Sometime this year, if it has not happened already, Mexico will become the first country outside the United States to reach the significant membership milestone of 1,000,000 Latter-day Saints.
This milestone is indicative of the way the Church has blossomed in Mexico and Central and South America in recent years. While preaching of the gospel began well over 100 years ago in Mexico (see “Important Events for the Church in Mexico,” p. 42), Church growth accelerated beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. When President Spencer W. Kimball became twelfth President of the Church in 1973, there were just over 3.3 million members throughout the world; now Mexico and Central and South America alone have more members than that.
Many members bear testimony that the growth has come as fulfillment of prophecy or in answer to the prayers of the righteous. They express deep gratitude for the blessings this growth has brought. One example: for decades members in Mexico had to travel to the United States to visit a temple. It was thrilling for them when a temple was dedicated in Mexico City in 1983. Today Mexico has 12 temples, 20 missions, and 199 stakes.
Church membership is diverse, ranging from professional people living in the urban megalopolis of Mexico City to farmers and laborers in isolated rural areas. What ties them together is a testimony of Jesus Christ and a desire to serve others as He might direct. It would be impossible to depict in words or photographs the full richness of Latter-day Saint life in Mexico, but the words and pictures that follow provide a window into the lives of representative members.
The Wedding They Really Wanted
The Monterrey México Temple stands prominently on a hill next to a major highway. It is impossible to pass without noting the majesty of the building and its setting. When Román and Norma Rodríguez first passed the temple, there were signs announcing an open house. Feeling drawn to it, they stopped and went in with their family.
Originally married in a civil ceremony as required by law, they were, after 15 years and three children, involved in planning the impressive church wedding they had never had. But during their visit to the Monterrey temple, they felt something they had never felt before. There was a peace and joy Román could not explain. Norma felt it too. They agreed that they had to learn more about the teachings of the church that had built this temple, so they left their names and a request for the missionaries to visit.
“I remember when we were preparing for that other wedding,” Sister Rodríguez says. “I kept wondering if we were doing the right thing. I prayed to the Lord to help me, and I feel my prayer was answered as we learned about eternal marriage.”
On 15 May 2003, just one year and eight days after their baptism, Brother and Sister Rodríguez and their daughter and two sons returned to the house of the Lord for the kind of wedding they really wanted—their eternal sealing as a family. They are members of the Santo Domingo Ward, San Nicolás México Stake, where he is elders quorum president and she is visiting teaching supervisor. Their children—Vanessa, 14; Román, 11; and Omar, 9—enjoy Primary, the youth programs, and the other activities available in their ward.
Both Brother and Sister Rodríguez tell of spiritual experiences that reconfirm the wisdom of their decision to become members of the Church. Before, Brother Rodríguez says, they were running after the common things of life. Now they see with real depth and spiritual clarity. “I feel like our life is beginning to come together,” he says.
The Way It Used to Be
Latter-day Saint pioneers from different areas of Mexico share stories of similar experiences: years of isolation, sometimes persecution, slow growth, and more recently—as Church members have become more visible in Mexican society—acceptance and respect.
Francisco and Estela Magdaleno of Las Aguilas Ward, Guadalajara México Moctezuma Stake, were baptized in the mid-1960s. The area where they live is strongly traditional with regard to religion. At first, neighbors wanted little to do with them or their faith. The Magdalenos continued to live their religion and tried their best to maintain good relationships with those around them. They and their three children have all served missions in Mexico. The Magdalenos have lived to see the day when neighbors turn to them for advice on questions of faith.
Sixta María Martínez of the Aeropuerto Ward, Mérida México Centro Stake, was already 62 when she was baptized in 1974. She quickly learned to love temple work and made several long trips on temple excursions from southern Mexico to Mesa, Arizona, in the United States. She delighted in a later opportunity to visit the temple in Salt Lake City. Over the years Sister Martínez has completed temple ordinances for her own family back five generations. She has lived to see a temple built just a few kilometers away in Mérida. At 92, she tries to go there once a week. “It is my joy. It is my life,” she says.
Amalia Estrada Catero of the Narvarte Ward, México City México Ermita Stake, grew up as a member of the Church. Her grandparents joined in the late 1880s. But in her youth, she and her family were the only members in their small town. Sister Estrada was not able to be fully active in the Church until she moved to Mexico City in 1956, in her mid-30s. She first went to the temple on an excursion to Mesa in 1963. Now she goes to the nearby Mexico City temple as often as possible. A teacher by training, Sister Estrada has taught in all of the Church auxiliaries and has been Relief Society president. In her early years in that small town, there was pressure for her to follow the dominant faith. Now she too has lived to see the day when neighbors come to her with questions on how to live a better life. As one young man in the neighborhood put it after a visit with her, “I talked to the teacher.”
Strengthening the Stakes
“I was telling my husband just a short time ago how blessed our children are,” says María Hernández de Martínez of the Huitzilzingo Ward, Chalco México Stake. As a convert, she is grateful for a temple sealing and all the blessings the gospel brings to her family.
Isaías Martínez, her husband, says, “Every time I look at the pictures of my grandparents, I’m filled with gratitude for what they did as members of the Church.” They were baptized in the 1940s. His grandfather and father both served as local priesthood leaders. Brother Martínez, called as a bishop at age 25, now serves as stake clerk.
Brother Martínez is an electronics engineer, and his wife was trained as an educator. In a way, he says, they represent what happened to members because grandparents and parents struggled to provide education for their offspring. As a result, many members of the current generation of Church leaders in Mexico are visible symbols in their communities of personal growth through following gospel principles.
Armando and Claudia Galíndez of the Estrella Ward, México City México Churubusco Stake, are examples. A lawyer, he also owns a company that offers employee training to businesses. Sister Galíndez, trained in tourism management, works with him in his company. Successful in Mexico, Brother Galíndez resists the lure of greater prosperity to the north. Though he might be able to establish a business in the United States, he chooses to stay in Mexico to help build up the Church. He says he wants to help fulfill President Spencer W. Kimball’s dream of the roles of members in Mexican society (see “President Kimball’s Dream,” p. 36).
Even before their marriage, Armando and Claudia made gospel-centered goals for themselves and their family. Brother Galíndez uses a number of gospel-based principles in the training he offers, including this one: “The only thing we need to do to move from ordinary to extraordinary is to understand who we are.”
As in other areas of the world, there are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico who drift away weeks or years after baptism, some never to return. Yet priesthood leaders who have followed President Gordon B. Hinckley’s counsel—making sure that every member has a friend, a responsibility in the Church, and spiritual nourishment with the word of God—say it is very effective in reaching out and bringing back many who are not enjoying the blessings of full activity. And some members return on their own when a spiritual whisper or insight reminds them of how much the gospel has to offer.
Yolanda Elsie Díaz de Vega of the Jardines Ward, Guadalajara México Reforma Stake, recalls staying up late to study the gospel with her husband after they were baptized in 1979: “It was as though we hungered for the scriptures.” But after seven months as a member of the Church, she felt that she was criticized unfairly by an older member and that she could not go to the next meeting. For four years the Vegas did not go to church—until concern for the blessings their family was missing led them back.
The Vegas have been active for many years now, sharing strength with their family, their ward, and their neighbors. There have been great blessings in learning how to be a better couple and in serving others, Brother Vega says. The gospel “changed our way of thinking, our way of living.” Their children have grown up learning and living the gospel, and now grandchildren are enjoying the same spiritual opportunities through Church activity. “I’m proud of our children because we’ve never had to worry about people knowing we are members of the Church,” Sister Vega says. Their four children respond that they live the way they do because of parental example.
Sharing the Blessings
Eleven-year-old Samuel Briones of the Primavera Ward, Guadalajara México Moctezuma Stake, helped interest his schoolteacher in the gospel by inviting her to the open house for the Guadalajara temple. After her visit, she began meeting with the missionaries. The man who taught karate to Samuel and his 12-year-old brother, José Julio, became interested in the gospel because of his association with the two boys; he was baptized and now serves as stake executive secretary.
“Many are looking for the truth, but they don’t know where it is,” says the boys’ father, also José Julio. It is easy to share beliefs with people when we, as members, are attentive enough to the Holy Ghost to know their need, Brother Briones says. His wife, Josefina, learned that the seeds we plant may take time to sprout, then grow quickly. She had shared her beliefs with one couple who seemed ready to listen but declined her invitations to attend Church meetings because of conflicts in their schedule. When they finally were able to attend with her, even she was surprised at how readily and quickly they accepted the gospel.
Mauro Gil of Mérida, who served as president of the México Torreón Mission from 1999 to 2002, says the example of members is probably the major factor in the reception missionaries receive. Reflecting on the influence of exemplary members, he says, “I think the gospel is going to make a greater nation of Mexico.” He has witnessed steady progress in the lives of members in the Yucatán Peninsula over the past 20 years not only spiritually but also temporally as they have obeyed principles of the gospel, including the law of tithing.
The temples in Mexico, he says, are just one visible symbol of the blossoming and growth among members. “They are going to bless the lives of people. They are going to bless our children.”
The Temple Effect
Members who recall the era of weeklong excursions to the temple in Mesa, Arizona, rejoice at having a temple now within a day’s drive from almost any point in their country. On a typical Saturday, the parking lots of temples in Mexico accommodate several buses bringing members from outlying areas.
Some rejoice in simply helping to clean the house of the Lord. In Guadalajara, Alfredo Gómez, second counselor in the temple presidency, greets a member who is leaving after a shift of cleaning the temple. President Gómez asks if the man is tired. Yes, the man replies—but it is a good kind of tired, and he is leaving strengthened.
“The value of the temple to members here is incalculable,” President Gómez says. Some from outlying areas will even skip necessities, such as food, to pay the cost of the trip. “Members know it is their temple. They have made it theirs when they come here to perform ordinances—or even to clean.”
Local leaders encourage and support them in this work, he explains. “If I may say it this way, President Hinckley’s plan was to take the temples to the members and then to take the members to the temples.”
Throughout Mexico, members are taking to temple worship and the blessings that flow out of it. From Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria to Mazatlán and Guaymas, from Puebla and Campeche to Acapulco, there are members who rejoice in blessings received through temples that are now within reach of their homes.
In Monterrey, there was much opposition to the building of the temple. And yet there are members who can testify that they saw it in dreams and knew it would be there, says temple president Eran A. Call, a member of the Seventy from 1997 to 2000. Here too members speak of it as our temple. There are no missionaries serving in it, President Call says—all the workers are local members. Many in the temple district have caught the spirit of the work. Not long ago a stake group came bringing 3,000 names of deceased persons for whom they would perform temple ordinances.
Hope for Eternity
The first meetinghouse built by the Church in Mérida was very significant for members who helped build it—and, as was the policy then, pay for it—recalls Saidy Castillo de Gaona of the Zacil-Ha First Ward, Mérida México Stake. “The members paid our half with our work—pure hard labor,” she says. Young Saidy learned to operate the brick-making machine while she worked on the project. And it was there that she met her future husband, Noé, a labor missionary helping to construct the building.
“When they knocked that building down, it was very emotional for me,” Saidy continues. “But the important thing was that they built something of greater value.” The Mérida México Temple now occupies that site.
As a teenager, Saidy had seen herself in a dream in a temple in Mérida. “I knew there was going to be a temple. I asked the Lord to let me live long enough to see it.”
She and her husband were married more than 35 years ago. They were sealed in the temple in Mexico City shortly after it was dedicated. Through the years they supported the Church faithfully in a wide variety of priesthood and auxiliary callings. When the Mérida temple was dedicated in 2000, the Gaonas were prepared to serve there too; they were the first two temple workers set apart.
He was serving in the temple on the day he died suddenly in late 2002. Saidy says it was only her knowledge of the eternal nature of marriage that allowed her to cope with the loss of her companion. “I think if it hadn’t been for the gospel, I would have wanted to die. The knowledge of the gospel gives me strength to go on. The gospel is everything for me. It was everything for my husband too.”
She turned once more to service in the gospel for help in healing the hurt of her loss. In addition to serving in the temple, she found solace in giving of herself to her five children and grandchildren and also in her Church callings. “I think I’m happiest when I’m working,” she explains.
That may well be true for every member in Mexico. Those who seem happiest are those who are working to serve others and spread the gospel. Perhaps without even thinking about it, they are helping day to day to fulfill President Kimball’s dream of a vital, growing Church membership in Mexico.
President Kimball’s Dream
“When I was in Mexico in 1946, … I had a dream of your progress and development. …
“… Instead of working for others I could see you getting the management of the positions of responsibility. …
“I saw the people of Lehi as engineers and builders. …
“I saw many of your sons becoming attorneys and helping solve the world’s problems. I saw your people as owners of industries and factories. …
“I saw doctors as well as the lawyers looking after the health of your people. I saw young Mexican men and women becoming great lecturers, owners of newspapers with their influence on public affairs. I saw great artists among you. …
“I saw the Church growing with rapid strides, and I saw them organized in wards and stakes. … I saw a temple of God and expect to see it filled with men and women and young people. …
“Now, that was my dream. Maybe it was a vision. Maybe the Lord was showing to me what this great people would accomplish.” President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985), in Conference Report, Mexico City Area Conference 1977, 31.
Roots in Mexico
As early as the mid-1870s, President Brigham Young sent emissaries to Mexico looking for places to colonize, both as a refuge from persecution in the United States and as a way to introduce the gospel in Latin America. The first Latter-day Saint colonists arrived in 1885, and eventually seven colonies were established on the Casas Grandes River in northern Chihuahua and two more on the Bavispe River in northern Sonora.
Despite the hardships of pioneering in the desert, the colonies thrived in peace for some years. In 1895 the first stake in Mexico was organized at Colonia Juárez. Anglo colonists were driven out of Mexico during the revolution that began in 1910, but some later returned to reclaim their homes and lands. Most of the colonies faded away, but Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juárez in northern Chihuahua are still home to many descendants of the early colonists.
Many names of the Anglo colonists are well known in Church history: Bowman, Brown, Call, Eyring, Hatch, Ivins, Romney, Smith, Taylor, Turley, and others. President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), First Counselor in the First Presidency, was born there. So too were siblings Camilla and Henry Eyring, respectively wife of President Spencer W. Kimball and father of Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Those early settlers performed well their duty to implant the gospel, and today the descendants of Anglo pioneers are outnumbered in local congregations by members of Mexican ancestry.
Colonia Juárez is now the home of one of the Church’s temples in Mexico; the Colonia Juárez Chihuahua México Temple was dedicated in 1999.
Important Events for the Church in Mexico
July 1847: Latter-day Saint pioneers led by President Brigham Young arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, which is within Mexican Territory.
1874: President Brigham Young calls Daniel W. Jones to translate the Book of Mormon into Spanish, but Brother Jones does not have a command of the language. Melitón G. Trejo, a Spaniard, comes to Salt Lake City, and with his help selections from the Book of Mormon are published.
6 January 1875: The first Latter-day Saint missionaries enter Mexico.
1876: A second missionary effort begins—in the state of Sonora. The first members are baptized.
15 November 1879: The first LDS missionaries arrive in the capital city: Elder Moses Thatcher of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Melitón G. Trejo, and James Z. Stewart.
November 1879: The first branch is organized in Mexico, with Plotino Rhodakanaty as president.
25 January 1880: Mexico is first dedicated for missionary work by Elder Thatcher, in a hotel room in Mexico City.
6 April 1881: At Popocatépetl, Elder Thatcher again dedicates Mexico for the preaching of the gospel and establishment of settlements. Eight others join him on the slopes of the volcano for the first Church conference in Mexico.
1885: The initial attempt by Anglo Latter-day Saints to colonize in Mexico begins. Seven colonies are eventually established in Chihuahua and two in Sonora.
1886: Melitón G. Trejo and James Z. Stewart finish the Spanish translation of the complete Book of Mormon, and it is published.
Mid-1889: All missionary efforts in Mexico are temporarily closed because of persecution of the Church in Utah.
9 December 1895: The Juárez Stake is organized in the LDS colonies of Chihuahua, with Anthony W. Ivins (later a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) as president.
8 June 1901: The Mexican Mission is reopened.
September 1907: Rey Lucero Pratt (later a member of the Seventy) is called to preside over the Mexican Mission. His tenure will last 24 years. Between 1901 and 1910 the Mexican Mission expands to include the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Morelos, and the Federal District.
29 August 1913: The Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, forces President Pratt and his missionaries to abandon Mexico, closing the mission. The revolution causes great suffering among members. Some are killed; Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales, executed in 1915, become known among members as martyrs for their faith. The war spurs an exodus of members from the colonies.
1922: Missionaries from the United States return to Mexico.
1937: The Mexican Mission begins publishing the magazine In Yaotlapiyoui, forerunner of the Liahona.
1960: An LDS Church school system is established in Mexico. Benemérito de las Américas, a preparatory school established in Mexico City in 1964, has become known for the quality of its students.
3 December 1961: The first stake among Saints largely of Mexican ancestry is formed in Mexico City. It is the first Spanish-speaking stake in the Church.
1967: The Mexico City Stake is divided, and the Mexico City North Stake is organized, with Agricol Lozano Herrera as president—the first stake president of Mexican ancestry.
1972: Membership in Mexico reaches 100,000.
2 December 1983: The Mexico City Temple and Visitors’ Center are dedicated.
25 July 1989: Mexico becomes the first country outside the United States to reach 100 stakes, with the creation of the Tecalco México Stake. Membership in Mexico is estimated at more than half a million.
11 December 1994: Visiting Mexico, President Howard W. Hunter creates the Church’s 2,000th stake, the México City México Contreras Stake.
2004: Mexico, with 2 administrative areas, 12 temples, 20 missions, and nearly 200 stakes, reaches 1,000,000 members.