10 May 2012

A Touch of History Amid the Doldrums

It is hot here. The pace has slowed. Occasionally, to pass the time, I enjoy writing of incidents from Mexican history in my own words. What harm does that do? Nothing here is mandatory reading anyway.

First, one must think about this. The Viceroyalty of New Spain, which consisted of lands comprising today's Mexico, the nations of Central America, and the entire southwestern United States, was a Spanish colony for 300 years.

300 years.

Cortés conquered the Aztecs in 1510. The war for independence from Spain began in 1810. At the time that the first English colony was established in North America at Jamestown in 1607, Spain had already been administering its colony of New Spain with an iron hand for 100 years . . . okay, 97 years to be exact. 

New Spain was ruled absolutely by a Viceroy, the King of Spain's representative in the New World. Although attempts at reforms in the treatment of the Indians were at times intiated, usually at the behest of this or that priest otherwise hard at work converting the Indians to Catholicism, the Spanish were generally brutal in their relations with the Indians.

In 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo was a parish priest with a large Indian following in the city of Dolores near my city, which was then called San Miguel Grande. He was a creole, meaning that he was of pure Spanish blood but had been born in the New World. Creoles enjoyed only limited political rights compared to those of pure Spanish blood who had been born in Spain. 

Father Hidalgo was highly educated, conversant with important European literature. He was also intensely charismatic with a seductive personality. His orations were apparently mesmerizing. In that year for both idealistic and personal reasons, he was plotting the overthrow of the Spanish regime in New Spain.

That Church in Dolores Hidalgo 
24 March 2012

On September 11, 1810, after getting word that his plot had been discovered, he rang the bells of his church in the city of Dolores, now named Dolores Hidalgo, calling his Indian parishioners to the plaza in front of that church. There he delivered an oration that must have been something to hear. 

Although there is some uncertainty about this, there is a general consensus that he concluded his oration by crying out to his Indian parishioners, “Death to the Spaniards! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!” The Virgin of Guadalupe is the virgin of color, an object of adoration by the Indians and the patroness of the nation of Mexico today. My own theory is that by the time he got to the conclusion of his speech, it was impossible to hear exactly what he did say over the roar of those Indians.

Father Hidalgo then marched south with a pitiful little band of creole revolutionaries followed by 20,000 Indians described by a prominent historian as “an unruly mob of Indians and peasants, with stones, with sticks, with crude lances, without organization of any kind . . . Mixed with the half-naked, hungry hordes were countless women dressed in rags . . . there were whole familes . . . It was like the Aztec migrations.”

As this conglomeration meandered toward Mexico City, the Indians grew in number to somewhere around 80,000. At each city along the way—San Miguel, Guanajuato, and others, Father Hidalgo turned them loose. They pillaged, they burned, and they slaughtered Spaniards. It was racial hatred run amok fueled by a thirst for vengeance for what had been inflicted on them during those 300 years that I mentioned in the beginning.

This is a photo of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in the city of Guanajuato, my state's capitol, as it appeared to me on 1 May 2012. It is enormous. In September 1810 it was a grain storage facility. As Father Hidalgo's Indian horde approached Guanajuato, all the Spaniards living in that city shut themselves into this building thinking they could successfully defend it. They did successfully defend it for a while. The story of how one lone Indian managed to breach the door to that grainery is a legend hereabouts, but that is a story for another day.

When Father Hidalgo's Indians gained entry to the grainery, they slaughtered the Spanish men inside. With some exceptions, they spared the women and the children. They then proceeded to rampage through the city.

Ultimately, this rag-tag army with its huge Indian following reached the outskirts of Mexico City. Historians seem to be in agreement that if Father Hidalgo had led them into the city, his forces would have taken it, short-handed as the Spanish forces there were at the time. No one knows for sure why he did not. Had he done so, the war for independence from Spain would have been successfully concluded then and there. 

The speculation is that he could not abide the thought of the slaughter to come in the capitol city of New Spain. Yet, what followed seems to belie that. Father Hidalgo ordered his army and Indian followers to turn west instead, where the Indians proceeded with their slaughter and rampage in Guadalajara.

Father Hidalgo was soon trapped and captured in 1811. He was brought to trial before the Spanish Inquisition and executed. He head was put in a cage and placed atop one of the corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato. The heads of three of his fellow creole insurgents were put in cages and placed on the other three corners: General Ignacio Allende after whom my city is now named; one of the Aldama brothers, Juan; and José Mariano Jiménez. Still the war for independence ground on.

Those heads remained in their cages atop the corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato for ten years until independence from Spain was won in 1821. Today there are four plaques mounted on the building high up under the eaves at each corner. The name of the man whose head sat on each corner for those ten years is there for you to see. 

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