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Dorothy Day in Mexico

27 September 2015

Dorothy Day, like her British contemporary Graham Greene, was both a recent convert to Catholicism, and a journalist in 1930. Although the two never met, both were in Mexico writing about the on-going anti-clericalism that followed the official end of the Cristiada (the “Cristero War” of 1926-29), following unhappy experiences writing for Hollywood (Greene was being sued for something he’d written about Shirley Temple; Day had been fired after three months on the job).

For Greene, Mexican anti-clericalism provided a metaphor for his subsequent literary works — the tragedy of following one’s individual morals in an immoral or amoral world. Dorothy Day, living with her daughter among poor Mexicans, while writing for the U.S. Catholic magazine, Commonweal, learned not about the individual, but about the community. Here was a support network of the poor, that to her gave dignity and provided mutual assistance — both practical and spiritual — outside the clergy, but within the arms of her Church. She also witnessed a Catholic community that engaged the state (often with hostility) to demand not just religious, but social rights.

When her daughter became ill, Day returned to the United States. Although the hierarchy in the United States had long supported the labor movement and was active in relief efforts, the Church had largely held itself aloof from involvement in protests for social justice. Day’s experiences in Mexico may have influenced her “radical” decision in 1932, when she joined the hunger strikes in Washington (protesting the inadequate relief for the poor during the depth of the Great Depression) seeing assistance not as “Communist” (as the hierarchy would have it), but as a work of Mercy… an “act of virtue” with the Catholic faith. Feeling the need to do still more led to her founding the Catholic Workers’ Movement … based at least in part on her Mexican experience.  on her own experiences in Mexico.

Day, daughter Tamar, and unidentified woman, Mexico, 1930

Day, daughter Tamar, and unidentified woman, Mexico, 1930

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 September 2015 9:20 am

    Dorothy Day was frustrated in her struggle to gain rights for the poor. Yet as a foreigner in Mexico she had to be somewhat tolerated. The government feared the negative attention she could generate.from the Catholic church abroad. And is that not still the case? Some extranjeros in this country do get involved in their communities’ social programs, but as a group, they could play a much more active role – if they cared enough to do so.

    • 27 September 2015 10:31 am

      She was more an observer than an activist here. Her biographers don’t spend much time on her stint in Mexico, but her articles for Commonweal seem more like something a particularly observant blogger would write today. I think you’re right though, that she felt frustrated by the limitations on what she could do here, but it does seem to have impacted her later life… leading to her “calling” … and her attitude towards revolutions and clerics (her support for the Spanish Republic despite their anti-clericalism was extremely controversial).

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