Holy card from Oaxaca, Mexico: Zapotecans in line for sainthood


A long list is found on one of the walls of La Compania de Jesus Church in Oaxaca. A list of those waiting. Those whose lives in Mexico were so full of sacrifice Rome surely will notice and promote them on the road to sainthood.

I’m pulling for the child martyrs of Tlaxcala, the land of corn tortillas. Poor Christobalito, Antonio and Juan were, after all, children. Antonio and Juan were clubbed to death, but Christobalito’s own father, a confirmed pagan, condemned him to be beaten with clubs and then set ablaze for his faith. The trio was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, but they hardly seem on the fast-track. They have been waiting in line a really, really, really long time. Ever since the late 1520s.

But in Oaxaca, a pair of Zapotecs stand out, although newcomers to the waiting list by comparison to the ninos above.

Back in 1700, Dominican priests in Oaxaca would commission converts to serve as “attorneys general,” assigned to police the purity and practices of those living in rural areas. Jacinto de los Angeles and Juan Bautista of San Francisco Cajonos, “the town in the clouds,” were so honored. Overhearing those worshipping the harvest god, Huitzilopochtli, talking about a clandestine evening gathering in his honor, the attorneys reported back to the Dominican friars. Intervention was planned, and Jacinto and Juan led a group to break up the idolatrous meet, seizing the men’s musical instruments.

Unfortunately for Jacinto and Juan, their Zapotec brethren did not take kindly to what they viewed as tattle-tale turncoat interference. A mob seized the two from the sheltering confines of the convent. The pair refused to recant their faith, even under torture.

They survived being thrown off Tanga Hill in the village of San Pedro, but clubs still were viewed as a popular way to deal with Christians anyway. The mob clubbed them and cut them with knives before cutting open their chests and feeding their hearts to the dogs. (I don’t make these things up. Read the Vatican’s version here.)

Whatever parts were left were gathered later by the faithful, who put them in the church of Villa Alta until 1889. The remains were moved to a chapel in the Cathedral of Oaxaca, a chapel almost always locked for their protection.


A bad thing happened to what should be set aside as their day. Jacinto and Juan attained martyrdom on September 16, but, unfortunately, 110 years later Father Hidalgo absconded with their day on the calendar. His cry for independence from Spain changed what would be their feast day to Mexican Independence Day, a celebration far overshadowing their sacrifices.

But an exhausted-looking but determined Pope John Paul II rescued them from obscurity, beatifying them in 2002 as examples “of how, without regarding one’s ancestral customs as myths, one can reach God without renouncing one’s own culture but letting oneself be enlightened by the light of Christ, which renews the religious spirit of the best popular traditions.”

While their hearts probably wouldn’t be fed to the dogs, one wonders what kind of reception church spies would receive in someplace like San Juan Chamula today. “Hey, they are sacrificing chickens in your church.” “Hey, do you know that elder over there has four wives?” They would be so expelled from town.

But, the good part of this story is how Jacinto and Juan are revered in their hometown. Their stories didn’t rise up on the Vatican radar without help. A trio of maize and chickpea farmers championed their cause at the grassroots level. According to a story by Stephen Henderson in the Los Angeles Times, they researched the story at City Hall and then chronicled the testimonies of more than 30 locals who claimed prayers to Jacinto and Juan were answered with miracles. This represents 1/10 of the entire town.

The task took decades of dedication, but it paid off. A group of Cajonos proudly accompanied the glass-encased heartless remains of Jacinto and Juan to Mexico City for the papal ceremonies taking them one step closer to sainthood. Plus, the pair was given a new feast day of their own – September 18.


The Pope-blessed glass-encased relics can still be glimpsed sitting on the altar in that side chapel in the Cathedral of Oaxaca, a destination for Zapotecan pilgrims.

Postcard from Oaxaca: Competing gritos dampen the fiesta

Flags and banners multiplied all this past week – green representing hope, white for unity and red for the blood shed by the heroes of Mexico.

The Zocolo, or Main Plaza, in Oaxaca is the heart of the city and state’s celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain more than 200 years ago. Officials assemble there for the official “grito,” replicating Father Hildalgo’s 1810 cry for revolution on the eve of Diez y Seis de Septiembre.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But as the festooning of buildings increased, so did underlying levels of tension.

One was created by weather – both hurricane and tropical storm heading in from both the Gulf and the Pacific coasts threatening to dump enormous deluges of water on the city. Somehow, the two storms seemed to have knocked each other off course, only leaving clouds and scattered showers over Oaxaca in their wakes.

Two bullets dodged, but the remaining one was more explosive than the fireworks that lit up the sky last night.

Teachers. Teachers were occupying the Zocolo and were one step ahead of the government.

At first, I didn’t even notice as we wandered in their midst crossing the Zocolo because, well, they just looked like teachers. The more observant Mister noticed that some of these teachers had wooden sticks at their sides (We didn’t snap their photos.).

On Friday, teachers strategically parked buses to block intersections around the Zocolo, backing up traffic for blocks and resulting in the honking of many horns. The Mister pointed out those traffic jams might not engender enthusiasm for their cause.

And then, Saturday night, they made the simple procurement of ice cream seem fraught with danger. On the west side of the plaza in front of the Basilica de la Soledad, several truckloads of police were donning flak jackets. The basilica behind them was beautifully illuminated, and the booths of the neverias on the east side of the plaza usually are packed with families. Instead, only one vendor of ice cream was open. Spooky. We quickly made our purchase of a cup of tamarindo con chile and headed off in a different direction.

And their cause? Displeasure with a sweeping new educational reform bill President Peña Nieto signed into law. Since I write about food more than politics, I’ll let Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald explain some of the effects of this law:

Peña Nieto signed into law an education reform law on Sept. 10 that introduces nationwide teacher evaluations, increases classroom hours and significantly reduces the powers of the country’s powerful teacher unions.

Until now, under a 1963 law, Mexico’s 1.5 million-member National Teachers’ Union, SNTE, selected 50 percent of the country’s teachers, while the remaining 50 percent were appointed by the government.

This generated a corruption-ridden system in which many teachers were paid despite not showing up for work in years, and retiring teachers sold their lifelong jobs for as much as $10,000 to people without qualifications.

Under the new law, which has triggered violent protests by a dissident leftist teachers’ union, both aspiring and current teachers will have to go through a national evaluation test. Aspiring teachers will have two chances to pass it in order to be hired, while the 1.2 million existing teachers will have up to three opportunities to pass in order to be allowed to continue teaching or to be promoted.

Mexico’s education reform was passed in Congress after growing public discontent over the fact that Mexico consistently ranks last among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member-countries in the group’s standardized PISA tests for 15-year-old students.

One of Peña Nieto’s first moves after taking office was putting SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo behind bars on charges of embezzling $200 million in union funds. For the past 25 years, she had been one of the country’s most powerful political figures.

Some of the union members are not appreciative of the President’s reform efforts, which led to a showdown on the Zocolo. The government issued an ultimatum that the teachers must abandon their occupation of the Zocolo by noon.

We kept our distance, needless to say, ears peeled for sounds of violence.

But some sort of compromise was reached; the teachers left for another park, leaving the grito tradition intact.

The boundaries of the Zocolo were fortified by hundreds of police and machine-gun-wielding soldiers (whose photos we opted not to take). Families wanting to enter the Zocolo for the evening celebration were required to pass through metal detectors.

We passed on by and headed up the hill to raise a glass of mescal and watch the fireworks from our patio overlooking the city.