Survivor: ‘That shot to my father’s head was not in vain’
Maria Meza, whose father was killed in the Cristeros War, remains a faith-filled Catholic in East L.A.
As she shuts off the garden hose and sets it next to her recently planted flowers, Maria Meza greets a visitor.
“Yes, come in, everything’s all wet, clean,” she smiles.
Then she asks her 62-year-old son Manuel to move a bench that has been sitting under a warm mid-morning Los Angeles sun to a spot under the roof of her garage.
“Oh, this seat is really cold,” she quips after sitting on the hot bench.
The 92-year-old says she likes to exchange good-natured banter. Her son, daughter-in-law Antonia and nephew Ignacio Ayala all nod while laughing. They are all visiting for Mother’s Day, celebrated in Mexico May 10.
But all smiles vanish when Maria begins narrating her family’s ordeal back when she was seven years old and living at Rancho del Fresno in her native Michoacán, Mexico.
“Las balas tronaban (The bullets whistled),” says the survivor of the Cristeros War, depicted in the movie “For Greater Glory,” opening in U.S. theaters June 1.
She welcomes the idea about the movie and would like to see it if it was shown in Spanish, she says in unison with her nephew. She taught herself to read and write but found it very difficult to learn English, although she attended several classes after arriving in the U.S. in the 1970s with her husband and 10 children.
Her father José Meza Galvez was a strong Cristero who hid many priests in his house to help them avoid getting killed by the government that persecuted all Catholics during the three-year civil war. More than 90,000 people died, mostly men and numerous priests, including 37 martyrs canonized and beatified by Popes John Paul II (2000) and Benedict XVI (2005).
For three days, Maria, her four sisters and her mother, María Ayala, hid in a cave while all the men in town fought against the government’s army.
With sadness she recalls when the war ended. A few days after the war was over a group of military burst into her home and killed her father.
“One shot was enough,” she said. He was about 40 years old.
The rest of the family survived because the army went after the men, she says.
“But he died bravely, shouting, ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ ‘Vivan los Cristeros!’” she muses proudly.
After that sad day, her mother made sure that their Catholic heritage stayed alive among her children. Two of the girls entered the religious community Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family); the other three married and passed along their devout faith to their children, along with the Cristero War story.
“I’ve heard this story many times in my life since I was a small boy,” says Manuel, the fourth of 14 children. Four died at a young age.
Although the story has been passed through generations of survivors, it did not make it in the annals of Mexican history. Many analysts presume it is because the Mexican president at that time, Plutarco Elías Calles, who led the war, was one of the founders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country for the next seven decades.
Even for Manuel, it is hard to believe that the dead were hung from poles on the roads under the fearful watch of survivors. Others were buried in mass graves.
“Thank God that war finally ended,” says Maria. “They were three long years. They [the soldiers] put houses on fire, raped many women and tried to destroy all religious images.”
That is why she tries to preserve her Catholic beliefs, she confides.
“I don’t want my family to change to another religion,” she says. “I respect other people’s beliefs, but we went through so much and I think it was worth it.”
Purposefully, 12 years ago she and her husband bought a house across the street from Resurrection Church in East Los Angeles.
Unless she is sick, which rarely happens, she gets up at 5 every morning and by 6:45 she is sitting at one of the pews.
“Every single day,” she says, except on Sundays, when she attends the 10:30 a.m. Mass together with other family members. She has 60 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren.
“I am preparing myself to receive my glory,” she shares. She has to receive Communion every day and prays the rosary every night before going to bed at 9 p.m. sharp.
“When I stand in front of The Judge I think I will be prepared,” she says proudly. “I think I have a solid faith. Although I don’t know Him, I do believe in Him. And I don’t lack anything; even in hard times He has provided.
“That shot to my father’s head was not in vain. The seed that my parents planted in me doesn’t wither that easily.”
“For Greater Glory” opens June 1. Relics of six martyrs of the Cristeros War will be on exhibit May 14-24 in Chapel 5 of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.