THE 40-YEAR-OLD TOWN AT THE END OF THE WORLD
By Laura Woldenberg and Bernardo Loyola
Photos by Eunice Adorno
In July, Nueva Jerusalén, a small town of about 3,000 in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, was all over the news. A group of what the media dubbed “religious fanatics” had destroyed a public elementary school with sledgehammers, apparently on the orders of the Virgin of the Rosary (an avocation of the Virgin Mary). Photos circulating all over the internet featured angry men, women wearing colorful headscarves and long dresses singing prayers, and a town that looked like a medieval theme park. According to the articles we read, Nueva Jerusalén’s inhabitants believed the apocalypse was fast approaching and that they would be the only ones to survive it, and therefore they had adopted some fairly odd rules for living. For instance, sex was banned since it should be strictly for procreation, and if the apocalypse was around the corner, why bother having babies? The public school-hating Catholics also apparently had visions of the Virgin Mary a lot. The more we read about this place, the more questions we had, and, inevitably, we decided to load our gear into a car and film a documentary about the place for VICE.
We planned our visit to coincide with October 7, when Nueva Jerusalén would be celebrating the 39th anniversary of the vision of the Virgin of the Rosary that resulted in the founding of the town, and took a seven-hour drive from Mexico City that ended at a massive locked red gate at the end of a small road flanked by sugar cane fields.
Eight huge buses sat outside, full of pilgrims from all over the country who had come for the celebration. On the gate was a sign that read, “Attention: Entrance is forbidden to women wearing short skirts, shirts with cleavage, and shirts without sleeves. Women wearing pants, make-up, or nail polish, or without headscarves will also be forbidden entrance. Men with long hair and those dressed dishonestly won’t be let inside.” We never figured out what dressing “dishonestly” meant exactly, but we had heard about these rules beforehand and did our best to follow them. Eunice and Laura had brought some flowery skirts and headscarves that made them look like a cross between hippies and Mennonites, and Bernardo wore a long-sleeved shirt even though it was unbearably hot.
Next to the gate, five federal police officers stood on guard on top of a pickup truck with machine guns, a reminder of the tension between the two groups who dominate the town. While Nueva Jerusalén is home to the ultra-religious sect that doesn’t tolerate dissent in its ranks, there are also a fair number of dissidents who don’t follow the rules and live on the edge of the town; it was this second group who asked for and got a public school. After the destruction of the school on July 6, the police were dispatched by Fausto Vallejo, the governor of Michoacán, to prevent further violence.
Despite the imposing locked gate, you can drive just two blocks to detour around the main entrance and into the heart of the town. We parked on the Avenue of the Rosary, Nueva Jerusalén’s main street, and walked around, blending in among the crowd of out-of-town pilgrims on hand for the festival. The town is small, but full of religious monuments—a gigantic white tower, a church with massive blue-tinted windows, a huge statue of the archangel Michael holding a sword guarding the gates.
The holiest site in Nueva Jerusalén, however, is La Ermita (“the shrine”), a complex containing a cluster of half-built churches and chapels, a host of statues, and a seminary. When we arrived, a priest was keen to show us around but didn’t let us take any photos (our request to bring video cameras inside the shrine had been denied before we got there—we were told the Virgin herself didn’t want us to film on La Ermita’s grounds). We passed dozens of women singing songs praising the Virgin and entered a small chapel where the priest showed us a marble statue of a man wearing glasses. “Father Nabor’s body is buried there,” he said, referring to the city’s deceased spiritual leader. Then he pointed at a small painting on the wall and said it was the original image of the Virgin, the one that had led to the creation of the city. He explained, excitedly, how 39 years ago the Virgin had appeared to a humble woman named Gavina Romero—now known to residents as Mother Salomé—on a hillside next to where the town now stands. The Virgin asked Gavina to return later and bring a white cloth, she did so, and, according to the priest, “[the Virgin] printed an image of herself on the cloth just like an instant photograph.” The image looked to us like a hand-painted portrait made by a not-so-talented artist, and the story sounded suspiciously similar to the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose image was miraculously printed on the cloak of a peasant named Juan Diego after she appeared to him on a hill in Mexico City in 1531. But true or not, the story resulted in the creation of a community that has endured for four decades.
One of the town's many religious monuments, a mural depicting God watching over Nueva Jerusalén.
Margarita Warnholtz is an ethnologist who spent long periods of time between 1983 and 1988 in Nueva Jerusalén and wrote her thesis on the town’s history. When we spoke to her, shortly before our trip, she told us that the first time she went there one of the sect’s members said that the Virgin had accused her of being a spy, which led to her getting kicked out of town. A few months later, after befriending one of the priests, she returned and the Virgin changed her mind and chose Margarita to tell the rest of the world the story of Nueva Jerusalén. She went back multiple times and never had any problems with the sect after that.
Margarita explained to us that in 1973, after manifesting on Mother Salomé’s cloth, the Virgin asked her to build a sanctuary on that spot where the chosen ones could gather and be saved at the end of the world. The Virgin told Salomé to look for Nabor Cárdenas, who at the time was the priest of the nearby village where she lived, and tell him that he had been selected to lead these chosen people to salvation. Word quickly spread about the Virgin’s appearance, devout Mexicans moved to the area from all over the country, and Nueva Jerusalén was born.
An archival photo of Mother Salomé with her famous image of the Virgin Mary.
Charismatic and strong-willed, Father Nabor was the absolute leader of the community, running it through a succession of proxies who supposedly communicated with the Virgin of the Rosary. In the beginning she appeared to Mother Salomé and communicated with Nabor through her, and many of the Virgin’s messages were printed and distributed throughout the town—some were rules dealing with morality and personal conduct, but the Virgin also controlled matters that normally would have been the purview of a mayor or a city council, like the building of roads and the openings of wells.
In 1981, when Mother Salomé passed away, two new seers were chosen to relay the Virgin’s messages: Mother Margarita and Mother María de Jesús. Mother Margarita had the support of many business owners, who were gaining wealth and influence in the community, while Nabor favored María de Jesús. The community was divided for the first time, and eventually Mother Margarita and her supporters were expelled from the town. María was a different sort of conduit than Salomé—instead of passing on the Virgin’s messages second-hand, she would apparently become possessed and speak to audiences as if she was the Virgin, often contorting her body and changing her voice. She also periodically became controlled by other characters like the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, her predecessor Mother Salomé, and even a doll named Yoli, who spoke to children in a high-pitched voice.
Mother María left the community in 1990, supposedly on direct orders from the Virgin, and was never seen again. Agapito Gómez, a longtime associate of Nabor, became the new seer. Agapito spoke to the Virgin with the help of a group of intermediaries known as the bienaventurados (the blessed ones), who were either people who lived and died in Nueva Jerusalén and were now in the afterlife or historical figures like Lazaro Cárdenas, the former president of Mexico. (Lazaro would contact Agapito from heaven so he could tell the people in Nueva Jerusalén who to vote for.)
According to many in the town, Agapito was a controversial and shady figure—he was accused of having sex with nuns and drinking, and even spent time in jail after being charged with raping an underage girl (he was freed after paying $1,300 in bail). He also traveled with a squad of armed men he called the Guard of Jesus and Mary. As Father Nabor became senile in his old age, Agapito took on more and more power for himself, but his legitimacy was questioned by some residents and in 2006, a group of priests who were excommunicated for disagreeing with him decided to build a new church on the outskirts of town and were followed by dozens of families. This splinter group still believed in the apparitions of the Virgin and Mother Salomé, but they didn’t consider Agapito to have the same divinity—these are the dissidents who are in conflict with the official church today.
Nabor died in 2008 at the age of 101, and Agapito died a few months later. Today the power in the town is concentrated in the hands of Nabor’s successor Martin de Tours (a longtime bishop in the church) and Cruz Cárdenas, who acts as the town’s mayor. Though the original leaders are gone, residents still believe in the town’s original premise—that this will be the only place on earth to survive the apocalypse. This is in spite of the fact that the dates Nabor announced for the apocalypse kept changing—first the end was scheduled for 1980, then 1988, and finally 2000, after which he gave up on providing a specific timetable. Nabor explained the failure of his predictions by claiming that if his followers kept praying the world at large would last a little longer. If that were true, Nueva Jerusalén would be a pretty important place.
Women at prayer.
As we walked around La Ermita with the priest, it became apparent that the idea of being the chosen people is deeply ingrained in the culture of the town. We saw a remarkable mural depicting the apocalypse in which a huge crowd of the condemned, including athletes (the Virgin doesn’t like sports, which are banned in Neuva Jerusalén) and a rock band (music is similarly forbidden), is walking into the mouth of an enormous demon. In the background, a large city that resembles New York is on fire, and in the upper left corner, a blue spotlight is beaming a small village up to heaven—Neuva Jerusalén, obviously.
On the outer wall of La Ermita hung a huge banner explaining all the rules the inhabitants of Nueva Jerusalén have to follow. For instance, everyone has to attend mass at least once a day and take a shift at the shrine singing praises to the Virgin (the singing goes on 24/7). They are not allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends, and of course couples never live together before marriage. Rule-breaking is usually punished by fines: Not going to mass costs about $12; if you are caught having a romantic relationship, it might set you back as much as $38.
In theory, radio, television, and the internet are banned, but many women watch soap operas on TVs at home, and this sort of disobedience is semi-open. A store across the street from La Ermita sold a collection of burned DVDs featuring Father Nabor giving speeches and celebrating his birthday, as well as his funeral and even some pretty amazing homemade reenactments of the appearance of the Virgin to Mother Salomé. We bought as many as we could.
There were very few stores in the religious part of town, and most of them sold the same things: food, headscarves, images of the Virgin, and vaguely creepy photos of Nabor. All of them had the same framed display of pictures of Nabor, Salomé, and the other seers. Along the bottom of the frame was a written promise to believe in “the three stages”—the first stage being the rule of Mother Salomé, the second being the time of Mother María de Jesús, and the third being the years of Agapito. This promise was also the very first rule written on the banner outside La Ermita; believing in the divinity of Nueva Jerusalén’s seers is a requirement for anyone who wants to live here.
The people on the edge of town, however, don’t believe in the three stages—at least not the third one—and while it was tough to get any of the religious leaders to talk to outsiders, the dissidents were more than eager to chat with anyone about how bad the sect was and how important it was to rebuild the public school it had destroyed. We arranged to meet some of them, and were a bit surprised when the guy that came to pick us up to lead us to the dissidents’ area was reeking of alcohol and barely able to walk straight, since alcohol is banned in town.
We drove with him to a warehouse on the outskirts of town and were welcomed by Emiliano, a big man who told us he was an atheist (a rarity in Nueva Jerusalén, even among the dissidents) and that this was a sort of rehab center for people who were addicted to religion. Inside, the walls were hand-painted with what looked like a biblical landscape and a few columns made out of Styrofoam stood in the corner. Six people were sitting on plastic chairs watching a recorded talk show projected onto a white sheet hanging from the wall. The show opened with an animated graphic featuring hellish flames and the words “NUEVA JERUSALÉN UNDER FIRE,” and it mainly consisted of a female host grilling three priests from the town and yelling at them for destroying the school and being religious fanatics. The small audience in the warehouse clapped quietly. On the screen, the priests did their best to justify their actions and talked about the Virgin, but it was clear the show wasn’t on their side. Whether this was making an impression on the “addicts” in the warehouse was less certain.
The town's dissidents gather in front of a church wall displaying a list of rules to live by.
On the day of the celebration of the Virgin’s appearance, we arrived at the dissidents’ church as they prepared for the festivities. Their place of worship was much more modest than La Ermita, and parts of it were still unfinished, though it was nicely decorated with blue and white flags and ribbons. Incense and sage smoke rose around the raw concrete building, making it appear almost mysterious. The women here were dressed basically the same as the women on the more religious side of town, all in headscarves and long skirts. The men were dressed pretty “honestly” too. The church was crammed full of people, and the ceremony began dramatically when Santiago Mayor, the dissidents’ leader, emerged from the smoke flanked by two other priests. They performed the rite in Latin with their backs to the audience—it was a Tridentine Mass, the form of the ceremony that predates the reforms the Catholic Church adopted in the 60s after the Second Vatican Council. Like some Catholics around the world, both the dissidents and the more religious people in Nueva Jerusalén think that the church lost its way during Vatican II and don’t recognize the authority of the current Pope.
The ceremony went on for over two hours, with a lot of singing, prayers, and readings of both passages from the Bible and the messages the Virgin communicated to Mother Salomé. Afterwards, we were invited to eat lunch with the rest of the community in an empty lot next to the church. The mood was festive: Music was played, candies were given to the children, and two girls performed a traditional dance. We met Oscar, a smart, eloquent 20-something who was born in Nueva Jerusalén and who introduced himself as the youth leader of the dissidents. He gave us a tour of his side of the town and told us the story of how his parents left everything they had to move to Nueva Jerusalén in the 80s, lured by the promise of surviving the apocalypse. He’s part of the second generation of Nueva Jerusalén, the ones who didn’t choose to be born into an ultra-conservative branch of apocalyptic Catholicism and who aren’t especially happy to have the priests control everything they do, wear, and drink.
A girl teases another during the two-hour ceremony in the dissidents' church commemorating the appearance of the Virgin Mary.
As we walked with Oscar through the center of town towards the now-infamous school, people yelled at us for hanging out with the dissidents. Tensions were still high, mostly thanks to the fight over education. For years, Nueva Jerusalén’s only school was controlled by the priests, who naturally taught an extremely narrow curriculum. Then the dissidents asked the government to build a public school that everyone could attend, but this simple request angered the religious community so much that they attacked the school in the early hours of the morning, destroying six classrooms with sledgehammers and burning another building to the ground.
Oscar was the one who documented this violent act—after getting a phone call about the attack at 5 AM he ran to the school with a handheld camera and recorded the devastation. His videos and photos have been published in nearly every media outlet in Mexico.
Although the priests say they didn’t order the destruction of the church, they later justified it in interviews to the press. Father Luis, one of the head priests, told CNN, “What happened is that (the dissidents) wanted to use the school as a way to protect themselves, and as a way to introduce to the town all the things that are forbidden here, like fashion, immorality, vices, drug addiction, and alcoholism.” And just two weeks after he denied our request to let us film anything in La Ermita, Cruz Cardenas, the head civilian authority in town and the right-hand man of leader Martin de Tours, was arrested as a suspect in the destruction of the school.
It seems that after decades of letting the town more or less govern itself, the authorities are finally paying attention to Nueva Jerusalén, as the construction of the school and the presence of armed policemen indicate. Traditionally, Nueva Jerusalén has voted en masse for the PRI, the political party of Governor Vallejo, but now the dissidents seem to be aligning themselves with the left-leaning PRD party, complicating matters. To satisfy the demands of the dissidents in the wake of the school’s destruction, the state government has built a provisional elementary school in the next town over, which, when we visited, was guarded by a squad of federal police officers armed with machine guns and flak jackets.
At the ruins of the school, Oscar told us that he believed “the path to freedom is educating people, and the path to slavery is to keep people ignorant.” Literacy rates in the region are alarmingly low and access to media seems pretty restricted. In many ways, Nueva Jerusalén resembles a town transplanted from an earlier time when people honestly believed in miracles and took justice into their own hands.
Margarita, the ethnologist, who has returned to Nueva Jerusalén a couple of times since the incident at the school, thinks that the town’s problems go way beyond the current squabble between the dissidents and the ultra-religious. She’s concerned about the consequences of the deep divide that has lasted for seven years, the 40-year period when the community was allowed to educate its own children, and the current lack of strong leadership. Her worst fear is that if the authorities act without enough caution, the sect could wind up in some sort of Jonestown scenario, where they commit mass suicide or resort to violence either against themselves or against the dissidents because they think their beliefs are under attack. The state authorities have publicly acknowledged that the arrest of Cruz Cárdenas could result in more conflict between the two sides of the town, hence the presence of the armed cops. The dissidents have also started their own night watch to protect themselves.
We went back with Oscar to the dissidents’ church and discovered our car had a flat tire. We couldn’t help but joke that maybe the Virgin wasn’t too happy with our presence there. Before leaving, we spoke to some girls dressed in tight-fitting shirts and blue headscarves about their lives. They seemed happy but frustrated with everything that was going on. One of the girls said, “The religious people want to fill heaven with ignorant people and send the wise people to hell. That’s why they don’t want people to study. But we do want to study.”
As we were changing the tire, a teenage girl named Socorro approached us and said, “They keep saying that end of the world is near, and that because of that, we all have to pray. At the beginning, when they convinced people to move here, they told them that in this town, the world was not going to end. It would only end outside of here. I think the world is not going to end. The only thing that’s going to end is us.”