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The Catholic Revival and the Cristero Rebellion Modern Mexico, Lecture, Week 4, spring Term “La Cristiada” Cristero Family Cristero Leader Church-State Conflict Given the strength of Catholicism in Mexico, why did President Calles take on the Church in 1926 and lead Mexico into civil war ?

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the catholic revival and the cristero rebellion

The Catholic Revival and the Cristero Rebellion

Modern Mexico,

Lecture, Week 4, spring Term

la cristiada
“La Cristiada”

Cristero Family

Cristero Leader

church state conflict
Church-State Conflict

Given the strength of Catholicism in Mexico, why did President Calles take on the Church in 1926 and lead Mexico into civil war ?

The Cristero War “La Cristiada”

-lasted for three years 1926-29

-claimed lives of some 90,000 people: 56,882 on the federal side, 30,000 Cristeros, plus numerous civilians and Cristeros who were killed in anticlerical raids after the war's end

-resulted in a stalemate and peace accord brokered by US Ambassador Dwight Morrow

Armed conflict broke out again in 1934 in response to Narciso Bassols’ programme of Socialist Education

By the 1930s Mexico was infamous in the Catholic world for state persecution of the clergy and Catholic religious belief

Graham Greene, The Lawless Road and The Power and the Glory)

catholic rebels
Catholic Rebels

Mexican Cristero, 1934

19th C Spanish Carlist

cristeros sinarquismo pan

Later 1930’s: Catholic movement morphed into the proto-fascist Sinarquista movement that influenced the Revolution’s move to the Right, and relaxation of the more stringent anti-clerical laws after 1938.

Yet, until the PAN’s defeat of PRI in 2000 , RC clergy and religion were invisible beyond church buildings and atria, a measure of Jacobin Mexico’s fear of the Church in a “Catholic Nation”

religion and revolution
Religion and Revolution

- Revolutions – especially in the 20th C – aspire to replace established religion with a secular “political religion”. Cultural “caudillos” sought to “De-sacralise” traditional spaces and “de-fanaticise” citizens, before “sacralising the secular” in revolutionary festivals, parades, etc..

- Liberal and Catholic Mexico had clashed in the mid 19th C .

- Jacobin – “Bolshevik” - Mexico would surely therefore clash with resurgent Catholic Mexico during the 20th ?


- the Revolution, anti-clericalism and Catholic identity

- Church-State conflict and precipitants of war

- Cristero insurgency

revolutionary anti clericalism
Revolutionary anti-clericalism

Sonoran Dynasty

- Church much less powerful in the North: Obregon and Calles saw their mission as bringing Centre and South into the modern, secular world, like the US

- Sense of social exclusion: Obregon, Calles and Adolfo de la Huerta: all from lower-middle class, sons of schoolteachers, bar and pool hall owners....

revolutionary anti clericalism12
Revolutionary anti-clericalism
  • - resented hold of R Catholicism over minds of most Mexicans, especially the "common people", over whom they craved more direct control.
  • “Catholic ritual...(is)...a seductive trick designed to exploit ignorant peasants hallucinated by floats, adorned with clouds, little angles, chalices and all the artifices the clergy uses to cheat them out of their last penny”. Guanajuato petition, December 1934,
  • in Adrian Bantjes, Adrian, “Idolatry and Iconoclasm,” Mexican Studies Vol.13, 1997.
revolutionary anti clericalism13
Revolutionary anti-clericalism

- Revolutionaries not necessarily atheistic or anti-religious. Many were Spiritualists or had converted to Protestantism, a cause which they aspired to promote as a counterpoise to the Catholics. And many were practicing Catholics.....

Letter from General Vargas, signed “Free man of the North”, to Cristero leader, Pedro Quintanar , Zacatecas, 1927,

“I should be very much in favour of the Catholic sect if it were national, that is to say, if you appointed your own pope, a Mexican, and got rid of that immoral institution, confession, and of the celibacy of the clergy. I’m from the frontier, and in my village the Catholic Church is hardly known.”

revolutionary anti clericalism14
Revolutionary anti-clericalism

- Some revolutionaries, however, such as Governors Rodolfo Calles in Sonora and TomásGarridoCanabal of Tabasco, were aggressively antireligious and iconoclastic:

- saint burning and the destruction of altars and confessionals, were necessary first acts in freeing the minds of the poor and ignorant from the clergy’s superstitious hold.

See Adrian Bantjes, “Burning Saints, Moulding Minds: Iconoclasm, Civic Ritual, and the Failed Cultural Revolution”, in William Beezley ed. Rituals of Rule Rituals of Resistance

revolutionary anti clericalism15
Revolutionary anti-clericalism
  • Tomás Garrido Canabal, Governor of Tabasco, referred in 1925 to the clergy:
  • “...the cassocked vultures have seized their prey, digging their talons into the heart of the Indian, who is less prepared than any other race to resist the seduction of the whole ritual farce.”
tom s garrido canabal agrarian cacique of tabasco17
Tomás Garrido Canabal, Agrarian cacique of Tabasco

Feria Municipal de Tenosique, Tabasco, 1935

competing nationalisms catholics
Competing Nationalisms: Catholics
  • Catholics claimed to be more Mexican than the Revolutionaries:
  • revered Virgin of Guadalupe, Iturbide and Hidalgo (who was anti-French Revolution)
  • pointed to invasion of US Protestant missionaries (and to Prots and Masons in Calles’s Cabinet)
  • government “agraristas” carried the Black and Red Anarchist flag, Cristeros carried National colors (Green, White and Red) & Virgin of Guadalupe
  • Church made more rapid headway in the symbolic representation of a national culture and in the occupation of public space: flags,monuments, union and lay associations, demonstrations (purposeful processions/pilgrimages)
reading on catholic lay associations and pilgrimages
Reading on Catholic lay associations and pilgrimages
  • For modern Catholic lay associations see chapters/article on reading list by Robert Curley and Kristina Boylan on the seminar reading list for week 5
  • For modern and “traditional” Catholic associational life in Oaxaca see
  • Edward Wright-Rios, Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 1887–1934 2009
anti clericalism and gender
Anti-clericalism and gender
  • The Revolution - and the future - were male creations: by Freemasons, military leaders, agraristas, workers.....
  • Heroic males were aided by women teachers and “ligas feminas....” (see Rivera mural of rural teacher)
  • Clergy “feminised”: priests lambasted as skirted, laden with lace, surrounded by women and children...
anti clericalism and gender23
Anti-clericalism and gender
  • Church capitalised on the popular perception of the Revolution as male, violent, corrupt and opposed to the teachings of Christ:
  • Wright-Rios writes:
  • “Churchmen and laywomen frequently gendered modern error as male” p.33
  • “Catholicism spoke to women at a time when secular elite at best talked about how to control them.” p.34
  • Massive growth of Catholic women’s lay associations suggest women’s empowerment or at least growing presence in the public sphere.
reading on anti clericalism
Reading on anti-clericalism
  • The articles in the 2009 issue of The Americas are all dedicated to anti-clericalism in Mexico:
  • For example: Robert Curley, “Anticlericalism and public space in revolutionary Jalisco”, The Americas 65, 4, 2009, 511-33.
timing of conflict
Timing of conflict
  • Heightened Church-State conflict coincided in late 20s and early 30s with decline in radical programmes of the Revolution.
  • Improved relations coincided with phases of radicalism: late 1910’s, early 1920s, mid to late 1930s.
  • Hence, was religion targeted as a substitute for social reform ? ... Church scape-goated as the Government’s chief political rival ?
timing of conflict26
Timing of conflict
  • 1919-1925 Sonorans were busy elsewhere: beating Constitutionalists, pacifying Zapatistas, Villistas and agraristas, developing close ties with labour, holding radicals at bay, gaining recognition from the US
  • 1925-26, mounting confrontation with the Church
church provocation or insecure government
Church provocation or insecure government ?

In 1920s: govt. felt politically weak in the face of :

  • Catholic revival had been going on since the 1870s following Leo XIII’s 1890 Rerum Novarum & Diaz’s conciliation policy.
  • Madero’s revolution provided improved conditions for Catholic action and politics: National Catholic Party (PNC), approved by Madero, does well in 1912 election. Church coping with “modern” politics more successfully than the state (see Robert Curley’s chapter/article on Jalisco)
  • Catholic revival continues during the later 1910s and 20s: Catholics support National Democratic Party (PND), 353 Catholic Unions representing 80,000 workers by 1925.
church provocation or insecure government28
Church provocation or insecure government ?

In 1920s: govt. also felt politically weak in the face of :

- strength of radical regional agrarian cacicazgos: Carrillo Puerto Yucatan), Saturnino Cedillo (San Luis Potosi), Adalberto Tejeda (Veracruz) , Francisco Mujica (Michoacan), Emilio Portes Gil (Tamaulipas), Jose Guadalupe Zuno (Jalisco)

  • - politics becoming more polarised: revolutionary “ligas campesinas” & “ligas femininas” faced their Catholic counterparts daily, in the streets and fields.
  • Calles sought order and central control
church provocation
Church provocation ?
  • Activities of Church activists, even if not directly related to politics, appeared threatening:
  • - 1922, “Cubilete” monument to “Christ the King!” in Guanajuato attracted thousands of pilgrims
  • -1924, flamboyant Eucharistic conference organised by the Conference of Mexican Bishops

- 1924, Church support for the De La Huerta military revolt against Calles.

state provocation schismatic church
State provocation ? Schismatic Church
  • February 1925, supported by Luis Morones and the CROM, ten Catholic priests established the Mexican Catholic Apostolic Church, a schismatic Church, receiving Calles’s approval.
  • A Morones construction, or something deeper ?
  • Matthew Butler, “Sotanas Rojinegras: Catholic Anticlericalism and Mexico’s revolutionary Schism”, The Americas 65,4, 2009, 535-58.
  • Mathew Butler, ,“God’s Campesinos ? Mexico’s Revolutionary Church in the Countryside,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 28, 2, 2009, 165-184.
showdown the calles law
Showdown: the Calles Law
  • June 1926 Calles decides to reform Article 130 of the Constitution of 1917.
  • Article 130:
  • - required "churches and religious groupings" to register with the state
  • - placed restrictions on priests and ministers of all religions: cannot hold public office, canvas on behalf of political parties or candidates, inherit property from persons other than close blood relatives.
  • In June 1926 Calles signed the "Law for Reforming the Penal Code“ providing specific penalties for priests and individuals who violated Article 130:
the calles law
The Calles Law
  • - wearing clerical garb in public was punishable by a fine of 500 pesos (250 U.S. dollars);
  • - a priest who criticized the government could be imprisoned for five years.
  • - some states enacted further measures: Chihuahua enacted a law permitting only a single priest to serve the entire Catholic congregation of the state.
  • - using 19th C laws, Calles appropriated church property, expelled all foreign priests, and closed monasteries, convents, and religious schools.
suspension of public worship july 31 1926
Suspension of public worship, July 31 1926
  • 31 July 1926 Church suspends public worship in “an attempt to put the sacraments and the clergy beyond the reach of the law” (Butler)
  • Government replies by commandeering many churches for secular use
  • Mathew Butler, “The Church in “Red Mexico”: Michoacán Catholics and the Mexican Revolution, 1920-1929”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 55(3), July 2004, 531.
catholic economic boycott
Catholic economic boycott
  • Catholics boycott government schools, stores, newspapers...
  • Particularly effective in west-central Mexico (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Aguscalientes and Zacatecas) where Catholics stopped attending movies and plays, using public transportation, while Catholic teachers stopped teaching in secular schools.
  • Boycott collapsed in October when Catholic elite, feeling the punch, withdrew support.
lndlr national league for the defence of religious liberty
LNDLR (National League for the Defence of Religious Liberty)
  • 1925 LNDLR established (in absence of a party) to coordinate Catholic Youth, Women and Social Catholic associations.
  • 1 million members by Sept 1926, 200,000 in Mexico City
  • Mobilised Catholics in the US & Europe
  • Attracted politicians, journalists, intellectuals
  • middle class made up rank and file, appealed especially to the young.
uni n popular up
Unión Popular (UP)
  • -Unión Popular (UP) – established in 1923 by Anacleto González Flores of Tepatitlán, Los Altos de Jalisco.
  • - led campaign of peaceful civil disobedience against the anti-clerical laws led by lay organization
  • inspired by Gandhi and the German Volksbund that opposed Bismark’s campaign against the RC Church in Germany
  • Much more popular and rural than LNRLR
union popular catholic employer s union of guadalajara
Union Popular: Catholic Employer’s Union of Guadalajara

Luis Flores, founder, 1922

First Women’s Brigade, 1922

escalation of violence
Escalation of Violence
  • August 3 1926, 400 armed Catholics shut themselves up in the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Guadalajara
  • involved in a shootout with federal troops
  • surrendered only when they ran out of ammunition,
  • resulted in 18 dead and 40 injured.
  • August 4, 240 government soldiers stormed the parish church of Sahuayo Michoacan, priest and his vicar killed in the ensuing violence.
escalation of violence45
Escalation of Violence
  • August 14, government agents purged Chalchihuites (Zacatecas) chapter of the “Association of Catholic Youth”, executing their spiritual adviser, Father Luis Bátiz Sainz.
  • action prompts band of ranchers behind Pedro Quintanar to seize the local treasury and declare themselves in rebellion. At the height of Brigada Quintanar held a region including the entire northern part of Jalisco.
escalation of violence46
Escalation of Violence
  • September: other armed movements launched in Guanajuato, Durango and northern Jalisco.
  • Meanwhile, rebels in Jalisco (particularly the region northeast of Guadalajara) gathered forces behind 27-year-old Capistrán Garza, leader of the Mexican Association of Catholic Youth.
  • This region became the main focal point of the rebellion.
  • 1 January 1927 official startt of hostilities with Capistrán Garza’s manifesto “A la Nación”.
outbreak of war
Outbreak of War
  • Cristero battle cry: “¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! “
  • Church hierarchy opposed the war, although supported boycott and strike
  • Parish clergy also, according to Jean Meyer, opposed the war, preaching peaceful resistance. 3,600 priests withdrew from villages to cities
  • Only 5 priests took up arms although over 40 died in conflict.
cristero war conflict between church and state
Cristero War: conflict between Church and State ?
  • Who then were the Cristeros ?
  • Was the Cristero War a struggle between Church and State ?
  • Or was this a religious crusade of the ordinary Mexican people ?
  • The view favoured by influential French historian Jean Meyer……
jean meyer
Jean Meyer
  • The oral historical research of Jean Meyer during the early 1970s revolutionised the historiography of the Cristero War, confined until then to a closed world of heroic biographies of forgotten Cristero martyrs.
  • The official view of the Cristero rebellion was that it was a reactionary, Church and great landowner based, counter-revolutionary movement.
  • Meyer showed it to have been far more popular and rural; peasants and rancheros fighting to defend their religion and way of life…..
  • Jean Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion. The Mexican People between Church and State 19260-1929 (1975)
  • Meyer was inspired by the famous local study, Luis Gonzalez y Gonzalez, San Jose de Gracia, published in 1968, who reaches a similar conclusion.
just a religious movement
Just a religious movement ?
  • But were other factors were at play ?
  • Recent scholarship suggests that for many Cristeros, religious motivations for rebellion were reinforced by other political and material concerns.
  • Participants in the uprising often came from rural communities that had suffered from the government's land reform policies since 1920, or otherwise felt threatened by recent political and economic changes.
  • Many agraristas and other government supporters were also fervent Catholics
just a religious movement53
Just a religious movement ?
  • See Seminar Sheet for local studies revealing complex motivations:
  • - Robert Curley: focuses on competing political modernities in Guadalajara and Jalisco
  • - Mathew Butler: focuses on local factors and political factionalism as decisive in Michoacan (see “The ‘Liberal’ Cristero, Ladislao Molina’ JLAS, 1999)
  • - Enrique Guerra-Manzo (JLAS, 2008): considers local power conflicts between caciques (bosses) as a prime consideration
luis gonzalez y gonzalez san jos de gracia
Luis Gonzalez y Gonzalez, San José de Gracia,
  • Story of a Catholic town formed in the 19th C on a sub-divided hacienda in the Altos de Jalisco region (Cristero stronghold)
  • Are settled by a Catholic Hispanic peasantry in 18th C
  • By early 20th C wealthier peasants could sent sons to seminaries to train for priesthood
  • Priests were local men, factotums of community
  • This area was remote from the epicentres of the Revolution when it remained “organised”
  • Proprietary peasants and rancheros resented land being given by the Govt. to landless “agraristas” to create political clientele.
  • Large numbers of rancheros in this region joined the rebellion. Women also took an active part
the war
The War
  • Unusual rebel army: no logistical supplies, relied on raiding towns, trains and ranches for supplies of money, horses, ammunition and food. Fast moving cavalry in guerrilla units.
  • At first Government did not take threat seriously.
  • In 1927 Federal army numbered 79,759 men. When Jalisco federal commander General Jesús Ferreira moved on the rebels announced that "it will be less a campaign than a hunt.“
  • Rebels did well against the agraristas (rural militia recruited throughout Mexico) and the Social Defense forces (local militia), but could not defeated federal troops who guarded the important cities.
brigadas feminas
Brigadas Feminas
  • On June 21, 1927, the first brigade of female Cristeros was formed in Zapopan Jalisco: “Joan of Arc Brigade” grew soon from 17 to 135 members.
  • mission of Brigadas Femininas was to obtain money, weapons, provisions and information for the combatant men; they also cared for the wounded.
  • By March 1928: 10,000 women were involved.
  • By the end of the war, women active supporters and combatants numbered some 25,000.
brigadas femininas
Brigadas Femininas

Women supplying ammunition

Women supplying food

brigadistas femininas
Brigadistas Femininas

Imprisoned Brigadistas sowing

Medical Brigade

government response land for rifles
Government response: Land for rifles
  • To aid recruitment, Calles allowed regional caciques such as Saturnillo Cedillo of San Luis Potosi to recruit hacienda peons with promises of land after defeating the Cristeros.
  • Cristero army was also largely ranchero and peasant
  • Hence, often two armies faced each other across the lines…..
cristero leadership
Cristero Leadership
  • The most successful rebel leaders were Jesus Degollado (a pharmacist), Victoriano Ramirez (alias) *“El Catorce” (a ranch hand), and the priests Aristeo Pedroso and Jose Reyes Vega.
  • Although officially episcopate never supported the rebellion, it never condemned the rebels who knew that their cause was legitimate. Bishop Jose Francisco Orozco of Guadalajara remained with the rebels. While formally rejecting armed rebellion, he was unwilling to leave his flock. Considered by some to have been the real head of the movement.
  • *knicknamed after “The Fourteen” members of a police posse he hilled after escaping from jail
best cristero commanders
Best Cristero Commanders

Aristeo Pedroso

Victoriano Ramirez (a) El Catorce

continuation of the war
Continuation of the war
  • 1927-8: Cristero army professionalises, recruiting non-Cristero commanders known for their military skill, such as Enrique Gorostieta
  • 1928 Assassination of Alvaro Obregon by Catholic fanatic , Jose de Leon Toral
  • Federal generals hostile to government join Cristeros
  • Military Rebellion in 1929
  • Cristeros still had 50,000 at arms when “Acuerdos” (peace accords) were signed 21 June 21 1929, with US mediation through Dwight Morrow.
peace accords
Peace Accords
  • The arreglos allowed worship to resume in Mexico and granted three concessions to the Catholics:
  • only priests who were named by hierarchical superiors would be required to register,
  • religious instruction in the churches (but not in the schools) would be permitted,
  • all citizens, including the clergy, would be allowed to make petitions to reform the laws.
  • Church would recover the right to use its properties, and priests recovered their rights to live on such property.
  • Legally speaking, the Church was not allowed to own real estate, and its former facilities remained federal property. But the church effectively took control over these properties and the government never again tried to take these properties back.
many cristeros fight on
Many Cristeros fight on
  • With the “arreglos” only a minority of the rebels went home, those who felt their battle had been won. (WP)
  • As the rebels themselves were not consulted in the talks, most of them felt betrayed and some continued to fight. (WP)
  • The church then threatened rebels with excommunication, and gradually the rebellion died out.(WP)

- Government broke many of the “arreglos” and state persecution of Catholics continued into the 1930s.

-approximately 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros were shot, frequently in their homes in front of their spouses and children (WP)

- After peace in 1929, many thousands of Cristeros and sympathisers migrated to the US.

- Others received sanctuary on the estates of their erstwhile enemy, Saturnino Cedillo in San Luis Potosi (proof that Cristeros and Agraristas shared a common culture !)

aftermath executions of cristeros79
Aftermath: Executions of Cristeros

Execution wall, Zamora, Michoacan

“Cristeros colgando”

  • In 1926, Mexico had 4,500 Catholic priests
  • By 1934 only 334 Catholic priests were licensed by the government to serve Mexico's 15 million people
  • By 1935, 17 states were left with no priest at all.
pro cristero documentary
Pro- Cristero Documentary