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Mexican Masonry - Politics & Religion

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Palestine Lodge No. 189 - Catonsville, MD


(Mexican Freemasonries-Encounters with Religion and Politics)

Oscar J. Salinas E., Senior Grand Warden-York/Mexico.

Benito Juarez, freemasons, freemasonry

Bro. Benito Juarez
Brethren :

I am delighted to speak to you. Speaking simply as a Brother and friends, and not exactly in my capacity as an Officer of various Masonic Grand Bodies. And, I also hope you will remember that nobody really can claim to speak for Freemasonry, because it is such a diverse movement. Indeed, I have chosen to title my talk Mexican "Freemasonries"- Encounters with Religion and Politics, because of that great diversity.

You certainly heard last year what I consider to be a very good conference from our now Past Grand Master, Terrance O'Rourke, in which he gave you a good synopsis of Mexican Masonic history with a General discussion on Lodges in Mexico. I will now try to give you a little bit more of historic data which will help you to better understand Mexican Masonry.

I don't think it is a secret that Mexican Freemasonry has long had a reputation for being involved with political and religious issues and with the initiation of women. As with most second hand information, not everything you may have heard is completely accurate. Nevertheless, it is true that Mexican Masonry is complex and that some of its components are different from the Craft elsewhere.

Masonry has been a major influence in Mexican life for many decades. One of its effects has been to legitimatize political power in a country where other sources of legitimacy, such as the Church, are denied to the ruling elite. The tension between Catholicism and secularism which has characterized Mexican history can trace its roots to even before the beginnings of the Republic. Unlike many other Latin countries, Catholicism per se has not been prerequisite for political success in Mexico.

Some would argue that the effect of Freemasonry has been that: "A Mexican can win acceptance as a full member of the national community --- from the other members of that community, the majority of whom profess Catholic beliefs --- whether or not he shares this religious faith. Catholicism may open some doors to him in the social, intellectual, or business communities, just as Masonic affiliation aids a man in political circles, but religious association is significantly not the prime criterion for acceptance within the national community".

Whether Masonry's political role was beneficial to Mexican society is a deeply contentious issue. There are those who believe Masonry was "a Symbol of and major instrument for the creation of the modern 'neutral' society --- a society in which the fixed statutes of the medieval world gave way to the needs of a changing and dynamic economic and social structure, where artificial and dysfunctional group distinctions are ignored and the individual is judged on his achieved rather than ascribed status".

Lodges had also been formed in both France and Spain quite early in the 1700's. You may recall that the so-called Scottish Rite was brought to the New World from France to the West Indies by Stephen (Etienne) Morin and then gradually spread into Latin America. He was empowered to bring this Scottish Rite to the Western Hemisphere in Bordeaux, France, in 1761, so that the Craft must have arrived in Mexico sometime in the following 30 years.

The first documented evidence of Masonry in Mexico is on June 24, 1791, in what must be the most dramatic Saint John's dinner in history. A Lodge had been organized by a number of recently arrived French retainers of the viceroy, prominent among them watchmaker Jean Laroche, cook Jean Laussel and a barber named Duroy, at whose house the dinner was held. The local parish priest had been watching their comings and goings and tipped off the Holy Inquisition who broke into the meeting. At least one member. Laussel himself, was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment in Africa as "heretic and Freemason".

After this, it is not difficult to imagine that any Masonic Lodge or individual Mason would be particularly careful not to have any written records of Lodge activities. This explains the fact that although many participants in the War of Independence seem to have been Masons, documented evidence of their membership in our Order is scarce or non-existent.

By the way, in Mexico as in most Latin countries, the term Scottish is used for the blue Lodge Scottish Rite or Continental Rite. As many scholars point out, it is of French and Prussian origin and has little or nothing to do with Scotland.

In 1810, when the Mexican fight for Independence from Spain started, the first leader was a Catholic priest and possibly a Mason, Father Miguel Hidalgo. I don't find that as peculiar as some people do, because I imagine that Father Hidalgo could have found in Freemasonry the ideals of freedom and personal dignity which always marked it, and saw no contradiction between Masonry and his faith.

Unfortunately, the initial uprising was squashed by the Spanish and Hidalgo was executed. This meant that our struggle for Independence in Mexico lasted much longer than did the American one, and Mexicans took sides as to just what sort of new nation should emerge.

Even before Independence, the British colonies to the north had enjoyed a significant degree of personal and political freedom. It was only natural for political activity after independence to be channeled to the development of political parties and democratic procedures. In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, on the contrary, the autocratic nature of the Spanish Crown had prevented the development of any kind of political organization and experience. This vacuum drew Freemasonry irresistibly into the whirlwind of political passions and explains what followed.

To explain this, imagine that after the British were beaten at Yorktown, there had been another ten years of civil war between Americans, and that the two warring parties had been based on Masonic Lodge membership. I believe there is no other example of a Masonic war being the initial act in a country´s history, and every Mexican schoolchild learns about the Scottish and the York confrontation, although I doubt if they, or their teachers, understand what it meant. These two Masonic groups were not the Scottish and the York Rites as we know them today, but they display some characteristics which you would recognize. The two camps became competing political clubs or parties, sharply divided over the Spanish question. Scottish Rite Masons defended the resident Spaniards, seeing their cause as a test of individual rights and guarantees; the Yorkists attacked the gachupines in a manner reminiscent of the Jacobins, as if to avenge Hidalgo and Morelos. The Scottish Rite was more hierarchical and it supported the Emperor Agustin de Iturbide, first Emperor of Mexico, an Army private who made himself into the ruler of Mexico. The Scottish Masons were not antagonistic towards the Spanish who remained in Mexico, while many Yorkists suspected that those who remained, might still want to welcome back the Viceregal government and wanted all Spanish to leave.

The first American Ambassador to Mexico was Joel Poinsett, for whom the Christmas Flower is named. In Mexico we don't refer to the Christmas Flower as a Poinsettia because, among other things, Poinsett is regarded as a meddler in Mexican affairs. It was he who brought York Rite Masonry to Mexico, and Mexican historians think this is because he saw the York Lodges as a way to extend American influence, which may be true. But they overlook the fact that all his life he was an enthusiastic Royal Arch Mason and, it was natural that his enthusiasm led him to side with the Yorquinos or Yorkists... and probably not entirely because of politics.

Poinsett was a Charleston aristocrat and inveterate traveler, he paid an initial visit to Mexico in the summer of 1822, when he met and formed an unfavorable opinion of the Emperor Iturbide and his Court. Poinsett received the Mexican appointment in 1825, one which had originally been offered to Andrew Jackson. This was at a time when the predominantly Protestant and democratic United States, was suspicious of a Catholic and aristocratic neighbor, wary of increasing British presence in Mexico, and alarmed about Mexican intentions in Cuba.

Poinsett was given a mandate: "to represent democracy" where the dominant element consisted of aristocrats and monarchists; to support the Monroe Doctrine of America for the Americans against the official tendency in Mexico to seek European affiliations; to vindicate the prestige of the United States, where Great Britain had established a virtual protectorate; to insist upon the 'most-favored nation' principle in commerce when the Mexican government favored mutual concessions among the Spanish-American states; to present the complaints of his fellow-citizens against bewildering commercial regulations; to oppose Mexico's cherished designs regarding Cuba; and to acquire territory when the mere suggestion of such a transaction confirmed Mexican suspicion, wounded Mexican pride, and intensified Mexican irritation."

To accomplish such ambitious goals, Poinsett determined that he must change the attitudes of the Mexican government, challenging the Spanish-born who still looked towards Europe. Although Poinsett himself was a Freemason, many of those he opposed were Scottish Rite Masons. In 1824, he arranged for five Lodges to be chartered by the Grand Lodge of New York, working in the York or American Rite. The next year, they proceeded to form a York Rite Grand Lodge for Mexico under the name of "La Gran Logia Nacional Mexicana", which rapidly grew to more then 100 Lodges.

Then came an episode without precedent in Masonic history. Iturbide's short-lived Empire had come to an end in 1823 to be substituted by a Republic. A civil war broke out over the question of a centralized and conservative Republic, or a federal and liberal one. The Scottish Masons favored the first, the Yorquinos the second, and they actually went to war against one another. In 1828 all secret societies were forbidden and the police soon closed those Lodges that did not obey. By the time Poinsett left Mexico in January 1830, the York cause was collapsing and many other Yorquinos were leaving the country. Both Scottish and York Masonry became largely dormant while the new Mexican National Rite rose to prominence.

As the 19th Century went on, Mexican Masonry embraced the degree system authored by Albert Pike and grew ever more anticlerical, regardless of Rite. Meanwhile the two major political parties, Liberal and Conservative had developed. There were Masons in both, but predominantly among the Liberals. The great Mexican leader of the Nineteenth Century was, of course, Benito Juárez. When a new constitution was approved in 1857 that curtailed the power of the Roman Catholic Church, a Conservative rebellion started yet another civil war, known as the Reform War. When it ended with a Liberal victory in 1861, the Reform Laws were implemented, which included separation of Church and State, freedom of worship, civil marriage, and secularization of Church properties.

The exhausted country, however, was not granted respite. A new emperor, the Austrian Archduke Maximilian, was imposed in 1862 by French Emperor Napoleon III, with connivance of Mexican Conservatives. Again, Benito Juarez and his Liberals led the fight against the French occupation army and the second Mexican emperor ended like the first, before a firing squad, in 1867.

This may well have been the highest point of Freemasonry in Mexico, as most of the prominent actors in these crucial 10 years were Masons. The Lodges no longer acted directly in politics as earlier in the century, but the individual Masons certainly did, each in his sphere of activity.

When Benito Juarez died, Mexico passed into the hands of Porfirio Díaz, also a Freemason. Paradoxically a liberal and a dictator at the same time, he upheld the secular principles of the liberal constitution while repressing political freedom. He also sought to bring some order out of the chaos of the Freemasonry of his time by creating a nationwide Gran Dieta or Grand Diet in which both Scottish and York Rite Masons participated. Before being dissolved later in the century, this body originated the regular Grand Lodges of the Mexican Republic. Indeed, the charters of some of the constituent Lodges of our York Grand Lodge of Mexico bear the signature of Porfirio Diaz.

After the defeat and exile of the dictator in the 1910 revolution, a succession of Presidents who were Masons and strongly anticlerical ruled the country under the 1917 Constitution that maintained substantially the same liberal principles of 1857. In the late 1920's a new crisis arose with the Church when it publicly repudiated the Constitution. In retaliation, the government attempted to fully enforce the anticlerical measures of the Constitution. A bloody rebellion arose in central Mexico by bands of Catholic sympathizers, known as Cristeros, often led by gun-toting priests, until a negotiated peace was eventually arranged with the Church.

These two great crises of Church and state, the Reform War of the 1850's and Cristero Rebellion of the late 1920's left a profound imprint on the national consciousness. They are the root of the strongly anticlerical position of many Mexican Freemasons that sometimes puzzles their brethren from other countries.

Recent presidents of Mexico have not been Masons, but a number of the Grand Lodges are and, the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite are closely identified with the ruling party "Partido Revolucionario Institucional" (PRI). Moreover, in individual states, from time to time the governor or ruling clique has given the Masons money for new temples, youth work, and even as honorariums to Lodge officers. In many Mexican states there are competing Grand Lodges, some of which base their legitimacy on not being identified with politics or women Lodges.

When we look back in time, and realize that from the very start Mexican Masonry was split into competing groups, based on political allegiances, and that presidents of Mexico used Masonry to strengthen their political position, we can understand a little better just why Mexican Masonry has gone down the road that it has. As for its anti clericalism, the wealth and power of the Church meant that it was much more feared than in the United States.

I say all this not to excuse the situation, but to help explain the situation. In past years the bottom line was that Mexican Masonry appeared in most cases to be irregular in comparison with American Masonry. Some even accused Mexican Masons of "never really understanding Freemasonry" and of "possessing Latin minds incapable of grasping Freemasonry". However, I would like to close with some thoughts about that.

When people, particularly profanes, speak of "Masonry" in general terms, they have not idea of the concept of regularity. There is a great number o spurious bodies, large and small. Some of them are totally self-generated, like the feminine Grand Lodges. Others are created by dissidents from regular Grand Lodges, often using the same name to add to the confusion. A typical example would be a losing candidate for Grand Master who does not accept his defeat and takes his followers away with him to start a new Grand Lodge. These irregular bodies are the ones that make the most noise with political, usually radical, declarations in the media, and their public presence is out of proportion to their numbers in terms of membership. Quite obviously, none of them have a charter from a regular Grand Lodge.

The regular Grand Lodges, on the contrary, contain mostly brethren who sincerely believe in the principles of regular Masonry, but have the habit of thinking largely in political terms due to the political forces I have outlined above. Although it has its share of self-serving politicians like so many human organizations, Mexican Masonry, for all its sins, is not a hopeless case.

In conclusion, you can imagine that as the head of the Royal Arch in Mexico, I have a great interest in the problems you have asked me to discuss today. In order to get good candidates for the Royal Arch, I have to try to deal with the lack of recognition amongst the various Grand Lodges and the charges of irregularity that they make against each other. If everyone is irregular, the opportunities for the Royal Arch to rebuild are few. More than 500,000 Americans now live in Mexico, many in retirement, and the number grows each day. I hope that they might become more involved in Masonry south of the border, but again, the problems I have mentioned of regularity are an obstacle. And finally, when I meet young Mexican men who would make fine candidates, I am dismayed at the idea that if they join in the United States, they will find visitation much easier than if they join in Mexico. I can only say to all of this, that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution and, in my Masonic career, I try to be part of the solution.

Question time.

I am glad to try to answer questions but I want to emphasize that I am doing so simply as a friend and brother, and I would like to stress that I am not speaking for any of the Grand Bodies in which I hold office. I would also like to mention that after a long period in which nothing appeared in the Masonic scholarly press about Mexico, there have appeared in the last five years at least a dozen substantial articles which would give you much more of an understanding of the situation, that I can in a few minutes. The articles are in the major Masonic journals: the Proceedings of the Texas Lodge of Research, the Transactions of the American Lodge of Research, Heredom of the Scottish Rite Research Society, and Philalethes. They are authored by a group of scholars at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico, including Dr. Paul Rich, who is also at Stanford University, Guillermo de los Reyes, and Antonio Lara, Dr. Rich's work on Mexico recently won him the James Carter award of the Texas Lodge of Research and he maintains a large Internet site on Mexican Masonry.

Brothers, thank you very much.
Senior Grand Warden-York/Mexico
Tucson, Arizona. September 10, 1999.

Bro. OSCAR J. SALINAS E.'s beliefs and opinions are presented in a historical context and do not represent, or imply real or attributed agreement with any beliefs or opinions of this lodge or any Grand Lodge or appendent body of Masonry

Further Reading:

Freemasonry in Mexico