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.
How did your research of the Cristero Rebellion and the writing of this history affect you?
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 by the way, it was true. 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 an authoritarian mother. And she 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 (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; and 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 personally. I was educated as a Catholic in a very practicing family, and I never stopped to be. 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: 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 — I can’t stand.”
Matthew Hoffman writes from Mexico City.