Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 12:45

Religion, as a belief system, interacts with virtually every socio-cultural manifestation, such as family, politics, law, economics, clothing, health, diet, and so on. Thus, religion may affect behavior, values, and even --among other things-- what in anthropology we call material culture.(1)

Although religion has been a problematical subject matter for objective social-scientific inquiry, anthropologists claim that this universal phenomenon can be best studied rather dispassionately through their eclectic methods (such as, and notably, participant-observation in their legendary on-the-ground field research). Anthropologists have been widening their investigative interest as they examine our own Western religious movements, such as the recent expansion of Protestantism and its derivatives throughout Latin America, hitherto considered the pre-eminent Roman Catholic continent since colonial times.

Indeed, the diverse variants of Protestantism have increasingly become formidable contenders in the “market” for the Latin Americans’ souls. A recent book, NATIVE EVANGELISM IN CENTRAL MEXICO (2014), makes the point in an extraordinary fashion, as it explores the spreading of Evangelism in the central region of Mexico. The authors are the late University of Pittsburgh distinguished professor Hugo Nutini (who passed away four years ago this month) and his research partner and four-decade wife. Indeed, Mexican-born Jeannie –as we know her-- an anthropologist in her own right, and a Pitt alumna, brought the book project to completion after the senior author’s death.(2) The literature on Latin America is plagued by an alleged quote from U.S. presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s foreign affairs advisor, McGeorge Bundy who presumably referred to the sub-continent as “a region that attracted second-rate minds.” While one could possibly concur with this perhaps apocryphal observation by looking at much of the poor quality output that passes as scholarship on Latin America, for one, the Nutinis prove the opinion wrong. In principle, the book is an innovative ethnographic (qualitative, descriptive) study. Its additional novelty lies in that it focuses on native evangelist churches. These are defined as Mexican-founded, sui generis, autonomous congregations, equally distinct from the traditional U.S.-influenced Protestant denominations (let us call them “mainline”) and the similarly still mostly --in reality-- North-American inspired independent churches (which are largely Pentecostals).

The Nutinis eschew the overly speculative –and in my own opinion, anachronistic-- Marxist analyses still prevalent in academic circles in general, and unfortunately more conspicuously in the discipline of anthropology. Instead, the authors favor the epistemic critical foundation advanced by the late French philosopher-sociologist Raymond Aron (1905-1983), whose ideas are relatively well known among serious Ibero-American intellectuals, and which also blend well with the Nutinis’ empirical (i.e., fact-based) approach.(3) I am personally glad for this, moreover, given Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s astonishing racist/ethnocentric comments about Mexicans á propos the Mexican-American War between 1846-1847.(4)

The psychology of conversion from Catholicism among the Mexicans interviewed by the Nutini couple is supported by the key theological tenets equally shared by Native Evangelism and mainline Protestantism, such as:

1) the Bible is held as the unique source of religious-moral understanding; and

2) that God is reached individually, independent of intermediaries (such as Catholicism’s saints or the earthly priests).

Not surprisingly, one key pragmatic attraction for conversion is that --alongside spirituality-- Native Evangelism stresses material needs. This may explain its proselytizing success among poor campesinos, as well as the urban working- and the rising middle-classes throughout Meso-America in general.

Often, the doctrinal reasons given for conversion become ex post facto rationalizations, since converts free themselves from the monetarily onerous civic-religious obligations emblematic of rural indigenous and mestizo communities. Principal among these syncretic rituals is what is called “the cargo system,” whereas villagers have to take turns at bankrolling the annual fiestas honoring the local patron saints. I dare hypothesize that this sense of “pocket emancipation” (my own terminology) might be the converts’ version of a down-to-earth “liberation theology” of their own. Additionally, converts perceive Native Evangelism as more democratic in its governance, as well as more amenable to individual economic advancement, than Catholicism.(5).

A typical illustration of “material expressive culture” is a shrine-like corner in the congregants’ living-rooms displaying black-covered Bibles. Customarily, congregants conspicuously hand carry such Bibles when leaving home, normally well-groomed, conservatively dressed, and usually displaying a polite smile, especially during intensive proselytizing campaigns.

Still, as I have observed in my own field research in rural Dominican Republic and among urban U.S. Hispanics, conversion may engender some “side effects.” For instance, I found family dissension, particularly among the most orthodox converts who come to consider their new co-religionists as substitute kin (even addressing each other symbolically as brother/sister).

The Nutinis identified nine native evangelical churches in the Tlaxcalan-Pueblan Valley and the Veracruz State’s Córdoba-Orizaba urban areas. They zero in, however, on two contrasting ones:

a) La Luz del Mundo—AKA the “Mundistas,” founded in 1926, claims millions of followers in Mexico and dozens of other countries. A considerably rigid organization, it opposes birth control, abortion and homosexuality, while it has been beset by corruption and sexual scandals. It subsidizes home ownership in its own almost self-contained Hermosa Provincia, a community in Guadalajara that boasts full literacy and which center is a magnificent flagship mega-temple;

b) Amistad y Vida —founded in 1982, is a more egalitarian congregation that elects women to leadership roles. It claims 120,000 Mexican members who appropriate the moniker “Cristianos” for themselves, as if otherizing just about everyone else, and this could encompass non-converted consanguineal and affinal relatives.

Despite their differences, the two “sects” (as the Nutinis call them, though not with a demeaning intention) share commonalities. Both practice glossolalia --speaking in tongues-- and ideologically frown upon alcohol consumption, smoking, spousal abuse, divorce, and infidelity. Likewise, both encourage educational advancement, fellowship, a clean healthy life, a strong work ethic, and financial self-sufficiency (vid. also Nutini, 2004; Nutini & Bell, 1980; Nutini & Roberts, 1993; Nutini & Nutini, 2010).

Numbers vary somewhat with the source, but in the (surely by now outdated) 2010 CID-Gallup statistics, out of the 20 Latin American nations, Mexico ranked 15th with a Protestant population (11.6% vs. 76.3% self-identified Catholics). What is more significant is that said demographic comparative minority more than doubled in the prior two decades, naturally incorporating in the count the children and grandchildren of the already converted families. Curiously, many U.S. academicians, including a number of auto-defined “activist” anthropologists, have been prognosticating for decades that one variant or another of Marxism would overrun Latin America (“the specter of Socialism”); i.e., that there would be nineteen other Cubas. The picture, however, now looks somewhat different. To wit, the anti-religion Soviet-modeled Cuba of the late Fidel and now octogenarian Raúl Castro brothers finally admits —notwithstanding its foreign academic apologists in denial— that its six decade “experiment” is a colossal failure. Moreover, the so-called “Socialism of the XXI Century,” led by the disastrous Chávez-Maduro government of Venezuela, is in retreat in South America. Instead of the anticipated divisive, class-warfare mongering Communist/socialist expansion (often accompanied by a preference for official atheism and/or attempts at state control of religious activities, and even persecution), what we actually see escalating continent-wide is the “specter” of Protestantism, and remarkably, of the evangelical genre.

The Economist (Nov. 15/2014), seemingly inspired by the great German sociologist Max Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, cleverly calls this “Protestantization” phenomenon of Latin America “a southern Reformation.” The British magazine --among other respected think-tanks and publications-- optimistically augurs that this socio-religious movement will bring about positive socio-economic, and consequentially, valuable political transformations (of a democratic and egalitarian nature) to the nations south of the Río Grande.(6)

Time will tell whether this will turn out to be a rather accurate prediction or another mere wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the Nutinis’ Mexican “analytic ethnographic” volume may serve as an excellent model for other comparable studies about the fast growing Protestant evangelism elsewhere in Latin America.(7)


(1) I dedicate this brief essay to the memory of my mentor at Pitt Hugo Nutini. It is based on a lengthy book-review published in American Ethnologist (Alum, 2016-a), organ of the American Ethnological Society and published by the American Anthropological Association. A prior shorter summary --and with a different emphasis-- was published in PAN-AM POST (Alum, 2016-b); but I have prepared this version especially for PANORAMAS. I thank colleagues (mostly anthropologists) José Azel, Ralph Bolton, Garry Chic, Glynn Custred, John Frechione, Eric Gable, Tassie Hirschfeld, Rich Scaglion, Doren Slade, Herb Stupp, and Pete Wood for their critiques to previous, messier drafts. I always welcome every constructive criticism [].

(2) Between the two Nutinis, numerous aspects of Mexican culture and society were subjected to their meticulous ethnographic scrutiny for decades. Hugo Nutini (June 26/1928--April19/2013) was an unabashed Mexicophile whose Rococo-styled writings were infused with deep philosophy-of-science premises. While he began his career as an exponent of Lévi-Straussian French structuralism, later in life he embraced the Expressive Culture approach influenced by his closest Pitt colleague, John “Jack” Milton Roberts (1916-1990), who was another mentor of mine at Pitt. For detailed appreciations of Hugo’s contributions to the anthropology of Latin America --and ethnology in general-- see Isaac (2014), Slade (2009), Slade & Alum (2009), and my own various á propos writings (Alum, 2006, 2009, 2013-a, 2013-b, 2013-c, 2016-a, 2016-b; Alum & DeG. Hansen, 1994). Incidentally, with co-authors, I have also written about Roberts’s scholarly legacy and the Nutini-Roberts Mexican research collaboration (e.g., see Alum, Chick & Bolton, 2010).

(3) In fact, Aron’s sociological sub-specialization was –coincidentally-- belief systems, including those of a political nature (which he examined in the light of the rise of Fascist and Communist fanaticism in Europe).

(4) To this effect, for critiques of Marx see, among others, Afro-American professor Walter Williams’s essay.

(5) It seems to me that this point deserves further study vis-à-vis the by now passé concept of the “culture of poverty,” popularized in the 1960s by the late Oscar Lewis. In fact, I have been writing critically of such an idea for decades too (see, e.g., Alum, 2015).

(6) Incidentally, I was surprised that Snyder (2017) did not mention the Nutinis book in his recent review here in PANORAMAS about Protestantism in Brazil.

(7) For another perspective of the Nutini’s (2014) book, see Pitt anthropologist Kao’s (2015) superb review. I wished, notwithstanding, that this volume had included some of the photographs that the authors had taken for years in the Mexican field, for example, of evangelical parishioners in their temples; this gap was evidently a financial decision by the publishing house.



Alum, R., 2006, “Review-article of H. Nutini’s [2004], ‘THE MEXICAN ARISTOCRACY…,” Political & Legal Anthropology Review, 30(2):363-66.

2009, “Hugo Nutini’s Scientific Anthropology,” Anthropology News, 50:7: 55-56.

2013a, “The Latinamericanist Anthropologist Gone Native--Hugo G. Nutini,” CLASicos [Univ. of Pitt./CLAS], Wint./2013:1-5.

2013b, “Obituary of Hugo G. Nutini,” Anthropology News, 54:11-12:34-35. 2013-c, “A la memoria del mexicanólogo Hugo Nutini,” AHORA NEWS (N.J. & Puebla, Méx.), May 03/2013.

2015, “The Cuban Culture of Poverty Conundrum,” PANORAMAS; Feb. 14, 2015.

2016a, “Review of Nutini & Nutini’s ‘NATIVE EVANGELISM IN CENTRAL MEXICO’,” American Ethnologist, 43:1:204-205.

2016b, “The Protestant awakening in Mexico,” PAN-AM POST; April 19, 2016.

Alum, R.; & Elizabeth DeGuevara Hansen, 1994, "Review of H. Nutini & J. Roberts’s BLOODSUCKING WITCHCRAFT…," Latin American Anthropology Review 6(1):57-58.

Alum, R; Garry Chic; & Ralph Bolton, 2010, “The ethnological legacy of John ‘Jack’ M. Roberts,” Anthropology News, May/2010:51(5):36.

Isaac, Barry, 2014, “Obituary of Hugo Nutini,” American Anthropologist (116:2: 489-491).

Kao, Philip, 201 , Battling for the Souls of the Disaffected (Review of Nutinis ‘NATIVE EVANGELISM IN CENTRAL MEXICO,’ Current Anthropology, 56(5):773-774.

Nutini, Hugo, 2004, The Mexican Aristocracy; An Expressive Ethnography (University of Texas Press). Nutini, H. and B. Bell,

1980, Ritual Kinship; The Structure and Historical Development of The Compadrazgo System… (Princeton University Press). Also published in Spanish in México in 1989).

Nutini, H. and J. Nutini. 2010, “El Evangelismo Protestante en el Centro de México;” in F. Báez and A. Lupo (eds.), San Juan Diego y la Pachamama (Editora del Estado de Veracruz).

2014, Native Evangelism in Central Mexico. (University of Texas Press).

Nutini, H. and J. Roberts. 1993, Bloodsucking Witchcraft: An Epistemological Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism in Rural Tlaxcala (University of Arizona Press).

Slade, Doren, 2009, “A tribute to Hugo Nutini,”Anthropology News, 50:5: 59; May./09

Slade, D.; & R. Alum, 2009, “Faculty feast: Professor Nutini’s first 80th birthday,” Pitt Alumni Magazine, Aug./09:3.

Snyder, Daniel, 2017, “The Growing Protestant Presence in Latin America,“ PANORAMAS; Jan. 16/2017.

About Author(s)

Roland Armando Alum
Ronald Armando Alum is a socio-cultural anthropologist, trained at the University of Pittsburgh. He has a long experience as an educator with community/civic engagement, and governmental & higher-ed administration experience for decades. He was a Professor at DeVry University, and has done extensive field research and taught in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. He lives in New Jersey and is external Research Associate of the Center of Latin American Studies of the University of Pittsburgh.