Friday, September 10, 2010

Fray José de Guadalupe Mojica

When I was about five years old I was playing in the woods near my house when I found some old broken records sticking out of the dirt. They looked like they had been there for years. They were also about a quarter of an inch thick--much thicker than other records, and I had never seen anything like them before. I eventually discovered that these were Edison diamond discs and could only be played back on a diamond disc player.

Ever since then I've wanted an old Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph. When I saw one on Craigslist this week for only $150, I jumped on it, figuring I'd never see one that cheap again.
The guy I bought it from also gave me one diamond disc record to go with it. Now I'm not one of those people who believes there are no coincidences and that every single event in my life is orchestrated by God. For one thing, a life that's nothing more than a written script would be very little fun for God or me either one. When someone ties their dog to the back of a bumper and accidentally drives off later, dragging the dog to his death, I don't think God's behind that. That person simply made a mistake. Accidents happen. Tornadoes kill people. Old folks fall and break their hips. There's plenty of happenstance in the world. But there are also times when God intervenes and puts you on a particular path for a particular reason, and it's important to be able to discern between the two. And now, as I listened to the voice coming through the speaker I began to feel that God put this recording in front of me for a reason. The recording was made by someone I had never heard of. His name was Jose Mojica. I began to research him, and was very glad I did.

Jose was born in Mexico in 1896. As a young teenager he was already tall and strong. He ran with a tough crowd and eventually joined Francesco Madera's group of revolutionaries that ousted Porfirio Diaz from power during the Mexican Revolution. It was also about this time that Jose discovered he had a real talent for singing opera. Overnight he was able to bring his family out of poverty and became a sensation both in Mexico and abroad. But this was just the beginning. While on a trip to Mexico, Enrico Caruso took in an opera in which Jose was appearing. He was so taken with the young singer that he had him brought over to his table. They quickly became friends for what was left of Caruso's short life, and Caruso, unbeknownst to Mojica, recommended him to the producer of the Ravinia Festival in Chicago in 1919. Jose would remain there for the next nine years singing with the Chicago Opera. It was during this time that Thomas Edison signed him to sing for Edison Records after having no luck finding any good Italian tenors.

Before long Mojica's talents and good looks also came to the attention of movie producers, and in 1930 he made his only American movie called "One Last Kiss" in which he played a sort of Zorro-like singing cowboy. He made several other films in America aimed primarily at a Mexican audience, and afterwards he would go back to Mexico and become a regular big screen attraction there where he was known as the Mexican version of Valentino.

But he also, for some unexplainable reason, would very often find himself playing religious roles in films even though he was not a particularly religious person like his mother. In fact, Jose was always in search of a good time, and more often than not he found it. He always had an eye for the ladies, and the ladies sure had an eye for him.

He had several friends in both the opera and movie industries. People like John Wayne, John Ford, and Gary Cooper often would visit at his sprawling Mexican estate. He would later give this estate to his mother as a gift.
He never knew his father, and like a lot of young boys in that situation, he grew-up being very close to his mother. After her death in 1942 his life would take a staggering turn. Before she died, she asked him to give his life to the church. This was the one woman in his life he found hard to refuse. But another would soon enter. He was working in America at the time, all the while deep in grief and depression, when he suddenly had a vision of St. Theresa of Avila who outright commanded him to follow the path of Christ. Now he was certain of what he had to do.

At the age of 46, he gave away all his possessions, most of it to the church, and started a new career. He boarded a plane for Peru with nothing but $35 in his pocket, and joined the Franciscan order as a monk and was given the name of Fray José de Guadalupe Mojica. Within five years he would attain priesthood.
After becoming a full-fledged priest, the church decided they would use his talents rather than put them to waste, and he began singing at many fundraiser events while also doing missionary work. He eventually worked in three more films over the next twenty years, always playing himself as a priest, with the proceeds going to the church.

He wrote two of these films including one which was based on his big selling 1958 autobiography I, a Sinner which he wrote to earn funds for the rebuilding of a school which had fallen from an earthquake. During the mid 1950s he counseled another great Mexican movie star, Humberto Almazan, advising him to also follow the gospels, turn his back on the bright lights, and give away all his possessions, which he did, and today Father Almazan's story is equally inspiring.

In 1969, Jose was given a tribute by the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City. He was beginning to go deaf, and it was one of the last events at which anyone would ever hear him sing. Soon after he returned to Peru where he spent his final years in retirement among fellow monks.
He died in 1974 of heart problems, and oddly, like Thomas Edison who had given him his start in recording, he was nearly completely deaf but as content as a man can be in this world. It's been said that Edison liked Mojica's voice so much that he played his records every night before going to bed even though he was so deaf that he had to actually bite down on the record console so the vibrations from the record would travel through his teeth and make their way to his inner ear.

For a hundred and fifty bucks I got more than a record machine; I got an education.


shadowlands said...

What a wonderful adventure!! Strange how the Lord draws man to Himself, in all sorts of different ways, using our natural gifts etc.

I've just gone and looked up St Theresa of Avila, as I don't know too much about her, but she sounds forthright. I found this rather interesting web page.

God bless Bill. Your old record player is beautiful, by the way! What a find.

Anonymous said...

I was so delighted to come across this blog and your article on Jose Mojica. Jose Mojica is my husband's great uncle and anything we can find regarding him is such a treasure

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see this work that God has put you in to investigate about Jose Mojica. I met him when I was only 16 in Leon Guanajuato Mexico in March of 1969. And he changed my life and that of my school friends as well through his testimony. I have promoted his life like you have to the youth and parents. I commend you for your work and will pray for you so that you continue doing so. I also have dedicated sometime in gathering facts about his life and wish to know more. -Esther