The Remarkable Mexico City Area Conference


The Remarkable Mexico City Area Conference

“This conference is like a dream to us—a dream that we did not even dare hope for.”

“It is more than we would have imagined possible—a conference in our own land.”

“To see our prophet in conference, oh! It is only a prayer that we had in our hearts.”

These responses, these very typical responses, are the kind that were being voiced everywhere by the remarkable Saints from Mexico and Central America in attendance at the recent area general conference in Mexico City.

“Es un sueño” (“It is a dream”) was a comment I heard dozens of times as I roamed among the nearly 17,000 Saints attending the three days of sessions, August 25–27, at the Auditorio National at Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.

To see the living prophet, President Harold B. Lee, indeed was their motivation. And the stories of the sacrifices made by some of the Saints in order to attend conference will ring throughout the Church for years and thus bless countless others who will be encouraged to serve the Lord with all their heart, might, mind, and strength.

They came from the deserts and industrial cities of the north, from the small pueblitos of the east and west, and from the tropical coastlines and mountainous areas of the south that stretch throughout Central America. But for many, they came with sacrifice.

Since the announcement of the conference in March, Saints throughout the breadth and depth of Mexico and Central America discussed how attendance might be possible and, for many, how sufficient money could be obtained for transportation. Here are a few reports of how some of them came.

To the north, in the Tijuana area, a bus was chartered and filled with Saints. “But the day before we were to leave,” said President Samuel Miera of the Mexico West Mission, “ten persons came to me saying that they had finally saved enough money for the trip. I told them there were no seats available. It didn’t matter, they said; they would be happy to stand in the aisles of the bus all the way to Mexico City.” The trip takes forty-eight hours! In the spirit of gospel brotherhood, the Saints rotated among themselves so that all persons in the bus took turns standing.

The day after the conference was announced, one good sister from the same northwestern area of Mexico began going door to door asking for laundry. For five months she saved her pesos from her meager earnings from the scrubbing of her neighbors’ clothes.

Twenty-five Saints came eighteen hours by ferry from La Paz, Baja California, to Mazatlan before continuing their journey to Mexico City.

In the agricultural areas of north central Mexico, another problem existed in the areas of Valle Hermoso and La Saltena where floods during the summer had wiped out most of the crops. “I did not expect many members to come from these areas,” said President John M. Walker of the Mexico North Mission. “But throughout the summer these good Saints saved and borrowed and sold some of their belongings, trying to gather the 200 pesos per person ($16 U.S. currency) necessary for their bus tickets. Four busloads—between 140 and 150 people—came from those areas! For many of them, there was no money left over for food. But no matter. They decided they could fast for three or four days.” Most of these particular Saints, as well as numerous others, could not afford the two pesos (16 cents U.S. currency) for a cot upon arrival so they slept the three nights on hardwood gymnasium floors.

Many Saints in the central part of Mexico also worked and saved, selling tamales and tacos, washing cars, doing gardening, pruning hedges. In many instances throughout Mexico and Central America, insufficient money was collected for all who desired to attend, so the Saints would pool their individual hard-earned pesos and decide among themselves who might best benefit by attendance and could report back to the group.

From the Ejido areas (communal farms) in the north central area, President Lewis M. Bastian of the Mexico North Central Mission said that the Saints, many of whom earn ten pesos a day, raised 1,000 pesos, enough to send about forty-five Saints.

South of Mexico City, thirty Saints from Atlixco, near Puebla, rode three hours daily back and forth to conference standing in an open truck.

From Central America, fewer Saints came. The travel time is staggering. By bus, it is a one-day ride from Panama to Costa Rica; another day to San Jose, still in Costa Rica; another day to Managua, Nicaragua; another day from Managua to El Salvador; another day from El Salvador to Guatemala City; another two days from Guatemala City to Mexico City—“a total of seven to eight days, one way,” said President Quinten Hunsaker of the Central America Mission. “With a week up and a week back and several days at conference, attendance at the conference would require up to three weeks for some of these people. The round trip would cost two to three months’ salary of the average man’s wage.” President Hunsaker knew of only ten people who came from Panama, and less than a dozen from Costa Rica. The money that had been pooled in one area in Costa Rica was given by the members to send their branch president.

Many more were able to come from Guatemala, including ten seminary students who attended because in a week some $400 was raised in one area to send the youths: “They will be our leaders and they must know.”

From the Guatemala City Stake, President Guillermo Rittscher reported that many of his members did not see how they would be permitted by their employers to be away for the conference. “I asked if they had fasted and prayed,” he said, “and after they did this, many of them found little miracles occurring and their employers giving permission for their absence.”

And so it went. The stories go on and on, becoming legion in number.

Certainly not all the Saints in Mexico and Central America are poor. There are many of the so-called middle and upper-middle class members. There are numerous attorneys, handfuls of engineers, dozens of doctors, and scores of well-to-do businessmen and industrialists among our members. But two-thirds of the Saints in these lands faced genuine concern as to how they would be able to attend the conference.

The biggest obstacles to attendance for many living outside Mexico City involved time away from employment and the finances sufficient to make the trip. And a thousand “little miracles” did take place: many reports circulated of loans unexpectedly being paid to members desiring to attend; of members being able to sell something, including land, they had not anticipated selling; of loans from nonmember friends; of ways found to bring family members who at first had been thought to have to stay at home; of healings following priesthood administration so that the sick might also attend.

With this basic undergirding of faith and devotion and prayer, is it any wonder that the entire conference was notably marked by an inspiring outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord? “Never have I felt so warm here,” said a Mexican Saint, pointing to his heart. It was a true report. The Spirit was everywhere and burned within us all.

The Sunday prior to the conference, I visited some of the Mexico City wards to feel the tempo of Saints. In the Sunday School Gospel Doctrine class, the teacher bore testimony at the end of the lesson: “This week will be one of great rejoicing for our people. It is a great day for the descendants of Lehi—and is there no reason why Father Lehi and Nephi and Mormon and many others will not be in attendance also?”

Such expressions were not uncommon, and on the minds of everyone were some of the great prophecies in the Book of Mormon concerning the descendants of Father Lehi. Many of the speakers alluded to these sacred writings in their remarks.

The conference began Friday evening. The glory of the Mexican people was shown in two hours of song and dance as 764 performers presented a breathtaking performance before some 15,000 warmly receptive Saints.

There were brightly plumed dancers representing the early Aztecs, quick-stepping huapangos and tapatios, the beloved folksongs sung by beautifully trained choruses from the different regions of the land, with the mournful mariachi trumpeters, guitarists rapidly plucking their strings, and the rhythmic pounding of maracas. At the program’s conclusion, the Saints rose en masse and clapped long and hard, many with tears streaming from their faces. “It makes me proud to see the great talent among our people,” said a performer near me. “We have practiced so long, so hard. It is good that they like what we have done.”

Saints throughout Mexico—in the missions and stakes—had been given their assignments months earlier, and all during the summer, rehearsals and more stories of sacrifice were in the making as they saved enough money for their costumes, their choral outfits, and the trips necessary for their practices.

From the Vera Cruz area, the 21-year-old dance director, Jose Layte, a member of four years, traveled over 2,000 miles to branches and the individual homes of the thirty dancers of his troupe, training them in steps that most had never before seen or danced. A student of dance at the National Folklorico school, Jose understood well the difficulties and technicalities of his numbers. On Saturday prior to the conference, he and his dancers practiced ten hours. Most ended up with blisters on their feet. Their answered prayer was that “the blisters shall heal.” And the Friday following, all danced with great gusto. The charro costumes worn by these dancers represented nearly an eight-day salary in Mexico, yet all were blessed in earning money sufficient for them.

Another group of dancers from northern Mexico practiced weekly their difficult caballero dances, and one group drove over 100 miles weekly for their practices.

The several remarkably beautiful choruses had similar experiences. The 150 members of the Mexico Southeast Mission chorus had practiced twice a week in their small branches for five months, and then as conference drew near, they assembled for three all-day practices. Travel was expensive, and many Saints went without meals to feed those who came from afar. Their beautiful uniforms were made by hand, sewn from a design that had been mimeographed and sent around for all to see.

Their director, 27-year-old Arturo Aguilar, joined the Church twelve years ago, “at which time I knew nothing about music. Since then I have learned to play the piano and lead music—all in the Church.” Their a capella numbers, sung by Saints nearly all of whom do not read music, represented not only a great technical accomplishment but was some of the finest music heard during the conference.

The 307-voice Central Chorus of the Mexico City stakes and Mexico Mission, directed by Jaime Vallalobos, was equally inspiring and represented amazing technical accomplishment by Saints who labored under similar technical challenges. Members sold tamales and items in the streets in order to cover the cost of their handmade outfits.

“At the beginning, some of them didn’t know where they were going to get the money, especially those from the small mission towns,” said President Eran Call of the Mexico Mission. But the Saints were assured that if they fasted and prayed and paid their tithing, the way would be opened. All 307 were beautifully attired, and, as one member of the chorus said, “properly dressed to meet the prophet.”

Beautifully dressed, inspirational in sound—but “even more beautiful,” said a Mexico City bishop, “are their souls because of what they have done to accomplish this assignment.”

On Saturday, the conference sessions began, two days of the usual conference experiences that all who have attended conferences of the Church have come to know and love. Sessions on both Saturday and Sunday were at 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. However, the Saturday evening sessions were somewhat different—four sessions held simultaneously: one for the Melchizedek Priesthood, one for the Aaronic Priesthood, one for girls of Aaronic Priesthood age, and one for the sisters.

In attendance at the first two sessions Saturday were ten General Authorities: Presidents N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney of the First Presidency; President Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve; Elders Ezra Taft Benson, Mark E. Petersen, and Delbert L. Stapley of the Twelve; Elders Franklin D. Richards and David B. Haight, Assistants to the Twelve; President Bruce R. McConkie of the First Council of the Seventy; and Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown.

President Lee flew to Mexico City Saturday afternoon and spoke at all four of the Saturday evening sessions and the two Sunday sessions. In attendance for the Sunday morning session (and for a Monday evening concert) were the Tabernacle Choir, director Richard P. Condie, and organist Alexander Schreiner.

What were the conference messages about? What were the great themes presented? As one of the General Authorities said to a group standing nearby following one of the sessions, “We’ve not come to announce any new doctrines.”

President Lee said in his opening address, “Many have wondered why this conference is being held in Mexico City for the Saints residing in Mexico and Central America. One of the reasons why this conference is being held is to give recognition and to commend the wonderful labors of the many who have labored here over the years. They have been instrumental in bringing about the tremendous growth of the Church in these countries.”

The conference contained all that usually makes up a general conference of the Church—talks of inspiration, examples of the gospel in action, stirring testimony of the doctrines of the Church—and an elevating and heartwarming spirit that seeps through a listener’s soul until his heart burns and causes tears of joy as a result of communion with the Spirit.

Conference is a time for edifying, for teaching, and for testimony. And if you have attended or read the addresses of one conference, in a sense you have attended them all. In another sense, each report, each sermon, each example, each testimony takes on a freshness, a uniqueness that makes the experience one of immediacy in orienting one’s life toward gospel principles.

The speakers included all of the General Authorities present; six Regional Representatives of the Council of the Twelve—Elders LeRoy Hatch, A. Kenyon Wagner, J. Thomas Fyans, Harold Brown, Arturo Martinez, and Robert E. Wells; eight stake presidents—Waldo P. Call, Guillermo Torres, Jose H. Gonzalez, Guillermo Gonzalez (two brothers serving side by side as stake presidents in Monterrey), Guillermo Garmendia, Juan Casanova, Agricol Lozano, and Guillermo Enrique Rittscher; and representatives from the YWMIA, YMMIA, Relief Society, Sunday School, and Primary general boards and the Church School System. Prayers were offered by counselors to stake presidents, by district presidents, and by high councilors; and in the women’s sessions, by some of the sisters who lead stake auxiliaries.

But it was the conference itself that gave rise to many interesting themes. Of special interest were these facts about the Mexico City conference: the largest gathering of Saints ever to gather under one roof at a general or area general conference; largest gathering of Spanish-speaking Saints; largest gathering of the Latter-day Saint descendants of Lehi; first sustaining in an area general conference of the new First Presidency; first session of the Aaronic Priesthood in an area general conference; first Tabernacle Choir Sunday morning broadcast to emanate from a non-English nation; and the Sunday morning choir broadcast marking the choir’s 125th anniversary.

In a press conference prior to the opening sessions, it was noted that Mexico is “the home of the largest number of Mormons in any country in the world except the United States.” Latest records show more than 82,000 Latter-day Saints in Mexico—a larger number than are in Great Britain, Canada, or any other nation outside the U.S. Some 33,000 Saints reside in the republics of Central America. Membership in the Church in these areas since 1960 has increased more than 500 percent. There are 256 wards and branches in Mexico and 90 in Central America.

In remarks given at a press conference, President Lee said, “Every time I come to this republic I am touched by the deep faith, the dedication, and the warm friendliness of the Mexican people. They are a choice people. There is in Mexico and Central America a superabundance of the blood of Israel.” President Tanner noted that “some of the noblest, most dedicated members of the Church in all the world will be assembling for this conference in Mexico City. We are honored to join with them in worshiping together our Heavenly Father.”

Those attending the sessions filed into seats on five levels. A great platform to support the choirs, including the full Tabernacle Choir, General Authorities, stake presidents, bishops, mission presidents, and other guests, filled the central front area. Beautiful white flowers, on which some sisters had worked for three nights, were everywhere on the platform. Mexican Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, all members of the Church, assisted the Saints to their seats and stood at arms. Sixteen high-backed red velvet chairs for General Authorities and several others, and a specially built podium were the work of a member of a Mexico City bishopric.

Saturday’s opening session was marked by a telegram from Elder Derek Cuthbert, Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve in England, who sent “greetings from British Saints to all attending” the conference. It had been exactly one year since the British Saints enjoyed the precedent-setting first area general conference of the Church in Manchester, England. It was noted that the same song sung at the British conference also served to rally the Saints in Mexico: “The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee,” one of the great hymns of the restoration, written by Elder Parley P. Pratt.

Also of special interest were the precedent-setting translation procedures used during the conference. A system somewhat similar to that used in the United Nations was tried; that is, the English-speaking General Authority delivered his prepared address at the podium over a microphone that was turned down so that his voice could be heard in the background. Simultaneously, coming from a translation room 100 feet to the south, the same address was being read by one of eight Spanish-speaking translators, whose voice was more loudly beamed throughout the auditorium. Hence, the Saints both saw and heard the speaker as they received the message in their own tongue.

The Saints were particularly pleased, however, when President Lee followed the more traditional method of sequential translation—he spoke in English and then the translator standing beside him relayed his message in Spanish while the President waited to resume his next sentence.

The entire electrical system for the conference was, in some respects, as miraculous as certain other aspects surrounding the occasion. Technicians from KSL Radio in Salt Lake City found it necessary to build or unify a complete broadcast system in three days—a public address system, the translation system (with its fifty or so headphones to non-Spanish-speaking guests and General Authorities), and the broadcast system for the Sunday morning Tabernacle Choir broadcast. (An organ tuner had previously tuned the magnificent 17,000-pipe organ used by the Tabernacle Choir for its broadcast and during the conference sessions.)

Working around the clock for several days, technicians completed a system that normally would have taken more than a week to assemble. At the last moment, they discovered that they had not run cords to the headsets, but they were able to patch up a satisfactory system. Compounding the challenges for the technical crew was the need for a translation system at all four areas of Saturday night’s special sessions.

But all of this background work by the many known and many more unknown persons was pointed toward seeing and hearing the President of the Church—President Harold B. Lee.

“We did everything we could to come see the prophet of the Lord, the representative of our Savior on earth,” said one Saint from Guatemala.

“To be able to sit and listen to his words and to know and feel in your heart that you are listening to a prophet of God, is one of the most beautiful experiences in my life,” said a Saint from Tampico, “especially to know that these men have the authority from our Lord to lead and organize us.”

The four Saturday night sessions represented the first time the Saints were to see President Lee. All sessions began at 7:00 P.M. except the Melchizedek Priesthood session, which began at 7:30 P.M. in order to allow President Lee time to visit and speak at all four meetings.

It was an evening never to be forgotten. The first stop was at the Mexico City Stake Center at Churubusco, where over 500 Aaronic Priesthood youths, immaculately groomed and polished, stood up the instant they learned of the President’s arrival. Not a whisper could be heard as all these young eyes focused upon one man.

President Lee spoke of prayer and how these young men could be guided throughout life by learning how to pray and receive answers from our Father. At the conclusion, the entire audience stood and sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” As he left, President Lee turned to his companions and repeated several times, “Did you see those faces? Did you see those beautiful faces?”

Next stop was the Teatro del Bosque, where 450 young women of Aaronic Priesthood age awaited the President. He spoke of chastity and love, of future motherhood after holy matrimony. At the conclusion, he walked up the center aisle, where with great respect and dignity many young sisters reached out to touch his hand, many saying softly, “Good-bye, Presidente. You come back to us. You please come back to us.”

Next was the women’s session in the nearby National Auditorium, where over 3,000 sisters were gathered. The President spoke of wifehood and motherhood. He especially encouraged the sisters to take time to be with their husbands, to preserve and build upon the ties that were so keenly felt at the beginning of their marriage. Afterwards, not a whisper, not a sound could be heard except muffled sobs and the footsteps of the departing President.

Final stop was Mexico City North Stake Center at Camarones. The evening’s speakers had concluded, and an impromptu speaker was bearing testimony while the 2,500 Melchizedek Priesthood holders waited patiently for the President. On his arrival, all stood as if an army of the priesthood while he walked to the front. As in the other three meetings, nearly all present had never seen in person a president of the Church.

For the next thirty minutes, every eye was upon him as he counseled the men to use their priesthood to save others, to bless others, and to solve the crises and problems in their own lives. As I looked around, I could see tears seeping out the corners of the eyes of many of the brethren. At the meeting’s conclusion, all wanted to shake his hand—and would have pressed themselves upon him if they could.

The next day, the closing sessions enjoyed the warm Spirit of the Lord. About 17,000 Saints heard the Tabernacle Choir in its Sunday morning broadcast and listened to President Lee and others.

At the conclusion of the last session on Sunday, the Central Mexican Chorus sang “The Lord’s Prayer.” Following the closing prayer, the many thousands present stood to emotionally sing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” representing the greatest desire of all the Saints present.

Following this hymn, the chorus broke out spontaneously with the Mexican farewell song, “Las Golandrinas.” Mexican legend has it that he to whom this song is sung will return again. At the song’s conclusion, the choir and audience waved softly their handkerchiefs as is Mexican custom, while softly, tearfully, saying a last “adios.”

The conference had come to its end. Saints from distant locales began their long trips homeward, their hearts lifted, their faith bolstered, their testimonies strengthened.

As I walked around the hall, I asked the Saints their impressions.

“All of Mexico will know who the Mormons are as a result of this conference.”

“The most beautiful experience of my life!”

“I brought some investigators. They were very impressed. They didn’t realize anything like this even existed in the world.”

“It will take many years for us to forget the love that we have felt here these days.”

“I believe this is the beginning of a new era in the history of the Church in these lands.”

“It all is more than any of us would have ever imagined—so well organized, so beautiful, so spiritual, so much from our Lord.”

Perhaps the report could end here, but it would lack one more important occasion—the Tabernacle Choir concert Monday evening before more than 8,000 people in the National Auditorium. The choir has performed in many places throughout the world in their history, and they have grown accustomed to receiving standing ovations and encores. These came Monday night, but it was more than this that made it a special night, a night that more than a dozen or more choir members told me represented perhaps their most “significant,” “inspirational,” “beautiful,” “soul-tugging” experience in recent memory.

The choir received thunderous ovations for several songs sung in Spanish—and of these the greatest crowd pleaser was “Guadalajara.” Also enormously well received was their ever-popular rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But it was “Come, Come, Ye Saints” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” the latter sung quietly and reverently as if it were almost a prayer, that epitomized the overpowering presence of the Spirit that memorable Monday evening.

After talking with some of the Saints, I, came to understand why. Read again the words of this great hymn: “Though hard to you this journey may appear ’Tis better far for us to strive Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard? … And should we die before our journey’s through. … With the just we shall dwell! … All is well! All is well!” These phrases are more than idyllic words—they mean something very real to many Saints who live today in places of difficulty and trial.

Unknown to many who may have more affluent and comfortable life-styles, there are numerous Saints in the world who can still identify with spectres of uncertainty and concern similar to those that motivated William Clayton’s original words.

Perhaps some of us sing this great hymn only as a memento of a rich pioneer past, part of a beautiful, almost romantic culture. But in Mexico, as perhaps in countless other places around the world, there are Saints who find themselves still in the pioneer times of establishing the gospel in their land. And to them, “All is well” is both a statement of faith and prayer.

The experience was one more powerful and poignant lesson taught at the feet of the beautiful Saints of Mexico and Central America. May their stories of faith and devotion live on for many years and thereby bless the lives of all of us, who need to be taught afresh that sacrifice truly brings forth the blessings of heaven.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten

[photos] The Saints attending conference expressed great support of and interest in the President of the Church.

[photos] Opposite page: Member joins in singing hymn; members of a 307-voice chorus sang magnificently. This page: Performers at the Friday Folklorico; an elderly couple thrills to conference messages; young Scouts served as ushers.

[photos] Older Scout stands at arms; President Romney greets acquaintances; the close Mexican parent-child relationship is exhibited by a father and son; President Lee, with interpreter Eduardo Balderas, addresses holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood; young men and women are intensely interested in the conference messages.

[photos] Opposite page: Lunch shared by friends during sessions; beautiful handmade chairs had never been sat in until the General Authorities did so; President Tanner at the podium; President Romney and President Lee listen to translation of an address by Spanish-speaking leader; young Aaronic Priesthood organist plays prelude music in anticipation of President Lee’s visit to the Aaronic Priesthood session.

[photos] Upper balcony view of the large auditorium; member reflects on conference experience at lunch time; an emotional President and Sister Lee listen to the Central Chorus’s post-conference tribute of “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”