“Los Primeros: Mexico’s Pioneer Saints,” Ensign, July 1997, 47
When the restored gospel reached central Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it first went to small rural villages that produced faithful and diligent first-generation Latter-day Saints. Each successful branch of the Church seemed to have a common brand of pioneer: brothers and sisters whose faith ran as deep as their native history. The willingness of los primeros—the first ones—to sacrifice, work, and withstand persecution places them among those remembered as “blessed, honored” pioneers.1
The influence of village pioneers in Mexico often extended beyond familiar surroundings. Isaías Juárez, whose influence became widespread during many years of devout service throughout central Mexico, was such a pioneer.
Isaías, then 22, and his bride of two years, Magdalena, were baptized on 6 May 1907. They were two of the first members of San Pedro Mártir, a village outside Mexico City.
“When I heard the missionaries the first time, my conversion was not very easy because I believed I already had the truth,” he said. “I even struggled against Brother [Arwell L.] Pierce, who in 1906 was a missionary [in San Pedro Mártir]. But eventually I succumbed in the face of the truth of the gospel. My testimony of this truth was for me like removing a veil from my eyes.”2
While Magdalena’s family was open to the couple’s new church, Isaías’s family berated him for his “folly” in joining “an offbeat sect.” They could not dissuade him, however, from sharing his newfound faith. He often joined the missionaries in making visits, preaching the gospel, and defending the faith. Before long, Brother Juárez was set apart as president of the San Pedro Mártir branch.
With the dawning of the Mexican civil war in 1910 and the withdrawal of foreign missionaries, Mexican Latter-day Saints often were forced to carry on in faith and isolation. Despite threats and incarceration for actively sharing his beliefs, Brother Juárez continued to hold Church meetings and visit members during the civil war, which lasted until 1917. He served as branch president until 1926.
Because of the 1926 Cristera Rebellion (a revolt by Catholics against government policies that adversely affected them), the government again forced all foreign clerics from Mexican soil. Rey L. Pratt, the beloved mission president who was being forced from Mexico a second time, set apart several leaders in the various branches and organized a mission district over which native members presided in his absence. Isaías Juárez was among the most promising prospective district leaders for the mission’s 3,882 members.
As district president, he presided over members in the Federal District and in the states of Morelos, Mexico, Hidalgo, and Puebla. This new level of leadership brought stability and confidence to the small Church branches in central Mexico, which were already staffed with local leaders. Now enjoying continued direction and encouragement from President Juárez and his counselors, the small branches survived; some even flourished.
President Juárez corresponded regularly with Church leaders, including President Pratt, who was confined mostly to the southern border of the United States even though he continued to serve as mission president over Mexico. President Juárez also corresponded frequently with President Pratt’s counselors and with the presidents of 22 branches.
President Juárez was an agriculturalist. The elite in Mexico’s then highly rigid society called him a campesino, a “peasant,” but Isaías Juárez was more complex than a societal stereotype. He had been a justice of the peace in San Pedro Mártir and a comptroller, municipal treasurer, and civil judge of the district of Tlalpan. A gifted organizer, he also had served a term as vice president of the Tlalpan municipality.
Brother Juárez taught his children that to be a successful priesthood leader and servant of the Lord requires humility, principle, and patience. “Do good to all” was his motto, recalls his son Domingo. “My father’s life was an example for all of us.”
By applying his motto in his political life, President Juárez helped improve conditions for campesinos. After his release as district president, he was exiled to Guatemala for having challenged the treatment of his country’s campesinos. Later, when politically possible, he returned to Mexico to help found Mexico’s national peasant union.
Because of his parents’ poverty, Brother Juárez had received only limited formal education. Yet when he returned from his Guatemalan exile he became a principal adviser to regional and national politicians, including two men who later became presidents of Mexico. His influence enabled him to help prevent the confiscation and nationalization of some lands in Colonia Juárez, where Latter-day Saints had settled in the 1880s. By virtue of his reputation, he facilitated a government decision that allowed northern Chihuahua Latter-day Saints from North America to become citizens of Mexico and thereby protect their lands.
Brother Juárez stood up to enemies of the Church—apostates and politicians alike—and he withstood temptations to abandon his principles. He once flatly refused a bribe of 2 million pesos (about $250,000 in 1930 U.S. dollars) to betray his public trust.
For a period of time during and following his exile to Guatemala, Brother Juárez became discouraged and somewhat alienated from Church authorities in Mexico. But his faith remained intact, and upon his return he was named a member of the mission advisory council.
On 3 December 1961, Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles ordained Brother Juárez the first bishop of the new San Pedro Mártir ward. The new bishop had one unfulfilled goal: to do proxy work in the temple for his ancestors. Despite a battle with diabetes, Brother Juárez achieved that final goal before passing away in 1967.
“He served [in the Church] until he could no longer walk,” Domingo said. “He endured and overcame to the end of his life.”
Isaías Juárez, a man of the soil, rose above turbulent times and found peace and joy as a pioneer for the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the first villages in central Mexico to receive the gospel was an isolated settlement in the state of Hidalgo named Santiago. Today, Santiago’s Latter-day Saints worship in a chapel built on a two-and-one-half-acre parcel—the legacy of a pioneer many still remember.
That pioneer, Trinidad Hernández, was born in 1879 and joined the Church while still a young man. Members of his family, as owners of small agricultural plots, were better off economically than were many of their fellow villagers. Aware that his Heavenly Father was the source of his blessings, Brother Hernández offered seasonal work to many in need of a job.
As the Santiago branch grew, so did the need for a chapel. To meet that need, Brother Hernández purchased and donated land as a chapel site. He also supplied brick, lava rock, and other construction materials, donated funds for the chapel’s furnishings, and joined other Latter-day Saints in building the chapel. President Rey L. Pratt, later of the Seventy, called the chapel, in which five generations of Latter-day Saints have worshiped, “a credit to the faith of the people.”3
Brother Hernández not only helped build the chapel, he strengthened the testimonies of those who worshiped in it. Through precept and example, he taught three generations of Santiago Latter-day Saints the importance of service. “Serving the Lord,” he reminded his family, “means blessing the lives of others.”4 His example strengthened members and attracted investigators.
Brother Hernández and his family were often found beautifying the chapel grounds or looking after widows and members who faced difficult economic circumstances. He made sure his children received an education, and he encouraged other Latter-day Saint families—helping some with tuition and uniforms—to press forward academically.
As a district leader, Brother Hernández helped spread the gospel by organizing missionary activities during difficult times that prevented foreign missionaries from working in Mexico. He traveled, preached, and encouraged, losing himself in the service of others.
In 1975, Brother Hernández, feeble and failing at 96 years of age, had 45 grandchildren and 55 great-grandchildren. Many had become leaders in the Church and community. Like hundreds of other Latter-day Saint children, many Hernández descendants left Santiago in search of better opportunities. But they left with a profound faith, nurtured by a village pioneer whose example of sacrifice and dedication set a pattern for future generations to follow.
In the closing years of his life, Brother Hernández called many of his numerous descendants around him and declared: “All that we are, all that we have become, we owe to the gospel and to its teachings and to our allegiance to them. The hardships—and there have been many—are nothing compared to the blessings. And even if we had not received all the blessings that have been ours, we would nevertheless be justified in calling ourselves blessed—blessed to know the truth and our place in the eternities. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever violate the trust that has brought us to where we now are.”
Trinidad Hernández led a simple life in a small Mexican village, but when he passed away, he left numerous descendants dedicated to improving themselves through living the gospel. Having shaped the lives of many across a span of four generations, Brother Hernández left a legacy that reaches into the eternities.
Despite the brutality of the nearly decade-long Mexican civil war that began in 1910, some Latter-day Saints carved a lasting place in the memories of those who cherish faith, integrity, and commitment.
During Mexico’s civil war, bigotry, cruelty, anarchy, and bloodshed reached indiscriminately into the most isolated villages. The war raged first in the north, forcing the evacuation of North American Latter-day Saints from their Chihuahua and Sonora colonies. By August 1912 the situation had also become grave in central Mexico, where more than 1,600 members lived. Some of these members were driven from their homes. The Mexican government blamed the Zapatistas—followers of Emiliano Zapata from the south. The Zapatistas grew considerably during 1912 as village recruits saw their chance to free themselves of government control and exploitation.
The conflicts between the Zapatistas and the Constitutionalists—those aligned with Venustiano Carranza from the north—caught many Mexicans in the middle, including Latter-day Saints. San Marcos, Hidalgo, became a dueling ground as warring factions ripped up railroad beds, set locomotives aflame, and alternated control of the town while seeking retribution from enemies, real and alleged. Amid the violence, personal, political, and religious scores were often settled.
In 1912 full-time missionaries from Mexico City returned to San Marcos in search of Jesús Sánchez, a member who had been baptized in 1881 and had remained faithful during the long absences of missionaries. As they searched for Brother Sánchez, the missionaries stopped at a store owned by Jesús Mera de Monroy, known as “Jesucita.” The Monroy family was generally well regarded, especially eldest son Rafael.
The missionaries asked directions to the home of Brother Sánchez. Rafael knew Brother Sánchez and directed the missionaries to his home. After helping the missionaries, Rafael grew curious about them and queried Jesús Sánchez regarding their message. He later happily accommodated them as they continued to visit Brother Sánchez. Eventually the Monroy family became interested in the Church.
In May 1913, when daylight travel was still safe in some parts of central Mexico, the Monroy family attended a mission conference in San Pedro Mártir. President Rey L. Pratt, impressed with the Monroy family, invited them to the mission home and engaged them in a long gospel conversation. Two weeks later, President Pratt, accompanied by his assistant, W. Ernest Young, went to San Marcos, where Elder Young baptized the entire Monroy family.
Then came the persecution. The Monroys were accused of having abandoned the faith of their fathers, consorting with foreigners, and selling poisoned food in their store. Even local religious leaders ridiculed them. Some townspeople began painting graffiti on the walls of their home, while others boycotted their store. Despite these trials, the family stood firm with an increased commitment to the Church.
Rafael had been a member only three months when the civil war forced the evacuation of all foreign missionaries from Mexico. Before leaving Mexico, President Pratt ordained Brother Monroy to the Melchizedek Priesthood and set him apart as president of the San Marcos branch.
For two years President Monroy guided the fledgling flock in San Marcos, holding Sunday meetings whenever possible, visiting members, and writing to President Pratt for counsel regarding Church procedures and doctrine. President Monroy even purchased land in San Marcos for possible use by Latter-day Saint colonists in the north, whose homes and lands were being plundered by federal and revolutionary marauders.
When the Zapatistas came to San Marcos in 1915, they brought with them their distrust of foreigners.
The Monroy family soon became a natural target. Some townspeople set the Zapatistas after the Monroys, accusing the family of having a cache of weapons, betraying Mexico’s values by accepting a foreign faith, and feeding Constitutionalists. Because the Monroys owned a store, they had had little choice but to meet the demands of the Constitutionalists’ men for food and supplies during their previous occupation of the town.
“It was for us a very sad life,” Sister Jesucita Monroy wrote to President Pratt, “because we were frequently obliged to witness battles, pose [without being such] as Zapatistas on the one hand and as Constitutionalists on the other.”5
The Zapatistas eventually arrested President Monroy and his three sisters for associating with North Americans and for allegedly being in league with the Constitutionalists. The Zapatistas also arrested Vicente Morales, who had married into the Monroy family and served with Rafael in the San Marcos branch presidency.
Acting on erroneous reports that the Morales family was hiding guns and ammunition, the Zapatistas ransacked the family store. Finding no weapons, they demanded that the men “give up their arms.” Brothers Monroy and Morales were beaten after they presented their scriptures in reply. Later, they were told their lives would be spared if they would denounce their faith. When they refused, they were executed. One author wrote of the family’s loss:
“It had rained most of the night, and the air was damp. Jesucita Monroy had not slept and was out on the street early, pleading with the officers of the Zapatista army. … Her early morning appeal was successful, and the Zapatistas released her three daughters from army custody. After getting two of her daughters home, Jesucita and her oldest, Guadalupe, went to the place where the two executions had taken place the evening before. Already burdened with emotion and grief, these two women began the task of moving the … bodies of their son and brother, Rafael, and their nephew-in-law and cousin-in-law, Vicente Morales, home to prepare for the funeral and burial. Victims of the brutality of a civil war in Mexico, these two men had lost their lives in the violence they had deplored. For many members of the family and for many friends, Rafael and Vicente became examples of faith and dedication to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”6
Amid her struggle, Sister Monroy—a widow, proprietor of a small and maligned grocery store, friend to North American missionaries, and now the principal strength for her three daughters—carried on. She pled with Zapatistas and Constitutionalists alike to spare Church members. Even amid her immense sorrow, she maintained contact with as many Latter-day Saints as she could. She also wrote long letters to President Pratt. Despite her anguish, she became a balm to others in the village who were also suffering.
Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales offered the supreme sacrifice. Their roles as martyrs helped to anchor the lives of many Mexican Latter-day Saints in the gospel, while Sister Monroy’s firmness in sorrow and constancy in the face of affliction inspired many generations of Latter-day Saints to lives of fidelity and courage. Because of the Monroys and pioneers like them, the Church in San Marcos has grown strong.
More than half the Church’s membership resides outside the United States. Approximately 18 percent of the non-U.S. membership resides in Mexico. Today Mexico has nearly 800,000 members, 155 stakes, 44 districts, 18 missions, a temple in Mexico City, and a second temple planned for northern Mexico. Despite challenges and setbacks, these numbers show that the Church’s progress in Mexico has been resolute and that the future is bright.
Mexican members come from all educational and socioeconomic levels and are engaged in almost every walk of life. Some are counted among the influential of Mexican government, economy, and society. With diverse talents and backgrounds, members all over the country rejoice in having the restored gospel in their land and in knowing of the Savior’s divinity and mission.
Current Mexican membership in most places is more urban than rural, often more part of a developing society than a traditional one, more keen on caring for one another in canyons of bricks and mortar than in the valleys of pastoral life. But the original seed, the Latter-day Saint village pioneer, sprouted and became the cultivators, the nurturers, those whose faith, energy, and testimony withstood the trials of mockery and prejudice made ever more difficult by revolution, civil war, economic chaos, and religious persecution.
In Mexico, with the exception of one episode in which members from central Mexico were colonized in the north, there was no mass migration of pioneers. Instead, villages with dynamic and historical gospel experience spawned stalwart pioneers with names such as Hernández, Juárez, Monroy, and Morales—pioneers whose legacy has touched, and continues to touch, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mexican Latter-day Saints.