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.)
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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
- Viva Cristo Rey! The Cristeros Versus the Mexican Revolution by Christopher Check provides a good overview of the Cristero Rebellion
- Video interviews with Cristero and Mexican soldiers about their experiences during the Cristero War
- Pope’s Mexico trip a chance to explore church-state conflict, a March 2012 USA Today article about the recent Papal visit to Mexico and its role in refocusing discussion on the Cristero War
- Iniquis Afflictisque, Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on the Persecution of the Church in Mexico, November 1926
- A five-part series of articles giving an overview of Mexican history by Chris Stewart beginning with Part I: The Long Conflict of Church and State
About the Cristero War – Books
- The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People Between Church and State 1926-1929 (Cambridge Latin American Studies) by Jean Meyer – This historian’s in depth research into the Cristero period spanned seven years as he traveled throughout Mexico unearthing previously unknown records at archives and Catholic churches.
- La Cristiada: The Mexican Government’s Persecution of the Church (An Illustrated History of the Mexican Cristero War from 1926-1929) also by Jean Meyer
- Mexican Martyrdom by Rev. Wildrid Parsons – Written in 1935, this book provides a vivid picture of the trials of Mexican Catholics during the 1920s.
- Blessed Miguel Pro: 20th Century Mexican Martyr by Ann Ball – The inspiring story of the famous Mexican priest, martyred in 1927.
About the movie, “For Greater Glory”
- For Greater Glory - official website for the movie
- Freedom is Our Lives - a Knights of Columbus article about the movie
- For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada, the Cristero War and Mexico’s Struggle for Religious Freedomby Ruben Quezada, published by Ignatius Press
In search of your Mexican family history
- Visit the Family Search website to search for your family in Mexico’s 1930 Census and gain access to additional resources on Mexican genealogy
- Read Finding Your Roots in México by John P. Schmal at the Somos Primos website
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.