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Remembering a family’s past in Mexico’s history — long ignored and almost forgotten

By Frank X. Moraga

Sometimes a fleeting comment can lead to a whole world of discovery. Such was the case for Sylvia Munoz Schnopp, who was visiting her father one day in 2003.

“It started out by just asking him a simple question about my grandmother. She passed away when he was 11 years old so I asked him what she looked like. His next statement was about the big war between the Cristeros and the Federales.”

Munoz Schnopp said she hadn’t heard about the conflict that occurred after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). But the comments from her father opened her eyes to the struggle for religious freedom in Mexico, with much of the fighting occurring in the area surrounding her grandfather’s ranch in the Los Altos region in northeast Jalisco.

Those who have seen the recently released movie “For Greater Glory” or “Cristiada” — featuring Andy Garcia, Rubén Blades, Eva Longoria and Peter O’Toole — have witnessed a Cliff Notes version of what is known variously as the Cristero War/Rebellion/Revolt, (1926-1929) in all its big-screen majesty.

While Munoz Schnopp praised the movie for including as much information as possible in its two-hour-plus running time, for her father the action was all too real.

“He was seeing it and living it as it was unfolding,” she said. The movie features a scene when actor Oscar Isaac, who plays Victoriano “El Catroce” Ramirez, arrives at a camp filled with hundreds of ill-trained but devoted Cristero fighters. He was named El Catorce (the 14) after he single-handedly killed 14 Federales who had come to arrest or kill him.

The camp he arrived to belonged to Munoz Schnopp’s grandfather.

“Catorce was a warrior who came onto grandfather’s property and established it as the headquarters for his men. My father, being the oldest of all the kids, helped with the horses and all the things at the farm,” she said. “He saw this all, not as history told to him but as history he lived through.”

As Munoz Schnopp questioned her father more and more, she began a journey to bring the story to light to a younger generation before all those who lived through the Cristero War passed away. She began doing research in Mexico for her historical novel — “Abandoned Angels” — scheduled to be published in December.

“I believe my book will tell the true-life story of my mom and dad. My book is based on their lives and the lives of my grandparents in the late 1920s and early 1930s,” she said.

The novel also tells a story of a family divided by circumstances. While her paternal grandfather’s ranch served as Cristero headquarters, her maternal grandfather mingled with Federales and government leaders in Ocotlan, Jalisco — Oxnard’s sister city.

While the majority of the Mexican population was overwhelmingly Catholic at the time of the story, there had always been an antagonism by those seeking power in Mexico against the official Catholic Church in the country. As a result, a series of laws were implemented in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which started restricting church freedoms, including prohibiting the wearing of church vestments in public and conducting Catholic services outside of churches.

“They then kicked out all the foreign-born priests so at times there was only one priest to cover a large area,” she said. “There were no priests to do services in Mexico.”

The brutal crackdown by the government of the protest movement led to an armed rebellion, reprisal shootings and hangings, and armed battles in Jalisco and elsewhere in Mexico. Eventually a truce was reached, with federal officials declining to actively enforce the harsh anti-clerical laws on the books.

But while this was a painful chapter in Mexican history, it was seldom retold in the government-controlled classrooms. As a result, few people in Mexico have even heard about the Cristeros War.

“The most important thing about seeing the film and researching my novel about this history has been its depth and how many people it affected,” Munoz Schnopp said. “It was a war that encompassed the entire country of Mexico. But this was a war that was never talked about or covered.”

Munoz Schnopp, former Port Hueneme mayor and current city councilmember, is grateful the story of the rebellion is finally being told.

“It’s something the history books have brushed over, but I’m really encouraged after they put a movie together to expose this important part of Latin American history,” she said.

She attended a celebration in 2005 where only a handful of Christeros veterans remained. As the 90th anniversary of the start of the war approaches in 2016, she believes there will be few if anyone remaining who actually participated or remember first-hand the revolt.

But for their remaining families, “They need to know their family history so they can move forward. It started out by simple freedoms being taken away little by little. If we don’t know about our history, it may repeat itself.”

After her father died in December 2003, Munoz Schnopp said she wrote…

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