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The Six Martyrs of Leon

Hugh O’Reilly

Many persons who saw the movie For Greater Glory understandably marveled at the courage of the young martyr José Sánchez del Rio, age 13. There were hundreds of similar episodes, however, in the epopee of La Cristiada in Mexico from 1926 to 1929, which records the names of many Cristeros who died crying out “Viva Cristo Rey!“

One of those episodes took place in the city of Leon in the State of Guanajuato, one of the most Catholic regions of Mexico and an early Cristero stronghold. It is the story of the six martyrs of Leon, who died together on the same day. Their names are José Valencia Gallardo, Salvador Vargas, Ezequiel Gomez, Nicolas Navarro, José Agustín Ríos and José Gasca.

Martyrs of Leon Cristeros
Not pictured are Agustin Rio and Jose Gasca
The youths were members of the ACJM - Catholic Association of Mexican Youth, a national organization that sought to defend the rights of the Catholic Faith. José Valencia Gallardo, the leader of the group, had founded a newspaper in Leon that they called The Voice of the People, which denounced the many atrocities committed against the Church by the Masonic and anti-clerical Calles government.

Enforcing the violently anti-clerical 1917 Constitution, President Plutarco Elias Calles launched an  open persecution against the Church and Catholics in 1926. Foreign priests were expelled, Catholic churches and institutions were closed, convents and monasteries were banned.

In The Voice of the People Valencia Gallardo spoke out fearlessly against these atrocities and made calls to rally faithful Catholics to action. He wrote:

"It is time that Mexican Catholics wake from that shameful lethargy into which we have fallen. It is time for us to throw off the ignominious yoke imposed on us by a group of unscrupulous persons who have taken advantage of our cowardice. They have taken advantage of our passivity, but the fault is ours for sitting idly by instead of defending our most sacred rights."

Passive resistance changes into fight

At first, the ACJM and other clergy-led Catholic organizations in the cities reacted peacefully to the persecution: They organized a boycott against state-owned enterprises to put financial pressure on the government and to make it bend and allow the free practice of the Catholic Religion. They also circulated a protest petition against these unjust laws signed by 2 million Catholics (out of a population of 15 million).

By November 1926, Valencia Gallardo could clearly see that the boycott had not produced the desired effect. To the contrary, the efforts of the peaceful resistance had served to increase the fury of the government’s persecution. Some groups of Catholics, mostly peasants, had already taken up arms in various parts of the country to defend the Church and their families against the oppressive tyrant. Valencia Gallardo and five of his ACJM companions also decided to follow their example and join the Cristeros who had organized along the outskirts of Leon.

Thus the six young men, José Valencia Gallardo, Salvador Vargas, Nicolás Navarro, Ezequiel Gómez, Antonio Romero and Agustín Ríos, all in their 20s, prepared to take up arms in defense of the cause of Christ.

When Nicolás Navarro, age 21, the only one of the group who was married, took leave of his young wife who held their small son in her arms, she said to him, “How can you have the heart to leave me and your son?” The future martyr answered, “When my son grows up, tell him, ‘Your father died for his Religion! I must go even if I leave my son an orphan. What matters to me is to defend the cause of Jesus Christ!”

Saying goodbye to his mother, Ezequiel Gomez, age 24, told her, “I am ready to die if Our Lord wants my blood to save our country.”

The group is betrayed

In early 1927, the resistance was especially strong in the Catholic northeast region where there were mass uprisings. For the federal army, this seemed to offer an advantage – the possibility of concentrating their strengths in one region. But the generals soon realized that any victories were short-lived. What they conquered one day was recovered by the Cristeros later when the army marched on.

Cristeros Mexico

The Cristero War started with the peasants, who fought under the banner of the Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe

Cristero Banner - Brigada
In Guanajuato, a series of uprising took place linked to those of the neighboring State of Jalisco. On December 27, the delegates of diverse places met secretly in Leon and decided on the date of January 3 for the uprising in that city and surrounding villages, and not January 1 as previously planned.

However, due to the lack of centralized command and organization, not all the towns could be advised of the change. So the Cristeros entered and successfully took the towns of Jalpa de Cánavas and San Diego de Alejandria on January 1, and then proceeded on to enter triumphantly into San Francisco del Rincón, an important village of the State. However, the federal government was now forewarned and alert to new attacks in the area.

In León, seven young Cristeros led by journalist José Valencia Gallardo tried to convince Domitilo Flores, the police chief of the region of Coecillo, to join the Cristero cause, toward which he appeared to be favorable. But at the last moment, Flores betrayed them and delivered them to General J. Trinidad López.

On the night of January 2, they were imprisoned and sentenced without a trial to die the next morning. At first light, they were taken from the prison to be tortured and executed by gunfire.

Nicolas Navarro, who cried out "Courage, my brothers, remember the cause we stand for!" was beaten in the face to break his teeth. After mangling his body with sword cuts, the federals shot him. He died, crying out, "Yes, I die for Christ, who never dies! Viva Cristo Rey!"

Seeing this, the youngest of the group, 20-year-old Agustín Rios, began to sob. José Gallardo strongly rebuked the executioners, and then exhorted his companion to die bravely for Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Gallardo was beaten in order to silence him. When he responded with the cry of Viva Cristo Rey, they cut out his tongue, and sarcastically said, “Now speak.” Gallardo, who had freed one hand from the ropes that bound him to a stake, raised it and pointed his finger to Heaven as a confession of his Faith. The infuriated federal soldiers cut the hand off, and then split open his skull with their rifle butts.

Then they shot Jose Vazquez, Agustin Rios, Salvador Vargas and Ezequiel Gomez. Only one of the seven survived, Juarez Isabel.

A lesson that backfires

The executioners hoped to make a lesson of these six martyrs and took the corpses of the six martyrs to the main square of Leon across from the Government Palace to expose them to the eyes of the people.

When Doña Martina Gallardo the mother of José Valencia Gallardo demanded that the executioners give her the remains of her son, they refused. She responded, “It does not matter if you refuse to hand over the body of my son to me, for this morning (January 3, 1927) I offered his soul to the Sacred Heart.” When they finally agreed to hand over his remains, she kissed his mutilated feet and exclaimed, “A martyr! Thank you, my Mother, for he was yours!”

Standing before the body of her son, the mother of Ezequiel Gómez said these words, “O my son, pray for your mother and your brothers and sisters so that we can follow your example. You are certainly in Heaven!”

Hours later, 200 Cristeros entered the city. With nothing more than some rifles, the Cristeros rushed to the barracks, attacked the government soldiers with strong fire and disbanded them. The city of Leon held grand funerals for the six who were killed. Today they are commemorated as the Six Martyrs of Leon.

A new group of martyrs of Christ the King! Young, generous, authentic heroes of the Mexican nation, who died defending a noble ideal, giving their lives for the cause of the Kingdom of Christ in society and to protect the Church from a Masonic persecution.

“Better to die than to stand by impassively before the evils taking place in our Country,” José Valencia Gallardo and his companions said when they took up the Cristero cause. The six martyrs of Leon joined hundreds of other Mexicans who preferred to give their lives than see the Catholic Faith compromised.

Six Martyrs of Leon Cristeros

Commemorating the six Cristero martyrs of Leon in the State of Guanajuato

Orozco Luis Alfonso, Madera de Héroes, El Arca, México 2005
Jean Meyer, La cristiada, la guerra de los cristeros, Coyoacán: Siglo XXI editores, 1973


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Posted September 12, 2012

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