Mexico in 1810: Hidalgo’s Revolt

By: Dr. R. Bruce Winders, Alamo Director of History and Curation

Mexico had been under Spanish control for nearly three hundred years when revolution erupted in 1810. Although the military initially won the region for the Spanish, it was the social, religious, and economic institutions and customs imposed on its people that kept it tied to the Spanish crown. The question of independence mattered because, on one hand, it threatened to upset the long held status quo. On the other hand, a break from Spain meant an opportunity for change. In reality, the outcome of revolution would determine who would shape Mexican society as the 18th century came to an end and a new century dawned.

The Spaniards who conquered the Aztec inherited a diverse land inhabited by a large indigenous population. Intermarriage became a way to secure the loyalty of leading indigenous families. A noted example of this biracial coupling was the house of Cortez and the house of Montezuma joining together. Families like this created a cadre of leaders for the army and the church. It took little time before Mexican society began to resemble that of Spain, as that kingdom’s feudal system of social hierarchy was transplanted to the new world.

The Hispanization of Mexico produced a stratified society based on race and family connections that locked Mexicans into predetermined stations in life. At the top of society were the peninsulares, Spaniards born in Spain who resided in Mexico. Their offspring, criollos, formed the next class due to the fact that they were born in Mexico and not Spain. The third class was comprised of mestizos, the offspring produced by the marriage of an ethnic Spaniard and an Indian. Indians, who by far made up most of Mexico’s population, formed the fourth class. At the bottom of this hierarchy were blacks and all other interracial people.

The Mexican caste system

As can be imagined, opportunity and access to wealth was regulated by one’s ranking in this rigid class system. Peninsulares held the top church, military, and civil positions, a privilege granted by their birth in Spain. Criollos were free to fill the lower rungs of the military and church as well as enter the business, legal and medical professions. It was not uncommon for the patriarch of an important family to be a peninsulare with criollo sons. Mestizos generally filled the ranks of craftsmen and the trades. Indians continued their traditional way of life as farmers.

Access to and the use of land was determined by class and race. Hernán Cortés and his men were granted large estates called an encomienda by the Spanish crown as reward for conquering Mexico. Other peninsulares, and even some criollos, later received grants for services rendered to the crown. These grants, however, were more than just land as they also included the right to the labor of the Indians living on these estates. When not working for the land owner, Indians were allowed to work plots of common land called ejidos. In many ways, Indians living on encomienda were akin to serfs of medieval Europe in regards to the responsibilities owed to the manor house. In addition to encomiendas held by individuals, the Catholic Church also came to control their own estates received as grants and through encomiendas willed to it.

The revolt initiated by Father Miguel Hidalgo late on the night of September 15, 1810 was as much a backlash against this rigid class system as it was a call for independence. A criollo village priest, Hidalgo announced his Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores) to his Indian villagers, who like others in their situation had built up a large reserve of resentment against the peninsulares. While Hidalgo called for “Death to Bad Government,” his followers were soon calling for “Death to the Gauchupines,” a derogatory term for peninsulare. Tens of thousands of villagers soon joined Hidalgo’s revolt, forming an army that threatened to bring an end to Spanish control of Mexico.

Painting of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, by José Clemente Orozco, Jalisco Governmental Palace, Guadalajara.

Poor leadership and the lack of widespread support from the criollo class dogged Hidalgo’s revolt from the start. Although joined by a few military officers, Hidalgo exercised command of his followers. During the siege of Guanajuato in late September, his followers captured the city granary in which nearly five hundred peninsulares and criollos had taken refuge, many of them women and children. The massacre that followed the fall of the granary shocked peninsulares and criollos throughout Mexico, forcing many of the latter to close ranks with their fellow Spaniards. The royalists were able to pull together a force that confronted and beat Hidalgo’s army outside Guadalajara in January 1811. Hidalgo and his lieutenants then fled to Texas but were intercepted and captured before they made it there. Defrocked and tried for treason Hidalgo was executed on in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811.

The movement begun by Hidalgo did not end with his death. New leaders emerged in other regions that spearheaded opposition to Spanish rule. While many of the rebels continued to be drawn from the mestizo and Indian classes, crillos influenced by the American and French revolutions began to warm to the notion of a Mexico without peninsulares. The insurgency continued, sometimes successful and sometimes not, for the next ten years. Not until 1821 would Mexicans hit upon a solution that would bring this violent period to an end and result in independence.