July 29th, 2012Fighting for Religious Freedom in Mexicoby Joseph Pearce
As the Obama regime continues its war of attrition against the Catholic Church, it seems that the Cistero War in Mexico, the subject of the recent film For Greater Glory as well as being the subject of a number of posts here on the Ink Desk, seems more relevant than ever. This being so, here are some details of an excellent new book about la Cristiada:
The Mexican People's War for Religious Liberty
by Jean Meyer, Ph.D.
Length: 384 Pages
Size: 9 x 12-inch
Format: Quality Paperback
Price: $49.95 US
In a world filled with constant religious intolerance and strife, it is easy to overlook a little known twentieth-century religious war that was fought on the shores of North America. Taking place in Mexico in the 1920s, La Cristiada--the Cristero War--was the result of repressive anti-religious laws directed at the Catholic Church. By the time the conflict was over, it had taken the lives of over 90,000 people. Historian Dr. Jean Meyer has put together this unique book that uses words and pictures to document the savageness of the four-year war. The book examines the war’s history, and reveals the crucial roles played by groups in the United States that wished to encourage the carnage, as well as those that attempted to stop the conflict.
After the Mexican Revolution of 1916, the newly drafted Mexican Constitution greatly restricted the function of the Church. It halted Church control of schools. It banned monastic orders. It eliminated religious processions and outdoor masses. It curtailed Church ownership of property. And it forbade priests to wear clerical garb, vote, or comment on public affairs in the press. Initially, these prohibitions were lightly enforced, but by 1926, the government had pushed these laws to the limit and created a rebellion. As the rebellion grew, so did the viciousness of the attacks. In the United States, while the KKK pressed the Mexican Government to crush the rebels, the Knights of Columbus sought to end the struggle by peaceful means. In 1929, the American ambassador to Mexico finally helped arrange a nonviolent end to the uprising. With over 300 photographs and illustrations, this book provides a unique perspective on a terrible period in Mexico’s
La Cristiada offers a vivid and insightful view of a war long forgotten, and the lasting effects it had on Mexican society. It also reminds us just how dangerous the consequences of government-sponsored intolerance can be.
Dr. Jean Meyer is a Mexican historian. Dr. Meyer obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. He has taught at the Sorbonne, the University of Perpignan, the University of Paris, the Colegio de México, and the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. He has performed extensive research on the Cristero War, and has written books on the subject for Cambridge and the Universidad de Guadalajara. The author also founded the Institute of Mexican Studies at Perpignan University.
1. The Church-State Conflict
2. The Unexpected War
3. The Life of the Cristeros
4. Soldiers of Christ the King
5. The Cristero Government
6. The War Changes
7. American Confreres
8. The Closing of the War
9. The Second (Cristiada)
From the persecutions against Christians in Ancient Rome to the numerous struggles in Mexico over the centuries, there have been many conflicts throughout history between Church and State. None, however, was like the bloody, dramatic conflict explored in these pages—a conflict about to age beyond the memories of its last living witnesses.
In 1926, the last and most violent chapter of Church-State conflict in Mexico began: the Cristiada. For three years, a vast segment of Mexico’s Catholic population rose up against the Mexican government, which was led by President Plutarco Elías Calles.
It was an epic conflict in Mexico’s history on par with the Iliad—an uneven war, a David-versus-Goliath struggle. It was the moving story of a people penalized for their faith and who, as a consequence, challenged an iron-fisted government and an army that was far superior to its own in every way but one: the willingness to sacrifice. The magnitude of the ensuing tragedy convinced both the State and the Church to put an end to the confrontation, which contradicted the goals pursued by both institutions: peace, development, justice, and the right of all men to live in liberty and in conformity with their conscience.
Just as when reading the Iliad, one can view the story from the side of the Greeks or the Trojans, so it is with the Cristiada. Mexican Catholics, facing what they saw as a great unjust restriction of their religious practice codified in the laws of a new regime, stood up and challenged a ruthless government. The government, on the other hand, seeing decades of dictatorships and revolutions, and fearing the Catholic Church’s influence in the lives of Mexico’s citizens, sought to bring religious institutions firmly under its control.
Surprisingly, the Cristiada war is not well-known. For many years following the war, there was almost a conspiracy of silence to steer clear of the Cristiada as a subject matter, despite the fact that it was a civil war which mobilized hundreds of thousands. From 1938 to 1980, the conflict and its consequences were practically taboo subjects in Mexican historical and political study, as well as literary circles. The Mexican critic Adolfo Castañon once noted, much of “the literature produced by Cristero war participants has been passed over and avoided by our measly literary history.” Even to this day, existing literature tends to mostly pass over this period in silence, or dismiss it using a few defamatory lines. As I began researching the Cristiada, I encountered this silence personally, even within the Catholic Church and the State. The reason that this epic struggle had been so quickly forgotten was explained to me in 1965 by the Archbishop of
Mexico City Miguel Dario Miranda (who later became a cardinal). Telling me why the archives would be closed to my research efforts, he said, “The tragedy is too recent, the ashes are still hot and we do not want the fire to burst again.”
For that reason, the Cristiada’s events lived almost exclusively in the accounts of those who lived through it. For some who participated, the war’s abrupt ending—at the peak of the insurgents’ formidable momentum—left a sense of shock, and for the rest of their lives they attempted to understand and restore the unique event that the Cristiada actually was. For years, the veterans of the Cristiada were very silent, waiting and hoping that someday historical justice might present their honorable yet ignored fight.
The silence thawed only gradually. My part in the process began in the mid-1960s, some forty years after the Cristiada began. At first, some time was needed to locate those who would bring their comrades forward and overcome their distrust. A memorable opportunity took place on Cubilete Hill at the annual meeting of Cristero fighters, fittingly held on the feast day of Christ the King (“Cristo Rey,” the inspiration for the name “Cristeros”). Key in arranging this interview was a man to whom the Cristeros—and, arguably, all who enjoy religious freedom in Mexico today—owe a debt of gratitude: Aurelio Acevedo. He stood out among the Cristero survivors as one of the first rebels to take up arms in 1926. Beginning with just a dozen comrades, he disbanded at the end of the war in 1929 with as many as 2,000 combatants on his side. Remaining underground as an active member of the resistance until 1940, Acevedo continued the battle by publishing David, a small periodical that contained documents and first-hand accounts and that served as a vital link among the old Cristeros.
With Acevedo vouching for me, I found a remarkable willingness among the veterans to speak about their experiences. They brought with them personal treasures of a time that has since been largely lost and forgotten: private archives, school notebooks filled with handwritten material that was as reliable as it was rustic, documents once folded and carried in pockets, photographs stored in old cracker boxes, and personal memories of an aging generation. It was the latter that was especially telling and which made a shorthand expert out of this historian, forcing me to take up the tape recorder as they told their stories. These were indispensible testimonies, especially considering the relative deficiency of existing written records, the unwillingness of State and Church officials to allow access to archives, and the insufficiency of foreign diplomatic files. What remained were the characters who played their roles on either side of the conflict, and the
witnesses of that period.
These interviews brought out the unique insights of historians of the people for whom recounting the truth of that period was a hallowed and sacred task. “We are here to tell the pure truth . . . for God is watching us anyway,” said former Cristero leader Ezequiel Mendoza Barragán. Memories went together with reflection, searching for meaning. Because it was these aged survivors and not I who lived through this time, I will try to give the reader a taste of this, too—their experience of the conflict they could only interpret as being the revelation of God through history—through their own words, drawn from their testimonies and written accounts.
Studying their written testimonies alone, this period and culture takes on an epic nature. This fact is illustrated in the literary critic Castañon’s reflections upon reading Ezequiel Mendoza Barragán’s Testimonio Cristero:
[A]s I read his book, I like to imagine [Mendoza] tracing lines on the paper with his rough rancher’s and natural captain’s hand, and I almost see him writing and enunciating the words that bring about a joyful smile or a grimace, as the thread of ink rips his memory. I see him setting his sight on the horizon with a gaze of Homeric wisdom, the eyes of an old military man who has the graciousness of recognizing the virtues and weaknesses of Tyrians and Trojans, of federals and Cristeros.
This war was the confrontation of a Maccabean people against their leaders—their State and its army. And in this dramatic history, the truth is humble but undeniable: the string of preventable errors and unchecked aggression that took place in the summer of 1926 ultimately resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 people, civilians and combatants alike.
The best way to acknowledge their contribution is to give a voice to those who were crushed by the tragedy, to those who had to remain silent to survive or who simply preferred to remain silent out of modesty and humility. So as the last living memories age and fade, I present to the readers a taste of this episode in Mexico’s history in the spirit of objectivity and reconciliation, publishing for the first time in English this pictorial presentation of some of the greatest moments of this dramatic and tragically human history.
Each section presents a vital element of the history: the conflict over freedom of religious practice; the military uprising; the Cristero culture and support systems that sustained the war; the Cristeros’ faith and those martyred for it; the Cristeros’ independent self-governance; the rise of Cristero leadership and turbulence in the Mexican presidency; the United States’ influential role in negotiations; and the final resolution. Sadly, a last chapter must be added to this history: the 1930s reprise of restrictions on religious practice and a new, but much smaller, uprising.
Each section of this book comes out of decades of research; but, this book, being more of an introduction than an exhaustive treatment of the conflict, is in no way exhaustive. In order to receive the treatment it deserves, this nearly unknown epic would require numerous volumes just to present the documents and testimonies that are not accessible to the public. For more detailed scholarly treatment of the rebellion, I refer the reader in particular to my previous books, including The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People between Church and State 1926–1929 (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
The Cristiada changed the face of Mexico, shaped the United States’ population through refugees and diplomacy, and brought a new focus to religious freedom in the Americas. Regardless of one’s preconceptions, the faces and voices of those involved in the event can be moving. They have the power to evoke deep emotions in anyone who explores these pages of blood and glory written by the people of Mexico.