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Artist’s rendering of the capture of Hidalgo and the insurgent leader Ignacio Allende on March 21, 1811 at Acatita de Baján, Coahuila. Engraving by Ferdinand Bastin. Lithographed by the Mexican firm of Julio Michaud y Thomas, ca. 1845–1850.

Padre Miguel Hidalgo, El Grito de Dolores, and the Birth of Mexican Texas

Miguel Hidalgo, fresco by José Clemente Orozco, 1937–38, Palacio de Gobierno, Guadalajara, Jalisco. Biblioteca Nacional de España

Hispanic Heritage Month is especially significant for Texans, and not just because it was proclaimed by our own Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Texas’ pivotal nineteenth-century history is intimately connected to the story of one of the heroes honored this month: Father Miguel Hidalgo, the firebrand of Mexican independence.

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was born in 1753 on the Pénjamo Hacienda, in the present-day state of Guanajuato. The son of wealthy creoles (American-born Spaniards), Miguel enjoyed a comfortable childhood and received a first-rate primary education, including training in indigenous languages, which would serve him well in his later career as a popular revolutionary leader.

As a young man, Miguel left home to pursue a higher education in the provincial city of Valladolid (today, Morelia), and he completed his seminary training in Mexico City’s Royal and Pontifical University. After his ordination as a priest, he landed a coveted teaching position at Valladolid’s elite Colegio de San Nicolás, where he taught for over a decade, eventually becoming rector of the institution.[1]

After a fallout with Church authorities in 1792, Hidalgo was sent off on a number of rural assignments, eventually ending up as the parish priest of Dolores (in present-day Guanajuato) in 1802. Undaunted by his exile from the cultured Valladolid, he spent his time in Dolores on intellectual, commercial, and social pursuits, and he concocted various schemes to bring “progress” to his Indigenous and mestizo (mixed-race) parishioners.

Hidalgo had come of age in the midst of the Enlightenment, cutting his collegiate teeth on French texts banned by the Inquisition. By the time he landed in Dolores, he had developed a strong distaste for the caste-based hierarchy of the Spanish Empire, which privileged European-born peninsulares over creoles and the Indigenous and mixed-race majority. Beloved by his parishioners for his egalitarian spirit, he nevertheless frequently found himself at odds with Church and royal authorities due to his liberal, somewhat unorthodox theology.[2]

Andrés López’s painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that hung in the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, Guanajuato (oil on canvas, 1805). Hidalgo’s forces allegedly adopted this painting as a battle standard in 1810. Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City.

The Napoleonic invasion of Iberia in 1808, which replaced Spain’s King Fernando VII with the French interloper Joseph Bonaparte, provided the catalyst for Hidalgo’s transformation from enlightened priest to revolutionary leader. When peninsulares shut creoles out of the juntas (committees) that had formed to rule in the name of the deposed Spanish king, Hidalgo and other prominent creoles began plotting a rebellion. Their movement combined Enlightenment thinking and a deep-seated disgust for peninsular privilege with appeals to the popular symbols of the Virgin Mary and the beleaguered King of Spain.[3] Thus, they pitched their radical movement to the masses as a conservative defense of colonial traditions from the “heretical” French invaders.

A man as comfortable sipping coffee in the parlors of the elite as dancing at the fandangos of the poor, Hidalgo was uniquely qualified to bridge the gulf separating the creole conspirators and the popular masses who would make up the insurrectionary rank-and-file. Indeed, it was the priest who would lead the opening salvo of the independence movement in September 1810.

Word of the anti-royalist conspiracy had leaked to Spanish officials, and the conspirators found themselves scrambling to get their movement off the ground before the royalists struck. In the pre-dawn hours of September 16th, Hidalgo rang the church bells at Dolores as if calling his parishioners to Mass. Instead, he issued a call to action against the gachupines (a slur for peninsular Spaniards) and encouraged Mexicans to free themselves from European rule. This was the famous “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”), an event recreated annually in Mexico late on the night of September 15th.

The “Grito” sent shockwaves across New Spain and set in motion a host of complex forces that would fundamentally transform the nation. After some initial military successes, Hidalgo’s popular army faced a series of setbacks, and its guerrilla-style tactics alarmed would-be creole supporters. Fleeing royalist advances in March 1811, Hidalgo and the other insurgent leaders found themselves in the frontier province of Coahuila, where royalist sympathizers­ — including the famous Baron de Bastrop — infiltrated rebel ranks and alerted colonial military officers. Ambushed in Acatita de Baján, Coahuila, the insurgent leaders were captured, brought to Chihuahua for trial, and ultimately executed.[4]

The death of Hidalgo proved a serious setback for the Mexican independence movement, which would not realize its goal until 1821. Yet Hidalgo had ignited a popular spark for independence and equality, and his mark on Mexican history was decisive.

Texas, too, would be transformed by the events of September 1810. Adopting the priest’s anti-gachupín banner, borderlands military men like Antonio Sáenz and Juan Bautista de las Casas mounted local challenges to Spanish rule in 1811, and José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez conspired with the U.S.-based filibusterer Augustus Magee to capture Béxar (San Antonio) from the royalists in 1812. The rebels were ultimately crushed by royalist forces at Medina in 1813, yet the people of the northern frontier had developed a deep affinity for the independence cause and its egalitarian ethos.[5]

Copy of the frontispiece of the Constitution of 1824 and a partial list of its signatories, including Erasmo Seguín, Box 129, Folder 4, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

These Hidalgo-inspired northerners, including Tejanos from San Antonio and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, celebrated the victory of the new independence leaders in 1821, embraced Mexican nationhood under the short-lived Mexican Empire of 1821–1824, and eagerly contributed to the formation of the free and independent state of Coahuila y Tejas in 1824.[6] In fact, Erasmo Seguín, father of Texas revolutionary hero Juan Nepomuceno Seguín, helped to draft Mexico’s federal Constitution of 1824

This post is sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), and their Handbook of Tejano History, a project produced through the Handbook of Texas. Find out more about the Handbook of Tejano History, and other ways TSHA supports Hispanic Heritage Month here.

National Hispanic Heritage Month is a celebration of the contributions of Hispanics to U.S. history, culture, and society observed annually between September 15 and October 15, a time of many historical mileposts in the Americas. The observance emphasizes the deep historical imprint of Hispanic cultures on the United States and honors the place of Hispanics in the contemporary American melting pot, where they number nearly 62 million. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ll focus for several weeks on the impact of Hispanic historical figures in Texas.

[1] Lucas Alamán, Historia de México, desde los primeros movimientos que prepararon su independencia en el año de 1800 hasta la presente época, Vol. 1 (Mexico City: Imprenta de Victoriano Agüeros y Compañía Editores, 1883), 314–316; Timothy J. Henderson, The Mexican Wars for Independence (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), pp. 54–57.

[2] Hidalgo was even called before the Inquisition in 1800 to answer various charges, including that he kept a mistress and had questioned the authority of kings and popes. See Henderson, The Mexican Wars for Independence, p. 58.

[3] Spanish American political culture celebrated kings as distant, benevolent rulers who could be appealed to in order to right the injustices committed by more immediate, and more corruptible, local officials. Ironically, ordinary people who took up arms in the independence movement thus often believed they were defending King Ferdinand VII from both Napoleon and corrupt Spanish colonial officials. Popular religious beliefs, including millenarianism and a devotion to the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, led other non-elites into the rebellion. See Eric Van Young, The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810–1821 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

[4] Isidro Vizcaya, En los albores de la independencia: las provincias internas de oriente durante la insurrección de don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, 1810–1811, 2nd ed. (Monterrey: Fondo Editorial Nuevo León, 2008), pp. 217–245.

[5] For the Casas Revolt, see Handbook of Texas Online, Laura Caldwell, “Casas Revolt,” accessed September 1, 2016 from https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jcc02. For the Gutiérrez-Magee filibustering expedition, see Handbook of Texas Online, Harris Gaylord Wilson, “Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition,” accessed September 1, 2016 from https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qyg01.

[6] Andrés Tijerina, Tejanos and Texas Under the Mexican Flag, 1821–1836 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994), pp. 93–112. See also Jesús F. de la Teja, ed., Tejano Leadership in Mexican and Revolutionary Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010).

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