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Vivan los Héroes de la Independencia!

September 16, 2008, 8:10 am

[Editor's Note: Andres Resendez, our correspondent to the frozen wastes of Northern Europe, writes in from Finland today. Which suggests that the blog's reach now encompasses the entire globe. So don't mess with us, people. Anyway, Andres's outstanding new book -- it got an A- from Entertainment Weekly -- can be found here. And we're very grateful to him for taking the time to pitch in. Though really, he's in Finland, so what else does he have to do with his time? It's either this or pick a fight with a Swede. And we all know Andres isn't that kind of guy.]

On this day Mexico celebrates its independence from the Spanish Empire (no, it wasn’t Cinco de Mayo, although the fact that the latter is the better-known date in the United States prompts many interesting questions and a few tentative answers). Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a balding priest from an insignificant town in central Mexico, rang the church bell in the wee hours of September 16, 1810 rallying his sleepy parishioners to shake off the thralldom of Spanish imperialism. His movement quickly snowballed into a massive insurrection (perhaps 60 thousand strong at its peak) and in short order captured some the richest mining centers and cities in the Bajío region. In a little more than a month Hidalgo’s mob was within sight of Mexico City threatening Spain’s hold over the entire viceroyalty.

Those interested in the arcana of historical memory may well ask why we commemorate Mexico’s independence on this date. For starters, Hidalgo is not the most obvious choice for a Founding Father: a priest investigated by the Inquisition for gambling, enjoying the company of women, and for his enthusiasm for books featured in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. But more to the point, Hidalgo’s movement fizzled. Early in 1811, as Hidalgo was desperately trying to make his way to Texas (that inexhaustible fountain of revolutions) to reorganize his movement, he was captured, defrocked, summarily tried, and shot.

Mexico achieved its independence only a decade later as a result of a back-room deal. The broker, Agustín de Iturbide, was a smart dresser and a dashing officer who delighted in pomp and circumstance and—knowing how to seize the moment—organized a triumphal entrance into Mexico City at the head of his army on September 21, 1821 to commemorate the nation’s deliverance from Spain. In other words, Iturbide was the poster child of the Latin American liberator.

So why Hidalgo and not Iturbide, why September 16, 1810 and not September 21, 1821? Both figures and dates had supporters and detractors among early Mexicans. As usual, the choice boiled down to politics with—roughly speaking—Hidalgo coming across as a man of the masses while Iturbide became the more conservative option.

But the Hidalgo camp received a shot in the arm from most unexpected quarters. In the 1860s Maximilian of Austria, the French-backed emperor of Mexico, faced with the problem of how to commemorate Mexico’s independence, decided travel to the tiny town of Dolores—where Hidalgo had launched his movement—and made quite an impression on his subjects by reenacting Hidalgo’s call-to-arms. What made this all the more ironic is that Emperor Maximilian was himself a Hapsburg and therefore a direct descendant of Charles V, the Spanish king during Mexico’s conquest. And thus, following Maximilian’s lead, every September 16 the sitting Mexican president takes a stab at recreating the priest’s stirring harangue, screaming at the top of his lungs Viva México! Vivan los Héroes de la Independencia! (see above) And the Mexican citizenry gets to pass judgment on each performance. If only Hidalgo could have known.

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