The Catholic Church in Two Stories by Martínez-Serros

Raúl Gutiérrez, Paloma Rodríguez Esteban and Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2017-04-01 09:01:19

(Part II)

 As indicated in the first installment of this article, what is presented herein draws on three papers drafted by the co-authors specified, as students in MZ’s seminar on Chicago Latino writing, assigned to extend, complement and question the modes of analysis developed by MZ and presented in previous issues of El BeiSMan. In this shortened version, we have eliminated most bibliographical references and notes.

First page of Martínez-Serros manuscript-Chicago Historical Museum. 

II. “Father Palomo”

In an oft-told medieval tale (recently recounted by Paulo Coelho, among others), an impoverished and ignorant monastery acolyte has nothing to provide for his order’s celebration of Christmas, until he resurrects his all-but-forgotten skill and performs a clownish juggling act before the image of María and her son. And it is this gift which is the most precious of all even if nothing is materially changed in the monasterial community.

In many respects, “Father Palomo” is a retelling of this same story in the context of the history of Mexican Chicago and the relation of Mexicans and the Church during the period when the story takes place. To be sure, it is strange to encounter this story in this collection and as the culminating text therein; other than the reappearance of Father Tortas, the story’s ties with the previous stories presented seem weak. If many themes and narrative aspects of the story fit with the general characteristics of the book as a whole, in this story, we suddenly encounter an almost entirely new cast of characters who don’t belong to the family whose cultural, economic and idenittary problems have served as central argumental lines in the other stories. The family as is traditionally understood is notably absent in this story. Nevertheless we would have to recognize that Father Palomo makes himself responsible for his rural Michoacán community which in effect stands as his family. Furthermore Palomo not only represents his immediate community, and others like it in Western Mexico, but he also quickly comes to represent those mexicanos who have arrived in Chicago and the problems they face with the Catholic Church as well as the broader society in which they find themselves. One could argue that Father Palomo is doing his best to help his community just as José María attempts to do the same for his family in several other stories in this collection. In effect the rural priest serves as the father, or padre, in Martínez Serros’ other stories; and his poverty-stricken Michocán community stands for the biological sons our earlier father figure seeks to help survive and thrive. In this sense, Father Palomo’s confrontation with the same barrio nemesis, Father Tortas becomes another version of the more directly aggressive battle José María has in “Learn! Learn!” However, as noted in our introduction, this story goes further, for not only does Padre Paloma have to confront the Southside Chicago’s reigning priest, but he has to confront the broader Irish hierarchy dominating Chicago’s overall Catholic Diocesan system and the still larger system in which the Church is imbedded. In this sense this story provides a deeper backdrop for understanding the other stories in Martínez-Serros’ book. A final caveat in this regard is that this story is set in the 1950s, several years after the period from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s that are the chronological context for the other stories.

Beyond these contextual differences and similarities, it is important to emphasize the fact that “Father Palomo” emerges as a story of a very particular migration process very different from that implicit elsewhere in Martínez-Serros’ book. Manuel Palomo’ s condition and orientation as priest convert him into an immigrant who confronts not only a new city, but also a special version of the very Church to which he belongs but which he finds that in its development in Anglo-Protestant U.S. turf, has led to its surrendering to the administrative demands of other modernized urban institutions in that it is highly hierarchized and thereby very distant from the kind of Church the Mexican priest has experienced in his home Mexican diocese. In the end, the adverse conditions the priest encounters seem to come more from within the ecclesiastic institution than from the city itself. But this is somewhat deceptive, because the church is what it is in part because of the city. The racism and humiliations our protagonist encounters with Father Tortas are just a particular version of what he will find from the higher Church officials he later meets in downtown Chicago—and these officials will give him more reason for suffering than do the secular figures he meets in the city, who for their own interests (in the case of the Protestants and his potential employer Captain Harry) or for reason of compassion (in the case of Captain Harry’s assistant, Marianne Degs) seek to help him.

Palomo leaves his town Mexico like a Messianic figure, respected by his community. With simplicity he receives the offerings of his parishioners, and the sick implore him, “¡Padre! ¡Padre! Bless me, come and bless me, por Dios!” The only thing that distinguishes this simple priest from his parishioners is his clerical collar, and even that will be left behind as the story unfolds. Like Christ, he sacrifices himself for his people; wearing his sandals as he makes way—though by bus—toward “the promised land,” where he hopes to find the means to save his people and town. He, like Christ, is 33 years old at his time of his great sacrifice. His trip is one long pilgrimage in which he gives up all his food to the hungry children on the bus—a meal topped off by a virtual communion with the tamales a woman from his town had given him “purple, lustrous,” tamales with a “delicate blackberry flavor” he can only imagine, as he, like Christ in the desert, ends up fasting for four days and three nights. On the road, he thinks of the Mexican world he is leaving behind, a world filled with disillusion on disillusion, and yet hope upon hope—with music and colors, flavors, smells, and textures, that will clearly be absent in the urban world he is about to enter.

The contrast Palomo’s Mexico and his U.S. urban experience leads to one of the key questions framing the difference between some Mexican immigrants and their experience from others: the situation and their perception of their place of origin. In the case of Palomo, this situation involves a recent natural catastrophe that exacerbates the condition of an already desperately poor community. This is what makes his story one of a struggle against time. The construction of space in his native land is marked by positive qualities that contrast with those of U.S. urban environments. One such quality is the generosity and “gift-giving” in which almost all offer almost beyond their capacity to afford. Other such qualities are respect for tradition (“they dressed as their mothers had, and before them, their grandmothers”) as well as the peculiar religious character (“We never stop praying for you, Padre, or for us”) involved therein. Above all perhaps is the simplicity that tells them to “distrust men in suits”, and to deposit their faith in Father Palomo. This simple faith, this sense of generosity and spirit of sacrifice, are examples of the Christian faith which accompanies the priest on his journey and guides his firm consciousness of good and evil, serving as a strict compass that leads him without his doubting his mission or questioning where it takes him.

His first place of arrival is the Chicagoland steel-town of Gary in Northwest Indiana, where a relative of one of his parishioners has written offering room and board in Gary to the town representative. Here Father Palomo shows his sense of humility and resignation before all that his trip leads to. Of course most Mexican immigrants arrived in Gary seeking work in the Steel mills and related industries, but some also arrived because of the claims of family members and friends affirming their success in finding excellent Jobs, and their offer to provide room and board to those who risked coming their way, at least until they readily found Jobs and success liker theirs. Filled with hope, Father Paloma is met by one such friend, who takes him home and offers him food, but clearly has much less to offer than what he had claimed to his family members. “The man had not really believed the priest would come.His reports of opportunities and easy money were exaggerations meant to impress relatives and friends (Martínez-Serros179). As for Gary, it is a place “devoid of fountains, plazas, paseos—… not the city the priest had imagined (ibid.).” Father Palomo’s imaginary is confronted by reality, and he is left in a state of shock and uncertainty.

At this point, an angelic figure, appropriately named Gabriel Alas (or wings), visits him as if in an annunciation, to confirm the situation the priest finds himself in and to help him realize that in spite of his anachronistic vision of Chicago as a place of gangsters and lawlessness, it is the place most likely to provide him with the possibility of fulfilling his mission. It is from Gabriel that Father Palomo learns of the city hopes placed in the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway that will supposedly convert Lake Michigan and its largest port into a new hub of international trade. A ship, the Aquarama is already serving as the vanguard in quick-starting entrepreneurial activities related to seaway project, and has recruited high divers to present shows for a public eager to see spectacles. For reasons not totally clear to those reading the story, Father Palomo apparently places great hopes in the Aquarama and agrees to go to Chicago after all. But as readers of “Learn! Learn!” we may perhaps gasp when Alas indicates that it is precisely Father Tortas who is ready to assist him and whose pone number he should call immediately on his arrival in Chicago. Clearly Father Palomo doesn’t know what we know.

When he gets to the city, Palomo considers it too late to call his designated host. Instead, a member of the Salvation Army offers him room and board for the night. When he finally goes to see Father Tortas the next day, he is immediately rebuked for failing to call him immediately and for choosing to stay with a Protestant agency. “This is not Mexico,” Father Tortas points out. “Here … we are surrounded by Protestants.” Here, to be sure, Palomo confronts a system of significations and prohibitions he has not been adequately prepared for and which go against his worldview. For him, the Salvation Army’s welcoming hand is Christian even if the organization is not Catholic. But for Tortas, obsessed with preventing Mexican Catholics from being seduced by Protestant organizations, Palomo’s acceptance of Salvation Army help is an anatema. Taken aback, Palomo nevertheless tells him that he seeks to find help for his community by turning to a ship called the Aquarama. It is clear that Father Tortas also knows about it and even knows the owner’s name, Captain Harry. Tortas commits himself to getting the owner’s address for Palomo, but he expresses his disapproval of the Mexican priest’s ends as well as his means, indicating that Palomo should expect little help from him and the Guadalupe Church, for a mission that may involve a priest indecorously earning money. “You’re on your own, padre. Under no circumstances are you to involve me or my parish in your affairs,” he concludes, all but dismissing him and his mission.

A plaque in praise of Father J. Tort in Guadalupe Church. Photo by Jesenia Eduarte 9/23/2016. 

From this point on Father Palomo is left to his own devices and must pursue his goals in a language he cannot speak and in a city whose chief church representative of Mexican concerns has virtual hostility toward his project. Without knowledge of local codes of conduct, he sees all his hopes for progress limited by his lack of English skills. Nevertheless, he decides to seek out the Navy Pier office of the Aquarama and meets the staff secretary, Marianne Dreg, a friendly woman who in spite of her negative name, is a positive figure who speaks Spanish, sympathizes with Palomo’s mission, and decides to help him as best she can. However even as she tries to help him she puts the priest’s ignorance about acceptable codes on display before Captain Harry, by pressuring Palomo to speak of his past—an insistence which Palomo interprets as an effort “to strip him of his privacy.”

The S.S. Aquarama, which roamed the Great Lakes in the 1950s and early 60s. The 520-long, 12,000-ton ship could carry 2,500 passengers and 160 cars.[1]

To be sure Capitan Harry, has his own motives in hearing Palomo tell, however reluctantly, what he thinks he can do for the Aquarama if he wins a job there. And the priest then tells him that in addition to his religious practice, he is a high diver capable of doing great things. Captain Harry tells him that the Aquarama already involves Acapulco-trained high divers, but Palomo argues that his mode of diving involves a different set of skills from those men famous for throwing themselves off the Acapulco cliffs—skills that would greatly enrich and deepen the Aquarama’s program. Captain Harry insists on finding out how Palomo became a “Diving Priest” and how his talents might serve the captain’s project. “He’s right about the Diving Priest angle,’ he says. ‘It could make a fine human interest story if it’s done the right way. Contacting the newspaper is easy...’” Both the Captain and Marianne manage a world unknown to Palomo—a world that is hardly based on altruism. “I want everyone in the city to know about the Aquarama to know what I’m doing here,” the Captain continues, “Father Palomo’s story may be just what I need to capture the city’s interest.” On that basis, Captain Harry says he will do all he can to help the priest. Without a doubt, Father Palomo is to find a city with such great possibilities for him: a lake, a recently constructed special ship, a captain ready to give him an opportunity, and a woman like Marianne, offering to help him overcome linguistic barriers.

Palomo returns to sleep one last night at the Guadalupe and to thank the Padre Tortas for his hospitality, offering to give a mass at the Church when he is more settled, only to have his unyielding host answer, “That won’t be necessary, padre. My Mass schedule is inflexible. I set it up each month. I abhor any departure from discipline. Visiting priests have caused me problems in the past. My flock does not graze in open pastures. My duty is to protect my sheep and I do it whether they like it or not.” Then when Palomo offers to provide Tortas hospitality should he ever come to La Huacana, Tortas says that he will never go there. “Life here is difficult enough,” he says. “I came here … full of hope and ambition, and I’m still in the same place.” When Tortas hears that Palomo hopes to win money for his town by working at the Aquarama, Tortas retorts, “I don’t know if people in this city will want to see you, a priest, earn money publicly.” “Finally, when Tortas asks where Palomo will now be staying, the priest tells him that Captain Harry has provided him room and board at a nearby YMCA. And that answer incurs Father Tortas’ rage: “The YMCA … is a hive for Protestant bees!” It is unthinkable to the older priest that he would stay there, but Father Palomo insists that the Captain’s offer will help him with his mission. At which point Tortas dismisses him again, “Go! Go quickly! …. And you call yourself a priest!” (Martínez-Serros190-91).[2]

Here, we should note that the fictional Tortas concurs precisely with the historical Tort, who warns a baseball player congregant that using the fine recreational facilities provided by Southside Protestant institutions would be “a mortal sin” (Innis-Jiménez 165). His war is continually against the competition posed by seductive Protestant service to Mexicans in his community. Yet if anything drives his congregants toward Protestant churches, it is the unyielding, classist and racist attitudes that show Palomo a new vision of a Catholicism which distances itself from the poor it purports to serve—a vision which will be confirmed soon enough by those higher than Tortas in the church hierarchy. For when he meets his sponsor once again, he finds that the Captain, fearful of aggravating the Church authorities, has decided he will not approve Palomo’s bid for employment unless he can get approval from the Church hierarchy. This sends the modest job-seeking diver priest, accompanied by Marianne who tries to serve as his intermediary, to the heart of the city’s ecclesiastic order, in the office of the Archbishop in the heart of the city itself. And what he finds there is comparable to what Captain Marlowe found in the Congo: a heart of darkness—only this time, the darkness is White and Irish White at that.

Accompanied by Marianne, Palomo leaves Navy Pier and makes his way among the buildings of the loop in search of the office of the Chancery, overwhelmed by all he sees, and by the exclusive hierarchal vision of the city that the city’s wonders provide. . Instead of the houses in his small town, he finds himself walking along the “Magnificent Mile”, surrounded by giant buildings, and by churches so different from the simplicity and poverty that he begins to miss in his distant home:

“This avenue, señorita, it reminds me of El Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. But where are the poor? The vendors of lottery tickets? The children who sell newspapers and gum? Have you no poor here?” She answered him haltingly, “I don’t know, padre… for some reason… the poor never come to this part of the city”.

In Chicago, the heart of the city is an area geographically sealed from the poor, in spite of the fact that major houses of worship, like the Holy Name Cathedral and The Chancery itself have their main offices there. In effect the city’s power over immigrants is present even in the staircases and elevators of the buildings, signifying the city’s vertical power structure as well as the Church’s hierarchical order as they emulate the overall spatial construction of the city. Nevertheless, the greatest expression of the relations of power comes not from Father Tortas or the city itself but from the mouth of the high Church official, Monsignor Byrne when he tells Father Palomo that “In Chicago we believe that it’s beneath the dignity of the Church to place a priest on exhibition.” And in this simple phrase Father Palomo’s project meets its full rejection as he sees the kernel of the nut—the virtual corruption of the Church.

It turns out that the Catholic Church in Chicago is not a humble organization dedicated to service and sacrifice, but a respectable, politic and financially powerful institution too dignified to humiliate itself for the sake of the poor. The problem is not that a priest seeks to gain money, but that he does so in an openly public way. And this perspective is a central premise of a supposed moral code centered on complex policies outside of the control of a humble priest, and distanced from the human interests of the Mexican religious community from which he comes. In the urban U.S. context, the Church has been caught up in a political game of bribes, of knowing the right people, attending the right charity dinners, and doing whatever it takes to not surrender to the Protestant enemies which threaten to steal away the Church’s sheep. In Chicago it is the Irish above all who have risen from the lowest levels of urban poverty to find power in the Church, as they have done in the unions, the police and fire departments, and in urban politics as a whole. It is they who call the shots and seek to maintain controls necessary for the overall hegemony of a Protestant-dominant overall capitalist system. Part of their job is to keep others in their place—the Polish, the Italian and the Mexican Catholics whose church they control, the African Americans whose communities they police, etc.[3]

Padre Palomo is distant from this system; for him, only human beings exist. He doesn’t grasp the importance of a struggle against Protestant inroads; he doesn’t understand how his wishing to dive to raise money for his poor parishioners can cause problems for the local Catholic Church because the problems stem from ideological bases so radically different that in comparison, the diabolical Protestants seem more brotherly to him than do his fellow Catholics.

Finally, recognizing, his failure, Palomo decides to return to his community without having earned the money which he had hoped to earn. However, before he leaves he wishes to make a small redemptive gesture. Feeling the weight of the humiliations and frustrations he has endured with infinite tolerance and forbearance, he feels he cannot leave without repaying the efforts made on his behalf by Marianne and Captain Harry; and emulating his parishioners’ traditional gift of giving we saw in play earlier in the story, he offers the one thing he can offer, and climbs a high platform to perform his remarkable jumping skill.

This jump is a revelation as a gesture of symbolic redemption not only for himself but his entire community; it is a baptism in water, a purification rite with respect to all that has happened to him in his Chicagoland visit. We see him leap up and sustain himself in the air, his arms extended as if in the Crucifixion, and then launched forward as he enters and disappears in the water. The captain and Marianne observe his dive and for the briefest time, the padre’s code that he never specifies in words, reaches out to his two witnesses, who seem to perceive, however momentarily, all of eternity. The moment ends, nevertheless, and the father emerges on the surface. The city and the Church have defeated him but in this very special climactic epiphany, it is as if he has just won a victory against death itself.

It is probably true that this story is defective in plot. It would seem that Father Palomo is ignorant about the illusions city powers that be are about the opening of the St. Lawrence, and the hopes that entrepreneurs like Harry have in its development. Wouldn’t the story have been stronger if Palomo had come to Chicago knowing about this and also about diving spectacles taking place on the ship in question? Would that not have given the story more edge, with all the padre’s hopes dashed by the attitude of a Conservative and racist church? However even assuming this problem of fictional construction, the depiction of the Father Palomo’s dive and its effect on those who witness it, the echo it sends out to the old story of the juggling clown, represents an epiphany of devotion and commitment that carries with it a special aura difficult to dispel even in the face of the systems involved in industrialization, capitalist expansion and the exploitation of Mexican labor. Furthermore, the story succeeds as an example of the great difficulties immigrants experience even when they deal with a church that supposedly supports underdogs, but in the last analysis does little for them. That so many Mexicanos left the church is perhaps not as surprising as the fact that so many stayed. That fact would have a determinant if contradictory effect on the economic and political future of Chicago Mexicans and their struggle for empowerment. For these reasons, this story, in so many ways different from the others in Martínez-Serros’ book, turns out to be one that enriches our understanding of the world he seeks to portray on every page of The Last Laugh and Other Stories.


Works Cited 

Barrett, James R., and David R. Roediger. “The Irish and the ‘Americanization’ of the ‘New Immigrants’ in the Streets and the Churches of the Urban United States, 1900-1930.” Journal of American Ethnic History 24, no. 3 (2005): 3-33.

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


[1] See “Ask Geoffrey What Happens.”,

[2] That this was Tort’s precise view is confirmed by McCarthy 2002: 202 and Escalante 1978.

[3] On this matter, see Barrett and Roediger 2005.



Raúl Gutiérrez and Paloma Rodríguez Esteban are recent graduates of UIC’s Hispanic Studies Graduate Program. Gutiérrez is currently continuing his studies in New England; Rodríguez lives and works in Madrid.

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes. Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature in El BeiSMan, and has recently published his second book of fiction, Martín and Marvin.


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