Freemasonry in Mexico, like so many other things, is a foreign import. In the declining days of the New Spain Empire, it entered the country, perhaps with the Spanish reinforcements sent in 1820 to suppress the insurgents’ sympathizers of the revolt that Riego had sparked in the motherland.
The Spanish troops, in turn, had learned Freemasonry from the French, who brought it to the Iberian Peninsula as a part of the liberalism embraced in the slogan “Liberty, Equity and Fraternity”.
A wavering tradition has it that the French had learned Freemasonry from the Scottish refugees who followed James II into exile. These exiles -so it is said- developed a distinctive rite, though in its major thrust not greatly different from the Freemasonry that in England was called the York Rite.
By way of France and New Spain to Mexico, the Scottish Rite developed a series of degrees and titles. It compounded Lodges with resonant names most mysterious and intriguing, and its candidates received bewildering series of initiations some very flamboyant- that left them in possession of passwords, signs, and tokens that ensured their entrance as “brothers” into a lodge of that Rite within the Republic or the world, if they should be so fortunate as to travel abroad.
Since initiation fees for a total of thirty-two degrees within the rite rotate no inconsiderable sum, the candidates came from the wealthier, upper-class men whose record of leadership or choose prospect of distention justifies acceptance into the Order which invested them with the secrets to be guarded at the cost life itself, a promise sealed by impressive and dramatic rituals. As one might well suppose, such a closely organized group of alert leaders could not long refrain from supporting one or another of their members for high office in the government.
In a state where only the “best people” possessed literacy and economic competence, support Freemasonry in New Spain helped immeasurably gain and maintain oneself in office. In practice, the fraternity restricted universal brotherhood, much emphasized as one of the pledged group itself, most of whom had achieved success according to their day’s standards and the country in which they lived.
It now seems quite clear that the first challenge to this centralized, Scottish Rite organization came at the hands of Joel R. Poinsett, the first American minister to republican Mexico. He sponsored the organization of Freemasonry practised in England. The type and ritual that had passed to the North American colonies and had grown immensely popular -the York Rite- was more restrained and less dramatic than the Scottish Rite, and its degrees numbered no more than three.
Thus, the York Rite lodges, duly chartered from the United States, could touch a more modest and more numerous social segment that the earlier and more aristocratic Scottish Rite. It offered the same satisfaction of lodge membership, secrets to be guarded, and dogma of universal brotherhood that those of the Masonic household presumably practised.
The two rites differed from each other in their organizational structure. As befitted an organization developed by Royalist and carried throughout Europe and to the colonies by army personnel, the Scottish Rite carried a wholly centralized structure. As he ascends the ranks, each official received increasingly impressive titles of supremacy and command until capped, finally by Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, whose word should prevail on every fraternal question within the Republic.
In contrast, the York Rite laid responsibility for subordinate or Blue Lodge welfare strictly upon the local master of lodges’ shoulders who rotated with reasonable regularity.
All the lodges within any convenient geographic or political entity organized themselves into a single body, a Grand Lodge reflected by parallel but more impressive titles the local lodge structure. A Grand Master presided at convocations or “communications” held annually, or in special call as some emergency seemed to require. In theory, the York Rite Grand Master’s will prevailed without question; however, he generally chose not to declare his will until he had conferred with a chosen staff of confidants.
Grand Master usually served a term and then retired to the honorific position of Past Grand Master. A Grand Secretary organized and directed the detailed operations of Grand Lodge activities, and such an official, an executive director, tended to remain in office for years on end. In a Grand Secretary, he could anticipate an untroubled term of office.
However, at the state level, or whatever may have been its declared geographical boundaries set forth in its charter, the Yorkist organization stopped. Each grand lodge formed a separate, free, sovereign entity within itself, competent to solve all its problems without appeal to any higher Masonic body; for a grand lodge, no higher judicatory existed.
Since geographical boundaries indicated their limits of Masonic authority, Mexican grand lodges normally did not concern themselves directly with national political issues, and they were, therefore, relatively free from the charge of being secret political clubs. But members of the York no less than Scottish Rite lodges coveted political advancement and were grateful for any support which their membership in Freemasonry afforded. Consequently, a quiet but nonetheless serious rivalry between the two rites developed.
Initially, the two Masonic Groups led to conflicting political parties, but after this violent phase their open, political controversies ceased. All Freemasonry soon found itself overwhelmed by the personalism of Mexico’s most persistent personality and intermittent president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. And after Santa Anna-the trials to reform and civil war, the subjugation to french invasion and the imposition of Emperor Maximilian: all poured desolation upon the land. Both Masonic wings faced a society either hostile or indifferent, and Freemasonry, save as a tradition of older and better days, died.
But of that primitive Masonry, we have no immediate concern here. It had, for all practical purposes, burned itself out in the post-independence strife. With the opening of the society after Maximilian intervention, the two Rites-weakly, ineffectively, and sporadically-reorganized, claimed origins from old charters, or pointed to remote amalgamations as justification for new unions.
In our day but one man could remember that revival. In 1918 a ninety-one-year-old man, James C. Lohse, bent to trace his signature to memoirs which another had penned for him, the brief recollections of those who hade lived other man, had led the reorganization and had outlived his contemporaries. Lohse, following the customs of the Masonry into which he had been initiated, secured a charter for a Grand Lodge that enrolled the tiny, subordinate York Rite lodges of the Federal District, one lodge composed of English-using residents (Union Fraternal), one for the Germans (Eintrech) and a third for French (Émules d’Hiram). For a short time Lohse, a master linguist, served as a Worshipful Master of each Lodge until the arriving of Toltec.
Almost immediately, rivalry for local lodges developed between the York and the no less revived Scottish Rite. The Scottish Rite organized grand lodges to serve its own subordinate “Red” lodges which initiated candidates into its first three degrees, and it exercised a more or less effective supervision over these new units as they undertook their renewed Masonic activities. The York Rite grand lodges, composed of subordinate “Blue” lodges, spurned these rival grand lodges as not truly independent, since by treaty arrangements they had accepted Scottish Rite supervision, and, inevitably, control.
Though Mexican Masonic experience was of the skimpies, yet because the foreign residents protested so vigorously, the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite in 1883 released from obedience to any Masonic higher authority the grand lodges which it had chartered. However, because the candidates from their ”Red” Lodges had to be approved for advancement by the Supreme Council, an element of guidance, not to say coercion, remained.
The York Rite grand lodges boasted of their unshadowed sovereignty, but they suffered a blight: the ritual of their Rite had been hastily translated from English and it carried so many Americanism that its languages reeked of the foreigner. Not so the Scottish Rite: the language for its ritual, adopted in Spain during the Napoleonic era, seemed very native to the tongue. Furthermore, Scottish Rite leadership was undeniably Mexican and with the rising national fervour following the French occupation the Scottish Rite seemed to dominate Mexican Masonry.
Not the least so Scottish Rite resources lay in its reservoir of ascending degrees. For the Mexican who entered the order of Freemasonry, the arithmetical logic was unanswerable: if three degrees are good, thirty-two are practically ten times better. Members within the strait confines of the York Rite reached that conclusion, and many of them, after savouring the brotherhood, presented their three Blue Lodge degrees as valid evidence of masonic membership and were passed up the degree ladder through the thirty-two rungs. Some of the more distinguished of them might receive the ultimate and honorary degree, the 33rd, as an ambitious attempt for controlling Mexican Masonry seducing Blue lodge members with the promise of granting the highest rankings of the rival Rite.
The English-using, foreign residents in Mexico never ceased to suspect a surreptitious Supreme Council influence within their Yorkist grand lodge Edens. They declared that the Mexican York Rite ritual had not been faithfully nor fairly translated from English. Rather, key expressions and occasionally whole sections had been lifted directly from the Scottish Rite. These irregularities they attributed to the secret hand of their Masonic rival. So strongly did the foreign residents voice their complaints that they ultimately charged that all Mexican grand lodges were no more than a front of the Supreme Council activities, and that is promise in 1883 to release its own grand lodges from higher control had been but a subterfuge to satisfy foreign observers.
English-using Masons, all York Rite Blue lodges, in tradition-ultimately rejected all Spanish language ritual as tainted, saying that the refinements of Masonic rhetoric could not find adequate expression in the Spanish language. They branded the Spanish language as a defective and inadequate tool for use in a Masonic hall, and more and more the English-users residents withdrew into separate, subordinate lodges, always unhappy with their ties to a Mexican grand lodge flawed, they charged, with Scottish Rite language and practice. German and French Masonic residents within the capital seem to have avoided the controversy, although in time French Masonry found itself proscribed for various non-Masonic offences which Mexicans could not endure.
Foreign residents, British and a majority of North Americans, centred their attention and membership on a Grand Lodge in a Federal District, the so-called “Grand Lodge Valle de Mexico”, and men of their cultural and linguistic background seldom affiliated with lodges governed by state grand lodges elsewhere in the Republic. Under the influence of this important and very aggressive group, Valle de Mexico chartered several lodges scattered through the national heartland to work the York ritual in the English language, and within due time representatives from these lodges began to appear among the Grand Lodge officers.
A silent tug-of-war ensued, the English language membership inserted more practices from their mother lodges; they preserved more keywords of the ritual in English even for their Spanish-using lodges, while the Mexican members tacitly accepted the amendments and insertions. Yet the Mexicans resented the ill-concealed assumption that neither they nor their language served Masonry adequately. The Anglo-Saxons, as they were called, acted as if Mexicans could not truly understand the operation and power of a grand lodge; as if they were not sufficiently watchful against the sly insertions of the Scottish Rite; and they declared that Mexicans did not sufficiently understand that under no circumstances could they make innovations of any sort. Masonry, complete and perfect stood beyond change or amendment.
These points, these attitudes the Americans explained over and over again to assenting Mexicans, who never seemed quite to understand. Therefore, the British-American bloc felt that always Mexicans must be checked lest they fall into gross Masonic errors-such error, for example, as the initiation of women into Masonry. Only by relentless pressure and exposure in the Masonic centres of the world had Mexicans been persuaded in 1895 to abandon the practice. The Order, the culmination of many masculine virtues, would be ruined by the presence of women, and though Mexicans finally yielded the insistence of foreign, they never seemed to grasp the magnitude of the fraternal offence.
The English-speakers bloc had advanced against the Mexican penchant for innovation the declaration that if offensive practices were not abandoned, Mexican Masonry would lose recognition abroad. Recognition for the foreigner crowned his efforts; it was the lodestone that made Masonry valuable to himself or to another, Mexican accepted without argument the practical value of international Masonic recognition, but this accolade never assumed as overwhelming a place in their category of values as it did with foreigners, perhaps because the average Mexican was nor as likely to travel on foreign countries, work, and receive wages the to support himself and his family.
The thought that a grand lodge in England, or Scotland, or in some state of the American Union might nor recognize his Masonry dud nor dismay the Mexican. Instead, he continued work, confident that when foreigners understood his motives they would accredit hos Masonry. Mexicans have always shown much more independence of international Masonry than have the other national and linguistic blocs of the Atlantic community.