Mexico is the second most populous Catholic country after Brazil, with 80% of its people bowing to the Pope of Rome. The other 18% identifies with Evangelical Protestantism and 2% of the rest belong to other churches or faiths. Of those churches in the “Other” category, the 1% is made up of Orthodox. While still a minority faith, the Orthodox Church in Mexico remains a steadfast presence and is starting to gather converts. Orthodoxy was largely introduced to the country by the steady stream of refugees and immigrants that heralded from Orthodox nations in the early half of the 20th century. Three major jurisdictions contribute to the mantle of Orthodoxy in Mexico: the Greek Orthodox, the Antiochian, and most recently the Russian Orthodox.
The Hellenic Presence in Mexico
According to one of the first ethnographic and sociological research studies done on the Hellenic community in Mexico, Gabriel Baeza Espejel’s Una Minoria Olvidada: Los Griegos en Mexico 1904-1942) the first Greeks to enter the country officially occurred from 1897 to 1919 and included 43 men and 3 women; another 232 Hellenes arrived in the decade of 1920-1930 and finally in 1931 to 1942 a mere trickle of 19 were recorded. Historians have found evidence that Cretans immigrated to Mexico in the 16th century and were named Candians, a phrase that mimicked the name of their capital Heraklion. Whether to escape the wartime conditions, poverty, and to increase their opportunities, these pioneering Greeks found their way from mainland and from Cyprus in a country that at least in climate resembled their own. the first real wave came shortly after WW1, in the 1920s, both from the mainland and from Cyprus. It is recorded that 230 Greek families resided in the suburb of Mexico City named Naucalpan, which is where the Cathedral of Aghia Sophia was built. Other families radiated towards the Valley of Tamazula and Culiacán to start the first olive oil industry.
It was only after the Second World War that enough persons of Greek descent settled in Mexico to distinguish a real “Greek town.” In Mexico City, the area around Calle Academia and its surroundings became known as “Barrio Griego” or Greek neighborhood due to the existence of many Greek commercial establishments. Generations later these original residents were dispersed to the neighborhoods of Napoles and the suburbs like Naucalpan, currently the seat of the Hellenic presence in Mexico.
Outside Mexico City, many Greeks resided in the state of Sinaloa to the northeast, the frontier cities of the state of Nayarit: Acaponeta and Tecuala. In those cities, the presence of the family Ledón [Λεδών] is particularly strong.
The Mexican government was actually actively providing incentives for Greeks to come and work in Mexico, specifically in Sinaloa. During the 1940s, the government invited a grand part of Greek nationals to work in the cultivation of the tomato industry; their influence is still felt in the local economy. Notably, after the Second World War, a few Greek Sephardic Jews from Thessaloniki arrived in Mexico desperately seeking refuge. (There is still a prominent Jewish Mexican community in Mexico City that dates from that time).
The Greek community also expanded into the area around the River Tamazula, Humaya and Culiacan, which led to the nickname of the area as “The Valley of the Greeks.” In fact, Sinaloa has a notable presence of Greek surnames in all of Mexico. Some vestiges of Hellenes can also be found in Guadalajara and Torreon.
The Greek Orthodox Church in Mexico
In the 1930s and 40s, there were enough Greeks in the state of Mexico to form a Hellenic Community Center and build the first Orthodox Cathedral, dedicated to Aghia Sophia. The community currently numbers 100 or so active congregants, mostly second or third- generation mixed Greek-Mexican descendants of the early Greek immigrants who came via commercial vessels to work in the fledgling nation barely a hundred years old. The community center holds dances, festivals, and Greek language classes on Saturdays certified by the Hellenic Ministry of Education.
The Greek Orthodox Church in Mexico cannot be separated from the influence of Bishop Pavlos Ballestar. Bellestar started out as a Franciscan monk in Spain in the 1950s. However, he underwent a conversion to Orthodoxy while studying the foundations of the ancient church. He arrived in Mexico in the 1950s. He served as the first bishop of the Greek patriarchate and was instrumental in introducing the church to Catholic Mexico when it was virtually unknown. He actually founded the Cathedral of Aghia Sophia that is the epicenter of the Hellenic Orthodox presence in Mexico. This would lead to his eventual assassination by a Mexican general in front of the Church. The Orthodox Church had been regarded with suspicion as a foreign agent in a conservatively Catholic Mexico in its early foundation.
Today, Aghia Sophia lies in the wealthy suburb of Naucalpan within a gated community heavily guarded by 24-hour security. Its spiritual head is Metropolitan Athenagoras of Central and South America, a Chicago native. The two presiding priests are Father Damianos and Father Constantinos both imported from the theological schools of Greece. The congregants are mostly Mexican converts to Orthodoxy, including Deacon Vaseleos.
Congregants of the Greek community can trace their ancestry to one or more of the founders of the community center. One congregant, Jorge Klinis, would never have known about his family’s Greek roots or that a Hellenic community and church existed in Mexico City at all, if it had not been for the chance encounter with a Greek tourist who would eventually become his wife and lead him back to it.
Aghia Sophia’s cantor is another example of fascinating cross-cultural pollination. Sophia was born in a small town in one of the fiercely conservative states of Mexico. While studying opera in the university she was introduced to Byzantine chant. The music started her on a path of discovery that delved deeper and deeper into the heart of Orthodox spirituality. Since learning Byzantine musical notation, she is the only female chanter of Byzantine music in all of Mexico. She has been using her soprano voice during the liturgy ever since she converted to Orthodoxy a year ago. As she recounts in her interview, it was her love of sacred music that brought her in communion with the Byzantine chant and eventually led to her conversion. Even though she was born in an extremely conservative Catholic small town to ultra-faithful Catholic parents who thought her involvement in the Orthodox church was heretical, she was able to relieve their suspicions when she invited them to attend a liturgy. Many Catholics have not heard of the Orthodox Church and to do so means an automatic lesson in early church history.
As immigration from Greece and Cyprus has receded to a mere trickle since the 1990s, if the Hellenic Orthodox presence is to continue in Mexico, it should be through education and conversion.