During the 300 years of Spanish rule following Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521, the people of Mexico suffered the indignities of imported smallpox epidemics, forced labor and imposed religious conversions.
The disenfranchised indigenous Mexica, Maya, Zapotec and Toltec civilizations were stripped of their heritage and land, and what properties were not claimed by the viceroys and other Spanish elite were expropriated by the Catholic Church.
Education, for the most part, was reserved for the Spanish elite and the native Mexicans were relegated to the status of menial laborers.
While the Spanish viceroys lived lavish lifestyles and pilfered the Mexican countryside for gold and silver, the native Mexicans worked in the mines and on the European haciendas as little more than indentured servants.
But in the wee hours of Sept. 16, 1810, all that was to change forever when a Creole Roman Catholic priest by the name of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang out church bells in the tiny village of Dolores and officially declared war on the Spanish government.
The tensions between Mexico’s Spanish-born aristocracy and the native-born “gachupines,” who were treated as second-rate citizens under New Spain’s discriminatory class system, had long been brooding, and the mixed-race mestizos and native Mexicans were galvanized along with the Creoles by Hidalgo’s legendary cry of rebellion.
On Sept. 16, the revolutionary army, under the leadership of Hidalgo and Ignacio José de Allende, a Spanish captain who abandoned his post to defend the insurgent struggle, marched a ragtag army of 300 men armed with machetes, knives, axes and sticks to the colonial mining town of Guanajuato and began what was to become the fight for Mexico’s national independence.
Hidalgo and Allende had originally envisioned a military coup, but their actions sparked a social revolution, a class war of the poor against the rich.
For the next six months, Hidalgo’s army ranged around central Mexico, capturing Spanish soldiers and gaining supporters.
By early spring, his army had grown to 80,000, and Hidalgo decided that the time was ripe to strike Mexico City.
In the mountainous path between Toluca and the capital, however, a brigade of 7,000 Spanish soldiers confronted the insurgents and an all-day battle ensued.
Disheartened and defeated, Hidalgo returned to Toluca, where he was captured.
In the meantime, Allende had abandoned his control of Central Mexico and headed north to where he was taken prisoner by the Spanish, after having been betrayed by one of his own officers.
In July of 1811, both Hidalgo and Allende were shot by a Spanish firing squad, but the uprising they had inspired shook the very foundation of Mexico’s political structure, and Spain’s long-armed dominance in the American colonies was forever dismantled.
Ten years would elapse before Mexico’s independence was finally achieved, but Hidalgo’s celebrated “grito” is now echoed across the nation in the late hours of every Sept. 15, as the president reenacts the birth of the country’s independence movement by ringing the bells of the National Palace in downtown Mexico City.
Today, Miguel Hidalgo is immortalized as a national hero and Sept. 16 is recognized as Mexico’s official national holiday, faithfully celebrated each year with public parades, military marches and patriotic firework displays.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].