By Neal Erickson
At 6am on September 16, 1810, the church bells rang in the small town of Dolores, located between Guanajuato and San Luis de Potosi. Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the 57 year old priest of the church, had ordered them rung to call his congregation to revolt. He had been an outspoken critic against bad government and society’s ills, and after a huge crowd had assembled that morning he told them it was time to stand up and rebel. This speech has come to be known as the Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”) or El Grito de la Independencia (“The Cry of Independence”). Often it is simply referred to as “El Grito”.
This priest/revolutionary was the instigator of the Revolution for Mexican Independence from Spain. Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo-Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor, generally referred to as Miguel Hidalgo (or Hildalgo y Castilla), was born on May 8, 1753. He was the second of four sons. His father was a manager of a hacienda near Pénjamo, Guanajuato, so he and his brothers were raised in an atmosphere of relative comfort and privilege. His mother and father were from respected families of the creole class; those who were of Spanish ancestry but born in the colonies. They were more privileged under the law than the mestizo, the Mexicans with native blood mixed with Spanish, and of course the indigenous peoples were the least privileged. The most favored by law and social standing were called Peninsulares; Spaniards born in Spain (Spain being a peninsula). The lower classes also referred to them as “Gachupines”.
By the time Miguel was six years old, Charles III had become king of Spain and had decreed reforms for the colonies which included career and education opportunities never before available to the creoles. Since these new opportunities included admission to universities and positions of importance in the Church hierarchy, Miguel’s father had decided two of his sons would follow that path, and proceeded to plan their education for advancement.
After receiving tutoring as a youngster, and attending school in Valladolid (present day Morelia) and then Mexico City, he earned his degree in philosophy and theology from the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico in 1773. His education had included studies in Latin, rhetoric and logic, along with French and Italian and several native languages, to which he had had some early exposure from the laborers he knew while growing up on the hacienda. It’s said that because of his cultural bearing and cleverness he was nicknamed “el Zorro” (the Fox) by his classmates.
In 1778 he was ordained as a priest. The following year he began teaching and continued in that profession for the rest of the 1700s, eventually becoming dean of his school. In 1802, falling out of favor with the church heirarchy for his liberal views and some financial mismanagement, he was ousted from the school and shortly wound up as priest of Dolores, replacing his brother who had recently died. He could be described as more practical and secular than pious, challenging many of the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, enjoying dancing and gambling, and having had five children with two different women, one of which he lived openly with.
In his adult life he felt that he had been mistreated both by the church and the state. He had been investigated and even brought before the Inquisition Board by the church for liberal leanings; reading and discussing the “Enlightenment” philosophers so popular in Europe and the U.S., but banned by the Spanish government in their colonies. These philosophers and their writings had heavily influenced the leaders of the new United States of America in their successful rebellion against English rule.
Hidalgo had planted his own vineyard in Dolores, thinking if he could get that business growing, the local peasants would have a way to better themselves economically. Because of the wealth and influence of the Spanish vineyards, however, the government had made vineyards in Mexico illegal so they would not compete. When ordered by the local officials to destroy his own vines, he refused, and the government sent soldiers to Dolores to destroy them for him.
Eventually, he became associated with a secret committee of citizens plotting to overthrow the government. This group had been plotting for several years, and included Ignacio Allende, a captain in the military but covertly a supporter of independence. In the initial planning he was to be the leader of the uprising, but before it could begin, it was betrayed and some of the plotters were arrested and jailed in Dolores. Hildalgo sent his brother and some other men to the Sheriff’s offices to free them, depose the loyal local government, and take control of Dolores. Hildalgo then rang the church bells, gave the “Grito” speech and the uprising began. He became the visible head of the new revolt, and Allende worked side by side with him in the ensuing months. One contributing factor leading up to revolt helped to bring even many loylists to the side of the rebellion, and that was Napoleon’s conquest of Spain a few years before. The Spanish King had been deposed, so those loyal to the King were able to support the fight for independence, since they considered the revolt to be an act against Napoleon’s government of Spain and her colonies.
After “El Grito”, more and more people rallied to the cause, and they moved through several cities and towns, gaining control of the governments and displacing the ruling “Gachupines”. Soon thousands flocked to the rebellion, and it began to change direction from a slightly more moderate “creole” philosophy to an undisciplined, angry war bent on looting, destruction and death to the native Spaniards and all who supported them in oppression of the lower classes. Guanajuato was taken, and then Valladolid, these successes fueling the rebels’ confidence and numbers.
As the loyalists and Peninsulares recovered from their surprise and disbelief of the validity of the revolt, the military rallied and organized forces to begin to crush the rebellion. After a rout of the rebels by the well-trained army forces, including heavy losses by the undisciplined, untrained and poorly armed peasants under Hildalgo, the leaders of the rebel forces demanded that Hidalgo step down. He remained the head of the revolution, but was replaced by Allende as military leader. Allende then decided to lead what was left of the rebel army north to the U.S. to attempt to reorganize and seek funding for supplies and arms. On the way, they were betrayed, ambushed and captured, and after Church censure and excommunication of Hidalgo by the Inquisition trials, were all tried by the military and executed. Hidalgo and Allende, along with two other leaders of the revolt, Juan Aldama and José Mariano Jiménez, were decapitated and their heads were displayed in cages hanging from the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas (Public Granery), a huge central building in Guanajuato. They remained hanging there for ten years, until the revolution for independence finally succeded in 1821.
Did You Know?
* The number of Mexican students has surged to 32 million from 3 million in 1950 as the country’s population exploded.
* Most young children attend primary school but only 62 percent reach secondary school. At secondary level about half of students drop out and only a quarter reach higher education, according to non-governmental organization Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), which is pushing for reform of the system.
* Around 45 percent of Mexicans finish secondary school, Mexicanos Primero says. By contrast, about 75 percent of U.S. students graduate from high school on time with a regular diploma, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
* Mexicans read less than three books a year on average, a product of low education levels and poverty, studies show.
* Mexico spends about 5 percent of gross domestic product on education, a respectable level compared to other major economies, but corruption means the money does not translate into real gains in the quality of education, experts say.
* Mexican students perform badly in the education tests run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that measures standards in 65 industrialized countries. In the last study published in December, Mexican 15-year-olds came 46th in reading, 49th in mathematics and 51st in science.
* These lowly results contrast with Mexico’s status as the world’s 14th largest economy. Economists have tipped Mexico to become the world’s eighth biggest by 2050.