as well as to God himself but he still recognizes the distance between himself and the saints he admires, as he has only prayed for ʺthe graceʺ (of stigmata) but has not received it, yet.

In the same way Regina can be understood as a worldly Virgen de Guadalupe, Gabo becomes her heavenly son. He, furthermore, can be understood as a messenger from God as his name Gabo already suggests. Gabriel is the archangel who functions in the Bible as a messenger from God on important occasions, as in the Nativity story (cf. Luke 1:26-31). He is one of only three archangels recognized by the Catholic Church: Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael.

The name ʺGabrielʺ means ʺGod is my strengthʺ or ʺGod is mighty.ʺ The names of all the archangels finish with ‘el.’ El means brightness or shining. Gabri means ʺgovernor.ʺ Consequently, a direct translation of Gabriel’s name means ʺgovernor of light.ʺ (Webster 1)

The archangel Gabriel is sometimes referred to as the ʺAngel of Hopeʺ and as a helper for women to become pregnant (2). ʺ[T]o know and carry out God’s will, you can call on Gabrielʺ (Saints and Feast Days 35). These are characteristics that also describe Gabo: he sets other people’s need before his own, as can be seen in his attempt to rescue Tiny Tears from the influence of the gang. ʺThe Archangel Gabriel is one of the few archangels who regularly appears in varying forms – some experience Gabriel as female, others as maleʺ (The Four Archangels 12). He also has a feminine side to him and is portrayed as very emotional and as someone who possesses loving care and understanding. When he observes all the women going to church and all the men staying away from this place of prayer, he asks himself: ʺI always wonder – is it not considered manly to fear God?ʺ (64). So here the interconnection between religion and femininity are underlined by a boy depicted with a lot of characteristics which are often linked to female characters. He questions himself as well as society with a focus on gendered religiousness, a term which I’m coining here to show the interconnectedness of spirituality and gender.
After this observation, he witnesses the divine apparition which he has been waiting for such a long while.

[A]s I was looking high above, at the life-size crucifix that hangs there, the wisdom de Su Reverencia came to me […] That was when the grace of Our Lord was bestowed upon me […] Drops of blood slowly coming down the divine forehead of Jesus. I was not frightened at all. It was as if the thorns were piercing my own flesh […] Then it vanished. And my body and soul were calm. (64-65)

Very early in his life, Gabo starts acting like a priest because he wants to take care of the gang member Jesse, who has strayed from the right path and is drifting into criminality. Gabo befriends him and he perceives his task in giving Jesse hope for a better future: ʺSan Pío, thank el Señor for […] sending me this boy who is a mirror to my own spiritual shortcomingsʺ (46), describing him as his spiritual counterpart. Here, he becomes the aforementioned ʺAngel of Hope,ʺ a guardian, who is grateful for the task of protecting the ʺlost souls.ʺ Gabo expresses his hope and belief in the eventual salvation of the gang members: ʺWe were all part of God. Christ died for the Palominos, tooʺ (81).
His incomprehension for Padre Juan Bosco’s decision to leave the Church for a woman, makes him realize the lack of support on behalf of the Church and he even more turns to his very own spiritual connection to the saints and to God. Castillo’s criticism on the Church again becomes clear when her character Juan Bosco is not a guardian to Gabo but rather leaves him alone. This is why he starts the fateful connection with the street gang and Regina notes: ʺAll [Gabo’s] innocence was oozing out of him a little every day and there was nothing I could do to stop itʺ (50).

Gabo functions as the messenger between God and his surroundings (he even starts preaching to his school mates, 165-166). This is also when he receives stigmatas, an instance which is only briefly mentioned but not described in detail: ʺˈHis hands are bleeding.ˈ […] The Lord heard me at lastʺ (166). By only mentioning this “wonder” of receiving stigmatas, Castillo again withdraws from preferring one religion or religious practice over another. Gabo is portrayed as a perfectionist who tries to fulfill the will of God and feels guilty for his fear of failure, as he believes that God is watching him (cf. 82). His spirituality is driven by his desire to see his father again. Nevertheless, through ominous connections and hints but tragically, Gabo is killed at the end of the novel. His last function is to unite the ʺlost soulʺ of Tiny Tears’s baby with his loving and caring aunt at the end of the novel. So Gabo becomes a fateful character who had the best intentions and faith in the authorities and in the Church but when he is disappointed by their lack of support, he drifts away from religion to crime.

2.3 Miguel, the Political Archangel

Miguel, Regina’s colleague who tries to help her find her brother, is presented as a rather rational person, who believes in history and the demands of the Chicano movement. Miguel is described as ʺa gentlemen, with old-fashioned caballero mannersʺ (26).

ʺCall me just Miguel, okay? ʺ he said. ʺOr Mike. Whichever one.ʺ
I [Regina] decided on Miguel because it reminds me of my favorite archangel. I call upon el arcángel Miguel whenever I need serious help, with this side and the other side. By that I mean here and across the border in México and I mean this life and whatever’s on the Other Side […] Then Miguel said, ʺI was named after the archangel.ʺ (27)

With this description, Regina assigns him the role of a guardian, by calling him Miguel. The archangel Michael signifies ʺcourage, strength, truth and integrity, and protection. He also provides sympathy, patience, motivation, and ambitionʺ (Webster 2). Miguel shares an emotional but platonic relationship with Regina but there is no space for their love as they have to fulfill their tasks, which are to help others without asking for any love for themselves.

Miguel calls himself ʺThe Too-Late Guyʺ (31) because he never really accomplished what he wanted in life, like becoming a significant part of history. This is why he wants to make a difference by helping Regina look for her brother. His own marriage is ruined because his ex-wife ʺwas saved by Jesus […] and […] by the priest,” (147) her new boyfriend, which is one of the reasons why he does not trust the Church. By contrast, he believes in Mexico’s revolutionary heroes and admires everyone who fought for equal rights for Mexican Americans.

I’m one of the few people around here who still calls himself Chicano. A lot of people don’t like that word. They don’t get it. They think it means gangbanging. It’s like one of those outdated labels that most people never understood and now everybody hates and has no use for. Like feminist. Half the women I know don’t like that word, either, but when you ask them what it means, they say they don’t really know (41-42).

He is the male Chicano voice in the novel who emphasizes the connection between spirituality and political action, even though he is a non-believer himself. His actions help to sort out Regina’s world and restore stability, at least for a while. At the same time, his deeds are divine in the sense that they resemble the actions that the archangel would have taken. Again, Castillo uses a character, who is very skeptical of religion and the Church (ʺYou know, I think that in his day Christ might have been considered an anarchistʺ; 168), to be one of the most helpful personas.

Even though he denies the connection to religion, Castillo makes him share a name with San Pedro de San José Bentacour, Central America’s first saint, by calling him Miguel Betancourt. [8] John Paul II canonized San Pedro in 2002 with the words: ʺLet us think […] of the victims of organized crime, of prostitution or drugs, […] and the elderly who live in lonelinessʺ (ʺBetancurʺ). Herewith, the connection between Miguel Betancourt and his name giver proves to be an interconnectivity of the discourses on spirituality and political/social action: his attempt to keep Gabo away from criminality and drugs represents his close relationship with his aforementioned eponym.

2.4 Abuelo Milton, the Blind Seer

The last main character, namely el Abuelo Milton functions as witness to the divinity and saintliness of the aforementioned characters and therefore testifies the importance of hybrid spiritualities in the novel. His name reminds us of John Milton and his masterpiece ʺParadise Lost,ʺ which represents the Fall of Man, the temptation of Adam and Eve, and their exclusion from the Garden of Eden. Castillo’s equivalent for the lost paradise of Milton’s epic poem is the desert that illegal border crossers have to traverse on their way to the United States and where they are at the mercy of drug traffickers and criminals who will kill them to sell their organs. El Abuelo Milton is blind like John Milton himself but he seems to recognize the story and truth behind everything. He is thus the figure the blind seer:

Now, there I was that Sunday, like every Sunday, expecting my nieto [nephew], all grown up, a teacher y todo, and the only relative I’ve got left who gives a damn about me, when this time, without warning, he comes walking in with a goddess [Regina] – una mera diosa. La Helen of Troy. Helen of Troy was not a goddess. I think she was a queen. It don’t matter. This one here, like her name, smelled like una reina (69).

In this situation, he is the only character who recognizes Regina’s divine character and therefore her real character. Additionally, he sees divinity in Gabo: ʺese muchacho is with Godʺ (94) and he recognizes Gabo’s goodness by even attributing him a putative halo (cf. 94).

Ultimately, Milton gives Regina good advice concerning her nephew, whom he loves like his own grandson:

you should never force your personal beliefs on your children by referring to the freedom of personal belief that should never be forced by anyone on anyone else. The first chance they get, they go off and do just the opposite of what you wished for them” (74).

Here, the importance of Milton’s character is elevated to him as Castillo’s spokesperson on spiritual freedom. This spiritual freedom is what Ana Castillo wants to express with her novel by using these elements, that I am calling hybrid spirituality. Therefore, Abuelo Milton does not represent a form of hybrid spirituality in himself but he testifies the other characters’ spirituality.

2.5 The Palomino’s Gang Belief

This individual decision on the characters’ own spirituality is also expressed by gang belief. Here, the intersection between crime and religion becomes very prominent as they are directly linked to one another. The girl to whom Gabo is somehow drawn (he wants to help her but is also fascinated by her), called Tiny Tears, has made for herself a do-it-yourself spirituality (cf. Chicana Art 2) as Laura Pérez has labeled it. It is a hybrid spirituality in its broadest meaning: it cannot be called a religion as it rather reflects the urban rootedness of these Mexican American gang members.

ʺLa Muerte is the Palominos’ patron saint,ʺ [El Toro, the gang leader] said. (How that could be, I was not sure, Santo, since death was never a person to begin with.) ʺI call her La Niña Blanca,ʺ Tiny Tears said, pulling out a similar pendant hanging on a chain around her neck. ʺBefore I go out, I pray to her.ʺ
ʺYou pray to her?ʺ I asked.
Tiny Tears nodded. ʺHell, yeah. I light candles to her and everything.ʺ She kissed the pewter pendant and stuck it back inside her polo.
ʺWhat do you ask her for?ʺ I asked.
ʺI dunno […] Like, if we’re gonna go hit a convenience store or something and I go in with my kid to cause a distraction. I say, ˈ Por favor, Niña Blanca, protect my baby from getting hit by a stray bullet.ˈ ʺ Then she smiled.
ʺThat’s right,ʺ El Toro said from the backseat. ʺYou just gotta ask La Muerte to watch out for you and you’ll be all right.ʺ (84)

Tiny Tears has recognized her own spirituality by identifying her needs in life (protection from crime) and then projecting them onto the ʺsaintʺ she has chosen as her guardian. Her character is strongly influenced by violence done to her and caused by her (cf. 82) and she seems to need the gang’s protection as well as Gabo’s company because she does not want to be alone. With this gang belief, Castillo comments on religious diversity and allows her characters to have their own individual belief which helps them to cope with life. Consequently, this can be called a hybrid spirituality, as it is a mixing of various faiths and it also includes a nontraditional, non-institutional, and very personal belief.

Also Jesse, Gabo’s friend ʺbelievesʺ in the gang’s hybrid spirituality, which is a combination of Christian symbolism (the cross) and popular imagery often associated with criminal actions:

[Regina] noticed on his right hand between the thumb and index finger a blue tattoo of a cross. It was crudely drawn with dots in between the lines of the cross. [She has] seen that cross around a long time. It means you belong to a gang (47).

So the gang (or crime in general) becomes a substitute spirituality for the gang members who have otherwise lost their contact to faith and spirituality. Consequently, the interconnection between religion and crime becomes apparent in the gang’s way of believing.

2.6 Rafa, the Traveler

Even Rafa, the character who does not appear in the novel himself, has a meaningful name, connected to the transamerican as well as the religious aspect of the novel: Raphael is the third commonly known archangel. ʺ[T]ravelers and those seeking healing turn to Raphaelʺ (Saints and Feast Days 35). It is Rafa’s destiny to travel all the time and he cannot stay in the USA where his family is because he does not want to assimilate to the American way of life: ʺNo soy un gringo!ʺ (85). Therefore, not only through his actions but also because of his name, he becomes the representative of the movement back and forth across the border, so he becomes a transnational traveler. In Rafa’s character, the novel’s understanding of transnationalism is conveyed: he is the character who links all the other characters (together with the discourses attached to them) by functioning as the reason for their concurrence.

3. Conclusion

This article has shown that by leaving out spirituality as a main aspect for the analysis of The Guardians, we would not have done justice to the complexity of the novel. The transnational character of the novel is only truly revealed when considering its notion of spirituality. And this is why I disagree with Marissa K. López who perceives immigration as the main topic of the novel (cf. 150) and who resists the importance of spirituality ʺdespite [the novel’s] overt religious allegoryʺ (152). According to her, ʺCastillo undermines her own almost sanctimonious assertions of deeper meaningʺ (152). This essay has proven that spirituality is the underlying discourse in the novel that links all the other important aspects to create a unified whole. Those characters unaware of their own religiousness are linked to their very own spirituality, like Regina as the Virgen or Tiny Tears’ mergence of Christian symbols with criminal imagery; whereas characters like the priest Juan Bosco or Miguel’s ex-wife, who seem to lead a religious life, are not depicted as trustworthy, reliable, or even ʺholyʺ characters.

The novel provides multiple layers and plays with the notion of many cultural as well as literary influences. The interconnectivity of various discourses (femininity, politics, history, and crime) with a spirituality that cannot but be described as hybrid, supports the understanding of the novel as rooted in the borderlands. Castillo seeks to combine the saintliness of her characters with their realness. They are, as Marissa K. Lopez argues characters who represent the reality of the border region but we should not forget that Castillo has decided upon naming her characters after archangels and attributing them with saintly characteristics. ʺThe Guardians brings together all of the major themes that have concerned Castillo […] and thus, embodies all of the attributes that make Castillo one of the finest contemporary American authorsʺ (Carson, ʺCastilloʺ 486).

Through the four narrators of the novel different types of hybrid spirituality (i.e., different associations of spiritual beliefs with socio-political issues) are expressed, referring to the narrating figure her-/himself and/or to those with whom these narrators interact. No type of hybrid spirituality is privileged over another. The resulting impression that the novel creates is that of a Mexican American community permeated by spirituality. But rather than the strict adherence to Roman Catholicism, which is often taken for granted in the context of Mexican American culture, we observe a relative freedom from dogma and the interconnectivity of individual spirituality and worldly concerns, as they emerge in the interconnectedness of the respective discourses. As Castillo puts it: ʺI do see that we live in a time, at least in the United States, in which we are fortunate enough to personalize some of our religious and spiritual choicesʺ (Raab, ʺInterview with Ana Castilloʺ). The Guardians shows that Castillo is ʺlooking at [spirituality] intellectuallyʺ and that she is ʺrespectful of other people and their spiritualityʺ (ʺInterviewʺ). By creating real characters who could be part of the border region just the way they are described, and then linking them with religiously important discourses on archangels and saints, Castillo combines different levels. Thereby, she emphasizes her claim for a personalized form of belief in the borderlands. Consequently, the novel becomes a transborder novel which makes the characters traverse borders, not only literally but also on a spiritual level. I do not attest biblical allusions to this novel by understanding it as an allegory of good versus evil, as has been done by previous scholars. I do, however, lay my focus on its religious transnationalization by disclosing several trans-religious, trans-spiritual, trans-national characteristics in the novel.

Therefore, in order to capture various levels of faith as well as the very often transnational character of Mexican American works, the term hybrid spiritualities proves to be useful in the context of the religious borderlands. Consequently, it is also functional for works by authors like Gloria Anzaldúa, Helena María Viramontes, Luis J. Rodriguez Rayo, Maria Amparo Escandon and many more.


[1] A classic example that addresses this inter-spiritual dimension is Rudolfo A. Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972). (Cf. Raab, “Visions and Revisions of Catholicism in Mexican American Literature and Art”) back to text

[2] This term is valid in a bigger context of religious empowerment but excludes the very personal spiritual decision of the individual. back to text

[3] This statement was given by a lay member of the Unitarian Kendal Church in an  interview but has been regarded a useful definition of religion versus spirituality. back to text

[4] Kim also discloses that “[t]he dominance of Western, Euro-American Protestantism in the United States has meant that racial minorities and their religious institutions have had to operate from the borders” (Kim 225). The so-called ethno-religious borderland (226), however, is often “viewed as an advantageous position for it affords them with a unique  vantage point from which they can view and incorporate diverse cultural expressions of Christianity in forming their own hybrid spirituality” (225). back to text

[5] In Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma, published in 1994, Castillo defines the Xicanista as “not just Chicana, not activista for la Raza, not only a feminist but Chicana feminist” (94-95). back to text

[6] The modernity of the Virgen derives here not from her often emphasized new-found sexuality (as Sandra Cisneros describes it in her account of “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess”) but rather in the empowering and self-determined image of a modern woman. back to text

[7] Padre Pio from Italy is a central figure in daily worship for many Christians. He was a  Capuchin monk (1887- 1968) suffering from tuberculosis. He used his sufferings to pray for the sinners and the poor souls in purgatory. Throughout his life he experienced stigmatization, which makes him a strong companion to Gabo in this story (cf. “Pater Pio Biografie” at www.pater-pio.de). back to text

[8] Pedro de San José Bentacur (* 1626 in Vilaflor, Tenerife and + 1667 in Antigua, Guatemala) was a missionary and is known as “St. Francis of the Americas”. back to text

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