On May 13, 1524, twelve Spanish Franciscan friars set foot on Mexican soil for the first time. After walking barefoot from the coast of Veracruz, they finally arrived at Mexico City, a distance of 250 miles over two mountain ranges. These men “of exceptional worth” became known as “The Twelve Apostles” because of their apostolic zeal. The evangelization of Mexico had begun.
It was three years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, “an unbelievable victory,” in which the vastly outnumbered Spaniards conquered the mighty Aztec empire. The Spanish victory was made possible by the Spanish alliance with the small, independent state of Tlaxcala. A nation of warriors, the Tlaxcalans were only too happy to join forces with the new conquistadores for one principal reason: they detested the Aztecs! And no wonder: The Aztecs were devoted to their pagan god, Huitzilopochtli, a god who had an insatiable appetite for human blood. The Aztecs constantly instigated wars with the tiny state, not to gain land or resources, but to gain captives to offer to Huitzilopochtli. He must be placated at all costs. Human sacrifice was rampant in the culture, and children were sacrificed as well.
We have been hearing a lot lately about pagan gods and idols — namely, the Pachamama idol, which has been featured in the Vatican gardens and other churches in Rome. Pagan idols! To the consternation of Catholics everywhere. And spoken of in benign, almost benevolent terms. But what is the reality behind such idols, these statues of pagan gods?
Bernal Díaz, in his first-person, highly acclaimed account, The Conquest of New Spain, speaks directly about this subject. He accompanied Cortés as a 26-year-old soldier in the conquest of New Spain and tells of their first foray into Tlaxcala. “I must tell you how in this town of Tlaxcala we found wooden cages — in which men and women were imprisoned and fed until they were fat enough to be sacrificed and eaten. We broke them open and destroyed these prisons and set free the Indians — and these prison cages existed throughout the country.” He said that every province had its own idols: “they had infinite numbers of idols and sacrificed to them all.”
In Mexico City, at Tlaltelolco, he saw scenes of unimaginable horror: “All the walls of that shrine were so caked with blood,” he said. “It was a slaughterhouse.” He described another image, Tezcatlipoca, the god of Hell: “It was surrounded by figures of little devils with snakes’ tails — they had offered that idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.” He also wrote of doorways with “hellish figures” and a place full of skulls “so numerous you could not count them however long you looked.”
They wasted no time in demolishing those pagan idols. “Some fifty of us soldiers clambered up and overturned the idols which rolled down the steps and were smashed to pieces. Some of them were in the form of fearsome dragons as big as calves and others, half-men, half-dog, and hideously ugly.” Cortés ordered the shattered idols to be burnt. Historians believed that the Aztecs sacrificed from 15,000 to 20,000 people annually to their pagan gods.
The Tlaxcalans were the first friends of the Spaniards and the first Christians in the New World. Because of their loyalty, they retained a privileged position among the conquered peoples. In 1525, Julián Garcés became the first archbishop of Tlaxcala. He was a protector of the Indians’ rights and looked after their temporal as well as their spiritual well-being. He built a hospital and provided a multitude of welfare services. The Franciscans soon established a school in Tlaxcala under the able leadership of the legendary Fray Toribio de Motolinía (“the poor one”), one of the original “Twelve Apostles.”
Bishop Garcés spoke of the students at this school: “They are very intelligent — and show great clarity, quickness, and facility of mind.” The Spanish monarchy decided that the children of the noble classes should be taught first. It so happened that some of the nobles decided against having their children educated at the Franciscan school but would send their servants’ children instead. This had a happy outcome: in this way, the lower classes became educated in the Faith as well. These newly bilingual children often acted as interpreters for the friars and the rest of the community. In many cases, the youngsters were the first Christians in their families and set about evangelizing their parents, some of whom were reluctant to relinquish their pagan gods.
Cristóbal, who was born into a noble family, was one of the first students at the new school. His father, Acxoptécatl, a tribal chief, and ruler of Atlihuetzia (a village near the town of Tlaxcala), reluctantly allowed his son to attend the school. Cristóbal was an eager student and absorbed all the teachings of the Catholic faith with much joy. At first, the father was irritated by his son’s evangelizing spirit. He resented being reproached by his son for his polygamy and his excessive drinking. Over time, however, his father became sorely annoyed by Cristobal’s teachings and ordered him to stop. When the boy started smashing the father’s beloved pagan idols, the father became enraged. One terrible day in 1527, he picked up his son and began viciously beating him without mercy. He demanded that the boy deny his Catholic faith. Cristóbal refused. He then threw the boy into a blazing fire. He died the next day. He was 12 years old.
The two other boys, Antonio and Juan, were martyred in 1519. Antonio, two years younger than Cristóbal, was the son of a prominent Tlaxcalan nobleman by the name of Xiochténacti. Antonio also attended the Franciscan school in Tlaxcala, as did his young servant, Juan. Both boys were the same age, and both became fervent Catholics, full of zeal for their newfound Christian faith. One day as they were destroying some pagan idols, an infuriated crowd surrounded them and clubbed them to death; the onlookers cheered as the two children died. All three boys took to heart St. John’s words: “Little children, keep yourself from idols” (I Jn. 5:21).
Two years later, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill, in Mexico City (two hours west of Tlaxcala). Within a decade, nine million indigenous people had converted to the Catholic faith. In 1990, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pope John Paul ll beatified the three boys, declaring them martyrs for the faith “in odium fidei” (in hatred of the Faith). They were canonized by Pope Francis in 2017. They were the first martyrs in the Americas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Cristóbal, St. Antonio, and St. Juan: Please pray for our church in this time of great need.
Mary Hansen writes about Marian shrines in Mexico at MadonnasOfMexico.com. She has written for the National Catholic Register, The Catholic Register, and OnePeterFive. She is a former teacher and has an M.Div. degree from St. Michael’s (Toronto). She is married and has one son. She lives in North Bay, Ontario.