The countless street vendors are selling everything green, white, and red. Lights, banners, and a host of other decorations adorn the old, historic buildings and cobblestone streets. Rusty carnival rides have been towed into town and await patiently for the festivities to begin.
This coming Monday, September 16, is México’s Independence Day and the country is getting ready to celebrate. Understanding some of the details of this Mexican holiday gives one a small glimpse into the themes and forces at play in México’s history: violence, religion, and equality to name a few. With that in mind, let’s do some history.
First off, “The Day of Independence” is a bit of a misnomer. México’s independence from Spain was actually won on August 21, 1821, almost eleven years after the day celebrated, September 16, 1810. The sixteenth is actually the day on which the Mexican War of Independence began. Before we get there, let’s briefly look at some of the reasons why a war for independence was started in the first place.
The reasons are pretty standard fare in the realm of independence efforts. Oppression, suppression, exploitation, and, of course, taxes. In Spain’s México life was good if you were of Spanish descent (with no indigenous blood mixed in) and owned land or were in an authority position. For everyone else life was hard, and sometimes impossible.
Due to a complex of happenings back in Europe (e.g. Napoleon invading Spain), the time was ripe for much of Spanish America to make their move for independence. In Mexico, a conspiracy to revolt began to gain momentum, thanks in part to an organized group in the town of Querétaro (i.e. where we live). The conspirators planned to begin their revolt in December of 1810, but they were found out and were forced to change to an earlier date.
And so it was that in the early morning of the 16th, in the town of Dolores, one of the conspirators, a Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo, got the ball rolling by ringing a church bell. Once a crowd had gathered, Hidalgo addressed them with his now famous “Grito de Dolores” or “Cry of Dolores” in which he shouted, among other things, “Viva México!” Thus marked the beginning of a bloody struggle and the possibility of an elusive hope.
Hopes were high early on in the war for independence. Hidalgo and his ragtag army of untrained men, women, and children won their first battle against the town of Guanajuato. The small spark of the independence movement had ignited a fire. After this initial victory, the army turned its focus on the capital: México City. Intimidated by the strength of the Spanish, Hidalgo’s army doubted its own strength, retreated and was ultimately defeated. As for Hidalgo himself, he was defrocked by the Roman Catholic church and later beheaded.
But all was not lost. The spark yet burned. Another Catholic priest, and student of Hidalgo, took up the cause and kept the hope alive. José María Morelos was better suited for the task than his teacher, but his efforts also ended in defeat and independence remained out of reach. It was not until a Spanish general named Agustín de Iturbide joined the Mexican side that an agreement with Spain could be reached. Even then, there were initial struggles with trying to establish a functional government (e.g. Agustín tried to declare himself emperor) and much more blood would be spilled.
México’s struggle for independence highlights a few longstanding difficulties in its history. We will explore these further in another blog post, but in the meantime, we can point out at least three themes which help explain México. Firstly, the violent struggle for independence is representative of the violent way in which the México of today was born. Secondly, the Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo is symbolic of the way in which religion and politics have always been intertwined throughout México’s history. Thirdly, the largely mixed-race army of Hidalgo attempting to overthrow the wealthy Spanish rulers is indicative of a broader and lengthier attempt for equality.
Learning more about México’s independence and the history behind September 16th has made me reflect on the way countries are born and mature, and how they do or do not thrive. It is all quite fascinating. That being said, this weekend I’m also looking forward to the tamales and elote. Viva México!