Elisa Eastwood Pulido’s biography, The Spiritual Evolution of Margarito Bautista (Oxford University Press, 2020), provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the more significant but controversial figures in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico. An important founding figure among Mexican Latter-day Saints, Bautista was a successful missionary who helped to spread the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Mexico, Arizona, and Utah; the father of family history efforts among Mexican Latter-day Saints; the most prolific indigenous author of Mormon literature to date; and a ceaseless advocate of empowering Mexican Latter-day Saints. Yet, despite his promise as a charismatic teacher and leader in the Church, his criticism of Euro-American leaders of the Church for their paternalism born of racial prejudice and staunch loyalty to the vision of Mormonism he was taught when he converted in 1901 (including ideals of communalism and plural marriage) led to his ultimate excommunication from both the Church and from a splinter movement in Mexico known as the Third Convention. His efforts within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Third Convention, and his own fundamentalist Mormon group mark him as a worthy candidate for a biography and Elisa Eastwood Pulido delivers beautifully in sharing his remarkable story and life.
The biography is billed as a spiritual biography, following Bautista’s religious life and thought as he flirted with Methodism and then journeyed through various iterations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She lays the foundation in the first two chapters by outlining the history of indigenous religious authority in Mexico from the conquest up through Bautista’s lifetime and then explaining the development of the Church in Mexico through the turn of the twentieth century. It then proceeds with exploring his life in chronological fashion with a slight pause in chapter six to discuss his massive magnum opus, La evolución de México: sus verdaderos progenitores y su origen: el destino de América y Europa. That work is noted by Pulido as being “the first major piece of Latter-day Saint theology ever authored by an indigenous convert, and the first book-length hermeneutic of Mormon scripture written in Spanish,” and is worth the time taken on analysing the tome and the impact it had on Bautista’s career.
Pulido’s writing style is very clear and engaging. She includes a clear statement at the start of each chapter of what she is setting out to achieve and a clear summary of what was discussed at the end of each chapter. She focuses on doing justice to Bautista and addressing him as much as possible through how he understood himself and his work, even when modern sensibilities go against his decisions and beliefs. This is a very different take from, say, F. LaMond Tullis, who has a much more devotional/apologetic approach to discussing the Church in Mexico and who dismisses Bautista as merely a troublemaker who needed to be fought against. While I disagree with where Margarito Bautista ended up in relation to the Church, I appreciated that Pulido helped me to understand where he was coming from and why he chose to follow the path he did.
Ultimately, I highly recommend reading Elisa Eastwood Pulido’s biography, The Spiritual Evolution of Margarito Bautista. It is essential reading for the student of Latter-day Saint history in Mexico, both for its coverage of a significant figure in that history and the ongoing tensions it surfaces. And even for people with a casual interest in Latter-day Saint history, it is a very interesting and enjoyable read focusing on international Mormonism.