A month ago marked the 83rd anniversary of his death, and next month, it will have been a decade since his elevation to sainthood by Pope John Paul II, because on April 12, 1927, Father Velasco—a Catholic priest—after putting his affairs in order (he repaid the 50 pesos owed to a fellow cleric; he bequeathed his typewriter and vestments to a friend)—and after blessing his captors in the sign of cross and the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he was taken outside, forced to his knees by Federal soldiers, and shot in the back of the head.
In May 2000, he was canonized as San David, a martyr, and one of 250,000 Mexicans killed in the conflict known today as la Cristiada, or the Mexican Cristero War—a rebellion unique in modern history as a popular uprising that took the international community completely by surprise.
Lasting from summer 1926 to spring 1929, the Cristero rebellion represented a popular reaction to the contemporary Mexican administration’s increasing restrictions on religious speech and practice in the country—a country with a Catholic population upwards of 90%.
The very name of the war bears witness to the deep-set piety of the rebel soldiers, christened Cristeros by opponents ridiculing their battle cry: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long Live Christ the King!”
However, in the months leading up to the initial outbreak of violence the depth of Catholic devotional sentiment in the Mexican population was completely underestimated by the American press, which saw the seething controversy to the south as a strictly institutional conflict—not the rebellion of individual cristeros, but a “Church War.”
The flashpoint for mobilization was July 31, 1926—when the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy of Mexico ordered, as protest against clerical persecution, the indefinite suspension of worship services throughout the country—and the federal government obliged by attempting to take possession of church buildings.
Lay Catholics resisted.
Crowds of hundreds, most of them women, spontaneously mobilized to defend the churches—even as police brigades brought fire hoses and mounted federal soldiers to disperse the congregations. One Mexico City newspaper summed the day up in a single headline—“Los Fieles [the faithful] Will Not Abandon Their Churches.”
Even so, the fight was initially expected to be a rout.
For perspective—At the time, the Mexican government under President Plutarco Elías Calles had a federal army of nearly 80,000 professional soldiers. The rebel movement, on the other hand, was unorganized until 1927—and comprised mostly untrained, and practically unarmed, rural Catholic peasants of the Bajío region, Central and Southern Mexico, which remains even today the bastion of Catholic conservatism in the country. To the contrary—by the end of the war the Cristeros numbered 50,000. And an auxiliary brigade of women, engaged in smuggling weapons and provisions into combat zones for the soldiers, totaled 25,000.
Popular sentiment was enraged—and the uprising reflected the crystallization and shattering of widespread anxiety that had been growing throughout 1926.
A memoirist from San Julián, a small town in Jalisco, one of the centers of the rebellion, recalled the pervading climate of fear and apprehension that entered her community with the New Year:
“The enemies of the Holy Church began to spread their poison everywhere… black stormclouds began to rise in the blue sky—Everyone was afraid.”
But this anxiety of the faithful was ignored. Commentators abroad, particularly in the United States, viewed and reported the conflict through the lens of domestic problems and paradigms: an ideological clash of Church and State.
On one side, the child of the 1910 Mexican Revolution: he Liberal, secular administration of President Calles—determined to suppress religious speech, end religious education, restrict the influence and very number of Catholic clerics in Mexico, and nationalize Church property—in the name of secularization.
On the other the child of the Spanish Conquest: the centuries-old Mexican Catholic Episcopacy under Archbishop José Mora y del Río, equally determined to preserve the Church’s economic privileges and institutional autonomy.
Church and State—no third party in existence. But this was the perspective of an American press embroiled in its own ideological collision:
Just the year before, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” over evolution in the education system had made headlines in the United States as a war of secularism or fundamentalism, science or faith, progress or regression, educated urbanites versus rural ignorance. These were the antitheses occupying American minds in 1926—and reporter H.L. Mencken summed up the public attitude in two words: the rural-based, deeply religious segment of the American population comprised: “yokels and morons.”
This domestic situation provided American commentators with a template for the dissatisfied Mexican laity: rural, ignorant, superstitious, racially inferior—and thus incapable of exercising any significant political influence.
Essentially, the United States media projected its own anxieties onto Mexico, and ignored those of the Mexican Catholic.
One incident in particular encapsulates the American perspective:
When Mora y del Rio and the Episcopacy announced that worship would be suspended at the end of July, the Mexican faithful flocked in thousands to churches to receive what many believed might be the final sacraments of their lives. The Archbishop himself was said to have baptized, confirmed, and married over 3,000 individuals in one day alone.
But while the Mexican press reported apocalyptic panic—in San Julián, the faithful prayed in the streets for God’s pity and mercy—TIME magazine treated the incident as entertainment:
“… barefoot, blanketed Indian runners; toothless Mexican gaffers, perhaps pagans all their lives, hobbled in frenzied haste to receive a precious sprinkling of holy water… in this baptismal race.”
Said correspondent was also thoughtful enough to add a footnote explaining to his readers that the people of Mexico were only nominally Catholic, their religion really a pantheon of primitive deities smeared with a veneer of saints and idols.
Even New York City’s premier Catholic periodical, the Commonweal, espoused strikingly similar racial and religious bigotry:
“the plain truth about Mexico… is that a native Indian population is not the same thing as a Caucasian civilization fostered by centuries of Christian discipline.”
The national academic journal Current History exhibited a comparable bias in its July 1926 issue—intended to be a symposium on opinion about the religious situation in Mexico.
The contributing parties—supporters the Mexican Government, American Catholics, and American Protestants (although, notably no representative of Mexican Catholicism went to print)—all, essentially, agreed on one central issue: the degeneracy of the masses in Mexico. The only question that remained was which institution—Church or State—was responsible for developing a program for the “uplift” of the Indian and Indo-Latino population:
“Physical welfare is a fact; spiritual consolations are the resources of a theory.”
—a comment that typifies the 1920s, and even modern, elitist ‘progressive’ trivialization of Mexican Catholic piety.
The Mexican press, on the other hand, did not see the growing religious crisis as an issue of progress; rather, it was about freedom of conscience. This is probably my favorite quote to come from a reel of microfilm. From the Mexico City paper Excélsior:
“We imitate the United States in its defects, in its sports, in its diversions, in its food, in its clothing, in its affectionate ‘spooning’… but in its indisputable virtues, we don’t care much to imitate them.”
Still, the American press remained convinced that religion was not a primary driving force in human behavior—first came social and economic factors. And thus, the religious crisis in Mexico could not be any sort of popular war, let alone a “holy war,” but rather had to represent a power struggle between institutions. Thus when the Mexican Episcopacy called for an indefinite suspension of religious services beginning July 31st—a virtual interdict—American papers such as the Catholic Commonweal assumed the inert, helpless Mexican laity would bear their cross and pray.
But popular anxiety had been steadily growing since Mexico rang in the New Year 1926 and the faithful of San Julián saw “dark clouds” on the horizon. As early as February, a columnist for the Mexico City paper El Universal predicted what the American press could not imagine: violence.
In an article titled “Spiritual peace is indispensable,” a columnist warned against the Calles administration attacking the “essence of the religion”—the sacraments.
Current History writers, such as the Methodist bishop James Cannon, undervalued this deeply-rooted devotion. According to Cannon, Catholic ritual was superstitious ceremony alone—and only served to retard social and economic progress for the Mexican peasant:
“The mass in the morning, the rosary in the evening, confession, communion, extreme unction, the benediction of the grace within a Church cemetery, and responsories for the departed, kept the people well under the control of the church even after they were dead…”
But that is a viewpoint unique to the primarily Protestant United States.
Protestantism, unlike its Catholic rival, developed from a theology of faith and scripture alone. The Catholic Church, contrarily, held tradition on par with these as a source of religious authority: the sacraments were thus not empty ritual to believers, but a conduit of God’s grace and the path to salvation—the essence of religion El Universal mentioned.
And when this was targeted on July 31, 1926—churches seized, worship suspended, and sacraments ended throughout the country—all the assurances of the American press that there would be no reaction meant nothing to the Mexican Catholics who felt their very identity at risk. From El Universal, six months before the July 31st uprising:
“The truth is that the people never commit suicide. They might change, transform, and even disappear; but they never change their essential nature—an integral part of native religion. It is the Mexican people, instinctively, who understand the danger. For them it is a question of to be or not to be… and it costs everything to want to be!”
Until an accord was reached in June of 1929 between the Mexican Episcopacy and the Calles administration, it did cost everything for faithful Mexican Catholics like Father Velasco.
And in the end, the Mexico City paper was right—the Mexican people knew early on what the international community, blinded by racial prejudice and a disastrous underestimation of the depth of religious devotion in Mexico, never saw coming: the tragedy and the violence of la Cristiada.
This very condensed version of a research paper on the Cristero rebellion was given as an oral presentation at the University’s Third Annual Undergraduate Research Competition in April 2010; it won first place in the social sciences division. My sources can be found in the bibliography of the original paper.