Global Religious Festivals in Secular Cityscapes

For the last two years, our collaborative humanities research project has considered the place of public religion, public religious performance, in the spiritual, geographic, and transnational landscapes (built environments) of California.Our interdisciplinary team of researchers—more than thirty all together, including international and national faculty, graduate students, artists, and a small group of select undergraduates—has assembled in dynamic and shifting constellations to engage with and reflect upon these performances “on the ground”. We have attended dozens of festivals. Our teams have thrown colors at Holi with those who have inherited Hindu traditions and those who have adopted them in the United States; processed in the streets of downtown Los Angeles with Peruvian immigrants as they sway to and fro under the heavy weight of their penitential andas—sweating the sins of the Peruvian war onto the streets of LA; and wept at the altars for the dead on Dia de los Muertos. We have joined aging internees on their annual pilgrimage to Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, where we braced against the harsh winds and dust, as we interviewed internees, National service park rangers, and Native American activists about the way that memory and suffering and the pursuit of belonging and citizenship play out against sacred and stark landscapes.

Holi, Dia de Muertos, Manzanar, and Señor de los Milagros are the four festivals of primary focus, while several others were conducted with small teams of paired researchers. These “festivals” are in many cases novel ritualizations. And many of them, represent the irruption, interruption, and disruption of sorrow and longing into the public sphere. They make mourning—social, collective, and profoundly personal—public, even as they seek to define new ways of relating in the social and political spheres. That is, we believe that these public rituals have something to say about the pursuit of belonging in the United States. Two documentary films have emerged from this project, a 38 minute documentary, Night of Altars: Discovering the Day of the Dead in Mexican California, and a 20 minute reflection Manzanar, Diverted. Additionally, our website with essays and blogs from many of our researchers is at Finally, we reflect on the major religious festivals we have studied as part of this project in an article in BOOM: A Journal of California, “Religion in the Streets: The Politics of Public Religion in California,” (December 2015). Our researchers have also contributed book chapters to an edited volume on Religion in California forthcoming with UC Press. Other scholarly publications resulting from the grant are in progress.

For further details on the Studio, please see their website: Global Religious Festivals

Studio Participants

Primary Investigators

Jennifer Scheper Hughes is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. She is PI of the festivals project funded by a grant from the Luce Foundation: Religions in Diaspora and Global Affairs (UCHRI) and is founding co-director of UC Riverside’s Institute for the Study of Immigration and Religion. As research director for the Day of the Dead humanities lab, Hughes is producing a film (with Jim Ault) on Noche de Altares in Santa Ana. Her research focuses on religious materiality, public religion (“religion in the streets”), and lived religious experience. Her first book, Biography of a Mexican Crucifix: Lived Religion and Local Faith from the Conquest to the Present (Oxford 2010), is a history of popular devotion to images of the suffering Christ in Mexico. She has published widely on Mexican religion, material religion, and religion and culture. For five years she served as the co chair of the Religion in Latin America and Caribbean Group of the American Academic of Religion. She current serves as co-chair of the Latino/a Critical and Comparative Studies Group and as a member on the steering committee for the North American Religions Section of the American Academy of Religion.

Amanda J. Lucia, Associate Professor, UCR, is a Co-Director of ISIR and the RIDAGA Global Festivals Humanities Studio. Her research engages American religions and Hinduism by focusing on religious encounters between North Americans and South Asians since the early-19th century. Her first book, Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (University of California Press, 2014) investigates a contemporary guru movement through the ethnographic accounts of devotees. Lucia’s current book project, American Yogis: Play, Representation, and Authenticity is a study of American metaphysical spirituality through yoga festivals in the United States. After earning a BA in Religion and India Studies at Indiana University, she completed her MA and PhD in the History of Religions at the The University of Chicago. Her current interests include guru authority and sexuality, the logics of bricolage spirituality, and the politics of cultural representation.

James Lee, Ph.D., UC Irvine, is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies and English, and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at UCI. He is the author of Urban Triage: Race and the Fictions of Multiculturalism (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), and most recently guest editor of a special issue of Amerasia Journal on the state of illness and disability in Asian America. He is also an ordained Episcopal priest. Dr. Lee provides critical analysis of the intersections of race and religion to the project, with particular attention to the Asian American experience. He brings his expertise in Asian American culture and immigration to our interpretation to these festivals and is in charge of communication with journalist and community activist consultants on the ground, particularly during the Manzanar portion of the project.

Graduate Student PIs

Daisy Vargas holds a Master’s degree from the University of Denver in Religious Studies and is completing her doctoral studies at UC Riverside. Her expertise is in transnational immigrant communities, and the negotiation of national and cultural identity through religious practice. Ms. Vargas has researched the use of indigenous culture in Chicana spiritual practices. Her current research examines United States histories of immigration, race, and gender through the lens of religious performance in Latin@ communities. Her work considers the ways in which Latin@ religious practices shape concepts of assimilation and citizenship, as well as how they are informed by American spiritualism. Her dissertation traces the history of Latino religions, political surveillance, legality and the law in the 20th century. Ms. Vargas serves as ethnographic field researcher for the ISIR festivals project, and is co-director (with Hughes) of the Day of the Dead humanities lab.

Matthew P. Casey is a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at the University of California, Davis. He is currently living in Lima, Peru conducting archival research for his dissertation titled, “Souls of the Nation: Christianity and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Peru” (2017). Matthew has taught several courses at UC Davis including Introduction to Religious Studies and History of Inter-American Relations. His MA.A. degree in Religious Studies at the the University of California, Riverside (2011). Casey brings a historical and transnational perspective to religious innovation and pluralism in California. For the RIDAGA Festivals project he directed the humanities lab on the Peruvian celebration of the Señor de los Milagros.


James Ault is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author whose work often deals with religion. His first film, Born Again, about life in a fundamentalist Baptist church, won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival and was broadcast as a national prime-time special on PBS and around the world. His book on that project, Spirit and Flesh (Knopf 2005) was named one of the five best nonfiction books of the year. He has produced, directed and sometimes shot, documentaries for, among others, the Lilly Endowment, the Association of Theological Schools, and the Episcopal Church Foundation. With funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation he has just completed a two-part series on Christianity’s explosive growth in Africa. Educated at Harvard and Brandeis (Ph.D. in Sociology), he has taught sociology, ethnographic film, and documentary filmmaking at Smith College, UC San Diego and Calvin College. Ault is director (with Jennifer Hughes) of the documentary film, Night of Altares/Noche de Altares.

Independent filmmaker Ann Kaneko is known for her personal films that weave her intimate aesthetic with the complex intricacies of political reality. Often involving subjects in other parts of the world, Kaneko poetically probes the intersection where power impacts the personal. Her films have screened internationally at numerous festivals, and she has been commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Getty Center. Her films include A Flicker in Eternity; Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide to Perú; Overstay and 100% Human Hair. Kaneko has been a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Artist fellow and graduated with an MFA in film directing from UCLA. Currently, she teaches Media Studies part-time at Pitzer College.

International Scholars

Romi Mukherjee received his PhD from the University of Chicago where his thesis, in the history of religions, examined the politics of the sacred in inter-war France. He is currently Maître de conférences at Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences-Po) and co-editor of the English edition of La Revue de Synthèse. He is also visiting lecturer in the history of political philosophy at New York University in Paris. Between 2006 and 2009, he was a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Comparative Research in the Social Sciences (CIR-Paris) where he worked on a series of European Commission research projects (Framework 7) concerning inter alia the French Republic and pluralism, secularism and the return of religion, and collective memory. Since 2009, he has been affiliated with UNESCO in various capacities, most recently as associate researcher in the Social and Human Sciences Sector where he works on issues pertaining to the ethics and anthropology of technology and the question of humanism in the age of the anthropocene. He has published numerous articles, mostly in political theory and the history of religions, and is the editor of Durkheim and Violence (Blackwell, 2010) The Political Anthroplogy of the Global (Blackwell, 2011) and Social Memory and Hypermodernity (Blackwell, 2012, with Éric Brian et Marie Jaisson). His current research project is entitled “The Trials of Marianne: The French Republic and the Sacred.”

Valentina Napolitano is professor of Anthropology at University of Toronto. She is the author of Migrant Hearts and the Atlantic Return (Fordham University Press, 2015) and Migration, Mujercitas and Medicine Man: living in Urban Mexico (University of California Press, 2002). In the latter she explores alternative modernities, urbanities in transformation, prisms of belonging and gendered subject formation in Guadalajara, with particular reference to contested Catholic evangelization, medical pluralism, gendered politics of dwelling and the celebration of the quinceñeras. More recently her research has focused on Catholicism, affect, transnational returns of histories and the Atlantic Return in  Roman Catholic Church politics/pedagogies toward Latin American migration in Rome with an ethnographic focus, among others, on the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart and the Legionaries of Christ. Professor Napolitano participates as researcher for the RIDAGA/Festivals project’s Peruvian Señor de los Milagros festival in Los Angeles.

Research Specialists/Humanities Lab Participants

Megan Asaka is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, where she specializes in Asian American history, urban history, and public history. She is currently writing a book about transiency, race, and urban spatial formation through a case study of early 20th century Seattle. A fourth-generation Seattleite, Asaka earned a BA from Brown University and PhD in American Studies from Yale University. She has also worked extensively in public history organizations, including five years as an oral historian for Densho, a Seattle-based digital archive offering interviews, photographs, and other primary source materials related to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Dr. Deepak Sarma, professor of South Asian religions and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader (2011), Hinduism: A Reader (2008),Epistemologies and the Limitations of Philosophical Inquiry: Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta (2005) and An Introduction to Madhva Vedanta (2003).He was a guest curator of Indian Kalighat Paintings, an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He is a curatorial consultant for the Department of Asian Art of the Cleveland Museum of Art.After earning a BA in religion from Reed College, Sarma attended the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he received a PhD in the philosophy of religions. His current reflections concern cultural theory, racism, and post-colonialism; see

Jonathan Ritter is an ethnomusicologist whose research focuses on the indigenous and Afro-Hispanic musical cultures of Andean South America. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from UCLA, and his B.A. in American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota. At UCR, he teaches numerous courses on Native American, Latin American, and other musical traditions, and is the director of Mayupatapi, the UCR Andean Music Ensemble. Prof. Ritter’s work, as both a scholar and a teacher, addresses broad questions of how musical expressions are implicated in the work of cultural memory and political activism, particularly during times of political violence. His book, We Bear Witness With Our Song: The Politics of Music and Violence in the Peruvian Andes (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) explores these themes as they emerged within the traditional and folkloric music of Ayacucho, Peru, in the context of the Shining Path guerrilla insurrection and ensuing conflict that took place in that country. Together with J. Martin Daughtry, he is also co-editor of Music in the Post-9/11 World (Routledge, 2007), a collection of essays by ethnomusicologists and other music scholars exploring both domestic and international musical responses to the attacks of September 11th, 2001, as well as the myriad ways that ensuing political and military actions have changed the very circumstances in which musicians create and perform today all over the world. Ritter’s scholarship on Andean, Afro-Ecuadorian, and Native American musics has appeared in numerous academic journals, edited collections, and encyclopedias.

Jane Naomi Iwamura is Associate Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of the West. Dr. Iwamura’s research focuses on Asian American religions, race and popular culture in the United States (with an emphasis on visual culture). Her publications include Virtual Orientalism: Religion and Popular Culture in the U.S. (Oxford 2011) and the co-edited volume, Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America (Routledge 2003). She has also written on Japanese American lived religions, as well as the intersection of religion and Asian American literary production.

Connie Gagliardi is a PhD student in the department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, under the supervision of Professor Valentina Napolitano and Dr. Donna Young. She received her B.A. from McGill University in 2011 and her M.A from the University of Toronto in 2014. Her areas of interests include religious materiality and visual devotions, sainthood and Marianism, and Christianity in the Middle East. Her current research examines the production of neo-Byzantine iconography in contemporary Palestine and its political, religious implications for local Christian populations. More specifically, her research seeks to understand the pedagogy of “iconography” as it is taught to Palestinian youth, which envelops a biblically-charged narrative and implicates the production of icons within a framework of rewriting their own (Palestinian Christian) history.

Spencer Dew is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Centenary College of Louisiana.  A literary critic and scholar of American and new religious movements, his research explores the role of religion in imagining and contesting categories of identity and community such as citizenship, law, ethnicity, and race.

Journalist Consultant

Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Orange County, California, author of Orange County: A Personal History andTaco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and lecturer with the Chicana and Chicano Studies department at California State University, Fullerton. He writes “¡Ask a Mexican!,” a nationally syndicated column in which he answers any and all questions about America’s spiciest and largest minority. The column has a weekly circulation of over 2 million in 39 newspapers across the United States, won the 2006 and 2008 Association of Alternative Weeklies award for Best Column, and was published in book form by Scribner Press in May 2007.