In the rural hamlet of San Nicolas, there are people who use a bulldozer and a backhoe as instruments of God.
Angry Catholics used the backhoe to cut off Nicolasa Vargas’ water after she and her farmworker husband were conspicuously absent from the fiesta honoring the village’s patron saint, St. Nicolas of Tolentino, whose cherubic statue smiles down from a perch in the town’s whitewashed chapel.
Guillermo Cano, a mild-mannered municipal employee, wouldn’t help pay for music at the fiesta. Nor would he eat the tamales or drink the alcohol. All that was against his religion, he said. When he and other Pentecostal Christians bought land for a new temple, local Catholic leaders blocked the road to the property with the bulldozer.
“We told the evangelicals that they won’t be holding any more meetings here” in San Nicolas, said Genaro Gutierrez, a high school teacher and one of a group of community-appointed “delegates” who run many local affairs. “They take advantage to recruit more followers.”
For Gutierrez, every evangelical in San Nicolas is another loose thread in the social fabric. He believes all people here have an obligation to help out in the fiestas for St. Nicolas and a dozen other events for Catholic icons such as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The dispute over religion and ritual is hardly confined to this community of 8,000 people living amid cabbage fields and towering cactuses just outside the city of Ixmiquilpan in the Mezquital Valley north of Mexico City. From central Mexican villages like San Nicolas to the southern region of Chiapas, the steady growth of evangelical congregations has produced an angry backlash, with some Catholic lay leaders using their control of local communal assemblies to enforce religious traditions.
According to census figures, one in six residents in Ixmiquilpan and its surrounding villages practices a Protestant faith. The number has increased dramatically in the last decade, mirroring a national trend. Nine in 10 Mexicans are Catholic, but the number of non-Catholics has increased in every census since 1970.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Mexico’s 1917 constitution, itself the product of a revolution that sought, among other things, to limit the power of the Roman Catholic Church.
But in rural Mexico there are many other kinds of community authority besides those outlined in the constitution. In San Nicolas, residents choose communal leaders in informal assemblies. These leaders, known as delegados, function like small-town mayors -- or, some would say, like dictatorial caudillos, or strongmen.
Catholicism has defined life for centuries in San Nicolas and countless other villages across Mexico. Helping out at the fiestas is mandatory, as is a contribution (in cash or labor) to pilgrimages such as the one by bicycle to visit the statue of the Virgin Mary at San Juan de los Lagos. A lawyer takes attendance: If you don’t pitch in, you pay a fine.
But the austere evangelicals find the colorful ceremonies and iconography lacking.
“They want to be able to brag that their community is 100% Catholic,” said Cano, a 34-year-old member of San Nicolas’ only Pentecostal congregation. “They want to force us to respect something we don’t want to.”
All those Catholic traditions, Cano and other evangelicals say, haven’t helped them at their moments of greatest spiritual need. Baptized a Catholic in the church in San Nicolas, Cano converted to Pentecostalism as a young man. Now he believes in the power of the words in the Bible alone: It’s the Bible, he says, that told him not to “venerate statues.”
The Catholic community delegates of San Nicolas believe it’s their duty to force the evangelicals to paint the local Catholic church. They think everyone should pay for the band at the fiesta for El Senor de Jalpan, a statue of the crucified Jesus that’s been in the cathedral in Ixmiquilpan since arriving there, locals say, under miraculous circumstances in 1770.
“We are defending our identity, what we are,” said Gutierrez, the Catholic community leader. “We are thinking about the future. What will become of San Nicolas? If you let in anyone, and even worse this type of sect, this [community] will be divided.”
Local legend has it that when the Catholic faithful brought the statue of El Senor de Jalpan through Ixmiquilpan on their way to Mexico City, it suddenly became impossibly heavy to lift, which was taken as a divine sign. The miracle helped strengthen the local Otomi Indians’ belief in Catholicism.
Now, once a year, the no-longer-so-weighty statue is brought to San Nicolas for a weeklong fiesta. As in other Mexican towns, the local religious practices are a blend of Indian and Western beliefs: The Catholic saints are stand-ins for the many gods of Otomi culture.
But in the last 15 years here in Hidalgo state, Catholic activists say, 30% of the Indian population has converted to Protestantism. In fact, the anti-evangelical backlash appears to be strongest in those rural regions of Mexico such as San Nicolas where the syncretic traditions of Indian Catholicism have long held sway.
In the southern state of Oaxaca, the ancient center of Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, a Catholic leader locked four evangelical families inside their homes in October for failing to carry out “community obligations.” Farther south, in Chiapas state, evangelical leaders say Maya Catholics have forced thousands of families from their homes.
“We’re not afraid, because we are believers in Jesus and have placed our faith in him,” said Angel Cruz Martinez, a 28-year-old evangelical resident of San Nicolas. “In his prophecies, Jesus says, ‘You will be persecuted in my name.’ And that’s how it is.”
Vargas still shudders when she remembers the day local leaders came to try to force her family to obey Catholic customs.
“The delegados showed up outside my door with 1,000 people and a backhoe,” recalled Vargas, an evangelical and mother of three who lives in a humble home with concrete floors.
The delegates used the machinery to cut off the family’s water for several months, until state and municipal authorities had it restored.
Now Vargas and her husband keep a low profile -- they don’t practice their faith publicly in San Nicolas. Instead, they drive 10 minutes into Ixmiquilpan to attend the services of Modesto Aguilar, an evangelical pastor with a mellifluous baritone who preaches to several dozen people every Sunday.
In Ixmiquilpan and its surrounding villages, Aguilar and other pastors have built their flocks in part by ministering to the region’s downtrodden souls. When San Nicolas’ evangelicals talk about their conversions, many tell stories of redemption and rebirth.
Vargas says her husband’s conversion came after many years of alcoholism and domestic violence. Cruz says he was reborn in a prison outside Atlanta. He had left San Nicolas to work in Georgia’s construction trade, only to be lost to a life of drugs. While serving time on cocaine charges, he met evangelical pastors who changed his life. At a moment when he thought he had no future, they spoke to him of rebirth.
“The pastors told me if I believed in God I would go free,” Cruz said. “When I was a Catholic, I was just following the current. There’s a lot of mysticism in the Catholic Church.... It was the Spanish who came to teach us these beliefs that are not in the Scriptures.”
For others in the Mezquital Valley, such talk is heresy.
The most devout Catholics will tell you their faith is the glue that binds San Nicolas together.
Parents here have always baptized their children and followed all the other sacraments, from first Communion to holy matrimony and beyond. Faith has seen San Nicolas through the hard times that have forced many to migrate to the United States in search of work.
“If this were an urban neighborhood, where there are all kinds of people and people from all over, no one would care,” Gutierrez said. “Not us. For better or for worse, we always look out for the interests of our town.”
People here believe that their patron saint and the Virgin of Guadalupe are what protect them against car accidents, drought and other disasters of nature and man.
In addition to participating in the festivals and pilgrimages, being a good Catholic in San Nicolas requires compliance with a long list of community obligations. For example, every year all able residents go to the village cemetery to clear it of trash and weeds.
This year, lawyer Pedro Beltran was at the cemetery’s front gate as usual to take roll at the cleanup a week before the Day of the Dead in November. He carried a receipt book: Those who couldn’t work had to pay him 200 pesos (about $19) instead, going to a fund for public works and community fiestas.
“You see how happy the people are,” Beltran said as hundreds of residents filed past carrying shovels, rakes and pitchforks.
He said he thought evangelicals were lazy and conniving. “They hide in their religion so they don’t have to do work,” he said.
The ill will between the two faiths reached new heights in October when the delegados called a community meeting to settle the evangelical “problem.”
It was decided that a group of evangelical renters living on a parcel of community-owned land would have to clear out by the end of the month. That same day, the Catholic priest at the San Nicolas church spoke out in his Mass against intolerance.
“We are all children of God,” the priest said, according to news accounts. The Catholic delegados responded by shutting off the church’s sound system.
When the delegados prevented the construction of the Pentecostal temple, Cano and about 40 other evangelical Christians briefly worshiped at a home on the fringes of San Nicolas, off the main road through town, past the irrigation ditches that help farmers coax vegetables from the dry soil.
Almost as soon as they started meeting, Cano said, Catholic residents began blocking streets around the home. The evangelicals called the local and state authorities, to no avail.
On Oct. 9, about 100 evangelicals in San Nicolas staged a protest in the Hidalgo state capital of Pachuca. The next day, Hidalgo’s minister of religious affairs, Luz Maria del Toro, drove out to San Nicolas for talks.
“The problem is that there are people who, because of their ignorance of the law, commit arbitrary acts,” Del Toro said later. She suggested that one or two leaders in San Nicolas “have a screw loose.”
The blockade to the property where the evangelicals want to build their temple was lifted. The deadline for evicting some of the evangelicals passed without trouble.
But if you drive into San Nicolas and ask for directions to the home where the evangelicals meet, chances are no one will help you.
“Evangelicals?” one shop owner told a visitor recently, wrinkling his brow in befuddlement. “I think maybe in the next town, but not here.”