Tri-City Herald, Sunday, May 13, 2007

Colonial Towns on Mexico's Freedom Trail

©2007 Valerie Kreutzer

Mexican policeman costumed in the uniform of their local hero, Ignatio Allende

Walking through Mexico’s colonial towns, such as San Miguel de Allende or Guanajuato, you feel transported into Spain of 300 years ago.  Narrow cobble-stone streets meander past thick adobe walls whose wooden doors open to grand mansions clustered around flower-filled courtyards.

The 17th century founders of these towns were Spanish immigrants who struck it rich by finding silver in the surrounding Sierra Madre Mountains.  Their mansions reflected the New World’s new wealth and a fondness for architecture back home.

Modern-day laws have preserved the colonial towns’ historic authenticity through stringent measures.  Center squares are for pedestrians only; cars crawl along without the benefit of traffic lights; neon-signs and fast-food outlets are banished to the outskirts.

Here history rules.  And just in case you don’t get it, mounted police in San Miguel are costumed in the blue-and-white uniform of their local hero, Ignatio Allende.  You can visit his birthplace, Casa Allende, at the town center, and you can retrace the budding rebellion against the Spanish Crown at the house of Juan de Aldama, Allende’s compatriot.

Like the other leaders of the 1810 independence movement, Allende and de Aldama were criollos, born in Mexico of pure-blooded Spanish parents. Though they were educated and wealthy, criollos had no say in governmental affairs and no prospects for leadership in Nueva Espania, as Mexico was then known.  High-ranking positions, even among the clergy, went exclusively to men born in Spain.

Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla shared the fate of the criollos.  Though an outstanding student and teacher, he was overlooked for promotions and eventually banished to the hamlet of Dolores, an hour’s gallop from San Miguel.  Hidalgo was a rebel at heart who questioned the authority of the pope and kept a mistress.  He was also genuinely interested in his impoverished indigenous flock.  To help them economically, he founded a number of industries, among them a pottery and tile shop that turned into a thriving business for the area.  Colorful, inexpensive earthenware is still available today from countless roadside shops.

During a visit to Dolores Hidalgo, now designated “The Cradle of Independence,” you can visit the rebel priest’s modest former home filled with artifacts of his daily life and contemplations.  At the historic museum you find more documentation and displays of Hidalgo’s life and times.  Fifty years before the United States abolished slavery, Hidalgo declared an end to the cruel practice.  He freed prisoners in the local jail and, surrounded by a ragtag army, he shouted his grito, a call to arms against the Spanish oppressors.  Standing on the steps of the magnificent Mexican Baroque church of Our Lady of Sorrows, Hidalgo waved a banner with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, and enticed criollos, mestizos, and Indians to pick up shovels, axes, and stones against the foreign rulers.

The insurgents had chosen Hidalgo as their leader because he had the trust of the people and commanded a following.  That decision didn’t sit well with Miguel Dominguez, the mayor of Queretaro, a nearby mountain town.  When Dominguez was denied leadership, he squealed plans of the insurrection to the Spanish authorities.  “Most of the criollos were only interested in usurping power from the Spanish, so they could rule in their place,” explained Jaime Olalde, our tour guide in Queretaro.  However, the mayor’s wife, Dona Josefa, was committed to the independence movement and probably had an affair with Allende.  When she threatened to leave her husband, the mayor locked her up in the bedroom. 

“In that corner of the second floor was Dona Josefa’s bedroom,” Olalde pointed, as we stood in the vast courtyard of the mayor’s house, the Casa de la Corregidora, now seat of the provincial government. “Since Josefa was in cahoots with the insurgents, she tried to warn them.  Stamping the heel of her shoe three times on the floor, she summoned her loyal and illiterate servant, Ignacio Perez, and passed a note for Allende through the keyhole.  Perez who had carried love letters before, stole away on horseback in the middle of the night to deliver Josefa’s message in San Miguel.”

Alas, Allende wasn’t home, but his comrade, de Aldama, took the message to him in Dolores where the conspirators were huddled to plot their next move.  The discovery of their plans put all of them in grave danger, they realized, and after soul-searching discussions, they decided to pre-empt retaliation by mobilizing the mob.

At midnight on September 15, 1810, Hidalgo rang the church bells to awaken the community, and then uttered his grito, “Death to foreign government!”

Hidalgo and his lieutenants picked up support quickly on their way towards Guanajuato, a prosperous, hilly silver mining town, built on the slave labor of the indigenous population.  Fearful of Hidalgo’s impending attack, the royalists assembled their families and the town’s treasury at the Alhondiga de Granaditas, the fortress-like, grey-stoned granary.  Every time Hidalgo’s army of farmhands and miners tried to storm the building, the Spaniards dropped oil and molten lead on the mob.  But a scrawny-necked man, nicknamed Pipila, had fellow miners lash a heavy stone slab on his back and thus protected, he started a fire at the building’s main door.  The insurgents soon rushed the granary, killing Spaniards left and right.

The insurgents’ gore and glory was short-lived.  The Spaniards regained control within months and then executed the revolutionary leaders, hanging their heads in cages from the four corners of the Alhondiga.  It took another 11 years of oppression and rebellion before the independence movement succeeded, sending the Spaniards home for good.

Today, Guanajuato proudly displays the heroics and scars of the independence movement.  A colossal statue of Pipila high above the town dominates the skyline.  Take a bus or the furnicular up the hill for a splendid view of city and mountains, and then descend back to town via labyrinthine pathways.  Rest on the steps of the Teatro Juarez, a favorite hangout for students far and wide who venture on the freedom trail.  It always leads to the Alhondiga, now a museum filled with historic artifacts, including the cages that displayed the independence heroes’ severed heads for months.

Guanajuato, a lively university town, is proud of its place in the independence movement.  But when it comes to commemorating the event, the little town of Dolores Hidalgo takes the spotlight.

Every five years, the president of Mexico comes here to reenact the events of September 15, 1810.  In 1981, as an expression of cordial relations, President José López Portillo invited Vice-President George Bush to attend the midnight ceremony and I was fortunate to witness the event. A pathway from the church to the park had been roped off, keeping thousands of respectful campesinos in their place.  It was a cold, long night of waiting in the dark.  At the stroke of midnight the bells rang out and the president, shouting, “Viva Mexico, viva Hidalgo!” walked with the U.S. vice president at his side down the pathway as fireworks exploded into the night sky.  The whole plaza erupted into “Viva Mexico,” echoing similar shouts from governors and mayors all over Mexico.  It was a festive night of remembering a few brave men and a defiant woman who risked their lives for Mexico’s freedom from foreign oppression.