By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/27/12 in The Madera Tribune
My grandfather Higinio Lozano, son of Trinidad and Gorgonia, first saw the light in Atotonilquillo in the Mexican state of Jalisco on Jan. 11, 1897. His only sibling, 2-year-old Reynalda, died later that year, but eight more would be born in time.
His family lived in the city of Tepatitlán, also in Jalisco. The state lies in the western part of Mexico, which along with the north was considered especially religious. Ranchera music, the mariachi tradition, and tequila all originated in Jalisco, a land of grasslands, evergreen and oak forests, scrublands, beaches, rivers, and lakes.
Years passed and Higinio, who never had a formal education beyond a third grade level, became a voracious reader. If his family visited friends, Higinio would look for any books they had, sit, and read. His father, upset at such presumption, stopped taking him places.
But when a school teacher visited to test children for grade placement, Higinio could already read everything the teacher had. So the teacher appointed the boy to teach other children. A local priest also had Higinio, who served at Mass in Latin, assist in instructing children in their faith.
These peaceful years would not last.
In 1910, President Porfirio Diaz allowed free elections for the first time since seizing power in 1876. Unlike leaders before him, Diaz had not persecuted the Catholic Church, but that would change as a failed revolt in late November ignited a revolution. Escaping the rising disorder and violence, Diaz fled to Paris and one leader after another took control yet could not keep it.
Finally, Alvaro Obregon, known to imprison priests and nuns and take church property, recaptured Mexico City in 1920 and began to rule Mexico. His handpicked successor, fellow revolutionary Plutarco Elias Calles, became president from 1924-1928 and continued to govern behind the scenes for seven years after he stepped down.
Under Calles, Mexico’s anti-religious constitution would be fully enforced. New laws against clergy were added June 14, 1926. Religious orders were outlawed, ministers lost basic civil liberties, and church property was snatched by the government. In some parts of Mexico, attending Mass could be punished by death. Most priests were imprisoned, killed, hid, or fled.
By now, my grandfather Higinio journeyed from village to village in Jalisco on donkey or horseback with a plainclothes priest who secretly administered sacraments to Catholics.
Higinio also would distribute literature on the Catholic faith in public together with young adults. They’d select a street corner to do so and hastily moved on if they thought soldiers were coming. Several times he was caught and jailed, and close friends had to get him out.
Across Mexico, the more people resisted, the more violent the government became. One could not travel from one town to another without seeing bodies hanging from trees or telegraph poles — a warning to would-be opposition.
Naturally conversations turned more and more to the dangers of my grandfather’s volunteer ministries. Under pressure from those who loved him, Higinio and his brother Natalio agreed to emigrate to the U.S.
They traveled on foot through Western Mexico by day and rested by night. One morning the brothers discovered they had unintentionally camped in a cemetery and slept, and another time they awoke to a mountain lion sniffing their bedrolls.
Yet they made it safely to Texas where their younger brother Trinidad already worked. Along with more than a dozen men, the three brothers set and repaired rails that ran from Texas to Oklahoma. They rode flat cars, slept in tents, and worked long days miles away from any town.
My grandfather lacked the strength and stamina to wield sledge hammers or lift rail, so he carried water and helped cook.
Back in Mexico, the cleverest victory by Cristeros (rebels against the persecution) over government troops happened April 19, 1929, in my grandfather’s home city of Tepatitlán. There 900 defeated 3,000.
That summer U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow helped negotiate a truce in which the Cristeros would lay down their arms in exchange for a pardon, some priests could register with the government and minister, and religious instruction would be allowed in private.
The Cristeros did so, and Calles then had about 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros shot, often in front of their spouses and children.
Before the conflict, 4,500 priests served in Mexico. By 1934, only 334 priests were licensed to serve 15 million Catholics. A year later, 17 states had no priests at all.