Chapter 2 – Religious Identity in Latin America

In the second chapter of Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto, the hostage crisis escalates. Patchett introduces a few new characters, starting with French Red Cross aid, Joachim Messner. Like the character of Gen, Messner automatically peaked my interest as a calming presence in this hectic novel. Deepening the theme of connections, Messner, similarly to Gen’s role as the connector between the guests and terrorists, acts in the role of connector between those inside the house and those on the outside.

Patchett also introduces her readers to Esmeralda, Vice President Iglesias’s nanny. Esmeralda shines as a beacon of hope and radiant beauty thrust upon her by circumstance. She is the only one who rises to the occasion of doctoring Iglesias’s mutilated face. Patchett explored the theme of universal beauty in her first chapter through Roxanne Coss’s vocal gift and the physical surroundings of the party. Now she presents this idea of situational beauty. This is also a continuation of Patchett’s juxtaposition of the roles of socioeconomic classes, creating poor characters who take responsibility while prominent leading figures shirk their responsibilities.

On this same theme, we see the shorter Vice President Iglesias assuming a role of authority in the hostage situation and bearing the brunt (literally) of the terrorist’s displeasure at the President’s absence. We also see Mr. Hosokawa starting to claim responsibility for putting these people in danger by attending the party under false pretenses, though it is apparent that his main concern is still for the object of his rather inappropriate infatuation, Roxanne Coss.

This is also the first time we meet Father Arguedas and Monsignor Rolland, priests of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Along the same vein, Monsignor Rolland occupies a higher position in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; yet, he acts selfishly to save himself as “it was vital for him to live” since he was “virtually guaranteed the spot of bishop” (p. 50). Contrastingly, the poor, lowly priest Father Arguedas volunteers to stay with the remaining hostages, sacrificing his own freedom. Father Arguedas is entrenched in various themes Patchett writes into her work. He also maintains the connection opera, as what drew him to the party, makes between all those involved. In addition, within his internal dialogue, we again see compassion for the terrorists, which indicates a future perspective reversal for the terrorists.

Because I was so intrigued by the Catholic priests, Catholicism in Latin America was my main, original topic of research. It is well known that historically, the majority of Latin American countries have practiced Catholicism. Centuries ago, Roman Catholicism came to the Americas through European missionaries travelling to unexplored lands. People converted through coercion or by partial assimilation or perhaps for less forceful reasons. However, Protestantism is being reported as making an upswing in numbers even within the last lifetime. While from the early to mid-1960’s it is estimated that at least 90% of Latin Americans identified as Catholic, now only 69% of adults self-identify as Catholic, according to recent surveys conducted by Pew Research Center (Religion).

According to these surveys, the most given reason out of the eight offered for the switch from Catholicism to Protestantism was that “they were seeking a more personal connection with God”. A desire for a different kind of worship service was also mentioned as a predominant reason. This shift has cultural significance, as Protestants in Latin America tend to be more religiously observant in more frequently attending church, reading the Bible outside of church, and conforming to more conservative religious views on controversial topics, such as homosexuality, having sex before marriage or drinking alcohol. Part of the reason for the shift may be that Protestants tend to be more likely to share their faith and engage in community service and charity work, thought the latter is listed as what the majority of Catholics to be fundamental in their Christian lives.

One interesting twist to the increase in popularity of Protestantism in these Latin American regions is that a median of 65% of Protestants identify as Pentecostal Protestants. Probably because of the historical assimilation of Catholicism and other forms of Christianity, many people, though this ranges greatly between countries, continue to practice the indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, or Afro-Brazilian religions of their culture. For example, beliefs in witchcraft and reincarnation or beliefs we might consider superstitious, such as in the “evil eye” that can put curses on people, are fairly common. This made me wonder whether Pentecostalism has become such a growing movement because it is more similar to these spiritual cultural beliefs.

Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, theorizes that Pentecostalism, which places more emphasis on gifts of the Holy Spirit (such as faith healing or speaking in tongues), has gained popularity for a number of reasons (Masci). He quotes cultural relevance in church service style, as even the musical rhythms used in worship are similar to those used in secular music. The preachers tend to be similar to members of the congregation in their speech and look. Contrastingly, many of the priests in the Catholic Church are white or mestizo or even from Europe originally.

However, Catholicism remains a prominent part of national cultural identity in most of these regions. It is also the first time in history that the Pope is Latin American; Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis in 2013. Chesnut explains that one response of the Catholic Church to shifting religious views began in the 1960’s as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. This movement has the “same ecstatic spirituality, the same healing, but people get to keep the Virgin Mary, and saints” (Masci). I think Anne Patchett was able to encompass both ideas of Catholicism being deep-rooted in the national identity of the host country and of a shift toward a want for a more personal religious and church experience with the character of Father Arguedas.


Masci, David. “Why has Pentecostalism grown so dramatically in Latin America?” Free Republic. Free Republic, 23 November 2014. Web. 9 September 2015.

“Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 13 November 2014. Web. 9 September 2015.


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