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Cristo Rey (draft from Gods and Gringos… rebooted)

19 January 2018

A very rough draft, but FINALLY, FINALLY, FINALLY getting down to revising my 2006 “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos”: I had only given a paragraph or so to the Cristeros in the first book, which — considering I later wrote a biography (not a very good one, but the only one in English) of Gorestieta, and I’ve come to see this late counter-revolution as much more important that I initially thought (ok, I didn’t know that much about it at the time, and… as others pointed out… it had been effectively erased from the official histories for several years). Anyway…

  • Cristo Rey

One might think that, with the “cultural revolution” of the 1920s, Quezacoatl had returned. On the other hand, the Constitution hammered out in late 1916 and early 1917 showed the influence of Tezacapocapli, in that the compromises meant to satisfy one or another faction were open to interpretation and meant to resolve the overriding issues of one group created problems for another. And opened the door to Huitzapotchli.

Published in 1891, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum had put the Church on the side of labor movements and encouraged the faithful to take an active role in politics. However, in assessing the political and social movements of his time, Leo had condemned both Socialism and Anarchism and reiteterated the traditional right to private property. While slow off the mark, by 1910, the Bishops and Catholic intellectuals were generally supportive of Madero: Archbishop of Mexico City, Jose Mora y del Rio and other bishops were supporting Catholic labor unions, social movements, and looked favorably on a new Catholic political party.

When Huerta supressed the Catholic political party (among others), activists were left out in the cold. The Revolution that followed took a radical turn, with even the otherwise devoutly Catholic Zapatistas pushing anarchist ideas. And to the victor belong the spoils. Obregón owed his success largely to Anarchist and Socialist unions who had served in his Army as the “Red Brigades”. Natually, they were favored by the new government, over the weaker Catholic unions. And constitutional land reforms meant to satify Zapatista demands threatened the livelihood of the small and medium sized hacienda owners, who provided the leadership for the Church in rural Mexico, and from which most of the clergy had come.

Obregón’s policy was to find “work-arounds” on the restrictions the constitution placed on the Church, helping both Catholic and Protestant organizations to open schools, run hospitals, and recreational programs: if no one was prostelyzing that the YMCA, or a school kept its religious instruction out of the classroom, there were no problems. Despite the relative tolerance, Catholic intellectuals and displaced politicians, as well as the Bishops, strongly resisted what they saw as socialist tendencies in the administration, and the openly anti-clerical attitudes and actions of the government leaders.

With opponents who often as not resorted to armed rebellion when they didn’t get their way, Obregon turned to a loyal subordinate, known for his ruthlessness, when chosing a successor for the 1924 election. Plutaro Elias Calles, the former schoolteacher who had mercilessly slaughtered Pancho Villa’s forces in Agua Prieta, and as the revolutionary governor of Sonora had had town drunks who disobeyed his orders against public intoxication publically executed1 , was the orphaned and abandoned son of an alcoholic, who had faced nothing but abuse from the local priests when he was growing up, Calles hated liquor and priests with about equal passion. Not a popular choice within the cabinet, but a man who would do whatever was necessary to continue the Revolution.

Following a series of escalating provocations by both the ant-clerical unions, and responses by the Church, in July 1926, Calles ordered that the anti-clerical provisions in the Constitution be followed to the letter. All schools, convents, monasteries and other church-run facilities were closed. All church property was nationalized, including the houses of worship. On July 31st, the Catholic Church responded in a way only Mexicans could respond. For the first time in its nearly two thousand year history, Catholic priests went on strike.2

The strike would last three years. Religious believers, financed by holdovers from the Porfiriate and led by the most reactionary of the clergy, launched a three year terrorist campaign that would lead to up to eighty thousand deaths, mostly among poor rural people backing the clerical side in the struggle.
By the time the priests went on strike, the Catholic intellectuals, disgusted with Calles, and sensing they had been deceived by Obregón were already moving towards violent resistance. In the Bajio… Jalisco, Aguascalientes, and Guanajuato, small bands of guerilla fighters, recruited by those small hacienda owners who saw both the labor laws and the religious restrictions as infringing on their rights, began to fight back.

There had been several minor uprisings, thoughout Obregón’s administration, and at first, the “Cristeros” did not seem any more of a threat than the others. However, with the military’s attention focused elsewhere as dissident generals and their small armies were annialated one by one, the guerillas in the Bajio, with a single cause to unite them (saving the Church from “Bolshevism”) grew. No longer just guerrila bands, it had the makings of a disciplined army. All it lacked was a general.

Enrique Gorestieta, an out of work Huerta protege, was, reportedly, an athiest, but — as one of the few anti-Revolutionary generals still young enough to serve — he was quite willing (for twice the salary of a regular general) to take on the challenge of turning Catholic guerillas into a formal miliary force. Although financially supported by American oil-men (Donahy and Buckley, the two most important oil-men in Mexico were both conservative Catholics) who were betting that trouble in the Bajio would keep the Mexican government too preoccupied to intervene in the oil region, and by the Knights of Columbus. The Knights, along with the Catholic intellectuals, attempted to smuggle weapons to the Cristeros, though with only middling success3.

With the Bishops and the Vatican having recognized that the clerical strike was counter-productive (people simply stopped going to Mass, or found other outlets for their spiritual needs) and appalled by the violence in the Bajio, they were already in negotions with the government when the Yaqui War ended.

The last major military operation in Mexico over, the Army, and… more importantly, the Air Force, was able to turn their entire attention to the Cristeros. Their only important military operation, an attempt to take Manzanillo, failed miserably when the Cristero intelligence scouts overlooked (somehow) a Navy gunship sitting in the harbor. Moreover, with Obregón elected in July to a six year term staring on the first of December 1928, there was every hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Even an attempted assassination in October did not dampen the hopes. The would-be assassins were quckly rounded up… or were they?

The Pro Suárez brothers, were executed for their connection to an attempt to assassinate Obregon with a car bomb in October 1927. The bomb was tossed from a car sold the previous week by Humberto Pro Suarez. He, and younger brother Roberto, confessed to having been part of the plot, and a third brother, Miguel, was arrested for good measure. Miguel was especially suspious, having only returned to Mexico the month before the bombing, and was a Catholic priest to boot. Although probably innocent of anything more than giving moral support to the attackers, he never received more than a summary trial and soon faced a firing squad. Allegedly he said, “Lucky me. I win a Christian martyrdom in God’s lottery.”4

If Miguel was guilty of anything, it was only of being related to Obregón’s would-be assassins and an associate of the the nun turned terrorist, Madre Conchita.

Madre Conchita, Concepcion Acevade de la Llanta, was a pioneer of sorts… the first modern woman terrorist leader. Like Osama bin Laden in the early 21st century, she dedicated her considerable fortune to violently establishing a conservative religious state. From a wealthy family, when Calles closed the convents, the former mother superior returned home to organize prayer services in the empty local churches in which she called for terrorist strikes against the government. Her Mexico City home was the center of the bombing plot. Although she was the “intellectual author” of the plot, and only regretted that it had failed, she was not executed, but instead sentenced to the prison colony on Islas Tres Marías, and her property seized. 5

When Osama bin Ladin was killed, it did not end terrorist acts by his followers. Nor did Madre Conchita’s arrest end her follower’s terrorism. On 13 November 1928, less than three weeks before he was to take office for his irregular second term6, Obregón was gunned down at a luncheon by José Torral, a part-time journalist, cartoonist, and fanatical follower of Madre Conchita.

The United States government had a considerable interest in ending the war. While the virulently anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan had been a major force in U.S. domestic politics in that decade, especially in the Democratic Party, that party had nominated a Catholic, Al Smith, as their candidate for President in 1928. Even though Al Smith lost the election, pro and anti-Cristeros in the United States were complicating U.S.-Mexican relations, especially when oil imports were largely dependent on companies owned by Cristero supporters like Frank Buckley and Edward L. Doheny. Additionally, refugees from the war were pouring into the United States, along with exiled Bishops and clerics.

Dwight Morrow, the United States Ambassador, and Texas priest, Father John Burke, representing the Vatican, had worked out a deal with Obregón that permitted self-exiled Bishops to return to Mexico and paved the way for the churches to reopen. While the Church had given up any hope of regaining economic power, and could live with the purely symbolic limits on their activities (such as the ban on clerical garb in public), they were loathe to see their 400-year old cultural and spiritual traditions erased. With some compromise… purely religious festivals “rebranded” as cultural events, and a less militant attitude from the pulpits in political matters… church and state could live with each others’ “sphere of influence”. As one cynic put it, “The Church will be blind, and the State deaf”.

The Bishops might have been willing to compromise, but Goresieta’s ambitions had by this point gone far beyond saving traditional Catholicism. As a perceptive historian put it:

In reality, he had been bit by the revolutionary bug: like many others struck by this usually fatal disease, he elieved that only large doses of power for himself could save México from its many problems.7

Gorestieta issued a “Manifesto to the Nation” attacking the Bishops for betraying the Church, and issuing a whole new agenda for his “revolution”: a return to the 1857 Constitution, stripped of its anticlerical provisions, but adding, surprisingly enough, women’s suffrage. Incidentally, he signed it “Generalissimo” Gorestieta, although there never was such a rank in the Mexican military hierarchy.

With the Bishops,the government, the United States, and even the Pope calling for the Cristeros to lay down their arms, Gorestieta was not about to give up. As the last standing anti-Revolutionary in rebellion, Goresieta attracted a few ultra-conservatives and die-hard Porfiristas to his ranks, and continued to hold out. With reluctance, Secretary of War Joaquín Amaro – who had been seeking to depoliticize and professionalize the Army – agreed to send the “agrianistas” into the field. Led by Puebla State strongman Saturino Cedillo, the agrianistas were landless farmers willing to kill or be killed in return for the promise of their own land.

It was the end of Goriestieta, although not of the Cristeros. While the majority took advantage of a general amnesty proclaimed by interim president Eulio Gueterrez (who had to take over negotiations when Obregón was assassinated), which included free transportation home, bitterness and violence would continue for years, never completely ending, but – with the exception of a very brief attempt later by Cedillo (ironically with the support of the surviving Cristero generals) – it was the end of miltiary assaults on the government.

1 Liquor prohibition—which was written into the U.S. Constitution between 1919 and 1933—is usually associated with religious groups in the United States, but prohibition was a common cause for all manner of revolutionaries and social reformers in the early 20th century. Revolutions, after all, seek to remake society and correct its ills. Revolutionaries are serious people and generally puritanical.

2 As with any other group of Mexican workers, the priests had the right to jointly act in their own defense under the 1917 Constitution’s pro-labor clauses.

3 One wonders why, in the 1920s, when alcohol prohibition in the United States had spurred a massive growth in the smuggling business, the Cristeros and their supporters never thought to turn to people like Al Capone for assistance.

4 Ironically, or otherwise, the police station where Father Pro Suárez was executed is now the site of…the National Lottery, and the bloody clothes worn by Blessed Miguel Suarez are now an object of veneration in a Mexico City church. “Blessed” is the title given by the Catholic Church to persons who are worthy of veneration, but whose cause for declaring them a saint has not been completed. To die for your faith is one of the means of obtaining sainthood in the Catholic Church.

5 To avoid her house becoming either a political or religious shrine, her house was given to the Evangelical Lutherans. In the 1950s, Madre Conchita, having married a fellow convict and become a model prisoner, was paroled and her remaining property returned to her.

6 Obregon’s first term, following de la Huerta’s six months as “interim president” was less than four years and, although the Constitution forbade more than one presidential term, with the constitutional change from a four-year to a six-year presidential term, some creative legal interpretation allowed Obregon to run for a second term.

7Tomán de la Pedraja, “Wars of Latin America”, page 292.

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