When a young French graduate student named Jean Meyer arrived in Mexico in 1965 to write his doctoral thesis on the religious war known as the Cristiada, the topic was virtually unknown to historians. A conflict between Catholics and the government that had claimed the lives of approximately 250,000 people between 1926 and 1929 remained cloaked in official silence, and the archives of Church and state related to the struggle were closed to investigators.
The work done by Meyer would ultimately help to provide the general framework for the new movie For Greater Glory, although the movie deviates substantially from the documented facts of the war’s history.
After five years of research and interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses, Meyer completed his work: La Cristiada, a three-volume account of the war and its historical antecedents.
To his surprise, a Mexican publishing house of a decidedly Marxist bent, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, agreed to publish the work, beginning in 1972, and it has been in print ever since, having passed through more than 20 editions.
Meyer eventually became a Mexican citizen, and today he lives in Mexico City, working as a professor and researcher at the Economic and Teaching Research Center.
With La Cristiada, Meyer established himself as the principal academic historian of Mexico’s epic war to save the Catholic religion.
Meyer, 70, spoke with Register correspondent Matthew Cullinan Hoffman to discuss the Cristiada, its historical ramifications and his own personal odyssey. The interview has been edited for readability, and some Spanish and French grammatical forms and vocabulary have been modified for English-speaking readers.
When you began researching the Cristero War and the Church-state conflict in the early 1960s, few works by academic historians were in existence. How did you discover this conflict, and what brought you to commit so many years to writing about it?
It was a kind of accident. I visited Mexico in ‘62. I was 20 years old, and I spent two months during the summer wandering all over Mexico, and I really loved the country. I decided to go back, and I didn’t know how. When I finished my historical studies in Paris, my professor offered me a doctoral thesis on the history of the United States, on U.S. isolationism, but I told him I was more interested in Mexican history. As he was a very generous man, he told me, “I don’t know about Mexican history, but I can protect you in the academic administration. I will give you my signature and okay.”
And so, I went with another professor who was doing a seminar on Latin American history, Pierre Chanu. And I presented the project on Emiliano Zapata, and I was very lucky. A Mexican Jesuit priest was preparing a thesis on Mexican history in the same seminar, and so he attended the seminar, and he told me, and he told everybody, to the audience: “Zapata is very interesting, but some very good books have been published already. There is a lot to study, but it’s not quite new. If you want a totally new, blank (slate) on the historical map of Mexico, you have La Cristiada.”
I didn’t know what the Cristiada was. He told me briefly, and I was intrigued. And it was in ‘64, and I spent a year in Paris reading everything I could read on Mexico, Mexican history, and there was almost nothing on the Cristeros [the rebels who fought for Christ the King] — just some small mentions that they were all bandits or paid by the great landlords or just stupid, manipulated by the priests. I came to Mexico in ‘65, working as a teacher and researcher in the Colegio de Mexico, which was a great opportunity for me to make a living in Mexico and to spend almost five years in my investigations on the subject.
How many books and articles have you written about this conflict in total over the years?
I can’t remember, because really, really, the most important book I have written in my life is La Cristiada, in Spanish three volumes, in French one (volume) and English one (volume). … After that, I tried to leave the subject, but I never could. I worked in other fields, even on Russian and Soviet history, Latin American history in general; but I always had to come back to the subject, because they opened archives that were closed for many years or because I had to change my point of view.
How did the writing of this history and the research affect you personally?
Well first, it made me a Mexican. It made me a Mexican because I worked in a very strange situation for a historian at that moment; at that moment, the whole history [of the conflict] didn’t exist. It was not accepted in the academy. But in ‘65, when I came to Mexico, the religious conflict was too recent, so the archives of the Church and the archives of the state and the archives of Rome were totally closed. And I found myself in a very difficult situation as a historian prepared to work in archives on documents, to have almost nothing. [There were] newspapers, but they were not very credible.
So I had to work as an anthropologist or as a journalist, a newspaperman: Go — find the people, the survivors. The youngest at that moment, the youngest ex-Cristero, was 60 years old. Now they have all died. So I had to travel all over Mexico and to come to know the popular Mexico, what some anthropologists call the “deep Mexico.” That made me a Mexican.
I came from a Catholic family, from Alsace in France, a province that was always very religious, as is Brittany or the Basque country in the south of France.
And, by the way, a very strange story: When I left France in 1965, I went to Alsace to say good-bye to my grandparents, because they were very old and I thought that I would never see them again. … And so, with my grandfather, we paid a visit to his brother and sisters in the small village of Alsace called Itterswiller, and those men that were still there, they never left the land. They were peasants, didn’t speak French. They speak Alsatian.
And one of the ladies, my great aunt — everybody was afraid of her because she was a matriarch and authoritarian mother -- said, “Hey kid, why are you going to Mexico? Mexico! President Calles! Padre Pro!” And she went for her prayer book, and she had a photograph of Father (now Blessed Miguel) Pro. So, even in deep France, people knew about the religious conflict in Mexico.
I think I read somewhere that you had, to some extent, a conversion yourself, in terms of philosophical viewpoint.
As a historian, I was a Marxist; so the agrarian problem was the key to everything, and I came with the idea, as I told you, that the few mentions of the Cristeros were that they were just the puppets of the landlords in order to impede an agrarian reform. Very quickly I discovered that it was not true. So I left my Marxist ideas and accepted more the … thesis that the superstructures may change the structures and not only the structures determining the superstructures.
And the deep Christian faith of the Mexican people confirmed my own Catholic faith personality.
I was educated as a Catholic in a very practicing family, and I never stopped being one, but I discovered a new dimension, because in France — in my France, because I was born in the south of France in Provence — in contrast with Alsace, in Alsace the churches were, it’s not true today, but 50 years ago, 100% of the men and the women went to Mass on Sunday … everybody was very religious.
But in Provence, it was very different. In Provence, maybe 20%, 30% were practicing. A very, very high practice for today, but I think that today 8% or 10% only. So, the Mexican people confirmed me in my Christianity.
How many Cristeros did you meet, and what were the Cristeros like?
Well, I think that I interviewed more than 300 or maybe 400. I have a collection of tapes. … If you see the movie of my son, The Last Cristeros, the beginning of the movie, everything is dark, and you have only the voice of a very old man: And they say, One day in the morning, I was just passing by the church, and I saw that there was a paper on the door of the church, and I went there, and I read: “I, President Plutarco Elias Calles of the United States of Mexico decree: Article One: Everybody that ...” and so on. The beginning of the persecution. I recorded that in 1969. The movie begins with a historical record — and perfectly conserved.
When I visited my Cristeros, the huge majority of those Cristeros were poor men, poor proletarians. Some in Mexico City were very rich men, but they were self-made men. They left their villages after the war because they didn’t want to be killed for vengeance or reprisals after the war. And they came to Mexico City, and one was a very big merchant in La Merced, which was the principal market in Mexico City, and his specialty was shrimp. He had almost a monopoly on shrimp in Mexico. …
But the big majority were still living in the countryside, in small villages. Some in good conditions, but really as peasants or farmers, and with all the problems that you know farmers have all over the world. And so, I think that, in my books, I gather kind of a social-professional basis, analysis, of the rank and file of the Cristero Army or the Cristero guerrilla, because it was not truly an army; it was a guerrilla (army). And I can tell you that 90% of them were either proletarian or middle class, but rural middle class.
What do you think was their fundamental motivation?
I guess that many people had more than one reason to fight. But all had in common the religious reason. For some, it was the only reason. For others, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So, some people had very personal reasons to fight against the government, a lot of reasons of old problems, and, suddenly, came the last problem, but not least, and that — the closing of the churches, the end of the Masses, the impossibility of getting the sacraments, and, as one told me, after living as a dog, to die as a dog, without a Christian burial — that I can’t stand.
What do you believe is the fundamental significance for Mexican history of the Cristiada?
Really I think that it’s a confirmation of what was said many centuries before by Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christians. I met a lot of priests, older than I or my generation, and a lot of bishops, now of my generation, that all were sons of Cristeros. And the Mexican Catholic Church has been, for many years, the only Church in Latin America, which is 100% native. Mexico never had, and still, has no problem of vocations, and really I think that it was not of course a voluntary gift of the Mexican revolutionary government, but the fact of the persecution was confirmation of the Mexican people in his Catholic faith. They even, some interpreted that, even as a kind of election. To suffer so much was interpreted as not only the proof of the force of the Christian faith of the Mexican people, but a favor done because Mexico was a kind of collective Christ, and that’s what my son tried to say [in his movie], not to say it because he’s very discreet, but you understand the message, that it was a kind of collective imitation of Christ.
Is that the reason it has the name Cristiada? Because if I understand, if I am correct, the word Cristiada was the title of a poem about the sufferings of Jesus, previously.
Yes, it’s very strange because you have a cultural tradition and an etymology of “Cristiada.” You have a Cristiada in English in the 17th century, and at the same time in Peru, and there is a poem in Spanish called "Cristiada." It’s the same as “Illiada;” it’s a kind of cultural epic, no? It’s a form of high culture. But the Mexican people in the first half of the 20th century had no knowledge at all of the high-culture term “Cristiada.” They were called “Cristeros” by the soldiers of the government because their battle cry was “Viva Cristo Rey” [“Long live Christ the King”]. So the soldiers called them the Cristos Reyes, but Cristos Reyes is difficult to pronounce, it’s too long, so Cristos Reyes came to be “Cristero.” And on the word “Cristero” the people invented the word “Cristiada.” Sometimes “Cristeriada,” and even sometimes, it was just invented recently: “La Cristera.” But it’s two or three years old.
But “La Cristiada”: When I met my editor, in ‘72, he didn’t find the word “Cristiada” in the dictionary, and so he was consulting and some people were telling him, “No, no, no it’s just used by the common people, by the folk, it’s not good, it’s not Mexican Spanish,” and I was defended by a very good Mexican linguist. He died some years ago, more than 18 years ago, Antonio a la Torre. Antonio a la Torre was born in a small city of the south of Jalisco, Autlán, and he was 7 years old when the Cristiada occurred. He was a friend of Juan Rulfo of the same generation, and his family was pro-Cristero, and he said to my editor, Arnaldo Ofila, he told him: “La Cristiada, la Cristiada you can’t find a more high-culture and pure Spanish word, and it has been re-invented by the Mexican people, because it’s like the Illiada, it’s an epic.”
My father can remember that during the 1930s, when he and his family lived in Chihuahua, people would come and throw pebbles on the roof to indicate they knew where the Mass was but they didn’t know when. Have you heard this?
That’s true, that’s true. Really, I think that’s an historical experience, and it’s no invention, it’s not a legend of your family, really.
And was this a common kind of thing in the different states, that they would have ways of secretly telling people that it was time for Mass?
Yes, everywhere and here in Mexico City, and it was a kind of a ... as in Rome at the time of Nero, the Church of the catacombs.
And the government in many cases, like in Oaxaca, I was wondering if it was perhaps like this in San Luis Potosi. For example, did the government know that this was happening in some cases and permitted it as long as it wasn’t too apparent, or what was happening?
Yes, really that is what was happening, and you have to remember that Lazaro Cardenas was president from ’34 to ’40. Eventually he was the president who made the really final and real peace with the Church.
More or less we can say that the peace came in ’38, but in ’36, personally he was agnostic, he was even anticlerical, but he came from a very Catholic family. His mother was praying every day for the conversion of her son, the president of Mexico, and the reopening of the churches. So one day he said publicly, “I am tired of closing churches and finding them always filled up with people. From now on, we will no longer close the churches, and we’ll open classrooms.”
The idea was that culture can destroy religion, but we’ll put an end to aggression against religion because it’s not working. So in many places the government just closed its eyes to the situation. And I was told that many of those men secretly married, I’m speaking of governors, of deputies, of senators, officially and openly anticlerical, and secretly married in the Church, baptizing the kids of the family and so on.
So even the government officials themselves were clandestinely participating in the Catholic religion, while they were reporting to Calles that “We are executing your orders.”
Yes, and you know even Calles, who was the most sincere of the anti-clericals, agreed to marry in the Church, because his wife wanted it. And all his family was baptized and married in the Church. I was told that by one of his daughters, Doña Hortensia, who was a fabulous and very generous woman. And Doña Hortensia told me, “I married in the Church.” It was before the conflict. “And my father told me, ‘Hortensia, don’t ask me to go to the church.’” So he was not at the church, but who was the godfather of marriage? Because in Mexico we have a godfather for everything, for marriage. It was President [Alvaro] Obregon. He was the godfather in the cathedral of Mexico City. And Doña Hortensia told me, “When my father was expelled, was exiled from Mexico by Cardenas in 1936, we left with him.” I think they were living in San Diego, if not San Diego, in California. “My little sisters, my father put my little sisters in a school run by Catholic nuns.” Catholic nuns! “And my sisters had problems because the companions would shout at them, “Your father killed the priests! Your father raped nuns!” and so on.
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman writes from Mexico City.