When Octavio Esqueda was one, his little sister died.
Over the next nine years, his mother suffered five miscarriages. He remained an only child.
His parents had another daughter when he was nine, only for her to die several years later in a pool accident.
“My parents had extremely different experiences with both deaths,” said Esqueda, who grew up in Mexico and now lives in Southern California. “The first one brought a lot of despair to my parents.”
Between the deaths of their two daughters, Esqueda’s parents had left Catholicism and embraced evangelicalism.
“The second [death] was obviously hard, but the difference was they knew they had hope in the Resurrection and hope in Christ,” said Esqueda, a professor of Christian higher education at Talbot School of Theology.
“For people who don’t have hope in the Resurrection, or if you’re a Roman Catholic and there’s some uncertainty in the question of where your relatives are, you hope for the best but you don’t really know. These tendencies to find connections with dreams or other forms are very important for people to keep that relationship alive.”
Latin American and US Latino perspectives on death are diverse and have been shaped historically by indigenous and Roman Catholic teachings and theology, resulting in syncretistic holidays like Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Día de los Fieles Difuntos (All Souls’ Day).
With the more recent arrival of Protestantism in Latin America in the 1870s, and as many in the region immigrate to the US, many Latin American evangelicals have embraced perspectives on death that they consider to be more faithful to the Word of God while also trying to understand where their heritage should fit in.
“Theologically, the majority of Christian Latino evangelicals believe James 2:26, ‘The body apart from the spirit is dead,’” said Tomas Sanabria, who currently leads an Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) congregation of 12 different Latin American nationalities in Chicago.
“They do not celebrate the Day of the Dead. It is a Mexican tradition. Culturally, there are many Mexican believers who practice a popular syncretistic religiosity … by celebrating their departed loved ones. It is not so amongst the Protestant faithful. It is more done by many having a Roman Catholic background.”
Earlier this year, CT reported on Pew Research Center’s recent survey of Americans’ experiences with dead people, noting that “the survey didn’t clarify how people processed these interactions—whether they thought they were mystical or believed they could have had natural causes.” For example, those who responded that loved ones visited them in a dream included those who may believe their loved ones were trying to send messages to them as well as those who might have simply dreamt about a favorite memory with their family member.
Among all US Hispanic Protestants, 27 percent say they have felt the presence of a dead family member, 20 percent have talked to dead family members about events in their life, and 12 percent say they have had deceased loved ones communicate with them. (Pew provided these breakouts to CT.)
One third (34%) of all Hispanic Protestants say that at least one of these things is true about them. In contrast, 47 percent of all US Hispanic adults and 54 percent of all US Hispanic Catholics say the same.
Just over half of Hispanic adults (53%) said they have been visited by a dead relative in a dream. Among Christians, 41 percent of Hispanic Protestants reported this, compared to 62 percent of Catholics.
Just over a third (42%) of self-identified evangelicals of all ethnicities said they had been visited by a loved one who had passed away.
For Latin American and US Latino believers, seeing or talking with a beloved family member in a dream can be insightful or healing. Such experiences may provide a certain degree of comfort and assurance after losing a loved one or help develop a more nuanced response to death.
Esqueda, who moved to the US as an adult, believes that his Mexican heritage offers valuable wisdom in addressing loss and grief.
“American Christians, or white evangelicals, tend to be optimistic. They don’t like to live with pain and suffering and they like to move on. Memorial services are like celebrations, instead of the mourning of the lost,” he said.
Latino evangelicals, meanwhile, do not gloss over or suppress the depth and experience of grief surrounding the death of a loved one.
“We never move on. Death is always painful. Death is always the vandalism of shalom. Yes, Christ conquered death, but death is always bad. For Hispanics, Asians, or African Americans, we realize that pain and suffering is part of life, so we cope better,” he said.
In other cases, a visit from a dearly departed loved one may even offer insights into a person’s current reality.
During a season where Sanabria, who has Puerto Rican heritage, was regularly working in his community, a woman named Anita came to him with a question. For the past few nights, her mother, who had died, had been appearing to her in her dreams and saying the words shakkul remah. Could they mean anything?
As a recent seminary graduate, Sanabria agreed to look up the phrase in his Greek and Hebrew lexicon and found that, in Hebrew, it could be translated as a “time of bereavement over the loss of a young child cast down.”
When he revealed this to his congregant, she broke down sobbing.
“She explained that when she had been in high school, she had had an abortion and that no one in her family knew, not even her mother,” said Sanabria. This encounter prompted the woman, now in her thirties, to seek out therapy.
Sanabria, who was raised Catholic before embracing Pentecostalism and later moving to the ECC, doesn’t believe that the dead remain in a “conscious state” or “know what’s happening here on earth.”
“The Bible says we go into deep sleep and there’s going to be a second coming when people are going to be resurrected from the dead,” he said. “Only Jesus Christ can call up the dead from the dead.”
But dreaming of a loved one who has passed away does not mean the person exists in our current reality, he says.
“[A] demon or the devil cannot read your mind. So how can a dead person be inside of your mind or in your brain or in your spirit? A dream is a dream.”
Some Latino evangelicals don’t have an interest in embracing their forefathers’ Catholicism, but are curious about learning more about their ancestors’ indigenous understandings of the world.
In the Mexican context, “death is not something that is feared. It’s not seen as an end, it’s more of a transition,” said Roslyn Hernández, who works at Fuller Youth Institute and is also a spiritual director.
In the Nahuatl tradition, for instance, “it was believed that people pass from this world, and we’re going into another and we keep going on a journey,” said Hernández. “It wasn’t as if, when a family member passed away, they were never thought of again or remembered.”
Hernández has been speaking with family members who have studied their genealogy and doing her own side research.
“I’ve been piecing together more about the spiritual traditions of my ancestors, [like plant medicine], and trying to integrate that into my own identity and spirituality,” she said.
Growing up, Evelyn Perez remembers her Guatemalan family members emphasizing the revelatory importance of dreams to her, while they were suspicious toward interpreting other parts of life as having some sort of divine significance.
But when Protestantism arrived in her family’s hometown, “Many of the [indigenous] customs were taken away because [they were regarded as] evil,” said Perez, who works with ECC church leaders on the West Coast.
During the Protestant Reformation, “the world of enchantment was highly scrutinized” to the point where now, “Western theologies tend to mostly view any spiritual thing outside of Christianity as suspicious or evil,” says Noemi Vega Quiñones, who is earning a PhD in ethics at Southern Methodist University.
“The Bible itself acknowledges different spiritual realms and different spirits, and some African theologians and indigenous theologians will also acknowledge that we live in a spiritual realm … but Protestant theologies tend to favor objective reasoning, [asking,] What’s palpable? What’s factual?” she said.
Nevertheless, Vega Quiñones remembers growing up in a home that acknowledged and “normalized” the spiritual realm.
“I grew up hearing ghost stories from friends and family. Feeling the spiritual aspect of a place, like a room, was not unusual for me, ” said Vega Quiñones. “I did not pray to the dead or speak to the dead but remembered my dead relatives regularly, like my grandmother, to continue to motivate me and cheer me on.”
As a child, she frequently suffered nightmares and “a lot of seeing evil [spirits] around me.”
“My mom would say, ‘Focus on Jesus, pray to Jesus. Jesus has more power over these other things. The blood of Jesus will protect you,’ referencing Hebrews 9,” Vega Quiñones said. “She never said, ‘Oh, those evil things don’t exist. She never ever made me feel bad for having nightmares or dreaming about scary things.”
Christians need to develop a theology of the dead that’s biblically informed, Vega Quiñones argues. After all, the Bible has unique and varied accounts of interactions with the dead, she says, citing Jesus’ mention of Hades, Deuteronomy’s instructions not to consult with the dead, Saul and the medium of Endor, and Hebrews’ great cloud of witnesses.
“At the end of the day, Jesus did come to bring healing and truth and goodness to the world. God is the Creator of life, and God is also God over other spiritual realms, including the dead.
“I would hope that we would be okay with the mystery—with not knowing—and just be respectful of the biblical wisdom and the collective wisdom that we have as people. … If a Christian wants to have a sound theology of the dead, we’ve got to look at the whole biblical narrative of this and not just pick and choose aspects of it.”