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3rd place (tie): People of color essay contest — Justine Vega

Justine Vega

Against la cultura: Why I am not religious

By Justine Vega

My relationship with religion began at an early age, as Latin culture is deeply intertwined with Christianity and my upbringing reflected that. My mother enrolled me into a Christian school, where I spent my days reading the bible and attending church. However, I never became religious due to my father, an adamant nonbeliever, who took the time to educate me on the history of Latin America. He would tell me folktales, teaching me about the Spanish conquistadors who came and forcibly converted indigenous peoples, slaughtering those who refused. The most memorable story passed down to me was of the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa.

The story goes that a Spanish priest had shown Atahualpa a bible, proclaiming the book to be God. Confused, he smacked the book to the ground and, because of this, lost his life to the Spanish, the entire empire falling with him. This history of violence and genocide contributed to my uneasy relationship with religion, which seemed to be a political tool rather than a spiritual outlet. 

Understanding the role religion played, specifically Christianity, in the oppression of nonbelievers in Latin America and around the world created a deep skepticism inside of me. I could never fully immerse myself in religious practices, such as going to church or praying. This created tension in my life since I was raised in the Hispanic community. Latin culture is heavily influenced by Christian ideas, especially in regard to gender roles. Although the path toward gender equality continues, there still exists a clear distinction between the expectations for men and those for women. Since I never fully believed in the Christian ideals of womanhood, I often felt trapped in a world that did not fit me.

I did not adhere to traditional femininity — I was not quiet or interested in taking care of children or the home. I was a tomboy who liked to play sports and help my dad work in construction, loud and opinionated.

As I matured, this discomfort only grew and, as I furthered my education by reading different philosophies of religion, I realized it was OK for me not to aspire to Christian expectations of women. Separating myself from religion allowed me to sharpen my critical mind, made me curious to find answers to my questions outside of a religious framework. This curiosity for knowledge propelled my interest in studying, and I eventually graduated high school early because of it. 

Although I was fortunate enough to be exposed to different teachings, many of the kids I grew up with never received those opportunities. The best way to combat ignorance is through education, and as someone who went to public school, I experienced firsthand the lack of resources and funding, especially in working-class areas. Children of color often reside in these poorer neighborhoods, attending schools that lack funding for new books and better class offerings. If we want minority communities to be exposed to different viewpoints, funding public education and programs for at-risk communities is the first step.

As our nation faces a turning point, those in the secular community who wish to see change can help by championing both primary and secondary education for people of color. Access to a high-quality education that challenges its students to think critically will allow them the choice to consider a more secular perspective. An educated mind is a free one and by funding education we can pave the way to a progressive future.

Justine, 19, is a first-generation American attending New York University, majoring in political science. As a first-year student, Justine studied in Paris and wrote a research paper on French secularism and its relationship to minority communities in France.