El Grito de Dolores & Mexico’s Independence Day

the Virgin of Guadalupe on one of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s anti-bad-government banners. Wikimedia Commons image by Marcuse.

Happy Independence Day! For that is what September 16 is, in Mexico, and that is why there are Mexican flags the length and breadth of the Chicago area and, I would assume, well beyond. The sixteenth of September honors the day the parish priest and closet (or maybe not so closet) radical Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla started, with the ringing of his church bells (and a lot more direct action than that), the Mexican War of Independence. Hidalgo didn’t make it that long, but the movement he inspired surely did.

A lot of folks in the U.S. labor under the misapprehension that the fifth of May is Mexico’s Independence Day. (It isn’t: it commemorates the Battle of Puebla instead.) No: it’s today, the day Hidalgo rang the parish bells of the town of Dolores and began assembling his ragtag army, planning to take on bad government and eat the wealthy while they were at it. Hidalgo was in many ways a radical—he probably had some liberation theology going, well before it was really a thing. In other ways, though, he wasn’t radical in the least, and the revolution he started—a true Marxist revolution, I think, as it intended to move fortune’s wheel and put those on the bottom rungs up at the top, or at least a whole hell of a lot higher—was carried out in the name of God, the King, and Good Government. And no, this is definitely not a joke.

At the time Hidalgo called up his parish (and everybody else around him), Spain was under Napoleonic occupation. The Cortés of Cádiz was in swing, a liberal attempt to, well, liberalize Spain. It didn’t go over well with the King of Spain, once he got out of confinement. It also didn’t go over well with the pesky colonies, most of which sent representatives who actually wanted to have a voice and do things like they were fully functioning members of the Cortés. (Among those representatives were Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, who’d go home and declare independence. Not quite that fast, but almost.) It was a time of turmoil, though, at that time, the Powers that Were in Mexico were pretty much okay with where they were: the jewel in Spain’s imperial crown, that’s where, a great place to be if you were the historical one percent. Hidalgo’s Army was, in its vast majority, not comprised of the one percent.

So, Hidalgo raised up a massive army. A large percent of said army was Native; the rest were the usual suspects among Mexico’s creole elite: white or mestizo liberals, including priests and intellectuals. Hidalgo had exactly zero military training. He ended up leading his Army anyway. They were massive; they actually won a number of battles, no doubt in part because the local elite didn’t believe they could do anything at all. Some of the guys in the Army believed that the King was there, fighting alongside them, in the name of, you know, God, the King, and Good Government. When their end came, after a series of bloody battles and a chaotic retreat, it was swift and brutal. Hidalgo and his two fellow leaders, Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama (the guys who had actual military experience), were captured, tried, and executed. Their heads went on display, presumably to discourage anyone else from rising again. Their surviving soldiers scattered.

And, in the background, crisscrossing Mexico, building networks, forging alliances, training men, laying foundations for war, José María Morelos Pérez y Pavón was already rising.


FURTHER READING

Much like my post about Cristóbal Colón (aka Christopher Columbus) and Bartolomé de las Casas, this is built around a lot of years of studying Latin American history, and a lot of years of reading novelas de la revolución méxicana, which are, quite literally, their very own genre. It is, in particular, drawn from my notes from the following classes: Fabrício Prado’s “Latin America to Independence” (a bad name, he said: it should have been Colonial Latin America), and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America,” both taught at Chicago’s Roosevelt University; Lesley Tischauser’s survey course of Latin American history, at Prairie State; and Mariselle Meléndez’s colonial Spanish American literature courses, including “(Re)Imagining the Colonial Past” and “Geographies of Knowledge.” (Prado called a lot of these steps to revolution “conservative revolts,” and I think of that every time I write about them.) In truth, Prado and Mélendez and what I learned from both forge the backbone of much of what I do here.

I’m including a hodgepodge of Books And Articles You May Want to Read If This Interests You, because that’s what I do.