The Saints of Santa Ana

Faith and Ethnicity in a Mexican Majority City

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Jonathan E. Calvillo
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Located in the heart of Orange County, California, Santa Ana is a majority Latinx city and one of the most densely populated in the United States. Around half the city’s population is foreign-born, and 82.9 percent of people there speak a language other than English at home, primarily Spanish. Just miles from some of California’s wealthiest cities, as well as Disneyland, Santa Ana, according to sociologist of religion Jonathan Calvillo, is thus a home to people who move “across spaces of abundance and struggle” (16). Calvillo notes that this character makes the city remarkable; it is “a city of saints, a saintly place, a holy place. Un lugar santo” (25). To make this case, Calvillo draws on dozens of in-depth interviews with Mexican immigrants and five years of participant observation among Santa Ana’s neighborhoods. Decidedly not a congregational study, The Saints of Santa Ana delves into daily encounters, public spaces, and neighborhood initiatives to uncover how religion shapes both Latinx ethnicity and what Calvillo calls “ethnic space” (25).

One of the driving questions in the study of Latinx religions is what role religion plays in ethnic identity formation and maintenance. Given the historical dominance of Catholicism in Latin America, particularly in highly Catholic Mexico, a necessary corollary to this principal question is: How does the ethnicity of Latinx Catholics and evangelicals differ? Calvillo’s sympathetic and beautifully written book answers this question in multiple ways and with fine-grained analysis that rubs the edges off of stark dichotomies. He finds that Catholics and evangelicals in Santa Ana experience different ethnic orientations toward time and space in their communities. “For Catholics, religion shapes the boundaries of ethnicity as a retrospective, locally anchored, communally embodied identity. For evangelicals, religion shapes the boundaries of ethnicity as a future-looking, regionally dispersed, voluntarily selected identity” (22). Calvillo rejects the notion that either of these orientations is the proper way to be a Mexican in southern California; instead, he provides illustration after illustration of community members working out how their entangled religious and ethnic identities make Santa Ana into their community.

An excellent feature of Calvillo’s study is the range of topics that he focuses on in the chapters. The first two chapters, in addition to providing historical and demographic context about Santa Ana, identify some the key questions motivating the study such as: What is ethnicity? What is ethnicity’s relationship to religion? How is “ethnic space” produced in communities like Santa Ana? How do members of the same ethnicity negotiate religious differences, in this case, specifically between Catholics and evangelicals? Subsequent chapters take up these questions, and Calvillo theorizes answers by letting his interlocutors take center stage in the narrative. For instance, in the chapter about how people self-identify in terms of ethnic signifiers, Calvillo posits a typology that subtly differentiates between Catholics and evangelicals and also shows how being “Mexican” can carry various emotive charges depending on an individual’s religious community. For many Catholics, being Mexican and Catholic is part of a nearly seamless whole while for evangelicals, self-identifying as Mexican can require additional explanations and emotional labor (90–93).

Another chapter takes up neighborhood altars, which Calvillo contends are places of encounter and opportunities for change as well as continuity. Street-side altars to Guadalupe suggest continuity between Mexico and the United States and between public and religious space. Evangelical altars, in contrast, suggest the transformative experience of conversion, but, as Calvillo explains, they also remind evangelical immigrants of the continuity between church spaces on both sides of the international border. The final two chapters respectively look at how Catholics and evangelicals talk to God (and the saints) and how they conceive of—and, in so doing, create—their neighborhoods. Like the previous chapters, these two are heavy with the fruit of Calvillo’s extensive and humane research. Calvillo finds that spiritual communication such as prayer and devotion to God is often a place of shared experience for Catholics and evangelicals; however, these two groups tend to understand their neighborhoods quite differently. A nostalgic rootedness often leads Catholics to value the familiarity of their neighborhoods even as their evangelical counterparts’ orientation on future redemption can mean that evangelicals are more likely to work for reform and neighborhood transformation. Calvillo writes, “In the end, Catholics produced an ethnic space that was imbued with memory. Evangelicals engaged ethnic space as a project of envisioned reformation” (217). Ultimately, this book shows perhaps better than any previous volume that religion is key to ethnic identity and ethnic space for Mexican Americans, Catholic and evangelical, in meaningfully different ways.

Calvillo’s mastery of his subject matter allows him to converse with a wide variety of ongoing religious studies conversations including those that touch on lived religion, religion and space, religion and ethnic identity formation and maintenance, religion and emotions, and the experience of divine communication. As a result, this book demonstrates decisively the burgeoning importance of research on Latinx religions within the larger field of North American religions. The Saints of Santa Ana is a welcome addition to this growing literature and will be an asset in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brett Hendrickson is associate professor at Lafayette College.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan E. Calvillo is assistant professor of sociology of religion at Boston University School of Theology. A son of Mexican immigrants, born and raised in Southern California, he holds a PhD in sociology from the University of California at Irvine. His scholarship centers on the sociology of religion, race and ethnicity, and immigration, especially within Latinx communities.




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