Church Record Sunday: Life’s Lessons, Part 1 – Unbreakable Faith

Gilbert Cayetano Huesca  (1915 – 2009)

(Part One of a three part series.   To read Part 2, please click here.  To read part 3, please click here)

No matter how close you are to someone, the bits and pieces you know about them only scratch the surface of who they are. It’s the voids – the spaces between the things they do and the questions you have about the whys – that can fill in the blanks to help you understand what happened in the unknown moments that affected the rest of their life.
My father, Gilbert Cayetano Huesca,
age 91, about 2007,  San Jose, California
Several years ago, one of those voids surfaced when my father reacted emotionally to a local play we attended.  

The play, “Viva Cristo Rey,” was about the martyrdom of a Mexican Jesuit priest, Blessed Miguel Pro, in early 20th century Mexico.  My father, who was 91 at the time, sat very still through the play, straining to hear every word and  tightly pursing his lips from time to time. I sensed a certain tension in him and squeezed his hand.  He squeezed mine back, his eyes never leaving the stage. 

When the play ended, we lined up in the lobby to meet the cast. As we reached the young actor who had portrayed Father Miguel Pro, my father began trembling.  “All of these things are true,” he began, his eyes welling with tears. “I did not see this priest, but I was a witness to that same inhumanity in [the state of] Chiapas.”

The actors and audience members around us leaned in as he recounted his story as clearly as if it had just occurred, rather than 72 years earlier. “Unbelievable cruelty, but it did happen in Mexico.  I was there. I saw it with my own eyes.”
The cruelty he referred to was religious persecution and anti-clericalism in Mexico. Although both had roots in the mid-19th century, they reached a peak when the Constitution of 1917 removed churches’ legal status and essentially outlawed religious practice. Among other things, the articles of the constitution made public worship a crime.  They outlawed religious orders, religious education, religious organizations, and publications that dealt with public policy. They prohibited priests from performing their ministry and removed their rights to vote or hold office. They invalidated church marriages, allowed the government to seize church property, and banned clergy and religious from wearing religious garb outside of church. Under the constitution, anyone violating these restrictions forfeited his or her right to a trial. During the 1920s, President Plutarco Elias Calles began enforcing these articles, arresting and making examples of those who dared challenge the law.
As a result of the new laws, people could not speak publicly about God or faith. They could not voice dissent for fear of being arrested or worse, executed.  The Mexican bishops made a painful decision to close all the churches across the country to protect their people and their clergy.  

Couples who wanted to be married in the church had to marry twice – once in a civil ceremony and again by a priest. My father’s sister, María de la Luz Huesca, and her husband were married in a quiet ceremony at home by their parish priest in Veracruz State, for this reason. 

People practiced their religion much like the Christians of Roman times, gathering quietly in homes for clandestine catechism, Masses, baptisms and rosaries. Families created small devotional altars with religious statues and images, photographs of loved ones, and votive candles for private prayer.


Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J., one of the
 martyrs of the Cristero rebellion against 
religious persecution in Mexico

Many clerics went into exile. One of those was the young seminarian Miguel Pro, whose superior sent him and other seminarians to continue their priestly formation in Los Gatos, California, not far from my home.  After going to Belgium to be ordained, Father Pro returned to Mexico, where he openly supported the growing Cristero (followers of Christ) rebellion against Calles’ violent religious oppression.
In 1927, Father Pro was arrested on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to kill ex-president Álvaro Obregón.  President Calles ordered him executed by firing squad.  His martyrdom and final words, “Viva Cristo Rey,” (Long Live Christ the King), the motto of the Cristeros, renewed and energized the rebellion, mobilizing 40,000 – 50,000 clergy, nuns, and ordinary men, women, and children to fight for religious freedom.  

The Cristero War officially ended in 1929, but the government continued arresting clerics and persecuting people through the 1930s. After that, though public worship was still illegal, officials typically looked the other way.  In 1988, Pope John Paul II began the canonization process to elevate Father Miguel Pro to sainthood, and four years later President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s government lifted most, though not all, of the anti-religious restrictions.
I never heard about the Cristero War while I was in school in mid-1960s Mexico. This was not unusual; many others who were born long after the persecution did not know of it, either.  It simply was kept out of school textbooks and was not discussed in classes. Many of the people who lived through that era did not discuss it much, if at all, with the younger generations.  

As an adult, I gradually became aware of this dark chapter of oppression in Mexico’s history. Maybe because it was not mentioned much, I did not gave serious thought to how it affected my father and his family.  It was not until the evening of the play that this sad era of Mexico’s history hit home as my father’s story, which I had heard before, finally took on the gravity it deserved. 

Surrounded by the actors and others in the theater lobby, my father recounted that when he was 19 years old he traveled for his family’s business to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of Chiapas.

It was 1934, a year that turned out to be one of the worst in the government’s brutal persecution of the church, even though the Cristero War had officially ended five years earlier.

My father had gone to the zócalo, or town square, when he saw a large band of soldiers gathered there.  Their commander grabbed a megaphone and in a thundering voice ordered the teachers and religious of the town to turn in all their books, crucifixes, and religious images and articles to the square that evening to be destroyed.

The square, once noisy and vibrant minutes, was now stilled by the commander’s harsh orders, and people retreated to their homes in silence.  My father left for his hotel, horrified and angry. 
At the appointed hour, he returned to the square to see for himself what would happen. His initial curiosity and fearlessness morphed into an overwhelming sense of helplessness as scores of fearful townspeople arrived and were forced at gunpoint to throw their things onto a large bonfire.  Many sobbed as they watched their treasured and sacred belongings go up in the choking black smoke.

My father would not tell us that night whether anyone fought back or lost their lives on that fateful day.  All he would say was that resistance equalled death, either on the spot or at a later time by firing squad. Overcome with emotion, he left it at that, and we left the theater and went home.

The vivid barbarity of that episode left a deep scar on many, including the young witness who would someday become my father.  The military continued to bully and terrorize the Mexican people for nearly another five years.  Many people worked around the rules, finding ways to exercise their faith quietly. Others chose to fight back, either as soldiers or by boldly practicing their faith in public, tempting further persecution and even death. They showed that while it is possible to lose everything you have, including your right to practice what you believe, nothing – and no one – can take away what is in your mind, in your heart, in your soul.

There are many types of formative experiences in life. Most of us would not hope to view persecution as one of them.  It’s hard to comprehend how terrible it must have been if you’ve never felt that kind of oppression and seen the effects it has on people.  

There is a Spanish proverb that says that man proposes and God disposes. The Mexican people suffered immeasurably for their faith, but in the end it was their faith that saved them during the persecution, giving them hope and strength and solace.  

As I drove my father home that night, I couldn’t help but wonder about the void in the story – the part that was too painful for him to share. I never did find out what it was. At the time, I was more concerned with the pain the play had resurrected in him that night. It took another recollection several years later, my own this time, to understand the toll that the experience had taken on his life.



Next:  Wisdom Wednesday:  Life’s Lessons, Part 2 – The Defining Moments

To read the other installments in this three part series, please click on the links below:

Part 2:  Wisdom Wednesday – Life’s Lessons:  The Defining Moments

Part 3:  Thankful Thursday – Life’s Lessons:  The Forces that Shape Us


Copyright ©  2013  Linda Huesca Tully




7 Thoughts to “Church Record Sunday: Life’s Lessons, Part 1 – Unbreakable Faith

  1. I had certainly never heard this chapter in history. What an unexpected turn of events for an evening out with your father. I look forward to the rest of the story.

  2. Wow. First of all, you write beautifully.

    Secondly, it's so strange that we should come upon one another just when I start working on the genealogy of my step-mother, who is from Mexico. As I was looking at the 1930 Census, I didn't realize that the country had just come off this difficult time. (I have no excuse – I have two books of Mexican history on my bedside table that I need to read before I truly get started!)

    Thanks for bringing this to life. Like many of us genealogists, I suspect that we remember stories much better when they are told in narrative form. I'll certainly never forget and now want to know more about the Cristeros! Thank you for awakening a new interest!

  3. I agree, Jennifer – what a coincidence that we each read the other's blogs at the same time – amazing!

    There is so much to learn that doesn't appear in the history books. Fortunately, more information surfaces every day. If you're interested in learning more about the Cristeros, you might want to watch "For Greater Glory," a movie that came out last year and portrays the struggle beautifully and poignantly.

    Also, Lisa of the Smallest Leaf blog, has written an excellent post, "Mexico's Forgotten Pain: The Persecution of Catholics and the Cristero War," in The Catholic Gene. I highly recommend it. I've linked to it in my story above, but you can also access it at

    Have fun researching your step-mom's ancestry!

  4. Coming from you, Lisa, that is quite a compliment. I agree with you and hope articles such as this and your own will spur more people to learn about this sad episode in Mexico's history. We have so much to learn from it.

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