CLACS ’03 Alum’s Newest Book on the Lasting Immigrant Legacy of Mexico’s Cristero War

The Catholic University Professor and CLACS '03 Alum and her newest book 'Mexican Exodus'
The Catholic University Professor and CLACS ’03 Alum Julia Young and her newest book ‘Mexican Exodus’
Written by CLACS MA Candidate Patrick Moreno-Covington

In popular conceptions, immigrants are often thought of as poor, huddled masses yearning for the opportunity that awaits them in their new country. More recent images and ideas composed in times where immigration restrictions have increased focus on the sources of violence and poverty immigrants are often leaving. The new dialogue surrounding the criminality of immigrants is a similar continuation of this fixation on violence. In many ways these conversations are not new or novel to our time. Each share the tradition of seeking to reduce these often complex experiences to easily identifiable and digestible narratives.

CLACS ’03 alum Julia Young has sought to investigate the variable and nuanced realities of the immigrant experience in her newest book Mexican Exodus: Emigrants, Exiles, and Refugees of the Cristero War. Young’s interest in migration began as she started her career as a Latin America scholar as part of CLACS. Young’s Master’s thesis provided nuance to the immigration experience by quantifying, from a sociological perspective, how Mexican immigrants have assimilated into American culture. Julia credits CLACS for providing a multi-disciplinary educational opportunity that allowed her to meld her interest in the immigrant experience with studies of contemporary Latin America. After graduating from CLACS, Julia used her expertise in writing as a journalist and editor before deciding that she missed the thrill of research and began to pursue her PhD in History at the University of Chicago and becoming an Assistant Professor of History at The Catholic University in Washington DC.

At UC, Julia desired to build on the work she started at CLACS and began to look at the roots of Mexican migration to the United States. As she began to get deeper into the archives and her research began to focus on from where and as to when the first large swathes of migrants began to cross over. In doing so, Julia began to uncover an increasing number of references to a little mentioned, but vastly important, conflict over what was for many of the participants, the soul of Mexican identity.

The Cristero War, or La Cristiada as it is known in Mexico, was a series of conflicts from 1926-1929 throughout the country between anti-clerical secular reformers who sought to restrict the power and influence of the Catholic Church and Catholic partisans. The violence began when in 1926 President Plutarco Elías Calles, in an effort to modernize the country, began to enforce a series of laws that limited the role of the Church in the public sphere including banning the wearing of religious dress in public, removing the rights of the clergy to vote and their ability to express political opinions. The Church responded by closing all churches within the country and suspending the celebration of religious sacraments including the ritual of Communion. In a country that was and still remains devoutly Catholic, the laws were seen as an affront not only to Church power but to the potential salvation of all practitioners. 

The Catholic partisans immediately began skirting the law, celebrating the sacraments, and openly challenging what they viewed as an oppressive political order. By the end of 1926, the partisans had taken up arms and a battle flag of Mexico’s patron saint La Virgen de Guadalupe. Although mostly located in the west-central states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Colima, outbreaks of violence spread throughout the country. The schism between the two sides developed into a full scale culture war. Deaths of the Catholic partisans given the martyr treatment and were seen as deaths of religious warriors. Cristiada corridos, or folk songs, were sung at every opportunity in order to challenge the nascent post-revolutionary national culture with a Catholic national culture based in traditional religious relationships.

Battle flag of the Catholic Partisans in the Cristero War. Source -
Battle flag of the Catholic Partisans in the Cristero War. Source -

In the middle of this conflict, both literally and figuratively, was the US-Mexico border. In a foreshadowing of events to come in US-Mexico border relations, the majority of arms that the Catholic partisans used were produced in the United States. Some of those guns were smuggled across the border by nuns, or women dressed as nuns, in full habit. The violence in Mexico along with the allure of higher wages in the United States pushed tens of thousands of migrants from the most heavily embroiled states to the US. These Mexican emigrants did not leave their ideas and allegiances behind. As Young found, countless telegrams and notes sent along with remittances comment on the ongoing conflict in their home country. Beyond words, small groups of Mexican immigrants attempted to start a revolution in Mexico from their bases in the United States. In response, the United States government established the first form of the Border Patrol. 

Soldiers in a firing line target a priest during the Cristero War. Source -
Soldiers in a firing line target a priest during the Cristero War. Source –

The conflict officially came to an end in 1930, but, due to the nature of the cease fire, violent flare ups occurred throughout the decade in response to government authorized developmental socialist education. As Young discovered through her research and recounts to us in Mexican Exodus, the immigrant experience cannot be simplified into easily digestible narratives of coming to new countries with a blank slate. The migrants who left Mexico during the Cristero War held strong connections and concern for the events going on at home and distinct political ideas about how to aid and connect to their loved ones while managing to establish a new life in the United States. In this way, Young shows the intricacies of a diasporic community and how events consigned to history can continue to have lasting effects and lessons for us today.

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