Mexican Independence Day celebrations begin at 11:00 p.m. on the night of September 15. The sitting President of Mexico reenacts the Grito de Dolores from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City. The President even rings the very same bell that was rung by Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla as part of his rally for independence.
The exact words said by Hidalgo on the night of September 15, 1810 are not recorded, however the Viva la independencía and Viva México refrains are used today (even though the Mexican state did not yet exist). Presidents call out several of Mexico’s Independence heroes and the Grito ends with Viva México shouted three times. The crowd responds with Viva to each name and chant.
Here’s a clip of former President Enrique Peña Nieto giving the Grito de Dolores in 2017.
This well-attended ceremony is broadcast throughout the country and is also enacted in many towns and villages.
So what exactly is the Grito de Dolores and who is Miguel Hidalgo? To explain their significance, I’ll take you on a quick trip through Mexico’s history.
What incited the Spanish American independence revolution?
When the Bourbons came to power in Spain in the early 1700s, they implemented a series of reforms to make the governance of the vast and unwieldy Spanish Empire more effective, efficient and productive in terms of revenue generation. Many of these reforms were inspired by the French Enlightenment period. One of the main thrusts of this period was a move towards scientific and rational thought. Philosophers challenged ideas based on tradition and faith alone. It was a revolution in human thought which ultimately led to a pull away from the Church.
The pull away from the Church was not restricted only to philosophy and education. The Bourbons wanted to restrict the extraordinary power and wealth of the Catholic Church, which was viewed as an impediment to development. Several measures were taken to reduce the vast influence of the Church and increase royal administrative power:
- Secularisation of education.
- Ecclesiastical immunities and privileges (fueros) severely reduced.
- Assault on Church’s wealth and properties.
- Expulsion of the Jesuit order from all Spanish America in 1767.
There was fierce opposition to all these measures. In fact, a high proportion of those revolting for independence would be priests, including Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.
However, it was not only the assault on the Church that provoked the independence movement, there was also over a century’s worth of pent up Criollo animosity against the Peninsulares and Spanish Crown.
Peninsulares were the Spaniards born on the Iberian Peninsular (modern day Spain and Portugal). Criollos (Creoles) were Spaniards born in the Americas. Although both groups were ethnically the same, the highest privileges and positions of power were reserved for those born in Europe. It was believed that the Americas (the tropics) could not produce anything superior to what came out of Europe, including people.
Explorer, polymath and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859), on his description of life in the Americas wrote: “the lowest, least educated and uncultivated European believes himself superior to the white born in the New World.”
Eventually the Criollos would come to outnumber the Peninsulares in Spanish America. They would also out-produce them. Indeed, the majority of the wealth coming out of the Americas was generated by Criollo ingenuity and determination (and off the backs of the indigenous and African slave population). The Criollos were white, wealthy and numerous yet denied access to the highest positions in the Church, military and local government. Under the Habsburg Dynasty, Criollos had been able to buy certain positions of power, but the Bourbon reforms put an end to that. Wealthy Criollos were severely taxed and their wealth used to finance Spanish wars in Europe. Criollo merchants were forbidden from trading with non-Spanish Europeans (although many did it illegally) and would have to wait for the Spanish Crown to send the twice yearly trading fleets. These ‘persecutions’ and lack of opportunity to access real power fanned the flames of revolution.
Let’s take a closer look at the specific case of Mexican Independence.
His full name was Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo-Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor. He was a Mexican Roman Catholic priest and a leader of the Mexican War of Independence. History refers to him more frequently as Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla or simply Miguel Hidalgo.
Hidalgo y Costilla was the second of four children from a wealthy Criollo family in New Spain (Mexico). He was well-educated and had embarked on an illustrious academic career before taking his holy orders in 1778. As a teacher he worked with and inspired another would be Independence fighter José María Morelos. He spoke several European languages and learnt the Nahuatl and Otomí of the indigenous peoples. This would serve him well when he was appointed priest to the town of Dolores, in the state of Guanajuato, which was made up of mostly indigenous peoples. He worked with and for his parish cultivating vineyards and mulberry trees and establishing various artisan trades which would increase the prosperity of the town. His devotion to his parishioners earned him their unwavering support.
It was their support that would assist him in his other major endeavour, the fight for the liberation of Mexico. Since his days in schooling, Hidalgo y Costilla had moved amongst circles of friends with whom he discussed the idea of a free Mexico. It would be the French Napoleon Bonaparte who would trigger the first move for independence by Hidalgo and others across the South American continent.
What did a French emperor have to do with Spanish American independence?
Napoleon Bonaparte led a French invasion into Spain in 1808. That year, he offered to mediate the tense relations between King Charles IV of Spain and his son (and successor) Ferdinand VII. The Spanish sovereigns were thus lured to the South of France where they were kidnapped by Bonaparte and forced to abdicate the Spanish crown. Bonaparte named his brother Joseph as the new King of Spain.
This move sparked a constitutional crisis in Spain as most refused to accept Joseph Bonaparte as the legitimate King of Spain. Juntas were formed by several local administrations, in Spain, as a patriotic alternative to the administration led by the French invaders. The juntas were formed by adding prominent members of society to the already-existing municipal councils. Juntas were also formed in Spanish America during this period in reaction to the developments in Spain.
The juntas were not necessarily revolutionary or anti-monarchy but they did represent a chance for ‘new’ governance and claimed to govern in the name of the rightful king, Ferdinand VII, by opposing the declared King Joseph. By using some, perhaps, contrived logic, leaders of several juntas in Spanish America argued that because the true king of Spain had disappeared, sovereignty lay in the hands of the people. There was also the argument that in order to rule in the name of the true king, the juntas had to break from control of the crown (led by Joseph). In this way talk of independence was disguised as loyalty to Ferdinand VII.
What was happening Mexico?
The Viceroy of Mexico, José de Iturrigaray, had always maintained a supportive relationship with the Criollos. In 1808, the town council (cabildo) of Mexico City comprised several influential Criollos and they voted for the establishment of a provisional, autonomous government of New Spain, with Iturrigaray at its head. However, the high court (audiencia) which was made up of Peninsulares who supported the new King (more out of fear), opposed this move.
To remove the threat to the Spanish Crown, the Peninsulares in Mexico City obtained reinforcements and deposed Viceroy Iturrigaray. Those who had spoken out in favour of popular sovereignty were also arrested.
Movements towards independence would continue. In 1810 in the town of Querétaro a well-connected group had begun planning how to achieve independence. Efforts were coordinated by Miguel Domínguez and his wife Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez and supported by soldiers Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama and Mariano Abasolo. Hidalgo y Costilla was invited to join them as they knew he was sympathetic to their cause and, as a priest, could provide a source of moral authority. Hidalgo would also bring with him a good relationship with the townspeople and contacts with influential persons in New Spain.
The group planned to launch their attack in December of 1810, but were discovered in September. On September 15, Hidalgo received word of their discovery. His co-conspirators Allende and Aldama, both military officers, considered fleeing but Hidalgo convinced them to fight. He knew it would be almost impossible to be victorious over the Spaniards, but was convinced they could amass an army and attack as many Spaniards as possible, in the name of liberty, justice and King Ferdinand VII.
Stories passed down over the years say that Hidalgo rang the bells of his church to encourage the parishioners into the churchyard where he addressed them. Although the exact words were never recorded, the essence of Hidalgo’s speech urged the townspeople to revolt against the Spanish and became known as the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores).
The speech incited violence against all Spaniards. As the revolt spread to neighbouring towns and villages, oppressed people took the opportunity to exact revenge upon those who had exploited them for centuries.
Despite some military successes along the way, Hidalgo y Costilla would eventually be imprisoned, excommunicated and defrocked, found guilty of treason and executed. Allende was also captured and executed. Others would continue the fight such as priest, and former student of Hidalgo, José Maria Morelos.
An Historical Aside: The Women of History
Hidalgo y Costilla, Morelos, Allende and Aldama are a few of the most well-known figures who fought for the independence of New Spain (Mexico). However, I want to mention the contribution of a determined woman, who was also dedicated to the cause. Maria de la Soledad Leona Vicario Camila Fernandez de San Salvador (Doña Leona Vicario) is also known as a great heroine of the Mexican Independence. During the Independence Wars she acted as a spy and informant through her work with the secret underground network of Los Guadalupes, whose clandestine activities bore reports of military plans, royalist plans, troop movements and government activities and abilities. Even when she was captured and imprisoned she never revealed a word to betray Los Guadalupes. Before her capture and the confiscation of her wealth, Leona Vicario used her privileged position to supply the revolutionaries with funds, arms, medicine and clothing. She also managed secret correspondence between insurgents and their families. She spent much of her fortune in this manner, and even sold inherited jewellery to further the cause.
After escaping imprisonment, she was reunited with her first love, and fellow revolutionary, Andrés Leone Quintana Roo. They married and continued fighting for their shared dream of a liberated new Spain, joining forces with José Maria Morelos. She wrote political articles for newspapers (and is even considered Mexico’s first female journalist), nursed the injured and packed munitions. She and her husband were captured at least twice more but survived to see Mexico emerge victorious and independent in 1823. Leona Vicario and Andrés Quintana Roo had two daughters, the second was named Dolores, in honour of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 actions in the town of the same name.
Four days after Leona Vicario’s death, she was bestowed with the title Benemérita y Dulcísima Madre de la Patria- Worthy and Sweet Mother of the Fatherland.
Mexican Independence is won
Eleven years after Hidalgo proclaimed the Grito de Dolores, Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero finalised the Treaty of Córdoba, recognizing the independence of Mexico.
Although Hidalgo’s efforts were not ultimately successful, he is seen as the symbol of Mexican independence and the anniversary of the Grito is celebrated as Mexico’s Independence Day.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the history behind Mexico’s independence. I’ll leave you with a short cartoon depiction (with English subtitles) of the story.
Flores Castillo, A. Y. (2010). LEONA VICARIO: MUJER, FUERZA Y COMPROMISO EN LA INDEPENDENCIA DE MÉXICO. Retrieved from https://archivos.juridicas.unam.mx/www/bjv/libros/6/2918/10.pdf
Hunt, Allyn. “Disputing the Grito: How Did the Independence War Start? What Did Hidalgo Say?” The Guadalajara Reporter
Piekow, Herbert, “Sweet Mother Of Mexico- Leona Vicario https://www.chapala.com/elojo/2009-issues/137-articles-2013/november-2013/2265-sweet-mother-of-mexico-leona-vicario
Featured Image: Mural by Juan O’Gormon depicting the Grito de Dolores – in the National History Museum of Mexico City. (Found on britannica.com)
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