The Celebration of the 16th of September

Mexico’s War for Independence

by Jay W. Sharp

In the early morning hours of Sunday, September 16 (diez y seis de Septiembre), 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, parish priest, rushed through the dark cobblestone streets of the community of Dolores to his Nuestra Señora de los Dolores church to ring the tower bell. He came, not to summon his flock to the morning’s services, but, rather, to sound the alarm to an impending crisis. He had learned that authorities had discovered a local plot to revolt against the oppression of Spanish rule, bringing freedom to the colony of New Spain, now Mexico.

He knew that the conspirators, including himself, would certainly face arrest and, probably, execution. He knew that rebellion could wait no longer. From the church pulpit, before a rapidly growing crowd, Father Hidalgo issued a shout for the independence of his nation. It would become known as el Grito de Dolores, the Cry of Dolores. Although his exact words went unrecorded, they ignited Mexico’s War for Independence. Hidalgo would become a legend—the Father of Mexican Independence. (Hundreds of streets in Mexico City bear the name “Hidalgo,” in his memory.)

Patriarch of a Community to Leader of an Army

Early black and white portrayal of Father HidalgoFather Hidalgo, born to Spanish parents on an hacienda near the silver-producing city of Guanajuato in 1753, followed an unlikely, and tragic, pathway from farm manager’s son to distinguished Jesuit student to revered parish priest to army commander to national martyr to legend. A “tall, gaunt man with a high, domelike forehead and a long, narrow face,” as described by Diana Sierra Cary, “Mexican War of Independence: Father Miguel Hidalgo’s Revolt,” he would become a maverick in his church, a troublemaker in his politics, and an impassioned advocate for the poor. Unlike a model priest, he embraced the spirit of the party and the gambling table. He celebrated the melodies of the trumpet, violin and harp. He lived openly with a mistress. He fathered illegitimate children. He challenged the fundamental beliefs of his church, calling clerical celibacy, papal infallibility and even Jesus’ virgin birth into question, according to Wallace L. McKeehan, “Mexican Independence.”

Unlike the politically faithful, Hidalgo yearned for a new era in Mexico. “He was a visionary,” said Cary, “resentful of authority and with a touch of the crusader about him.” He hosted those with a rebellious spirit, holding discussions in his home about “whether it was the duty of the people to obey or overthrow an unjust tyrant,” said Christopher Minster, “Biography of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.” Hidalgo “believed the Spanish crown was such a tyrant…” Unlike many of pure Spanish blood, Hidalgo felt, not politically and socially superior to all others, but, rather, compassionate for his land’s long repressed poor—those of Indian or African decent or of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage (the mestizos).

In the community of Dolores, said Cary, he mastered the language of his impoverished Indian parishioners and worked with them to establish a vineyard, a winery, a pottery shop and other cottage industries so that they could produce an income and, hopefully, escape the grinding destitution of their lives. In the months leading up to diez y seis de Septiembre, Hidalgo forged an enthusiastic following, which emerged from a rebellious spirit born of a growing protest against subjugation, exploitation and discrimination under Spanish rule and reinforced by the hope promised in Europe’s emerging Age of Enlightenment. In his el Grito de Dolores, Hidalgo effectively lit the fuse. Over the next 10 months, he would become the center of swiftly unfolding and breathtakingly dramatic events across New Spain.

Alhóndiga de Granaditas, mural illustrating Hidalgo’s concern for the impoverished.

The War for Independence Unfolds

From Dolores, Hidalgo led, not a disciplined army of patriots, but a growing and explosive mob of unruly plunderers—tens of thousands who would rampage out of control through cities in the heart of New Spain, pillaging and murdering. In perhaps the most famous clash, Hidalgo led some 20,000 followers into Guanajuato, some 35 miles from Dolores. According to Robert Ryal Miller, Mexico: A History, Hidalgo called on the city’s chief officer to surrender. The officer refused, drawing his small militia, the social elite and city treasure through a massive wooden door and into sanctuary within a “fortress-like granary (Alhóndiga de Granaditas) on the edge of the city.”

With his force augmented by local mine workers, freed prisoners and ordinary citizens, Hidalgo laid siege to the granary, which stood as a formidable barrier with its great stone walls and its massive main-entrance wooden door. Before the guns of Guanajuato’s trained militia, Hidalgo’s men suffered hundreds of casualties. “Finally,” said Miller, “a young miner nicknamed ‘El Pípila’ (The Turkey), protecting his head and shoulders with a slab of stone, crept to the massive wooden doorway and set it afire.” When the blaze died, having destroyed the wooden door, Hidalgo’s forces stormed through the opening, beginning a fearful rampage of destruction and killing. As Miller said, to Hidalgo’s horror, the lower classes now exacted horrendous revenge for generations of oppression.

Hidalgo would find himself excommunicated from his church and with a price on his head, but he continued the campaign for independence. Eventually, however, his overreach and inexperience as a military and political leader would lead to catastrophe. He met crippling defeats near the cities of Querétaro and Guadalajara. With a reduced force, he fled northward, hoping to find renewed support.

Reaching the Chihuahuan Desert, he stumbled into a trap and suffered another bitter defeat, this time becoming a captive. Taken to Ciudad Chihuahua (a couple of hundred miles south of today’s El Paso), he was imprisoned in a small dingy stone-walled cell in the city’s federal building until July 30, 1811, when he stood before a firing squad in the courtyard at the nearby Governor’s Palace. “With a gallantry that impressed all,” said Jim Tuck, “Miguel Hidalgo: the Father who Fathered a Country (1753-1811),” Hidalgo “calmly instructed members of the firing squad to aim for the right hand that he placed over his heart.” Hidalgo fell before their fire.

Small dingy cell, where Hidalgo was kept imprisoned in the federal building of Ciudad Chihuahua.

Government forces decapitated Hidalgo’s corpse. Locals interred the headless body in the sanctuary of their church Templo de San Francisco. Authorities dispatched Hidalgo’s head to Guanajuato, where they hung it, along with those of three other executed revolutionary leaders, in cages suspended from the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas—ironically, the same granary where Hidalgo won what was perhaps his major victory. The heads would remain there for ten years—a grim warning to other, would-be revolutionaries.

Final Victory Finally, in 1821, a decade after Hidalgo’s execution, the stars for independence became aligned, both in New Spain and in Spain. It had been a time of political and social turmoil, guerilla warfare, shifting alliances, changing leadership, and evolving interests. In spite of the conflict and chaos, the notion that independence would serve the interest of all gradually took root. In February of 1821, loyalist military hero Agustín de Iturbide and rebel leader Vicente Guerrero met in conference in the village of Iguala, near Acapulco. Unexpectedly, as Miller said, the two former foes sat together and forged the Plan de Iguala, which proclaimed the fundamental direction for an independent Mexico.

The plan “…is best remembered,” said Miller, “for its ‘three guarantees’ – independence, religion, and equality.” It specified that all of Mexico’s people, “without distinction between Europeans, Africans, and Indians, are citizens…with the right to hold any office, according to their merit and virtues.” This would have brought joy to Father Hidalgo. Spain’s newly appointed viceroy, General Juan de O’Donoju, who had not yet taken office as the leader of New Spain, accepted the inevitability of independence, and he met with Iturbide at the village of Córdoba, southeast of Mexico City. By August 24, 1821 – almost 11 years after Hidalgo issued his famed Grito de Dolores – the two leaders had hammered out the Treaty of Córdoba, recognizing the independence of Mexico.

Plaque, Ciudad Chihuahua’s Templo de San Francisco church, where Hidalgo’s headless body was interred until it was moved to Mexico City.

Plaque, Ciudad Chihuahua’s Templo de San Francisco church, where Hidalgo’s headless body was interred until it was moved to Mexico City.

Under O’Donoju, Spain withdrew its military forces and abandoned its rule. In Mexico City, Iturbide, now a national hero, issued, said Miller, a “decree proclaiming to the world that the colony of New Spain had ceased to exist. Mexico was now an independent nation.” The new nation fashioned a temporary governing junta. It removed the heads of Hidalgo and the other revolutionary leaders from the corners of Guanajuato’s Alhóndiga de Granaditas. Eventually, it disinterred Hidalgo’s body from the sanctuary of Ciudad Chihuahua’s Templo de San Francisco and moved the remains to Mexico City. Today Hidalgo lies in a burial chamber at the base of the country’s Angel of Independence monument, a celebration of his legend.

The Celebration of the 16th of September

Now, every year, more than two centuries after Hidalgo rushed through the dark streets of Dolores to ring the tower bell of his church and make his cry for freedom, Mexico’s people begin to collect across the country, on September 15th, in the plazas of their communities, from villages to cities to Mexico City. They gather to honor the man who inspired their rebellion and who paid with his life. They come to commemorate their national day of independence. They have decorated their streets, buildings and homes with flags, banners and balloons of green, white and red—Mexico’s national colors. They wear traditional Mexican dress, often green, white and red in color.

Ballet folklórico, a traditional dance of Mexico, Mesilla plaza

They gather for traditional Mexican feasts. They revel in the music of the mariachis and the dance of ballet folklorico. Finally, local officials in the villages and cities appear on the balconies of government buildings and Mexico’s president stands atop Mexico City’s National Palace, and they renew Father Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores. The euphoric crowds below fill the night with shouts, trumpet blasts, whistles and noisemaker rattles. Hidalgo’s humanness, his fun-loving nature, his compassion, his independence and his courage have defined the spirit of what is best about Mexico.

Diez y Seis de Septiembre in the United States

The celebration has spilled over into the United States, especially among those citizens with roots in Mexico. In the greater Southwest – once ruled by Spain and then Mexico – Diez y Seis de Septiembre holds a special place. In the Texas cities of San Antonio and Goliad, for example, the day has been recalled by special events for more than a century and a half, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

In our area – southwestern New Mexico, western Texas and southeastern Arizona – the most notable Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebration plays out in Mesilla – this year, on the weekend of September 13 and 14. The event begins with a parade on Avenida de Mesilla. That will be followed by mariachi music, dance, arts, crafts, games, food and drink on the plaza. The crowds – Hispanic and Anglo – gather not only to remember the legendary Hidalgo and the long struggle for freedom from tyranny, but to celebrate the basic human values of independence, religion and equality.

 


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