Santa Paula’s Revolutionary Pastor

By Sheryl Hamlin

Hosted by the Social Concern Action Committee of the Universalist Unitarian Church in Santa Paula, the screening of the award winning documentary “Weaving the Past” brought viewers into the life of a revered Santa Paula minister, whose early life confronted the 19th century socio-political revolution in Mexico. The challenge to the filmmaker, Walter Dominguez, was the concurrent development of the discovery of the history of his maternal grandfather, Emilio Nieves Hernandez, and the history of Mexico.


Dominguez’ research led him to the Malacara side of the family (surname of Emilio’s mother), the Camargo side of the family (surname of Emilio’s first wife Fausta), but the origins of the adopted name ‘Hernandez’ went undiscovered.

Why is this chronology important? It is through the labyrinth of the family tree that Walter Dominguez uncovered the role his grandfather Emilio Nieves Hernandez played in early 20th century Mexican history.

For hundreds of years Mexican power was in the hands of the owners of large haciendas. Such ‘haciendas’ could be thousands of acres of agricultural lands, cattle or mines whose employees were indentured peons. Haciendas originated through land grants from the crown to favorites, such as the church or conquistadors. These grants often came with a grant of indigenous laborers. Each hacienda was a city unto itself with its own stores and governance. The families of the hacienda owners lived luxuriously providing tutors to their children who in Mexico were often brought from Europe.

A World War II veteran in the United States Army, Robert Dominguez, Walter’s father, lived on Santa Paula Street where he kept a trove of family pictures and home movies. The family gatherings included Emilio Hernandez, minister of El Buen Pastor church (picture below) in Santa Paula, who was known at ‘tata’ or ‘dad’ in Spanish. Emilio Hernandez was respected in the community and loved by the parishioners, several of whom were interviewed for the film.


Emilio Hernandez, was minister of El Buen Pastor church

Emilio Hernandez died in 1973 leaving a second wife, Teresa Hernandez, who at 97 was still living at the time of the filming. Teresa had years of Emilio’s diaries, all written in tiny script in identical notebooks, as well as a Santa Biblia dated 1937, which was well read with markings and notes. 

The story about Emilio’s life that the family knew started in 1911 when Emilio was alone, sick and homeless living in Los Angeles parks, where he was befriended by Wilfred Wallenias, a Methodist minister who provided healthcare for Emilio and inspired him to become a minister himself. Wilfred and Emilio remained lifelong friends. Wilfred introduced Emilio to Reverend Vernon McCombs, a Methodist minister involved in the Spanish American Institute. Seeing promise in Emilio, McCombs arranged for Emilio’s entry into the institute where he learned trades and music. Reverend McCombs became Superintendent of the Latin American Missions, which was founded to bring social and economic change for Spanish speaking people in the southern part of the United States. McCombs sent Emilio to Stanford and UCLA and made him a provisional pastor. It was in Bakersfield, as a pastor, where Emilio met his first wife Fausta, who had escaped violence in Mexico. Both Emilio and Fausta grew up on haciendas, she as the daughter of a landowner and he as a worker.  Both had experienced similar social inequities and had instantly bonded becoming dedicated to service. Fausta died in 1948, whereupon Emilio married his caretaker Teresa.

But how did Emilio end up in a park, homeless and sick?  This is the important historical discovery which director and grandson Walter Dominguez uncovered.

Emilio was born on August 5, 1888 in León, Guanajuato, Mexico. His young mother was European looking and his stepfather cruel. The film implied alcohol and beatings. Emilio fled the abuse alone along a 30 kilometer mountainous path arriving at Los Altos de Ibarra, a hacienda owned by the Guerrero family. The two children of the family, Clotilde and Práxedis, became Emilio’s extended family, caring and educating him. His job was tending the sheep, which he loved.

As the child of a wealthy hacienda owner, Práxedis was educated by tutors, one of whom was familiar with the socio-political thinkers of the day, including Bakunin, a Russian revolutionary anarchist. This is how Práxedis discovered similar social injustices in Mexico and dedicated his life to the fight against such practices.

Práxedis connected with Ricardo Flores Magón, founder of the PLM (Partido Liberal Mexicano) whose newspaper “Regeneration” wrote of the exploitation of workers and attacked Mexican President Profirio Díaz, whose rapid industrialization brought misery to the peons who were forced into building railroads and telegraph lines and were considered “expendable” by the ruling elite.

Práxedis became a journalist for the PLM newspaper and eventually evolved into a revolutionary insurgent, leading charges to free Mexico from the oppressive rule of Diáz. Emilio followed Práxedis from town to town even escaping Mexico to the United States because the Federales (Mexican police) viewed them as enemies of the state.

While Emilio was keeping the printing presses operational, Práxedis left for insurgencies, where he was mortally wounded in a battle in 1910. In a memorial editorial, Magón wrote praising Práxedis saying “the proleteriat has not realized the enormous loss”.

Emilio always carried a photograph of Práxedis he had received as a gift. The writings of Práxedis Guerrero have been preserved in an archival museum in León founded in 1576 by Spaniards.

American investors saw the PLM as a threat to their Mexican investments and put the Mexicans under surveillance while in the United States. A book written by John Kenneth Turner called “Barbarous Mexico” describes these times. The book has been digitized and can be downloaded here. The preface gives a glimpse of the American interests and political pressures for United States intervention in the Mexican revolution.


After the war, Emilio and Hubert Hernandez Camargo, Fausta’s son by her first husband whom Emilio had adopted when the boy was six, returned to Mexico looking for history of Clotilde and her family’s hacienda where he had met Práxedis, but never found information about Emilio’s birth mother. Unfortunately Teresa Hernandez burned the letters from Emilio to Clotilde, so details of this deep relationship are unknown.

How does a man transform from revolutionary to pastor? Or, is ‘pastor’ just another word for a revolutionary tending his sheep?


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2 Responses to Santa Paula’s Revolutionary Pastor

  1. sh November 2, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    More on Magon, who spoke in Santa Paula …


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