Sunday, September 16, 2018

Happy Birthday Mexico

It was 208 years ago today that a parish priest by the name of Miguel Hidalgo ran the bell of his church in the little town of Dolores, gathered his parishioners together, and in a stirring speech began Mexico's War of Independence against Spain.

Society in the Spanish colonies was very stratified.  At the top were native-born Spaniards, "peninsulares", who occupied all positions of power.  The "criollos", the people of pure Spanish ancestry who were born in the New World, were considered inferior due to the fact that they were not born in Spain.  They were often wealthy and well-educated, but they had no role in the governance of the colony.  Below them, the "mestizos", people of mixed Spanish and native ancestry, the indigenous peoples and Africans were oppressed underclasses.

In the early 19th century, many "criollos", resenting their lack of political power, toyed with the idea of breaking away from Spain.  When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and installed his brother as King, the movement for independence gained momentum, and "criollos" could support such a cause without appearing disloyal to the Mother Country.  Although the "criollos" were inspired by the writings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment... books that were banned by the Inquisition... most of them were not really interested in equality for all.  They simply wanted to assume the power held by the "peninsulares".

Father Hidalgo was himself the son of a wealthy "criollo" family.  However, he was interested in the downtrodden masses.  He cultivated grapes and raised silkworms to create new industries to benefit his poor parishioners.  These activities violated the laws which protected the Spanish monopoly on wine and silk production. 

After proclaiming his crusade to fight against the Spaniards, Hidalgo quickly gathered together a ragtag army of 800 men.  They left Dolores, and, as they marched across the countryside, more and more people joined the rebellion.  Most of them were poor Indians and "mestizos".  They killed any native-born Spaniards they encountered and looted the towns through which they marched.  By the time they reached the rich, silver mining city of Guanajuato, Hidalgo's army had grown to more than 20,000.  The Spanish loyalists of the city barricaded themselves within the fortress-like granary building, but the insurgents broke through, and killed more than 500 men, women and children.  The violence unleashed by the rebellion horrified many of the "criollos" who had previously supported a separation from Spain. The saw their privileged position threatened by the rabble, and switched their support to the Spanish colonial government.

Hidalgo marched on to Mexico City.  He now had an army of 100,000.  He reached the mountains above the city, and had forced the Spanish army to retreat to the capital.  Then, with victory in his grasp, Hidalgo turned back.  Historians have debated the reason behind his decision.  Perhaps he feared that Mexico City would be subjected to a bloodbath even more horrific than that in Guanajuato.  In any event, that was the turning point.  Spanish forces gained the upper hand and pursued Hidalgo northward.  He was captured just six months after he had started the rebellion.  He was defrocked and excommunicated by the Church, and then found guilty of treason by a military court.  He and three other leaders of the revolt were executed on July 30, 1811.  Their bodies were then decapitated, and their heads were hung from the corners of the granary building in Guanajuato.

It was a serious blow to the struggle for independence, but the war continued until 1821.  Ironically, it was only after a liberal regime took power in Spain, a regime that conservative "criollos" saw as a threat to their status quo, that Mexico finally achieved its independence... an independence much different from what was envisioned by Father Hidalgo.   

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