The Americas 62.4 (2006) 533-562
[Access article in PDF]
Student Politics, National Politics:
Mexico's National Student Union, 1926-1943
In 1926 students enrolled in Mexico City's exclusive Catholic preparatory schools faced a crisis that threatened to ruin their academic careers. They were in a serious quandary because officials at the government-supported National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) were placing what were viewed as unfair obstacles to their plans of matriculating into the university, thereby threatening the aspirations that these students and their parents had for their futures. Their predicament was directly related to the deteriorating political climate that would soon produce the religious civil war known as the Cristero Rebellion of 1926-1929. These students were being victimized by pro-government UNAM officials because of their Catholic Church affiliation; this at a time that the Church was locked in a bitter struggle with President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928). The heart of the conflict was Calles's steadfast determination to enforce the anticlerical provisions contained in the Constitution of 1917. This landmark document encapsulated many of the central demands of the men and women who, like President Calles, had fought in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Calles was a dedicated anticlerical who believed that the nation's social, political, economic, and educational development required a dramatic reduction in the Roman Catholic Church's influence within Mexican society.
By mid 1926 these affected students had organized themselves into a citywide student group, the Union of Private School Students, with the goal of defending themselves from what they perceived to be the arbitrary, ideologically driven actions of university officials. However, the evolution of this nascent student organization changed dramatically when its activities drew the attention and interest of the country's most important Catholic official, the Archbishop of Mexico José Mora y del Río. This cleric saw the potential benefits of transforming this group into a dedicated Catholic student [End Page 533] organization that catered to the needs of young men who, thanks to their education and social standing, would in the future exercise a critical role in Mexican society. Archbishop Mora y del Río set in motion the process that transformed this unofficial, informal group into an ecclesiastically recognized student organization tasked with the responsibility of imparting to its members a thorough understanding of the Church's teachings and an obligation to defend its interests. Known from 1926-1931 as the National Catholic Student Confederation, the group was subsequently called the National Catholic Student Union (UNEC).
The Student Union played an active, but supporting role in the armed conflict of 1926-1929, for which it paid dearly in human lives lost. It would take years for this Catholic student group to revive as a functioning organization. The UNEC was able to recover because it continued to enjoy high level ecclesiastical support and because of the leadership provided by the UNEC's energetic spiritual director, the Jesuit priest Ramón Martínez Silva. The UNEC also fed off the Catholic backlash against the federal government's educational initiatives of the early 1930s whose goals, among others, was to further loosen the Church's grip on Mexican education.
The UNEC gained national notoriety during the 1933 strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), when it helped to defeat the adoption of a government supported, Marxist-inspired curriculum reform effort. The UNEC capitalized on this victory and assumed a leading role in national student politics, confronting the government's educational initiatives and challenging its influence over the national university student movement. By the mid 1930s the Catholic Student Union had become a highly politicized group that had all but abandoned its pedagogical function of teaching its members the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
The UNEC's political activism was received coolly by some elements of the Catholic Church hierarchy, who argued that the Church should publicly keep its distance from the polemical organization in order to avoid governmental reprisals. Furthermore, the UNEC's neglect of its pedagogical...