Since the Mexican War of Independence ended in 1821, Mexico has had over 100 heads of state. Many are barely remembered. Some are notable for rare reasons. For example, Pedro Paredes holds the world record for the shortest presidency, one hour on February 19, 1913. But others are larger than life and have left a highly visible legacy around Mexico. One unforgettable president is Vicente Guerrero. Even when traveling for purposes having nothing to do with learning about Mexico’s past, tourists are likely to stumble on Guerrero history.
At the end of February, we joined a tour group that visited some of the artisan villages to the southwest of the city of Oaxaca. After a ride of about 30 minutes through mostly unpopulated areas of the Oaxaca valley, we arrived for lunch at Restaurante Hacienda Cuilápam, located in the town of Cuilápam de Guerrero. Yes, the town is named after Vicente Guerrero. Through Guerrero, a tawdry bit of Mexican history ties Cuilápam to Huatulco, specifically one of its beaches.
Guerrero was a leading general in the war of independence that gained Mexico its freedom from Spain in 1821. The English translation of his name is “warrior,” which is very apt. He is known as the father of Mexico for his successful leadership in battle and because he was also the second president of the new Republic of Mexico in 1829. But his presidency did not go well. He achieved the presidency after a hotly contested election at the end of the four-year term of the first president. However Guerrero did not win the election! He came in second, behind General Pedraza, with Anastasio Bustamante third. Before Pedraza could take office, another famous general of the war of independence, Santa Anna, led an armed revolt with the goal of making his comrade Guerrero president. After fighting reached the capital Mexico City, the president-elect resigned and fled to England. Guerrero became president by virtue of a mutiny and a lack of will at the top of the legitimate government, and he selected Bustamante as his vice-president.
Guerrero, as a person of Afro-Mestizo and Filipino heritage, championed liberal causes as president, going so far as to free the slaves. This did not go over well in Texas, then part of Mexico. Also he was resisted by elite conservatives in Mexico City, many of whom had been royalists supporting governance by Spain. Bustamante, his vice president, joined forces with the conservatives to start an armed rebellion, stating his concern that Guerrero might claim descent from the Aztecs and become an imperial ruler with support from the indigenous populations.
Guerrero left Mexico City to go south to Acapulco, in the area now known as the state of Guerrero, to fight the rebels. An enterprising Italian merchant met with the conservatives and proposed a deal in which he would be paid a very large sum to trick Guerrero into being captured. He received his payment and invited Guerrero and some aides to dinner on his boat in the port of Acapulco. Guerrero and his men were forced to stay on board until the ship reached Huatulco, where they were delivered to federal troops.
The beach in Huatulco where he was turned over was almost immediately called La Entrega (The Delivery), as it is to this day. In 2013, a memorial statue of Guerrero was installed at the entrance to Playa La Entrega. The plaque on the monument praises Guerrero’s prowess as a general and cites his motto “La Patria es Primero,” but does not say anything about why the memorial is located on this particular beach.
Local tradition has it that Guerrero spent a night chained to the trunk of a ceiba tree which had fallen on the beach some years earlier. His opponents welcomed his capture but not all wanted him executed. Bustamante, however, had him taken to Cuilápam where he was summarily tried and executed by firing squad on February 14, 1831. In Cuilápam you can see another monument in honor of Guerrero, and if you visit the tourist attraction Ex-Convento de Santiago Apóstol you can view the cell where he was held pending execution.
The execution of Guerrero became an international scandal. The merchant who was paid to capture Guerrero was sentenced to death in his home country of Italy. The soldiers who participated in the trial and execution were expelled from the military. Bustamante and his key supporters were ultimately expelled from Mexico.
Bustamante may have extinguished Guerrero but he helped distinguish his rival’s name and fame. As well as a state, there are 18 cities named Vicente Guerrero. Countless Guerrero statues look out over many cities. A commemorative Vicente Guerrero stamp and five peso coin were issued for the bicentenary 2010 celebration. If you decide to visit La Entrega to snorkel or have a fish dinner or are in Cuilápam on an artisan tour, consider spending a minute or two paying homage to this famous warrior for the people.
[Note: Many current maps and historical articles spell the name of the town Cuilapan, but as we were just there personally and saw the local street signs, we’re sticking with the spelling Cuilápam.]