The Catholic Church in Two Stories by Martínez-Serros

The Catholic Church in Two Stories by Martínez-Serros

 (Part I)


As a whole, this article draws on two papers drafted by the co-authors specified, as students in MZ’s seminar on Chicago Latino writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, assigned to extend, complement and question the modes of analysis developed by MZ and presented in previous issues of El BeiSMan. Zimmerman then redrafted the papers in light of his overall, evolving approach to this important Chicago Mexican southside body of work.




General Introduction

In the recent installments of this micro-study of Hugo Martínez-Serros’ South Chicago stories (1988), we have examined the overall impact of the steel mills and one key additional institutional context, that of the public school system, for understanding the development of Chicago Mexicans “persisting in the shadow of steel.”Now we turn to two additional stories which point to the role of another key institution—one which has been more studied than that of the public school system—that of Chicago’s Catholic Church, and above all the key church of the Southside colonia, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, which played a crucial role in the experience and identity formation of area Chicago Mexicans.


Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, built in 1924 and serving the Southside Mexican community ever since. Photo taken from site of Southside Veterans’ monument and mural. Photo Jesenia Eduarte 9-23-17.


To be sure, one of the stories, “Learn! Learn!” centers on the Guadalupe Church, while the second story extends from that Church to a look at policies and attitudes emanating from the very core of the Archdiocese network. In these stories, the usually positive portrait of the role of the Church in the semi-official Church histories or in the meticulous but conservative, assimilationist perspectives of Latino historians like David Badillo (1996, for example), is countered by a look at the Church from the perspective of the writer-son of one of those Southside Mexicans less inclined to blind devotion.

Perhaps one of the great unknowns about Chicago Mexicans is how many of the early arrivals came simply as economic immigrants, and how many may have also been devout conservative Catholics fleeing from the early phases of the Revolution; indeed, how many of them might have been cristeros or influenced by the cristero rebellion; and how many who were less than devout and represented a more modernizing, secular view of society more open to change and more resistant to older ways. It could be argued that the slow development of Mexican political resistance may have been an at least possibly in part due to conservative Catholicism prevalent in key Mexican sending areas from Guanajuato, Michoacàn and Jalisco, and then in the colonias which they formed in Chicago[1]. Related to this question, however was the relatively slow awakening of the local Church hierarchy to the needs of these immigrants, who only received Church attention more fully as the number of local Mexicans turning toward active evangelical protestant sects began to grow. So in his M.A. thesis Antonio Delgado (1978) underlines the fact that in the face of the growing number of Mexican immigrants, the Catholic Church, far from putting itself at this population’s disposition, even refused giving mass in Spanish—a matter which contributed in the years after the first migrations to many Mexicans converting to Protestant sects who took advantage of the Church’s posture to invite disenchanted Mexican Catholics to join their religious communities. In general, we should add that those groups were politically conservative in their own right, though some had indeed syphoned monies toward anti-Catholic sectors in and after the Mexican Revolution itself.

Deep insight into such matters may seem to be too much to ask from these two brief stories by Martínez-Serros; however, the stories do alert us to these themes and others as well. They are certainly worth our exploring for these reasons and of course for the quality of the stories themselves


1. “Learn! Learn!”

In ”Learn! Learn!” Martínez Serros portrays the conflictive relationship between two principal characters who have very different backgrounds, situations and aspirations. José María Rivera has arrived in Chicago apparently because of the immense poverty and misery in Mexico and the opportunities offered by steel mills facing labor unrest and seeking replacement labor; Father Juan Ginés Tortas is characterized as a Spanish priest attracted to the city by his hopes to rise in the hierarchy of a modern city with a large Catholic population, even if his initial assignment is to tend to the working class Mexican poor. José María is clearly the same steel worker father figure who dominates the early stories of this collection as representative of the men who seek to teach and prepare their children for the difficulties of being Mexican workingclass in a capitalist labor-exploitative city, while Tortas, who will appear in two other stories, represents the patriarchal power of the Church to which the Mexican working class is supposed to submit, but which our secular father protagonist chooses to fight as best he can. In spite of his ever-so-Catholic name, José María is not a Cristero, and in some ways he represents the secular pro-revolutionary sector of Mexican society, which, transplanted to Chicago, dares to threaten the Church and its hierarchical power in function of the disciplinary control it exerts through various modes of symbolic representation and, in “Learn! Learn!” though the use of language itself.

The historical narrative implicit but understated in this story is how Father Tortas was called upon by the local church establishment to communicate and lead a Spanish-speaking community which has shown signs of falling away from the Church because the presiding priesthood, primarily Irish, German and Italian in that order, could not connect adequately with its new parishioners. In sum, while the Italian priest at the Saint Francis church on Taylor Street could adjust his language use to relate to his congregation, the first English-speaking priest at the Guadalupe church apparently had little success, and the Church only began to improve in its mission when it called upon the Spain-based Claretian order to provide a priest whose linguistic and organizing skills were appropriate to the job at hand.

Of course, Tortas is the comic, demeaning name Martínez-Serros gives to the actual, historical figure he somehow represents. As Michael Innis-Jiménez tells us, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church dates from 1924, in a tiny small-frame wooden building that had served as a military barracks on Mackinaw Street. The first priest of the small church was Father William Kane, whose ill health soon led him to his relinquish his seat, to be replaced in 1925 by the Claretian “Spaniard,”[2] Jaime or James Tort who proceeded to provide the growing Spanish-speaking population with a new church that opened on South Brandon Avenue and 91st Street in 1928 (Innis 2013: 92).

Tort … had served in the Canary Islands and then Mexico City from where he had fled during the Catholic purges of 1914. He then served in Arizona and Texas before coming to Chicago and quickly became popular with Mexican and Irish Catholics in the neighborhood. People around him described him as tireless and having “a magnetic personality”—important traits for some one responsible for religious instruction not only in South Chicago but in the boxcar camps and several nearby cities including Milwaukee and Waukegan. (ibid.).

A somewhat more striking and succinct perspective about Tort’s Mexican experience is presented by Gabriela Arredondo, when she notes that “Tort … was forcibly driven from Mexico” during the Cristero period (Arredondo, 20).

Although the priest’s actual historical biography is not traced by Martínez-Serros, clearly Tort is the model for the priest whose name is modified by the author in a show of derision and disrespect for a leader whose dedication and achievements are praised in much of the historical literature about the church and the community[3]. However the Tort described by Innis-Jiménez and others seems a far cry from the Father Tortas portrayed by Martínez-Serros. The Tortas Tort becomes is not so much a reference to a well-loved Mexican French bread sandwich style, but to the buns or buttocks of a priest who is portrayed as much more well-fed and plump than the historical figure. This is no self-sacrificing servant of the people but one who lives well off a Congregation he refers to as his flock—these ignorant Indians and mestizos are the ovejas or sheep he has been condemned to lead. The Tortas pun achieves its most scatological extension as José María refers to the well-manicured priest as a maricón and his sons speak of him as “Don Mierda” who is forced to work in the southside parish which Martínez-Serros has Tortas describe as the “culo de esta ciudad salchichera” (Martínez-Serros 97). However, the most crucial aspect of our priest’s renaming is how Jaime or James has become Juan Ginés, a clear reference to he who claimed to be an expert on the souls of America’s native population, none other than Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda—the Spanish thinker who during the early colonial period opposed Father Bartolomé de las Casas’ defense of the indigenous peoples by arguing that they were soulless, ignorant pagans with no capacity to govern themselves and who could only better themselves by their labor and their submission to the church. For Ginés de Sepúlveda, they are like children who required being under the thumb of the Spanish who, in return for their obedience, could hope for possible salvation.

As Martínez-Serros notes, a key aspect of Tortas’ role parallels that of his colonial predecessor in that “he had imagined himself the Sepúlveda of the mestizos in Anglo-America, had envisioned himself in the American hierarchy as the exegete of the Spanish-American text.” However, in Chicago, with its primarily Irish hierarchy, he “saw the Canaan of his expectations crumble into the Babylon of his captivity.” He soon realized he would never rise and that he was doomed to making the best of what for him was a horrible situation. The historical Tort would work to found Los Caballeros de Guadalupe and Las Hijas de María (groups also evicted from Mexico), seeking thereby to bind his congregation through traditional gender-inflected organizational patterns; over the years, he also made a point of making the obscure cult of Saint Jude, virtually unknown to Mexicans, the very center of his Church’s worship.


Father J. Tort and his Saint Jude cult


By these means Tort sought to offset the mutualista and workers’ organizations developing in South Chicago, as well as the inroads of Protestantism, which he fought against tooth and nail and which became the byword of his work as the years went by. Some of these matters are broached in Martinez-Serros’ account. But in this story they remain in the background as the author focuses on Tortas as the priest committed to writing his homilies and bulletins.

It is in his writings that the priest sets himself up as one who can impart his indisputable authority and control; and it is in relation above all to these writings and the attitudes implicit therein that our contemporary working class Mexican Las Casas emerges. Far from being a learned and consecrated priest, however, this Las Casas is one of the supposedly unlettered, Indian-dominant and of course automatically ignorant mestizo steel workers, who is supposed to be a submissive follower of the community’s church leader but who dares challenge the priest in the very seat of his power, his implicitly unquestionable mastery of the King’s Spanish. As we find out, José María has at least one brother who attended a Mexican university, and is quite lettered in his own right. Nevertheless he appears as the “hombre natural” or, as Gramsci would have it, the “organic intellectual” of the Mexican working class colonia—he who struggles against the “false erudition” of the dominant, colonizing, imperialist discourse of Father Tortas. True to his role, José María works with his sons to get copies of the priest’s writings, and so too he works meticulously to find and underline the most subtle errors in Tortas’ grammar and syntax, thereby potentially threatening the priest’s hegemonic power.

Within this Chicago southside, urban community, hierarchical systems of power have already been established, and one of the key points for real and symbolic power struggles in relation to those systems can be found in the ideological conflicts emerging in the daily interactions of the neighborhood residents. Sociologist John B. Thompson reminds that “ideological forms can, of course be challenged, contested and disrupted … both explicitly, in articulate and concerted attacks, and implicitly in the mundane symbolic exchanges of everyday life” (Tompson 1990: 68). The struggle in this case take place primarily in the arena of language itself. And in this regard Thompson cites linguist Norman Fairclough to note that

Power, ‘in’ … or ‘behind’ discourse, is not a permanent and undisputed attribute of any one person or social grouping. On the contrary, those who hold power at a particular moment have to constantly reassert their power, and those who do not hold power are always liable to make a bid for power. This is true whether one is talking at the level of the particular situation, or in terms of a social institution, or in terms of a whole society. (Fairclough in Tompson 68-69)

José María Rivera and Juan Ginés Tortas constantly battle for primacy in discursive power within what Hodge and Kress call an urban “logonomical system” involving “a set of rules prescribing the conditions for production and reception of meanings, which specify who can claim to initiate (produce, communicate) or know (receive, understand) meanings about what topics under what circumstances and with what modalities (how, when, why) [those persons involved] acquire power through language” (1988: 43-44). This is especially evident in the interchanges of written corrections José María makes of Tortas’ church bulletins. Our working class hero succeeds because “if you understand what you’re doing you can do anything you want to with language” (Martínez-Serros 99). The management of language leads to an infinity of possibilities and interpretations in relation to everyday life. In effect, José María believed that “words belonged to anyone who wanted them, and he came to believe that success in life and the power of speech were closely linked, that one could not be important without knowing words” (Martínez-Serros 103).

So it is that, with this view of language, José María challenges the Catholic Church and its prime community representative with the language that articulates and stands for their demeaning structure of imperial power. In these linguistic battles we see the possibilities of language to question and represent the system, but we don’t have any concrete solution for the struggle against the social hierarchy other than that question of education imbedded in the story’s title. While he may represent the forces for change embodied first in Las Casas and then in the Mexican Revolution, José María has to struggle for the supremacy of the very language of those who conquered Mexico and which now at least some Chicago Mexicans struggle to maintain. It is also true that José María calls upon his sons to improve his English as well—that he believes that southside Chicago Mexicans must maintain their Spanish but also learn English, and these are lessons he imparts to his sons, one of whom we may presume is modeled on Martínez-Serros himself, who writes this English language story and book we are examining even as he teaches Spanish in Wisconsin.

José María wages his linguistic war anonymously, and of course this only incenses Tortas, who is constantly trying to guess who in the community is seeking to question, denude and at least symbolically defrock him. But we are also haunted by the question of who after all is Father Tortas in his relation to the historical Tort. And here it seems worth noting a final irony that the priest’s very name signals a detail that historian Innis-Jiménez eventually notes in his book (165) and that probably without grasping the matter consciously our writer was able to make almost the very center of his story—the fact that the original Padre Tort’s supposed Spanish mastery may have been limited after all by a fundamental fact that in spite of all his years of Spanish training and practice, he was not strictly Spanish but “Catalonian,” which means that his first language was probably Catalán.

The story includes a description of the one direct encounter Tortas has with José María, when the heretical worker, desperate to help his family, seeks a job repairing the church but can’t hide essential disrespect and contempt for the church and its representative, and is totally rebuked in his effort. And there is an even the more scandalous scene when José María’s sons confront the priest—indicating where the boys may end. One thing they do to help their father in his war is to steal three dictionaries (Velázquez, Sopena, but also Webster) from a book warehouse; so that, with his improved weaponry, José María says, “Ahora te chingas, cura … ¡Aprende! ¡Aprende!” (Martínez-Serros 107). This final act of theft shows perhaps that José María’s raging war with the priest has set a questionable precedent for the boys’ future, but it also shows how a Mexican immigrant can use elements of his Spanish past in a Mexican war against an oppressive regime centered on linguistic control. It is perhaps this lesson that at least one of his sons would take to heart both in his English and Spanish. It is a war that has, in its English dimension, unleashed much of the Chicago Chicano writing that is the subject of our overall study.


Works Cited

Arredondo, Gabriela F. Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity and Nation, 1916-39. Urban and Chicago. University of Illinois Press. 2008.

Badillo, David A. “Catolicismo Mexicano y La Transnacionalización En Chicago Antes De 1940: Institución Y Proceso.” Relaciones: estudios de historia y sociedad 17 (1996): 23- 42.

Delgado, Antonio. Mexican Immigration to the Hull House and 18th Street Community Areas of Chicago, Illinois, 1910-1960. M.A. Thesis. University of Texas at Austion. 1978.

Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. London. Longman, 1989.

Gracía, Gerardo Necoechea. “Customs and Resistance: Mexican Immigrants in Chicago, 1910- 1930.” In Border Crossings: Mexican and Mexican-American Workers, edited by John Mason Hart, 185-207. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1998.

Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress. Social Semiotics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.

Innis-Jiménez, Michael. Steel Barrio. The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940.

New York. NYU Press. 2013.

McCarthy, Malachy Richard. “Which Christ Came to Chicago: Catholic and Protestant Programs to Evangelize, Socialize and Americanize the Mexican Immigrant, 1900-1940.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University, 2002.

Martínez Serros, Hugo. The Last Laugh and Other Stories. Houston. Arte Público Press, 1988.

Thompson, John B. Ideology and Modem Culture. Cambridge. Polity Press, 1990.



[1] On this matter, see Arredondo 20-22; also, 161-62. See also García Necoechea 2002.

[2] As we shall see, Innis-Jiménez will identify Tort more accurately later in his book (165).

[3] See, for example Malachy Richard McCarthy 2002.


Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.