By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/04/12 in The Madera Tribune
My grandfather left Mexico and its religious persecution with a price on his head, set by the state of Jalisco, for his stubborn piety. Yet his reception in the United States wouldn’t be entirely welcoming; nor would he ever abandon Mexico in his heart.
Higinio Lozano first worked as a cook for a railroad line crew in the South. Once, he received a strong dose of poison oak while carrying water to wash the daily pots and pans. That evening his younger brother Natalio followed the train tracks on foot to the nearest town to get medicine.
After walking miles, Natalio arrived at a drugstore cold and wet from a storm. As he scraped his muddy shoes on a mat, someone yelled, “What do you want?! Don’t you get on my floors. You wait out there until I’m ready!”
Natalio waited as a customer loitered inside. Eventually the pharmacist came to the door and took his order for calamine lotion. A sign in the window explained it all: “No Negroes, Mexicans, or Dogs Allowed Inside!” The experience soaked in as Natalio made his way back to camp in the dark, and the Lozano brothers now spoke often of heading west.
By the late 1920s, they did so. Higinio found work in the fields of San Fernando, California, despite his lack of strength and agility. But he applied his mental vigor to his church and community. He worked with young people as part of the Catholic Association for Mexican Youth, and wrote, directed, and performed in religious plays.
The execution of Rev. Miguel Pro, SJ, in Mexico City on Nov. 23, 1927, inspired one such drama. My grandfather portrayed the role of the priest. A young woman, Maria del Carmen Najar, played another part. This led to a loving relationship that would result in marriage and ultimately my own existence.
But the true tale behind that play deserves repeating.
Born in Mexico of a mining engineer, Miguel Pro joined the Jesuit order Aug. 14, 1911, at age 20. Three years later he had to leave his homeland due to revolution. He fled to Texas and California before studying in Spain, teaching in Nicaragua, and learning theology in Belgium, where he was ordained a priest Aug. 31, 1925.
He wrote: “How can I explain to you the sweet grace of the Holy Spirit, which invades my poor miner’s soul with such heavenly joys? I could not keep back my tears…”
Though he had a serious side, Pro loved quips and pranks. As a seminarian he’d amuse others with tricks, stories, American English slang, and by singing random lines of popular songs.
He ministered first to Belgian miners. But his superiors allowed him to return to Mexico on July 8, 1926, in hopes the food and climate would improve his chronic stomach problems. Surprisingly, no Mexican authorities checked his passport or bags.
Pro created “Eucharistic Stations” throughout Mexico City to secretly distribute Holy Communion to hundreds daily. He visited the sick and brought aid to the poor. Excellent at disguises, he even impersonated a prison guard to pray with prisoners and hear confessions.
He once met policemen guarding a house he’d planned to offer Mass at. He strode to them, opened his vest as if showing a badge, and declared, “There’s a cat bagged here.” Hoodwinked, the police saluted and let him inside.
Another time, police invaded a home while Pro celebrated Mass. He rushed everyone into other rooms, hid the Eucharist in his suit pocket, and then accompanied police on their fruitless search for a priest. When Pro left, he told a guard posted at the door that he would have stayed to help catch the priest but he had a date with his girlfriend. He later wrote lightheartedly, “I returned to the place, but, somehow or other, the priest had not yet appeared…”
He would be jailed repeatedly, but that aided his prison ministry and inspired him to continue.
Finally, the Mexican government had enough. A few days after a bomb injured former president Alvaro Obregón, Pro and his brothers were arrested on false charges of attempted assassination. A trial was set for the next day, but morning brought only a firing squad.
President Plutarco Calles had requested the execution six months beforehand, and professional photographers had been arranged to document a fearful death. But instead the priest forgave his prison guard, prayed, and blessed his executioners. He refused a blindfold and with arms outstretched exclaimed, “Viva Cristo Rey!”