Martyrs, Memory, and a Papal-Photo Mystery

The church of La Sagrada Familia in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City is the de facto headquarters in the cause for the canonization of Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit priest executed in 1927. The story of Padre Pro is recounted on a plaque beneath his portrait, which is mounted to a pillar behind the altar rail. Born in Guadalupe and dedicated to serving the poor, he is said to have been humorous, charming, and a master of disguises. The last was a necessity of his underground ministry; with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the government in the mid-’20s had commenced to enforce with brutal severity the anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s 1917 constitution. Pro, long under surveillance, was eventually arrested under the pretext of involvement in the attempted assassination of Calles’s predecessor, Álvaro Obregón, and convicted without trial. Still conscious after the initial barrage of the firing squad, he supposedly shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before taking a final, fatal shot at close range. The government publicized photographs of the execution as a warning to the people, but tens of thousands of Mexicans attended Pro’s funeral—a fact portrayed as a courageous and defiant rebuke to Calles.

Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world, from collections of fine art and archaeological rarities to the personal effects and relics of notable figures—including Padre Pro, a museum in whose name adjoins Sagrada Familia. Within steps of one another in the Coyoacan neighborhood are Leon Trotsky’s preserved home—its walls not only adorned with photos and artifacts but also pocked with bullet holes from a firefight preceding his 1940 assassination—and the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where the tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the artist’s 1954 Self Portrait with Stalin, in which the murderous Soviet leader assumes the role of watchful saint.

Padre Pro’s remains are interred at Sagrada Familia. A steel box beneath his portrait has a slot wide enough for written testimonials of miracles. One sign asks politely that no flowers be left; another warns against touching the candles. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and perhaps two dozen people were in the church, some praying the rosary, others sitting quietly. A few days earlier, an international human rights team investigating Mexico’s handling of the September 2014 disappearance and presumed murders of forty-three students from the state of Guerrero had released its final report. In contending that evidence had been suppressed and torture used in extracting confessions from alleged suspects, it called into serious doubt the “historical account” of the matter that has been put forth by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As such it had given hope to the families of the missing as well as human rights advocates inside and outside Mexico that the real details of the case, and maybe even justice, would be forthcoming.

Yet the report seemed to generate little local reaction, adding to worries that indifference was setting in. Banners commemorating the missing may yet hang in various squares and markets across Mexico City, and cement sidewalks are etched with the command “never forget,” but two years later, the colors are fading and the edges are worn. Pope Francis had not met with the families of the missing during his February visit, as some had hoped he would, and a semi-permanent protest outside the National Palace has all but folded its tent.

Meanwhile, at the campus of the Universidad de Autonomous Mexico—students of which were among the as many as three hundred killed during a pre-Olympics crackdown by the government in 1968—a large poster with photos of the missing forty-three was pinned to a fence, but covering the face of one was a flyer for a yoga class. When asked for his thoughts on the case and the international report, a language teacher waved his hand in impatience. Bastante, he said; enough. What seemed more on people’s minds now was Donald Trump. Fresher and brighter than banners for the missing students were caricatures of the likely Republican nominee for the American presidency, some emblazoned with profanities.

In a row of buildings just south of Sagrada Familia was a cave-like opening to a low-ceilinged garage. It was filled with cast-offs: costume jewelry, plastic toys, damaged furniture. Vinyl LPs were nailed to the ceiling. A small, kind-looking man appeared from the depths, wiping his hands. His name was Mario, and after trying to drum up interest in various items, he hauled out some dusty cardboard boxes stuffed with old photos. Many dated to the 1960s and earlier; they captured ordinary people doing ordinary things: posed outside a building, dressed for weddings, celebrating birthdays. One recorded a family’s elaborate Day of the Dead celebration, with a human skeleton artfully clothed and set on a chair.

Then, a snapshot of what appeared to be a diplomatic gathering, with men in suits applauding a small figure in white at the far end of the room. The back of a person’s head filled the foreground of the photo, which was also overexposed and a bit out of focus. There was no label or any kind of identifying information. Mario offered to take a closer look, producing a chipped oval of clouded glass that when pressed to the photo magnified the image. Pablo Seis, he said: Paul VI. But where was it taken, and when? Mexico, Mario responded without hesitating; he was here six or seven times; this was taken in the 1970s. Mario asked for a hundred pesos. Though it was obvious the pope could not have visited that many times, wasn’t it possible he came once? The price seemed fair.

Except that the Vatican’s official list of papal visits for Paul VI does not include Mexico; he was the first pope to travel outside Italy and he set foot on six continents, but Mexico was never a stop. Mario had apparently misremembered. Where the photo was taken and by whom remains a mystery, as does how it landed in a dusty box with thousands of others in a converted garage in Mexico City. But that they’ve been lost or discarded doesn’t change the fact that the moments themselves were once deemed worth preserving, or that they might yet persist in the memory of somebody, somewhere.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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