‘For Greater Glory’: Mexico’s War for Religious Freedom Is In a New Movie — and In Family Memories

The movie For Greater Glory, which opened this month, depicts a war that many Americans have never heard of: Mexico’s Cristero War of 1926–1929, aka La Cristiada. The war began when president Plutarco Elias Calles started enforcing anti-religious sections of the country’s constitution. He later passed the Calles Laws, which forbade priests from wearing religious clothing outside of church and imprisoned them if they criticized the government. Eventually all Roman Catholic priests in Mexico stopped openly performing Mass and other religious services.

But for me, the war is familiar. It started in Jalisco, a cactus-shaped state in western Mexico that’s also my family’s home. Watching For Greater Glory triggered memories of my own family’s role in the war. My grand-uncle, Juan Arriola Rosas, was one of the Mexican peasants who fought as a guerrilla alongside Catholic priests who’d taken up arms. I asked my family members about his time as a Cristero. My aunt, Socorro de Leon de Arriola, took care of “Don Juan” in his old age and remembered his stories from the war. She said that for my grand-uncle, who was only 15 or 16 at the time, it was not about politics but about a right of passage, about becoming a man.

For the deeply religious people of our town, San Jose de Tateposco, it was also about the right to practice their faith. Through my aunt I learned that my grand-uncle’s wife, Amparo Hernandez Valdez (“Tia Amparo” to me), was part of a secret network of women—the Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc—who provided aid to the Cristeros. Learning this information was like opening a treasure chest. I recall my grand-aunt as an old lady, her hair covered by a shawl, bent over a metate (a three-legged grinding stone), making tortillas. She would sprinkle salt and water on the warm tortillas, bunch them into a little ball, and hand them to me as a snack. This humble woman and homemaker was part of a secret revolutionary network? According to my aunt, she was—and she wasn’t the only one. Thousands of Mexican women from Jalisco, and other states, formed a vast network that kept the Cristeros supplied with weapons, munitions, information, food, and medical services.

In Spanish, my aunt recounted the role my family members played in the war that’s depicted in For Greater Glory.

How did my grand-uncle get involved in the Cristero War?
He told me that they were recruited in secret. All the young men from town would gather at night and talk about joining the Cristiada. His mom would not let him go fight because he was so young, but finally he left without her permission. They were taken to the sierras in Michoacán state. Everyone who joined the Cristeros had to swear an oath of secrecy and obedience. He said it went like this: “I, (state your name), swear in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, and in the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to defend my faith and not talk or say anything even if I am tortured or killed.”

What was my Tia Amparo’s role in the Cristiada?
She joined first, before her husband—they were not married yet. She was 16 or 17 years old. The first feminine brigade was created in Zapopan, Jalisco, about 55 miles from our hometown. They got weapons and munitions for the Cristeros. They would pass along information, hide the men, and feed them. They would even mend and wash their clothes, and pray for them. The young women in our town joined because the government would try to scare the townsfolk at night—men had been dragged through the streets. Whenever soldiers came to town, the women would have to hide so they would not be assaulted.. It was a difficult time for the townsfolk; many were poor and worked for landowners. They would be paid in corn and beans, and only a few cents.

How did you learn all these stories about my grand-uncle and my grand-aunt?
In the evenings I would sit with Don Juan and talk to him—he liked to talk about what he had done in his life. Sometimes people would gather by a bonfire in the evenings and talk about the war. We would sit around the fire and toast tortillas, guasanas (fresh garbanzo beans), and pumpkin seeds. Everyone shared their experiences.

What did he say his time as a Cristero was like?
He said the men would fight with sticks, machetes, and rifles when available. They would fight with whatever farm tools they had. He spent about two years fighting. They traveled a lot, and he sometimes did not know where they were. In one particular battle they were losing, and everyone scattered. He was lost in the sierra for days by himself until he made his way to the outskirts of a small town. From there he made his way back to our own hometown by walking for days and asking people for directions. A family legend was born that day, for Don Juan said that a man in a white horse appeared to him and gave him a ride to the outskirts of that town. He always thought that man was the archangel Michael.

What motivation did people have to support and join the Cristiada?
Don Juan said that they fought to defend their faith. The government closed down the churches. Priests were killed and tortured, hung on trees, tied by their thumbs to horses and dragged through the streets. They were made to walk to other towns without the skin on the soles of their feet. Some of the priests and believers were beheaded, or executed by military firing squads. Nuns were dishonored. People had to get married in secret, or baptize their children in secret. A lot of people died. They were tortured so they would renounce their faith, but many preferred to die proclaiming it, yelling, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long Live Christ the King!”).

— Antonieta Rico

Human Journey