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Publisher's Summary

“Men divided over whether Mexico should reject (its) past or build upon it. And no institution bequeathed by Spain was more firmly embedded in the new nation's life than the Catholic Church, which quickly found itself inextricably involved in nearly every contention that separated Mexicans into hostile factions.” (David Bailey, The Cristero Rebellion

The Cristero War in Mexico is the last great armed movement in a country that for a 100 years suffered revolution after revolution, in an apparently endless cycle. Ignored for decades, the war was long seen simply as an unwanted corollary of the Mexican Revolution, a kind of anomaly in the official narrative. 

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 produced an admirable social and agrarian reform, but created an authoritarian state. With no counterweights, the victorious revolutionary class fell into excesses and tried to put religious institutions under totalitarian control and probably to actually suppress religion. In order to do that, the controversial president Plutarco Elías Calles confiscated church property; had monasteries, temples, and confessional schools shut down; deported archbishops; had priests killed; nuns arrested; and declared that the next stage of the Revolution would be the revolution of the minds. 

This persecution produced one of the little-known episodes in the history of Mexico, one that, for many years, the state tried to slide under the rug: the Cristero War, also known as the Cristiada, which for several years ravaged the central plateau of the country. 

The Cristiada began in 1927 and officially it ended two years later, though it boiled beneath the surface for 10 more years. It was a rebellion of the poorest who were willing to take up arms to defend their spiritual freedom and fight a government that had declared, in practical terms, religion illegal. Unlike the revolutionary armies of a decade earlier, these armies of the poor were never funded by world powers.

The temptation to suppress religious freedom was a constant in triumphant revolutionary governments throughout the 20th century. In Russia the Bolsheviks, in China the hosts of Mao, to mention two examples, believed that religion was a factor of social backwardness that prevented the arrival of the light that was economic and social progress. In Mexico, the triumphant generals were ideologically radicalized, and by the 1920s, with the closure of temples, the confiscation of church property, and violence against the clergy, the Catholic religion was under attack. The state tried to bring it to its knees and, if possible, annihilate it. This was said, publicly and privately, by many of the men in power during the 1920s.

When the Mexican Church decided to suspend worship in protest, the rebellion of the peasants - for whom the sacraments, pilgrimages, and the comfort of their spiritual mentors were an indispensable part of their lives - did not take long. The guerrillas took a name: Cristeros. As if it were an eschatological battle, they said they were fighting and willing to die in the name of Christ the King. 

Ignored for decades, many historians did not pay attention to the Cristiada and dismissed it as a fanatical and limited movement, a very unfair characterization. Now, it is increasingly seen as a genuine popular uprising deserving serious study. The Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged the justice of the struggle, too. The Cristero War has produced the largest number of Mexican saints recognized by the Vatican. In the 21st century, increasing secularization has been relegating the Cristiada to history books, but in the deepest Mexico, people remember, and in many places, the wounds remain open.

©2021 Charles River Editors (P)2021 Charles River Editors

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