December 12, 1531: Garrido Canabal against Guadalupe

By: Ben Fallaw

January 3, 2020

Religion in Mexico and Mexican-American Communities

The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, December 12, is a special one for many Catholics, especially in Mexican and Mexican-American communities. Today, la Guadalupana is a hallowed national icon and the patron saint of all the Americas. In spite of la Guadalupana’s cultural and religious significance, one important chapter in her history remains largely forgotten: the bitter conflict between the Catholic Church and the Mexican state touched off by the four-hundredth anniversary of Guadalupe’s appearance on December 12, 1531.

President Pascual Ortiz Rubio and the Mexican episcopate hoped the fourth centennial would mark a new era of Church-state co-existence. After years of antagonism peaking in the bloody Cristero War (1926–1929), the arreglos (arrangements) ending the uprising seemingly resolved Mexico’s religious question—the place of the Church in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation after an anticlerical revolution. Many public officials attended the festivities at the basilica alongside foreign diplomats and tens of thousands of Mexicans. Seizing on the alleged threat of fanaticism and reaction posed by the event, a small but influential group of revolutionary politicos claiming the support of Mexico’s ultimate authority, Plutarco Elías Calles, pushed for a new crackdown on the Church. Radical anticlericals passed legislation to expel priests, close churches, and shutter parochial schools. The Villa de Guadalupe was incorporated into the federal district as the Delegación Gustavo A. Madero. An even more drastic proposal to “nationalize” the beloved image of the Virgin by placing her in a museum went unrealized, however.

Why did the anniversary celebration spark a confrontation that unraveled the arreglos and renewed the Church-state conflict? There was more than a little political opportunism behind anticlericalism, as President Ortiz Rubio had many political foes. Genuine ideology played a role, too. Since the mid-nineteenth century, liberals sought to transform Mexico into a secular nation. The revolutionary 1917 Constitution went even further, promising to push the Church out of public life and the educational system. By the early 1930s, an influential Jacobin cadre headed by Tabascan strongman Tomas Garrido Canabal would go even farther by eliminating all organized religion. In the case of the revolutionary attacks against la Guadalupana, few scholars have explored the relationship between misogyny and anticlericalism in Mexico.

We are also only beginning to understand the “genuine religious ferment” (in Matthew Butler’s words) sparked by the revolution. In the 1920s and 1930s, new faith communities like Luz del Mundo and individual spiritual innovators populated a wide middle ground between Garrido’s uncompromising materialism and the recalcitrant, conservative Catholicism of Bishop José de Jesús Manríquez and the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty. A separatist Catholic movement still in existence today, the Iglesia Apostólica Católica Mexicana (ICAM), retained the Virgin of Guadalupe after splitting with Rome. At least one freethinking freemason, Félix Ramírez, sought to claim the Lady of Tepeyac for the secular nation by penning an eight-page epic poem entitled “Explanations from La Guadalupana to Juan Diego.” In it, a “pura revolucionaria Virgen” announces that she was a “republican Indian” and “Sister of Humble Democracy.” This Virgin describes herself as “Guadalupe la agraria y con el progreso voy.” (“Guadalupe the agrarian reformer, and I go with progress.”) She praised not just nineteenth-century patriotic heroes like Miguel Hidalgo, José Maria Morelos, and Vicente Guerrero (none explicitly anticlerical), but also the secular republican hero Benito Juárez and even unambiguously anticlerical politicians Adalberto Tejeda and Calles [1]. By trying to refashion Guadalupe into a liberal Mexican icon, Ramírez broke with other revolutionary intellectuals. While a few of them might claim Christ was the first socialist, they generally ignored or disdained the Virgin of Guadalupe. Predictably, perhaps, when Ramírez sent his poem to Garrido, the Tabascan comecura (priest-eater) curtly replied that “[i]t is not enough to regulate religion, it must be suppressed. It is not enough to be anticlerical, it is necessary to be atheist” [2]. 

How did Catholics react to the renewal of attacks on the Church in the early 1930s spurred by Garrido and likeminded iconoclasts? One historian of Mexican Catholicism argues that Guadalupanismo became more conservative, nationalist, pro-Spanish, and anti-U.S. American as a result [3]. Institutionally, the Catholic Church fended off proposed revolutionary reforms like ending clerical celibacy and spoken confession. While the Catholic laity for the most part backed the clergy’s stand and showed little enthusiasm for schism (ICAM aside), the revolution did alter some Catholic beliefs. For instance, historian Kristina Boylan examined cases of bigamy and annulment brought before the Archdiocese of Mexico’s Matrimonial Tribunal and found that Catholic litigants invoked secular (and in a sense revolutionary) notions of individual happiness and companionate marriage to make their cases. 

Seen from a longer perspective, the last wave of anticlericalism touched off by the 1931 contested anniversary left a divided historical legacy. On the one hand, conservative political opposition to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party founded by Calles often drew on Catholic ideology. Vicente Fox, the first opposition president, visited the Basilica of Tepeyac in December 2000. At the same time, modernization and globalization achieved what the Revolution never could: transforming la Guadalupana from a purely Catholic religious symbol into a secular symbol of Mexican nationalism in the eyes of many.

  1. Félix Ramírez to Tomas Garrido Canabal 20 Nov. 1931 and Garrido to Ramírez 30 Jan. 1932, Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) Archivo Personal de Tomas Garrido Canabal (APTGC) caja 133 expediente (exp.) 11.
  2. Tomas Garrido Canabal to Félix Ramírez 30 Jan. 1932, AGN APTGC caja 133 exp. 11.
  3. David Espinosa, “Jesuit Higher Education in Post-revolutionary Mexico: the Iberoamerican University, 1943-1971,” PhD diss., (University of California-Santa Barbara, 1998), 139.
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