The Cristero Revolt Begins:
January 1, 1927
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While Obregón, fearing to jeopardize his power, had been wary of pushing revolutionary social reforms, Calles was more resolute. In the four years he held the presidency, Calles distributed eight million acres to 1,500 villages and established agricultural banks to provide loans for the new farmers. Calles more firmly allied himself with labor than had Obregón. The new president promoted public hygiene and improved sanitation. He instituted irrigation projects to put more land into cultivation. He continued Vasconcelos’ education policies, building more schools in rural areas. Calles — at least at first — seemed genuinely committed to social reform along the lines envisioned by the Constitution of 1917; but it was not long before the basic corruption of his regime undid his would-be radicalism.
Calles ruled as an absolute dictator. He worked to concentrate power in his own hands and was ruthless to those who opposed him. Those who dared oppose him were usually executed, or they “committed suicide” in prison. Calles’ dictatorship was more bitter and relentless than Don Porfirio’s had been.
Though he called himself a socialist, Calles little by little warmed to Liberal capitalist ideas and policies. His closest associates were wealthy capitalists, and so it was not surprising that he began to promote a native Mexican capitalism instead of the agrarianism for which the revolution had supposedly been fought. This change was wrought, in part, through Calles’ friendship with the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow. Morrow had a certain charm; for, unlike previous ambassadors, he did not despise Mexicans but seemed to have a genuine love for the country and its traditions. Morrow exercised what Americans began to call his “ham and eggs diplomacy” by meeting Calles frequently for breakfast, where president and ambassador discussed conditions in Mexico. Partly through Morrow’s influence, Calles redirected the revolution away from agrarianism and towards the interests of the middle class and the wealthy.
The benefits of Calles’ native capitalism accrued largely to his closest associates. Even Calles’ agricultural banks benefited mainly wealthy landowners. CROM’s Luis Morones, whom Calles appointed secretary of industry, used his office to enrich himself and his Grupo Acción cronies. As with Juárez, Lerdo, and Díaz, Calles’ revolution, though radical in its inception, ended in benefiting the established powers.
But if Calles succumbed on other fronts, he remained resolutely radical in his opposition to the Church. Though Catholics had proven they could adjust to new circumstances and propose remedies to modern problems, it was in the interest of the revolutionaries to portray them as reactionaries — and it must be admitted, many Catholics, lay and clergy, played into the stereotype. Still, the Church was proposing reforms that were, in some cases, similar to those of the revolutionaries, but in other cases, different and even more radical. Following the lead of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Catholics were proposing solutions that would preserve traditional Mexican society rooted in the Catholic faith while allowing it to adjust it to meet the demands of a new age. Revolutionaries like Calles hated traditional society. It was thus they sought the destruction of that body that sought to preserve it — the Catholic Church.
The Church in Mexico had suffered waves of persecution since 1914. Revolutionaries had used Huerta’s tolerance of the Church and the fact that the Catholic Party had acquiesced to Huerta’s government as evidence that the Catholic Church was counter-revolutionary. Despite the engagement of many Catholics in seeking solutions to social ills, the Catholic mutualist societies and labor unions, the revolutionaries dusted off the old Juarista anti-clericalist slogans and used them with a vengeance.
Though an anti-clerical, Obregón had been selective in applying the anti-clerical articles of the Constitution of 1917. He had forbidden all religious ceremonies held outside the confines of church buildings. When the papal representative to Mexico attempted to dedicate a monument to Christ the King, Obregón had him expelled. Obregón broke up a Eucharistic congress. Moreover, Obregón’s reign witnessed anonymous acts of terror against religion. In February and June 1921, bombs exploded at the archiepiscopal palaces in Mexico City and Guadalajara. On November 14, 1921, a bomb hidden in a bouquet of flowers placed before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the basilica in Mexico City, went off. The explosion wrought significant damage to the church; but the image of Mary, protected only by glass, was unharmed.
Calles had nothing of Obregón’s restraint but vigorously applied the anti-clerical articles of the constitution. On June 14, 1926, he decreed that priests who wore their clerical garb in public were to be fined 500 pesos; they could be imprisoned for five years if they criticized the government. Calles closed two seminaries and seized Church-run orphanages and homes for the aged. By March 1927, Calles had closed 83 monasteries of male and female religious. He even attempted to establish a national, non-papal Church. In the states, governors followed their president’s lead. For example, in January 1925, the governor of tropical Tabasco, Garrido Canábal (who had named his children Lucifer and Lenin) decreed that he would allow only six priests in his territory. In October Canábal granted only “married” priests over the age of 40 permission to remain in Tabasco.
Faithful Catholics, however, refused to submit to this violence. Since 1918, Anacleto Gonzáles Flores, a lawyer in Jalisco, had been writing books and articles detailing his vision of a Catholic social and political order for Mexico. The Maestro, as Flores’ admirers called him, opposed democracy (he thought Mexico was not ready for it) but called for the popular methods of individual sacrifice and non-violent civil disobedience to oppose the government. To unite Catholics, he formed the Union Popular, whose journal, Gladium (Latin for “sword”), was reaching 80,000 readers by 1924.
In the autumn of 1925, Pope Pius XI denounced Mexico’s revolutionary government, but he did not call on Mexican Catholics to undertake direct political resistance; rather he said they should concentrate on actions of a more religious, social, and cultural character. Some Mexican Catholics, however, concluded that nothing but political action would stop Calles from achieving his goal — the complete destruction of the Catholic Church in Mexico. This was the stance of the Liga Nacional Defensora de Libertad Religiosa (National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty) and its zealous leader, René Capistrán Garza. Founded in 1924, the Liga took a combatitive stance against the government’s anti-Catholic measures.
The tension between Church and state came to a head in early 1926. On February 4, the newspaper El Universal published on its front page an interview with Archbishop Mora y El Río of Mexico City in which he condemned the anti-clerical legislation of the Constitution of 1917. That the interview was nine years old mattered little to the anti-clericals — here was an assault on the foundations of the government! Calles was outraged. On July 2, he issued a penal code which laid down penalties for those who violated the constitution’s anti-clerical articles. Calles insisted that all priests in Mexico register with the government — a measure preparatory to exile, or worse. He deported 200 foreign-born priests and religious. Thus, the president had thrown down his greatest challenge yet; how would the Church respond?
On July 14, the bishops gave their support to a measure Capistrán Garza and the Liga had called for — an economic boycott. Catholics boycotted movies or plays and gave up the use of government transportation. Catholic teachers refused to teach in public schools. But though many Catholics participated in the boycott, it was unsuccessful; for wealthy Catholics would have no part in it.
With the approval of Pope Pius XI, the bishops turned to another, more trenchant measure. They would place an interdict on Mexico. All public worship would cease, they threatened, if the government did not rescind its order for the registration of priests. Instead, priests would go into hiding and celebrate Masses and other rites in secret. Calles refused to budge from his demands, and the bishops carried out their threat. At Vespers on July 31, 1926, all public religious ceremonies ceased; the next day, no public Masses were said in all Mexico. Though Calles seized church buildings to keep them open (so the “superstitious,” at least, could light their votive candles), for the next three years no Church bells, anywhere in Mexico, sounded their call to worship.
The bishops had calculated that an interdict would rouse faithful Catholics against the government. They did not realize how terrible the response would be. From August to September 1926, spontaneous armed uprisings occurred, north of the capital, in west-central Mexico. In Guadalajara, 400 armed Catholics barricaded themselves in the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The insurgents stoutly defended themselves and only surrendered when they ran out of ammunition, leaving 18 dead and 40 wounded. Though other uprisings also ended in failure, they gave evidence that devotion to the Faith in Mexico was far from dead. Indeed, it was growing revolutionary. The Liga Defensora caught the wind of revolt and decided to try organizing a full-scale rebellion.
On January 1, 1927, Capistrán Garza issued a call to arms: A la Nación – “To the Nation.” The response was immediate. Anacleto González Flores, though he had been urging peaceful means, gave his approval to the rebellion, and thus the Union Popular entered the fight. On January 2, at San Miguel El Alto in Jalisco, Miguel Hernandez and Victoriano Ramirez organized a force of ranchers and farmers, armed with old guns, clubs, machetes, and axes. Similar uprisings occurred in Nayarit, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and in Colima, chiefly among small farmers and ranchers, share croppers and laborers. Like the Zapatista peasants (some of whom joined the rebellion), the peasants of central Mexico had risen — this time in defense of the Church.
A Song of the Cristeros
A traditional Mariachi song in honor of Blessed Miguel Gomez Loza, a lay martyr of the Cristero uprising. For a brief biography of Blessed Miguel, please go here.