SAN ANTONIO, Texas When Norma Garcia's 13-year-old daughter was killed in a car wreck, she had no idea that in the midst of her grief she was about to plunge into a controversy that would test her cultural identity and Christian faith.
After Jasmine Garcia was declared brain dead following the 2001 accident, doctors at San Antonio's University Hospital asked her mother if she would be willing to donate her daughter's organs.
"The majority of my family had a belief that, 'How could you do that? How could you allow her to be mutilated? How could you let them take her heart out?'" recalled Garcia, a San Antonio real estate agent. "My parents are from Mexico, and they had the feeling that, 'She is your daughter. Why would you allow them to do this to her?"
Garcia ultimately made an organ donation of Jasmine's heart and liver, a decision that left her estranged from several relatives for some time, she recalled.
Her experience highlights a cultural divide that organ donation advocates say is threatening the ability of surgeons to save lives through organ transplants, especially as new census figures show the nation's Hispanic population surging.
Hispanics -- especially first- and second-generation Mexican-Americans -- are less likely to donate organs than Americans as a whole, according to organ donation experts.
"We find that the Hispanic community tells us, 'My religion says not to donate,' and 'I can't have an open casket because the body will be damaged,'" said Esmeralda Perez of the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance. "They feel that their loved one will be disfigured, or the person will not be able to get into heaven because their body will not be whole."
In South Texas along the Rio Grande from Brownsville to Laredo, where Latinos make up the vast majority of 1.4 million residents -- many of them first-generation Mexican-Americans -- organs from just 19 individuals were donated in 2010, according to the alliance. The overall U.S. average is about 26 organ donors per million, Perez said.
Thirty-one percent of organ donors across Texas in 2010 were Hispanic, while new census figures show that 42 percent of the state's population is Latino.
Latinos' reticence about organ donation centers on religion, said Nuvia Enriquez, Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Donor Network of Arizona.
"A lot of work that we do is to go out and try to dissolve some of these myths," she said. "We talk to them about the Catholic Church's position on donation, which is very positive. Pope John Paul II was actually the first pope to declare donation to be an act of love, and Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal, was a card-carrying organ donor."
The Rev. John Leies, a prominent Catholic theologian and former president of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, said the church is working to convince the faithful that organ donation does not render the body unfit for the afterlife.
"The church is well aware that there are so may people waiting for organs, and there are not enough to be supplied and people die without receiving their organs," he said. "It is difficult to fight against these cultural ideas, and maybe the church hasn't made a good enough effort."
Perez said that 45 percent of patients on the national waiting list to receive organs are Hispanic.
Garcia said her relatives, who once so strongly criticized her decision to donate Jasmine's organs, have since become big supporters of organ donation.
"After we all got more educated, and the family started attending these events where donors' families meet organ recipients, and seeing how much of a difference this has made in the lives of others and the good they could do for all these people, and how this was keeping Jasmine's memory alive, I think they realized it was the right decision," she said.
(Edited by Corrie MacLaggan and Steve Gorman)