One Faith Fits All -- or Else
A rise in Protestantism has drawn a backlash from Mexican Catholics. Some
use their positions of authority to enforce religious traditions.
Times Staff Writer
December 15, 2005
IXMIQUILPAN, Mexico — In the rural hamlet of San Nicolas, there are people who
use a bulldozer and a backhoe as instruments of God.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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 Señor de Jalpan, a statue of the crucified Jesus that's been in the cathedral
in Ixmiquilpan since arriving there, locals say, under miraculous circumstances
"We are defending our identity, what we are
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 Señor 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
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
"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
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."
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
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
"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
responded by shutting off the church's sound
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
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
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."