The “Cristiada,” a war fought by Mexican Catholics in the 1920s to preserve their religious freedom against an atheistic dictatorship, has been cloaked in silence in Mexico for decades, and has been virtually forgotten by Americans. But the announcement of a major motion picture on the topic, starring Andy Garcia and Eduardo Verastegui, brings hope that the public will soon come to know one of the most astounding epics of Catholic heroism in the last century.
Also known as the “Cristero War,” the Cristiada was fought by ordinary Mexicans who rose up against the administration of Plutarco Elias Calles, an anti Christian radical who came to power in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Two years after his accession to the presidency in 1924, Calles issued what amounted to a declaration of war against the Catholic faith: the “Calles Law,” which had the potential to eliminate the Church in Mexico by a process of strangulation.
However, Calles and his allies had miscalculated the depth of devotion of Mexico’s Catholics, who proved willing to die in the tens of thousands to save their faith. To the cry of, “Long Live Christ the King!” the Cristeros fought the government for three years, repeatedly smashing the offensives sent against them. By 1929 they had conquered virtually all of western Mexico and were on the outskirts of the nation’s second largest city, Guadalajara. Despite the full force of the Mexican army, as well as massive military aid from the United States, the Cristeros had brought the government to it knees, and Calles was forced to capitulate.
Although the precise nature of the screenplay to be used in Cristiada is as yet unknown, there are promising signs that the English-speaking public will finally be exposed to an account of the war that does justice to the heroism and devotion of the Cristeros. The cast’s lineup of well known Hispanic- American stars includes Eduardo Verastegui, a fervent Catholic best known for his pro-life movie Bella. Andy Garcia, famous for his appearances in movies such as Godfather III and The Untouchables, is also a Catholic and a family man who reportedly refuses to do nude scenes in movies, and bucks Hollywood’s leftist establishment by openly opposing the Castro regime in his native Cuba.
In addition to the conservative credentials of the movie’s Hispanic cast, Cristiada will reportedly be directed by Dean Wright, whose credits include the highly successful movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ Christian-allegorical novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Wright has proven his ability and willingness to produce movies that portray Christianity in a positive light—rare qualities in contemporary Hollywood.
Cristiada is being produced by New Land Films, and is slated to be the most expensive movie ever filmed in Mexico, even topping Mel Gibson’s $50 million hit Apocalypto. It is currently scheduled for release in 2011.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
The production of Cristiada has the potential to end 80 years of virtual silence regarding a historical event that had profound significance for both Mexico and the United States.
Although the Cristiada made news in the United States while it raged to the south, it was largely dismissed by an unsympathetic media as a disorganized rebellion fought by fanatical “bandits”—the term used by Mexican officials during the conflict. While the US government supported the Calles regime and supplied it with armaments, American Catholics sought to alert the public and pressure the government to end the conflict. However, after the persecution ended in the late 1930s, the topic disappeared from public discourse and was largely forgotten.
In Mexico, the war has been forgotten for another reason: decades of de facto government censorship of school textbooks, movies, and other major media have left the story in semi-obscurity. Although a significant body of scholarship on the Cristiada began to be published in Mexico in the early 1970s, few references to the topic could be found in the mass media until the early 1990s, and they were invariably caricatures and distortions of the facts, with the main purpose of discrediting the Cristeros and vindicating Mexico’s anti-Catholic regime at the time.
The only full-length motion picture ever made on the Cristiada in Mexico, La Guerra Santa (The Holy War) (1977), portrays the Cristeros as ignorant peasants incited to fight the government by a cold-hearted and manipulative village priest. The Cristeros of the film are drunks and rapists who sadistically torture the federal troops they capture, while hypocritically executing their own soldiers for the slightest infraction against their puritanical rules. Despite terrible acting and cinematography, La Guerra Santa received two Ariel awards from the government-controlled Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences.
The true story, however, began to be brought to light in the early 1970s through the efforts of the French historian Jean Meyer, whose multi-volume work La Cristiada remains the definitive account of the conflict. In contrast to the government’s historically anti-Cristero propaganda, Meyer reveals the Cristeros as deeply committed Catholics whose fundamental motivation was a sincere zeal for the faith, and a willingness to give all in the effort to save the Church.
The roots of the conflict that gave rise to the Cristiada go back to the year 1917, when delegates of the Mexican Revolution convened to create a new constitution for the troubled nation. Although the new charter was meant to be a fairly minor revision of Mexico’s existing one, a bloc of radical legislators under revolutionary leader Álvaro Obregón inserted articles that would give the government totalitarian powers over all religious institutions in Mexico.
The articles stipulated that all of the churches of Mexico, Catholic and Protestant, were now the property of the federal government. Religious ceremonies could only be carried out in the churches, and only under the watchful eye of state functionaries. All education was declared to be “secular” and religious organizations were not permitted to operate any elementary schools. Clerics were deprived of the right to express opinions on political matters and even to vote. Monastic orders were declared illegal. Only native-born ministers were permitted to function. Finally, the states were given the right to impose restrictions on the number of ministers permitted to serve.
The two presidents who served following the convention, Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón, made little attempt to enforce the constitution’s anticlerical articles, and despite their open hostility to Christianity, clergymen were generally permitted to carry out their functions without hindrance. However, that changed in 1924, when Obregón’s handpicked successor came to office: Plutarco Elias Calles, a man whose personal hatred of the Church seemed to outweigh all considerations of political prudence.
After spending two years consolidating his regime by ingratiating himself with the United States, Calles made his move against the Catholic Church, calling for the full enforcement of the constitution’s anti-religious articles in January of 1926. He also announced the expulsion of hundreds of foreign-born priests. In July he announced a new penal code, the “Calles Law,” which imposed draconian penalties on virtually any type of religious activity. Schools and seminaries were closed, churches and church property were confiscated, all public expressions of religious belief were prohibited, and only 1,000 priests were permitted to function in the entire country.
The bishops generally encouraged the faithful to resist—by all legal means—the antireligious policies of the government, and discouraged them from acts of violence. Lay organizations, united in the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR), responded by organizing an economic boycott , endorsed by the bishops, which they hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. In addition, the bishops themselves announced in mid-July 1926 that the Church could not continue to function under such conditions, and would therefore suspend all public worship as of July 31, the day the Calles Law would take effect.
The Mexican faithful, confused and often in tears, poured into the churches in vast numbers to confess their sins and to hear Mass for what would be, for many, the last time for the next three years. The priests “were not sufficient to hear the confessions of so many people. They didn’t have time to rest or eat. They passed the days from early morning to late at night seated in the confessionals, but it was not possible to hear all the confessions of such a multitude,” one witness would later write.
Calles responded by confi scating all of the Catholic churches in Mexico and handing them over to “citizen committees,” which ensured that Catholics would be unable to use them. The churches were now defi nitively closed to all acts of Catholic worship.
The people, with no places left to express their religious beliefs, defi ed the Calles Law and took to the streets in penitential processions, begging the forgiveness of God for what they saw as punishment for their sins. The authorities responded by arresting and even killing those who participated. They also began to arrest Catholic priests and even bishops, some of whom had gone into hiding to provide the sacraments to the faithful.
Following the announcement of the Calles Law, and especially after the closure of the churches, the people began to rise up in isolated insurrections in states across Mexico, including Jalisco, Puebla, Oaxaca, MichoacÁn, and Guerrero. Then, in December, the LNDLR sent word to its members: as of January 1, a war would be launched “to overthrow the government and safeguard, by means force, the liberties of the people.”
In the first days of January, the Mexican southwest exploded in insurrection. With the cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long Live Christ the King!”), armed units began to seize control of towns in the state of Jalisco and surrounding areas. In response, the government announced the expulsion of all the bishops of the country, many of whom fl ed to the United States. It also began a brutal scorched earth policy, ordering the entire rural population into the cities, and massacring those who remained.
Although one general famously said in the early months of 1927 that the conflict would be “less of a war than a hunt,” the Cristeros, as they were derisively called by their adversaries, managed to take and hold territory, and to grow and consolidate their forces. Their achievement was all the more remarkable given that the Calles regime was being supplied and advised by the Coolidge administration, while the Cristeros received no foreign support at all.
Constantly low on ammunition and other supplies, they managed to capture provisions from defeated government forces, purchase them from corrupt federal troops, and in some cases manufacture their own. They were aided by the Women’s Brigades of St. Joan of Arc, an ultra-secret society of 20,000 women who transported ammunition to the troops hidden under their clothing, and acted as nurses and cooks for the Cristeros. After their exposure in 1929, many of these women were killed by federal forces.
With each year, the insurrection spread to more and more regions, and the government lost control of the most populous areas of the country, stretching from the states of Sinaloa and Durango in the north, all the way to Oaxaca in the south, and to the state of Mexico in the center of the country. By early 1929, 50,000 Cristeros were in arms, dwarfing the insurgent armies of the legendary Mexican Revolution. By March of the same year, the Cristeros were operating in the suburbs of Guadalajara, the nation’s second largest city, although a full-scale attack was called off for lack of adequate supplies.
The culminating batt le of the war occurred over the city of TepatitlÁn in the state of Jalisco, where 900 Cristeros held off an attack by 3,000 federal troops for three days. By the end of the offensive, it had become abundantly clear to both Calles (who continued to rule beyond his term through political puppets) and his generals that the government could not win. The Cristeros had done what no other army had accomplished in Mexican history: it had single handedly stalemated a US-backed regime, and forced it to the bargaining table.
In June of 1929, President Emilio Portes Gil made a promise to the bishops of Mexico that the Church would be permitted to function under the Calles Law, and that the priesthood would no longer be restricted. Religious education in the churches would be permitted, although not in schools. The bishops responded by announcing the reestablishment of public worship, and were allowed to return to Mexico. After three years of fighting and with at least 70,000 dead, the Cristiada came to an end.
Many Cristeros felt betrayed by an agreement based on mere promises by the government, and predicted disaster, which soon came to pass. Although the government promised an amnesty for the insurgents, local officials ignored the agreement and proceeded to assassinate 1,500 Cristero leaders in the months following the armistice.
By 1932, many state governments were again persecuting the Church and prohibiting priests to carry out their duties. By 1935, 17 states permitt ed no priests to function, and only 350 priests enjoyed such permission in the entire country. It would not be until 1935 that the government, pressured by new insurgencies amounting to 7,500 troops, would relent. Calles was exiled from the country, and by 1938, virtually all of the churches of Mexico were open for worship.
MARTYRS OF THE PERSECUTION
During the crisis the government also began to capture and execute Catholic priests who had gone into hiding to give the sacraments to the faithful. Among them was Father Miguel Pro, whose death in 1927 would become a source of inspiration to Catholics worldwide. After being captured and falsely accused of conspiring to kill Álvaro Obregón, Pro was shot by a firing squad as he extended his arms in the shape of a cross, crying out, “Long Live Christ the King!”
Of the 110 priests who went into hiding following the closure of the churches, 90 were eventually killed, most simply for providing the sacraments without government permission. Others were executed during the 1930s, during the second wave of persecution. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 martyrs of the period, all priests, and in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI beatifi ed 13 more, both laymen and priests, including Father Miguel Pro.
Also among those beatified in 2005 was one of the most illustrious of the lay martyrs, Anacleto GonzÁlez Flores, who will be played by Eduardo Verastegui in Cristiada. GonzÁlez Flores was a Catholic attorney and activist famous for his 1926 essay “Plebiscite of the Martyrs,” which seems to speak prophetically of his own death a year later. He was also the leader of the Catholic Association of Mexican Youth, and his fiery essays in defense of the Catholic faith were a constant thorn in the side of Mexico’s anti-Christian political establishment.
In response to threats made against the Diocese of Guadalajara in 1924, GonzÁlez Flores had created the Popular Union, an organization that defended the rights of the Church in the state of Jalisco. Although he was disinclined to fight and his own bishop was opposed to armed conflict, GonzÁlez Flores accepted the call of the LNDLR to begin the revolt, and joined the Popular Union to the cause. He reportedly prayed for martyrdom, which he saw as the greatest act of devotion to Christ.
His prayers would be answered only months later, in April 1927, when he was arrested by troops, along with three companions, and taken to a barrack. There, he was hung by his thumbs and whipped, as the guards sought to compel him to divulge the whereabouts of the archbishop of Guadalajara, then in hiding. GonzÁlez Flores never responded, and he was finally stabbed to death with a bayonet. His companions, except for the youngest, were likewise tortured and executed.
Andy Garcia will play a martyr of a different kind, General Enrique Gorostieta, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution, an anticlerical liberal, and an agnostic. Although Gorostieta had no love for the Catholic Church, he believed in religious liberty and despised the Calles administration. He agreed to take on the leadership of the Cristiada in Jalisco for the sum of 3,000 pesos a month, a wage substantially higher than that paid to federal generals.
However, Gorostieta’s experience as the leader of the Cristeros began to transform him. Moved by the faith of his troops, he began to pray and to speak openly of his trust in God, wearing a large cross around his neck. He remained true to the Cristeros to the end, even when it became apparent that the Mexican bishops would abandon the cause. Although he had entered the war as a religious skeptic, he would ultimately die a believer.
It will be impossible for Cristiada to provide more than a glimpse of the innumerable heroes, priests and laity, who distinguished themselves in during the persecution of the late 1920s, but even the barest rendition of the story is likely to awaken North American Catholics to an important part of their own history that they have lamentably forgotten, and provide inspiration to all Christians in the ongoing struggle for religious liberty.