Open Your Heart: Religion and Cultural Poetics of Greater Mexico

Open Your Heart: Religion and Cultural Poetics of Greater Mexico. By

David P. Sandell. 2015. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame
Press. 240 pages. ISBN: 97-0-268-04146-5 (soft cover). 

Reviewed by Mintzi Auanda Martinez-Rivera, Indiana University

[Word count: 1366 words]

In his book Open Your Heart: Religion and Cultural Poetics of Greater
Mexico, David Sandell attempts to answer one of the main questions of
religious studies: why do people practice religion? And while the
book is unable to fully answer this question, Sandell presents an
interesting analysis of how narratives, both mythical and personal,
and cultural practices are interwoven. According to Sandell, rituals
frame stories that express a distant (and mythical) past, while
relating to the present and pointing toward the future.

The structure of Sandell's book, and of each chapter, aims to follow
his theoretical proposition, that stories are not linear, but
circular, and interweave past, present, and future. Each chapter
tackles a different aspect of Catholic ritual as practiced in a
Fresno, California, parish: the rosary, the Mass, Holy Week,
retreats, pilgrimages, and the Matachines dance. However, instead of
describing the ritual practices, and how people interact with them,
Sandell uses each ritual practice as a platform to discuss issues of
structural inequality, politics, labor, migration, history, and other

Chapter 1, "The Dance," describes the Matachines dance, along with
its origins and symbolism. The author also describes the preparations
of some members of the community as they embark on a pilgrimage to
Mexico City to visit the Virgen de Guadalupe. This chapter, and the
discussion of the Matachines, serves as a framing device for the rest
of the book, which starts and ends with the Matachines and their
pilgrimage to the Church of the Virgen de Guadalupe. In it, he mixes
historical narratives together: the story of the apparition of the
Virgen de Guadalupe, the origin of the forms of worship for the
Virgen, and the debates over the construction of the temple in her
honor. He also uses this chapter to explain how the rest of the
chapters, and the movement of the people described in the chapter,
are structured: "They move forward, sometimes backwards, and always
in procession as if they were on a journey" (33).

Chapter 2, "The Daily Service," focuses on the Mass. According to
Sandell, the Mass allows people to access the past, and after a brief
introduction about the Mass and its history, the rest of the chapter
is spent describing the town of Fresno, the history of California,
and how Saint Anthony Mary Claret Church fits into the landscape and
history of the area. In addition, and to illustrate the segregation
and discrimination towards the Mexican/Mexican-American community in
the area, he presents a childhood friend who lives in the area and
will not send his children to the local public school because
Mexicans "just do not think the way we do" (55). Every so often in
the chapter Sandell breaks away from his historical narrative to
remind us that the chapter is about the Mass.

The topic covered in chapter 3, "The Journey Home," is the rosary.
After explaining the history of the rosary's creation and telling us
how the rosary is composed of stories that aim to take the person
praying to a spiritual home, the chapter focuses on Gracie Romana
Adame and her stories. Using Gracie's life story, Sandell talks about
family life in Fresno, including how young people may end up in jail,
and the communal life at the church. Gracie is one of the most
compelling individuals in the book, making this chapter the book's

Chapter 4, "The Sacred Circle," is designed to focus on a religious
retreat organized by a nun from Saint Anthony's. Sandell was invited
to attend the retreat by Eva Gonzalez, who is a parishioner of the
church. Utilizing the structure of the religious retreat (mainly its
symbols, such as tomb, heart, and rose) and using Eva as a narrator,
the chapter actually focuses on immigration, politics, the labor
market (migrant farm workers), structural inequality, and violence.
In the middle of the chapter, Sandell narrates an accident that his
young son suffers while Sandell is conducting his fieldwork. Eva
suggests that he take his son to a Mass where healers can help heal
him. Sandell and his family attend the Mass, and the child is healed
after the healers perform their rituals. At the end of the chapter,
Sandell returns to the retreat and describes the walk to the parking
lot and concludes, "these signs [the ones used during the retreat and
the chapter] refer to stories that circulate through a social
landscape and provide inhabitants with objects of desire, exchange,
shock, and horror" (108).

The following chapter, "The Passion Play," uses the structure of the
reenactment of Jesus's Crucifixion to anchor a discussion of labor
issues, such as the plight of migrant workers and the work of the
United Farm Workers (UFW). According to Sandell, people enact the Via
Dolorosa "because these events from the past and their reenactments
in the present create parallels to contemporary life" (114). After
providing an in-depth account of the European origins of the Passion
Play and its journey to the Americas, Sandell turns to Javier
Martínez, a farm worker involved in a dispute between the UFW and
growers in Watsonville, California. The UFW wanted to create a union
among the local strawberry pickers, but the majority of pickers,
including Javier, were against the UFW. Using the different stages of
the Via Dolorosa, Sandell discusses Javier's journey and his
negotiation between the UFW and the growers, the life and death of
César Chávez, and the formation and weakening of the UFW. The
chapter ends somewhat abruptly, with Sandell informing us that the
Passion Play has ended and making a seemingly unrelated reference to
the day's weather.

The last chapter in the book, "The Pilgrimage," circles back to the
first chapter and the Matachines' pilgrimage to Mexico City to visit
the Virgen de Guadalupe temple. This brief chapter also serves as a
way to say goodbye to the people Sandell introduced throughout the
text and to bring all the strands of his narrative together to
finally showcase how rituals frame stories. Going back to his
original question of "why people practice religion?" he argues that
people practice religion because religion provides the "ability to
approach origins -- mythological, historical, and social -- and
account for the sacred center of the stories that define their lives"
(158). In the last ten pages of the book, Sandell finally discusses
the importance of ritual and its function in society, but he does not
make a persuasive case for how rituals frame narratives.

In my opinion, this book falls short in its aim to answer one of the
field's central questions, but it presents an interesting account of
other matters. According to the introduction, the book is about the
relationship between rituals and narratives, but Sandell's
descriptions of rituals are brief and scarce, and this discussion
only takes place in the conclusion. However, he does discuss issues
of immigration, discrimination, structural inequality, lack of access
to education, social movements, and politics. This book is not about
rituals and narratives, but about narratives that (may) circulate
around rituals. If Sandell had positioned the text from the beginning
as a book about how history, politics, violence, and structural
inequality affect and influence religious narratives, this book would
have made a much stronger case for itself.

Sandell's writing in the book does not help illustrate how stories
are circular and weave together the past and present, as at times the
jumps between settings and topics feel forced and clumsy, instead of
woven with the seamlessness that he argues happens in practice. In
addition, he constantly tells us what the meanings of actions,
stories, and rituals are, but he does not show us how they work
together. Every so often, Sandell includes historical facts about the
Catholic Church, the Latin roots of words, and stories about saints
-- which showcase his general knowledge of the religious studies
field -- but these instances break the flow of his narrative and
derail attention from the stories told by his informants that would
further his stated argument. While I commend Sandell for his attempt
to play with the linear structure of writing to support his points,
his book would have benefited greatly from a more focused treatment
of the stories and rituals it seeks to highlight.


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