A Forgotten History is Preserved
The May 2012 issue of Columbia featured several articles about the Cristero War, or Cristiada, an important but largely unknown period of Mexican history from 1926-29.
When producing a documentary about the period, the Knights of Columbus consulted and interviewed Prof. Jean Meyer, a noted historian who pioneered research of the persecution and Cristero rebellion and who has written several books in Spanish about the subject. The Order recently worked with Meyer to publish an English-language illustrated history of the Cristero War. His new book, titled La Cristiada: The Mexican People’s War for Religious Liberty
Columbia: For decades, the Cristiada was treated as a taboo subject. How did you come to study and document this era in Mexican history?
Jean Meyer: Well, I was a young student of history in France in 1962. I was 20 years old and had the opportunity to travel to New York with a friend. We bought a cheap, old car, traveled across the United States and spent all summer in Mexico. I was delighted by the country and decided that somehow I had to come back.
Two or three years later, when I began my doctorate, I wanted to work on the Mexican Revolution. I prepared a subject of study: Emiliano Zapata and the fight for the land. But a Mexican student who happened to be a priest told me that if I was interested in Mexican history and wanted to research something not studied before, I should study the Cristiada. It was the first time I had heard the word “Cristiada.” He told me briefly about the religious conflict between church and state, the suspension of worship and the massive uprising.
I entered the Colegio de México as a full-time investigator. I spent five years there and met with survivors of that great war.
Columbia: What were your preconceived notions about the war and how were they transformed as you met these Cristero soldiers?
Jean Meyer: I picked up my first idea of the war from a North American historian who dedicated five lines to the Cristeros. He referred to them as thieves, bandits or poor, stupid fellows manipulated by the landowners against the epic and positive movement of the Mexican Revolution. That was my starting hypothesis.
But arriving in Mexico, first I discovered that the agrarian reform came 10 years after the Cristiada. So the initial hypothesis — which was found throughout Mexican books of the time — disappeared for me.
Columbia: You once wrote, “The root cause of the conflict was the contrast between an unstable state and a stable Church.” Why the contrast of stability and how did it contribute to the clash?
Jean Meyer: Mexico, as we know, is a very young nation. Demographically, it was born in the 16th century with the Spanish conquest. The mixing of the races began immediately, and the Catholic Church had a very important role at the time. So, you have three centuries of colonial Mexico as a part of the Spanish Empire, with the Church present in everyday life. The schools, the hospitals, everything was administrated by the Church.
When the conflict between church and state began in 1925, the new Mexican state was only five years old. And in front of that was a Church that the people trusted. The people cannot trust a state that was just born after 10 years of terrible violence.
Columbia: How did the Cristero uprisings begin?
Jean Meyer: Following the suspension of public religious services, the blood ran in Mexico City and in Guadalajara. People fought in self-defense. It was the army against people with stones and bricks and nothing.
Then in some places, isolated places deep in Mexico, the war began. The army would try to arrest the priest. The people would begin to ring the church bells as an alarm. The 10 soldiers who came to arrest the priest would find themselves surrounded by 500 people. Some of the people responded with violence, and the soldiers shot out of fear. People died, and then the soldiers were lynched.
Like that, without knowing what they had to suffer after that, the Mexican people, the Mexican army and the Mexican government entered into a three-year-long war that cost more than 200,000 lives.
Columbia: How did the Cristeros react to the 1929 peace agreement?
Jean Meyer: I remember in a village called San José de Gracia, I interviewed an old man who had been a Cristero. I asked him the same question. The man flushed and said, “Don’t ask me that. I won’t answer.”
There was a very great disagreement, a terrible division between the Catholics, the bishops, the priests, the fighters and the non-fighters on whether or not to accept the agreement. It was a scandal because the fighters, the Cristeros, were never consulted.
You could say that the Church accepted the conditions of the government, because at the time there was no reform of the constitution. It was not until 1992 that the restrictions were suppressed and diplomatic relations were reestablished with the Holy See.
But with the agreement, many of the critical articles of the constitution were given a benevolent interpretation and not enforced. Churches reopened and priests were allowed to practice their ministry.
Columbia: As a Catholic, did your extensive research and meeting with the Cristeros impact you on a personal level in the way you viewed your faith?
Jean Meyer: One day, a friend of mine, an Orthodox in France, read my book. He told me something that really I believe, but I had no idea before he told me. He said, “Normally, people make books. Sometimes, very rarely, a book makes people. This book made you.” This is the reason why I’m in Mexico.
Columbia: The Knights of Columbus expanded to Mexico in 1905 and spread across the country with thousands of members. What role did the Knights play during the Cristero War?
Jean Meyer: What is important is that some of the young leaders of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty in Mexico were Knights of Columbus and had contact with the members in the United States. That was very important for what we can call a second front: the political fight in the United States.
The Knights in the United States provided support in a hundred different ways, including organizing material support for the Mexican refugees, publishing articles and political lobbying.
North American Catholics felt very deep sympathy for Mexico. They were praying for Mexico every Sunday. The violence, the war, was the thing that the American bishops couldn’t accept. The Irish War of Independence was just finishing, and the bishops told the Knights of Columbus that not one dollar or one cartridge should go to help the Mexican Cristeros. So, the Knights in the United States provided all kinds of help for refugees and for families of those left in Mexico, but not any military support.
Columbia: You have been interviewing people about this religious conflict for a couple generations. From your vantage point as a historian, what is the legacy of the Cristeros in Mexico?
Jean Meyer: For historians, it’s very interesting. It’s a strange and surprising experience. I had the chance to meet the last generation of Cristeros, men 60 years old when I interviewed them, who had been 20 years old during the war. After so many years of official silence on the part of the Church and on the part of the state, the next generation was totally ignorant of the conflict and the memory was disappearing. Twenty years later, when I asked the people about it, people didn’t know about it or weren’t interested: “Yes, my grandfather was part of it, but I don’t want to know about it.”
In Guadalajara, an enormous church is now being built as a memorial to the martyrs. In many places, it’s too late for the Cristiada to be a memory. It’s a legend — but one that is very alive. Today, people feel absolutely free to talk about that time. Many young historians, both Mexican and foreign, are investigating it more and more. Literature and movies are discovering the Catholic epic and reinforcing the interest. The subject is no longer a matter of division between Mexicans, but a chapter of the national history.