On the morning of September 16, 1810, the parish priest of the town of Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, declared himself in open revolt against Spanish rule from the pulpit of his church, launching the Mexican War of Independence. He exhorted his following to take up arms and join him in his fight against the injustices of the Spanish colonial system and within moments he had an army of some 600 men. This action became known as the "Grito de Dolores" or "Cry of Dolores" and today Mexicans celebrate September 16 as their Independence Day.
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla:
Father Miguel Hidalgo was a fifty-seven year old Creole who was beloved by his parishioners for his tireless efforts on their behalf. He was considered one of the leading religious minds of Mexico, having served as rector of the San Nicolas Obisbo academy. He had been banished to Dolores for his questionable record in the church: namely fathering children and reading prohibited books. He had suffered personally under the Spanish system: his family had been ruined when the crown forced the church to call in debts. He was a believer in the new philosophy that stated that it was allowable to overthrow unjust tyrants.
The Querétaro Conspiracy:
By 1810, a couple of failed attempts by Creole leaders to secure Mexican independence had already taken place, but discontent was high. The town of Querétaro soon developed its own group of men and women in favor of independence. The leader was Ignacio Allende, a Creole officer with the local military regiment. The members of the group felt they needed another member: someone with moral authority, a good relationship with the poor and decent contacts in neighboring towns. Miguel Hidalgo was recruited and joined sometime in early 1810.
The conspirators selected early December 1810 as their time to strike. They ordered weapons made, mostly pikes and swords. They felt out royal soldiers and officers and persuaded many to join their cause. They scouted nearby royalist barracks and garrisons and spent many hours talking about what a post-Spanish society in Mexico would be like.
El Grito de Dolores:
On September 15, 1810, the conspirators received the bad news: their conspiracy had been found out. Allende was in Dolores at the time and wanted to go into hiding: Hidalgo convinced him that the right option was to go forward. On the morning of the 16th, Hidalgo rang the church bells, summoning the workers from the nearby fields. From the pulpit he announced the revolution: "Know this, my children, that knowing your patriotism, I have put myself at the head of a movement begun some hours ago, to wrest away power from the Europeans and give it to you." The people responded enthusiastically.
Hidalgo would battle royalist forces right to the gates of Mexico City itself, although his “army” was never much more than a poorly-armed and uncontrolled mob more interested in murdering hated Spaniards and looting than any lofty principles of Independence. The army would fight at the siege of Guanajuato, Monte de las Cruces and a couple of other engagements before being defeated by General Félix Calleja at the Battle of Calderon Bridge in January of 1811. Hidalgo and Allende were captured soon thereafter and executed.
Legacy of the Cry of Dolores:
The Cry of Dolores marked the beginning of the long and bloody Mexican War of Independence, which would not conclude until 1821. Millions were killed or displaced in this long conflict. During his trial, Hidalgo seemed to understand what he had wrought and recanted his actions, perhaps foreseeing the bloodbath to come.
The Cry of Dolores was the spark that ignited the tinderbox of long pent-up resentment of the Spanish in Mexico. Taxes had been raised to pay for fiascoes like the disastrous (for Spain) 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and in 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain, deposed the king and placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. The combination of this ineptitude from Spain with long-standing abuses and exploitation of the poor was enough to drive tens of thousands of Indians and peasants to join Hidalgo and his army.
Although Hidalgo’s revolution was a short-lived one – he was executed some ten months after the Cry of Dolores – it nevertheless lasted long enough to catch on, and when Hidalgo was executed, there were already many in place to pick up his cause, most notably his former student José María Morelos.
Today, Mexicans celebrate their Independence Day with fireworks, food, flags and decorations. In the public squares of most cities, towns and villages, local politicians re-enact the Grito de Dolores, standing in for Hidalgo. In Mexico City, the President traditionally re-enacts the Grito before ringing a bell: the very bell from the town of Dolores rung by Hidalgo in 1810. Many foreigners mistakenly assume that May fifth, or Cinco de Mayo, is Mexico’s Independence Day, but that date actually commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla.
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Villalpando, José Manuel. Miguel Hidalgo. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 2002.