September 17, 2004

‘Unfinished Business’ on Mexico’s Independence Day

By Alberto Huerta

It is a very hot Sunday afternoon. I stand in the square of the Alhondiga de Granaditas in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico. A large, impressive powder-colored building that seems to smell of gun powder, it is now a museum that houses Mexico’s history from pre-Colombian times to the present.

On the ground floor before leaving, I pass through four somber chambers that honor several of the insurrectionists of Mexico’s independence from Spain: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, and Mariano Jimenez. The four were sentenced to death by firing squad by the Inquisition, or Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church, on numerous charges including heresy in the city of Chihuahua in June 1811. Their heads were severed from their bodies, sent to Guanajuato, and placed on spikes on the corners of the Alhondiga de Granaditas as a reminder of what lay in store for anyone else who might think of rebellion. As I stare at the four corners and imagine the horrific sight those heads on spikes must have had on the “indios, “peones”, and poor “campesinos” of that time, I realize how painful it is to write about all of this.

A few years earlier in July 2002, when Mexico was celebrating the canonization of the “indio” Juan Diego, whom the Virgin “La Morena” had appeared to, it had been rumored that various Mexicans in high places would ask the Pope to lift the ban of excommunication on Fr. Miguel Hidalgo, the father of modern day Mexico.

Excommunication had been imposed first by the bishop elect of the state of Michoacan on Sept. 24, 1810 and later in an edict of the Inquisition on Oct. 13, 1810. Subsequent edicts of excommunication followed from the Archbishop of Mexico and the bishops in areas of upheaval. A scrutiny of the documents of the period reveals a hurried and hasty Inquisitorial process that railroaded Hidalgo. It seems he had recanted and asked forgiveness for any harm his independence movement had caused.

Faced with a controversial figure like Fr. Hidalgo, most people would find good reason to forget him. Any scholar or writer who examines the history of Mexico’s “Grito de Dolores,” first proclaimed on Sept. 16, 1810 by Fr. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla on the church steps in the town of Los Dolores in the state of Guanajuato, finds themselves between a rock and a hard place. It is not that Mexican Independence was long overdue. It has to do with its legitimacy in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

This writer believes it is time the ban of excommunication was lifted retroactively on Miguel Hidalgo and the other insurgents. That was a different time with different values not in sync with the world as we know it today. In retrospect, their independence movement was essentially about faith and justice. That they would challenge the existing intellectual paradigm of power for one that gave the common Mexican man and womyn rights beforehand denied to them seems in the final analysis noble and even altruistic. To lift the ban would restore the dignity owed Mexico, as a place legitimately Catholic as Spain.

“Why hold Mexican sovereignty hostage?” I ask. “Why keep it a bastard child?” But not all think alike. They ask, “Why bring up this dark past?” After all, the Inquisition itself was in the throes of death. It was eliminated in Spain by the Cortes of Cadiz on Feb. 12, 1813. And in Mexico, in 1820. One might even consider the Inquisition’s proceedings as basically invalid, given the progressive intellectual climate of the time.

This writer feels it important to know, though, the following. Miguel Hidalgo not only began Mexico’s independence movement from Spain, but turned upside down the colonial paradigm that had coexisted comfortably between the Catholic Church and the Mexican States for nearly 300 years. It was a time when the Church owned nearly three quarters of all the land. But it was, also, a time when new ideas were surfacing all over Europe and Latin America regarding a new relationshiop between the governed and those who governed that went by the name of democracy and democratic ideals of equality. These ideas were in direct opposition to the medieval and feudal relationship of the divine right of monarchies, who looked at their vassals as property to be disposed of as they willed. It is interesting to notes that one of Miguel Hidalgo’s first official acts was to abolish slavery on Oct. 19, 1810, in a proclamation published in Valladolid, Morelia. He denounced slavery in the Americas, saying that “it was against nature that a person should ever be held in servitude.”

If the times were complex and undergoing seismic shifts in perceptions about the governed and those who governed, so were the men and womyn who were part of Mexico’s independence movement. Priest and humanist Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla decides at 58 to take up arms against an oppressive political system. The others, who were executed with him, Ignacio Allende was 42; Juan Aldama was 35; and Mariano Jimenez was 30. They had families, some with children, including Fr. Hidalgo. They were men with extraordinary passions about their nation’s future. It is a pity it took these four and others like them to the brink of their moral and mental edge before they screamed out, “No mas!” Pity, their church did not see the signs of the times and acted sooner to avoid the blood bath that followed.

With the “Grito de Dolores”, we too proclaim with Fr. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, “Viva Mexico!”

Return to the Frontpage