The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on display in Mexico City’s Basilica de Guadalupe

Mexico is a nation with a very strong Catholic identity, yet for over 70 years during the 20th century the Catholic Church was actually outlawed: not allowed to own property, run schools, convents or monasteries, have more than a certain number of priests (and no foreign priests), nor defend itself publicly or in the courts. It was hardly allowed to exist. According to historian Jim Tuck, “This was not separation of church and state: it was complete subordination of church to state”.

Following 1940, enforcement of these restrictions gradually lessened, but it was not until 1992 that the Church was restored as a legal entity in Mexico. During the period of the strictest enforcement of these draconian laws beginning with the rule of President Calles in the late 1920s, Mexicans were often imprisoned for wearing religious items, saying “Adios” in public (which literally means “with God”), or even questioning the laws. Public worship was a crime punishable by hanging or firing squad. (In fact, this week – May 21 – was the feast day of 25 Mexican saints and martyrs who remained true to their faith during these turbulent years and were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Another 13 martyrs were canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, including young José Luis Sánchez del Río. Perhaps the most well-known modern Mexican martyr, however, is Blessed Fr. Miguel Pro, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.)

The relics of the seven Mexican Knights of Columbus member priests martyred during the Cristero War were on display at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Houston in April. You can see them at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral on June 2-3, 2012. (Click the photo for more info) Portrait of the priests by artist Martha Orozco. Photo by the Knights of Columbus.

For a nation that was 95% Catholic, this was a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Yet modern Mexico – and the world – has largely forgotten the suffering that took place in the years 1926-1929. Known as the Cristero War or Cristero Rebellion (La Cristiada in Spanish), this period was, according to historian Donald Mabry, “a virulent anticlericalism [attack on the Church] that has seldom been surpassed in any other country”. With such a severe restriction of their liberties, the Mexican people were forced to react. After a decree that required the registration of priests and the confiscation of church property, the Catholic bishops of Mexico made the decision to close the churches and go underground. It was during this time that armed rebellion first broke out against the government. “Mexico rose in arms to shouts of ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’” writes historian Jürgen Buchenau. “Thus began the Cristero Rebellion, which eventually grew to 50,000 soldiers, or a force almost as large as the federal army.”

Mexicans taking up arms to defend their rights during the Cristero Rebellion. Notice the flag with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s beloved patroness.

The story of the Cristero soldiers and their fight for liberty is told dramatically in a new movie to be released in theaters in the U.S. on June 1st. For Greater Glory tells the largely forgotten tale of this painful time in recent Mexican history. The movie is the first major motion picture for director Pablo José Barroso, a businessman turned director of faith-based films. According to Barroso, “This is not only another Hollywood movie; it’s a movie of standing up for what you believe; it’s a… spiritual journey.” The film seeks to recreate interest in this terrible period in Mexican history, which is surprisingly little known even in Mexico (where the film debuted in April as Cristiada). Barroso hopes that through this movie he will be able to accurately depict the violence that Mexican Catholics suffered (the movie is rated R for war violence and disturbing images).

This new movie tells the story of Mexico’s Cristero period through the eyes of its main character, an unlikely hero who takes up the fight for religious freedom.

The impact of the Cristero War was felt not only throughout Mexico, but also in the United States, as waves of Mexican immigrants sought to escape the violence of their homeland. The exodus from Mexico’s west-central region was particularly great. Historian Julia Young writes in the Catholic Historical Review, “Of all the causes for the marked rise in emigration out of Mexico’s west-central states during the 1920s, it was the devastation wrought by the Cristero War that reinforced and solidified these trends during the latter part of the decade.” In the year 1928, for example, the Mexican government targeted this region with a campaign aimed to evacuate residents, then pillage and bomb their towns. Eyewitness Luis Gonzalez y Gonzalez describes the aftermath of such an attack against the town of San Jose de Gracia in Michoacan: “a place of roofless walls and rubble, ashes, and charcoal, with green grass sprouting in the street and on garden walls, and soot everywhere. The only sound was the howling of starving cats.”  After this type of devastation, many smaller villages never recovered and remain ghost towns today.

Bishop Emanuel Palomar Azpeitin of Tepic, Mexico returning to his homeland in 1929 with 27 of his fellow priests. They, along with many other priests, had been deported in 1926 by the Mexican government and lived for three years in Los Angeles, California.

With access to Mexico’s new railway infrastructure, Mexican citizens left their war-torn country in droves. They not only settled in the previously traditional migrant areas of southern California, Texas and the rest of the southwest, but also began to make their way to other parts of the U.S. that had previously had few Mexican immigrants: the midwest, for example.

Map of Mexican Ethnic Distribution in the United States created by the Pacific Coast Immigration Museum. (Click on photo for their webpage)

If you have Catholic ancestors who lived in or emigrated from Mexico during the Cristero period and would like to learn more, it is difficult to find much information on the internet. However, these links may help to give you a basic understanding of this largely unknown period in Mexican history, help you learn more about its impact on your family, and get you started tracing your Mexican family tree.

About the Cristero War – Online Reading

About the Cristero War – Books

About the movie, “For Greater Glory”

In search of your Mexican family history

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A very special thank-you to two high school students whose research into 1920s Mexico was a big help to me in preparing this article. Their historical exhibit received honors within this year’s National History Day competition.

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