Mexican Martyrs to Be Beatified


When Pope John Paul II travels to Mexico City next week, he will canonize Juan Diego, making a saint of the Mexican peasant to whom Catholics believe the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared in 1531.

An enormous crowd is expected to fill blocks around the city’s basilica Wednesday for what should be one of the biggest religious spectacles that Mexico has ever seen.

In addition to these festivities, however, a less well-known appointment is on the papal schedule for the next day. This is a beatification of the so-called “Martyrs of Cajonos,” Juan Bautista and Jacinto de Los Angeles, who were killed for their faith Sept. 16, 1700.


A proud contingent of citizens from Cajonos, a village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, as well as immigrants from Oaxaca who live in Los Angeles County, will participate in the ceremony, also at the basilica. They will carry flowers, portraits of Bautista and De Los Angeles, and glass cases decorated with gold fringe that hold the martyrs’ bones.

The story of these two men--risen from obscurity after 300 years--opens a window into Mexican history as well as the Vatican’s modern evangelistic strategies.

Spain’s subjugation of Mexico was achieved mainly through Catholicism. Soon after conquistador Hernando Cortes prevailed in 1521, Catholic friars, priests and nuns were on ships sailing toward what was soon called New Spain.

They built fortress-like convents, and from these high walls set forth to convert and--to their way of thinking--civilize the indigenous population.

To help in this massive task, early adherents to Catholicism were deputized as fiscales, or marshals, and allowed to bear arms. The fiscales--Bautista and de Los Angeles among them--were expected to uphold civil and religious laws.

One day, those two encountered a group of their fellow citizens in Cajonos who were worshipping idols. Experts hypothesize that it may have been a celebration of Huitzilopochtli, the harvest god. Bautista and De Los Angeles reported what they had seen to the religious authorities.

Outraged, those who had been informed on dragged the fiscales off into the densely wooded mountain highlands and killed them with machetes. They were buried there in unmarked graves near the town of San Pedro.

In their youth, this gruesome tale was told often to Gilberto Hernandez, now 73; Pablo Belasco, 69; and Desiderio Robles, 76. They all live in Cajonos, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level and a two-hour ride over muddy roads from the city of Oaxaca. Cajonos (population 350) is known locally as un pueblo de las nubes, or a “town in the clouds.” A basketball court built on a cracked concrete slab doubles as the town square.

Hernandez, Belasco and Robles are subsistence farmers who grow maize and chickpeas. Sitting in the shady courtyard of their village’s church, the three men spoke recently with visitors. Politely removing their hats and placing them with dignity on their knees, they spoke to each other in the flat-toned syllables of their native Zapotec language before replying in Spanish.

“Our grandparents would tell us about the martyrs, just like they told stories from the revolution,” Belasco said. “We learned that they died defending the Catholic faith,” Robles agreed.

“And that lilies grew out of their graves, and their names were written on each leaf,” Hernandez added, though his tone of voice indicated that this last detail could not be verified.

This all might have remained local folklore had not Hernandez come across a book in Cajonos’ town hall titled “Historical Points.” Published in 1889 and written by Eulogio G. Gillow, who was then bishop of Oaxaca, it deals with the lives and deaths of Bautista and De Los Angeles.

After reading it, Hernandez and the others thought they had been called to approach the Vatican with a case for beatification, which is the first and hardest step toward possibly being named a saint.

Coached by their priest in 1973, they started interviewing the town elders. They collected detailed files on the more than 30 people who insisted that their prayers to the martyrs had resulted in miracles. To their surprise, though, the men learned that such claims are not required for martyrs because the Catholic Church considers that giving one’s life alone is verification of sanctity.

Ultimately, their decades-long effort would outlast the tenure of various priests who helped them complete the application. As they matter-of-factly described these labors, they were modest about what they had accomplished.

“The work was a blessing from God,” Hernandez said as his two friends nodded in agreement.

The current archbishop of Oaxaca, Hector Gonzales Martin, finds it appropriate that the nearly forgotten case of the two fiscales was championed by these three farmers.

“This beatification process should be understood as fruit from the first evangelization of this culture,” he said. “Then, as now, the church has allowed nonclerical individuals to assume important responsibilities.”

This may be so, but until the current papacy, some say a claim that a town in the clouds of Oaxaca had produced two saints might have fallen on deaf ears in Rome.

“If you look at all the saints in Catholicism, overwhelmingly they tend to be white European males. And mostly celibate priests, bishops and popes,” said Timothy Matovina, a professor at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame University.

“Yet, what is sainthood? It’s anyone who has given their life for Christ. Recognizing this, John Paul II has diversified the communion of saints and lifted up local heroes in places like Japan, Vietnam and Russia.”

According to Lawrence Cunningham, also a Notre Dame theology professor, in this diversification process, John Paul II has canonized more people than all the popes combined since the Reformation.

“Why is he doing this? For political--meaning public--reasons,” he said. “The pope knows that in Mexico, people are hemorrhaging from the traditional Catholic Church into Protestantism. So, he wants to remind them that there is a tradition of heroic sanctity in Mexico’s history.”

For Gloria Hernandez of Glendale, who was born near Cajonos, the beatification of Bautista and De Los Angeles confirms what she has always believed.

“I’d heard about them from my grandmother as a child, but didn’t start praying to the martyrs until I was 20,” said Hernandez, 59, who is a longtime member of St. Cecilia Catholic Church south of downtown Los Angeles.

She credits their intercession for giving her mortally ill son two additional years of life and for help in retrieving a car impounded by immigration authorities at the Mexican border.

For the past several years, in addition to her day job as a house cleaner, Hernandez has organized sales of tamales to raise money for the beatification. Her voice quickens as she describes her anticipation of the ceremony.

“The martyrs are like God to me, and my heart is with them,” she said. “I was nervous when I got married, but I’ll be much more nervous on the day we will be in Mexico City.”