Latino Romans, Immigrants Have New Hope in Pope

Twenty years ago, seamstress Bertha Llacsa left her job as a hairdresser in Lima, Peru in the hopes of starting her own business in Rome, Italy.

Llacsa, a staunch Roman Catholic, thought the visa application process for the United States was too complicated and figured Rome, the heart of the Catholic Church, would be a fine place to raise her family. So she sold everything and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

"I always thought (Italians) would be more Catholic than us South Americans, but in reality it's not that way," Llacsa said, while sewing the seams of a pair of jeans in the repair shop where she works, Calzolaio, in Monte Mario, 15 minutes north of Rome.

Llacsa, 50, raised her son in Italy but, she explained, "he doesn't even know how to pray the Our Father." Italian schools just didn't match the kind of religious voracity she had grown accustomed to in Peru, where praying before class was a norm and the life of Jesus was exam material.

I haven't lost my faith, I've lost the trust in the church... I believe in God, I don't believe in the men of God.

— Sheilla Diaz

The Italian dream for Llacsa never mapped out quite the way she had planned. When she first arrived she spent months sleeping in cars because Italians wouldn't rent homes to immigrants, she boarded public buses to shouts of "hide your wallets, everyone," and had to rule out cosmetology school because it was both too expensive and unfriendly to outsiders. Rome seemed far from being a Christian haven.

But as the bells of the St. Peter Basilica rang on Wednesday night, Llacsa ran home to her apartment in Monte Mario and watched, elated, how a Latin American became pope for the first time.

"He looked like a saint," she said, her eyes watering. "I'm so happy, he is so humble."

The election of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio offers new hope that he will help bring the kind of fervor Llacsa says Europe's Catholicism is lacking, even at the center of the church in Rome. This is her pope, she said, as someone that understands the plight of the immigrants and the poor.

As the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years begins his papacy, there is hope that Pope Francis will use his pastoral skills, humility and reputation with the common people to bring the kind of Latin American faith to an increasingly secularized Europe.

"It's not just about saying you're religious, but go to church, know the word and understand the religion the way it should be," Llacsa said.

Her boss, Luciano Ochoa Huamani, 38, and father of two daughters, is the owner of Calzolaio and the shop's shoe repairer.

Ochoa, who is also Peruvian, started out in Italy cleaning homes with his wife; then he became a gardener, and three years ago he opened Calzolaio. With a hefty 33 percent tax rate on profits and the financial crisis looming over Europe, keeping the business afloat has been more of a calvary. Three years ago, a new heel went for 17 euros – he explains – and today it's down to 10 to 13 euros, depending on the bargaining.

"I'm just trying to maintain the business," he said.

Given the tough economic times, Ochoa said the news of Pope Francis' election made him happy and hopeful that the church will be run by someone who understands his struggles.

But he said local Romans don't seem to share this sentiment, saying he's witnessed more than one person mocking the selection with talks of, "What's next? A black pope?"

It's a tough life for immigrants in Rome, Ochoa said. There is still racism, the government doesn't help enough, and it's very difficult to start a business.

"I think (Pope Francis) will help the people that need it the most," Ochoa said, while fixing a woman's black leather boot heel. "He's a common person, he's not like some of the European political popes."

"He comes from where people actually suffer, he has seen the struggle with his own eyes," he added.

Pessimism in Peruvian Restaurant

Ten minutes away from Ochoa's shop, snuggled between colorful five-story apartment buildings, a Peruvian restaurant, Inka's Grill, offers a place for Latinos to talk and replace the routine pasta dinner with a tasty chicharrón de pescado and some salsa music.

Outside the restaurant, Damian, 30, an Argentinean atheist who refused to give his last name, unloaded a delivery of bananas off a Latin American cuisine van decked in Goya stickers. He has lived in Italy since he is 9.

"I don't care," he said about Pope Francis. "They talk and talk, and at the end of the day he is surrounded by gold, start wars and are pedophiles... Why do you think Pope Benedict retired? To cover up pedophilia."

The owner of Inka's Grill, Sheilla Diaz, 35, said this time around she didn't care as much about the new pope.

"I have lost interest in the church lately," said Diaz, mother of a 1-year-old son. She was raised in a Catholic family back in Peru, she said, but three of her brothers have recently abandoned Catholicism.

"People here in Italy know about the problems of pedophilia... yet they continue to put these men in powerful positions as representatives of God for young people," she said.

"I haven't lost my faith. I've lost the trust in the church... I believe in God, I don't believe in the men of God," Diaz explained.

And yet she said she is hopeful that the new pope, being South American like her, will represent the poor. She said she likes his attitude and his humble nature.

"There is a lot of hope that there will be change," Diaz. "But right now it's too early to tell."