Rogue Priest

Mexico’s George Washington

by Beverly Stevens

Photo Credit: Beverly Stevens and Wikipedia

He’s an unlikely George Washington. The ‘father of Mexico’s’ name is everywhere: on street signs, 1000 peso notes and in fact an entire state. Wreathed with laurels, often dressed like a Roman senator, monumental statues of Hidalgo preside over town plazas and traffic circles throughout Mexico.

Miguel Hidalgo is an emotional figure — celebrated in Mexico’s official history, and bizarrely touted as “a father three times: a religious father, a father of many illegitimate children and the father of his country.”

It’s all the more shocking, then, to discover that this man was a rogue priest who led an army of murderous insurgents through central Mexico in 1809, attacking unarmed citizens and committing heinous war crimes. In the end, Hidalgo’s mercifully brief two year war career ended ignominiously before a firing squad in 1811.

Who was Hidalgo and why is he celebrated in Mexico today? The answer to this question reveals a great deal about Mexico’s power struggles, the role of the Church and indeed how Mexico understands herself and her history.

A Matter of Emphasis

It’s all a matter of emphasis, as the stranger quickly learns in Mexico. Officially, Miguel Hidalgo is described as a somewhat marginalized figure – a ‘criollo’ with less rights than Spanish-born citizens — who became a priest and a seminary professor. Persecuted for his liberal ideas, the official story goes, Hidalgo was driven from his academic position to the backwater town of Dolores, Guanajuato where, deeply moved by the plight of the poor, he became radicalized. He tried to help the poor by showing them how to grow olives and grapes, but in Mexico, growing these crops was discouraged or prohibited by the authorities due to Spanish import policies. In 1810 he preached from his pulpit the famous ” Cry of Dolores”, calling upon the people to protect the interest of their King Fernando VII (held captive by Napoleon) by revolting against the European-born Spaniards who had overthrown the Spanish Viceroy.

But what the official story fails to mention is that Hidalgo’s family was very wealthy, and that he was educated at Mexico’s finest schools. He learned French, which enabled him to read the new, fashionable ideas of the ‘Enlightenment’ writers Rousseau and Voltaire. It seems that he adopted many of these ideas, practicing an openly libertine lifestyle of partying and gambling while teaching seminarians Latin grammar and the arts – a decidedly precarious positioning, even for a well-connected, ambitious young man.

Too, unlike George Washington’s famed monogamous marriage to the wealthy older widow Martha Custis, the ‘Father of Mexico’ was a lady’s man. Manuela Ramos Pichardo had two of his children. Bibiana Lucero had one. He later lived with María Manuela Herrera, fathering two daughters with her. Still later, he fathered three more children with Josefa Quintana. All told, Hidalgo acknowledged eight illegitimate children.

Despite his flaunted indiscretions, at first Hidalgo’s family connections and natural intelligence served him well. By the time he was 39, he was dean of the seminary. Two years afterwards, however, he was summarily ousted for various offences, including irregular handling of funds. He appeared before the Court of the Inquisition, although for some reason – wealth and family connections, possibly — the court did not find him guilty.

Hidalgo in the Countryside
Ignominiously, Hidalgo was re-assigned to rural parish work. The work of a pastor in the small town of Dolores, however, didn’t appeal to him. He turned over the lion’s share of his priestly duties to lower clerics, and focused on managing his business dealings, including three Mexican haciendas bought with loans he had obtained from the Church on favorable terms.

We don’t hear much about this in official Mexican history texts, however, which prefer to depict Hidalgo as a man concerned with the plight of the poor in Dolores. We’re told that he devoted himself almost exclusively to commerce, intellectual pursuits and humanitarian activity and that his study of scientific works, grape cultivation, and the raising of silkworms was an altruistic effort to promote economic activities for the poor. Hidalgo’s goal, we are to believe, was to make the Indians and mestizos more self-reliant and less dependent on Spanish economic policies. The Mexican texts are careful to note that Hidalgo was an egalitarian, purportedly opening his home to people of all races.

Of course, they fail to mention that both grape cultivation and silkworm raising were the two most coveted cash crops of the day, with super high margins. Hidalgo’s brick-making factories, staffed with local people, were also for-profit activities. All of this activity was supported by Hidalgo’s personal wealth, heavily augmented by the church loans at privileged, low rates.

Instead, Mexican texts focus on how Hidalgo’s activities ran afoul of government policies designed to protect agriculture and industry in Spain, and how the Spanish exploitation of mixed ‘racecastas’ fostered resentment in Hidalgo. We also hear about how Spanish mercantile practices caused misery for the native peoples, which Hidalgo fought against.

What we don’t hear about is how Hidalgo’s personal loans were called in by the Spanish.

The Path to War

In 1810, the new envoy of Napoleon, who was holding King Fernando III hostage, changed the rules in Mexico. One of his money-saving edicts was to have the Mexican state assume all of the loans then held by the Church. With the government as the new lender, all loans made by the Church to her priests were to be paid, in full, one year hence.

Over-mortgaged, his entire business interests dependent on those loans, Hidalgo faced personal ruin.

His response was “The Cry of Dolores”, calling upon the people to revolt against the European-born Spaniards who had overthrown the old Spanish Viceroy. This event which has since attained almost mythic status, was not, however, an unplanned, spontaneous cry of the heart.

The night before, Hidalgo had persuaded his brother Mauricio, as well as friends Ignacio Allende and Mariano Abasolo to go with a number of armed men to force the Dolores sheriff to release his inmates. These 80 felons became the first to support Hidalgo.

The next morning, at a Mass attended by about 300, Hidalgo called the people of his parish to leave their homes and join with him in a rebellion against the current government, in the name of their King.  His Grito was carefully worded, avoiding criticisms of Catholicism, monarchy and the social order. He met with an outpouring of support as intellectuals, a few liberal priests from many Indians and mestizos, who joined in such numbers that Hidalgo’s war quickly assumed the character of an undisciplined rebellion seeking revenge, rapine and booty.

Allende, who had military training, was pushed aside in favor of Hidalgo, whose ‘priestly’ leadership gave the insurgent movement a supernatural aspect. Many villagers believed that the imprisoned Ferdinand VII himself commanded their loyalty to Hidalgo; most thought the monarch was in New Spain personally directing the rebellion against his own government – and that the king commanded that they exterminate all Spaniards and divide their property among the masses. Modern historians speculate that Hidalgo’s massively inept generalship was kept afloat by the Indians’ belief in this supposed religious legitimacy that even went as far as expecting the return of the Messiah.

What They Did
Hidalgo’s army swelled from 800 poorly-armed, un-provisioned Indians and mestizos to more than 100,000 in just a few months. They marched through central Mexico, attacking ranches, towns and villages in the rich and densely populated province of Guanajuato. They soon fell into robbing, looting and ransacking the towns they were capturing. They also began to torture and execute prisoners.

Hidalgo led all of this with an image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe affixed to a lance, but the incessant violence perpetrated by this undisciplined ragtag army caused friction with Allende. In late September 1810 Allende tried to break up the mob’s violence by striking at the insurgents with the flat of his sword. This brought a rebuke from Hidalgo, accusing Allende of “mistreating the people.”

A few days later, Hidalgo’s army, armed with sticks, stones, and machetes, attacked unarmed Spanish and Creole populations hiding in a granary and killed everyone inside — hundreds of men, women and children. Allende’s protests against these unspeakable crimes went unheard, and a couple of weeks later at Acámbaro, Hidalgo was “promoted” to “Generalissimo” and given the title of ‘His Most Serene Highness.’

Hidalgo’s exalted new rank was proclaimed in his blue uniform with a clerical collar and red lapels festooned with silver and gold, a large golden image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his chest. His first move was to issue proclamations against the whites, whom he accused of arrogance and despotism, as well as enslaving those in the Americas for almost 300 years. Hidalgo wanted to “send them back to the motherland’.

The Church Responds

How did the Church respond to one of their own leading a huge, racist mob, intent on murder and pillage?

First, the Bishop-elect of Michoacan, Manuel Abad y Queipo, issued an excommunication order 24 September 1810. When Hidalgo forced him to rescind this, the Inquisition itself issued an excommunication edict on 13 October 1810, condemning Hidalgo as a seditionary, apostate, and heretic.

Undaunted and so far unopposed, Hidalgo stayed in Valladolid, prepared to march on Mexico City. The canon of the cathedral bravely approached Hidalgo, begging him to promise that the atrocities of San Miguel, Celaya and Guanajuato would not be repeated. The canon was partially effective, as the wholesale destruction of the city was avoided. However, Hidalgo became enraged when he found the cathedral locked,  so he imprisoned all the Spaniards and looted the city and cathedral treasuries before marching off toward Mexico City.

Reality Strikes
Hidalgo’s troops first engaged royalist forces on the way at the Battle of Monte de las Cruces, forcing them to retreat — but not before the trained royalist soldiers inflicted the first heavy casualties Hidalgo’s army had experienced. There were some desertions, but as he approached Mexico City, Hidalgo still had some 100,000 insurgents, outnumbering royalist forces.

However, the Indians and castes of the Valley of Mexico had been forewarned about Hidalgo’s ruthless troops, and he found them as much opposed to him as were the creoles and whites. All were guarded by trained troops. At what is now the Cuajimalpa borough of Mexico City, Hidalgo hesitated, decided to turn away from Mexico City and target Guadalajara instead.

At this, his insurgents began to desert in large numbers. A few miles on, Hidalgo’s army had shrunk to 40,000 men. When General Felix Calleja attacked Hidalgo’s forces, he routed them easily on 7 November 1810. Allende left, taking the troops under his command to Guanajuato, instead of Guadalajara. Hidalgo arrived in Guadalajara on 26 November with only 7,000 poorly armed men.

Hidalgo the Mayor
Hidalgo initially occupied the city with lower-class support based on his promise to end slavery, tributes and taxes on alcohol and tobacco products. As the self-appointed mayor of Guadalajara, he spent the next month issuing decrees and publishing a revolutionary newspaper. During this time, insurgent violence mounted in Guadalajara. Citizens were seized and executed, with insurgents targeting the property of creoles and Spaniards, regardless of political affiliation. In the meantime, the royalist army had forcied Allende to flee to Guadalajara where he once again objected to the insurgent violence. However, Hidalgo, wanting to stay on good terms with his own army, permitted them as much rapine and pillage as they desired.

In response, Bishop Manuel Abad y Queipo excommunicated all of Hidalgo’s supporters on Christmas Eve. (Mexican history texts report disingenuously that the bishop “alleged ‘sacrileges’ and purported ill-treatment of priests.”)

Interestingly, the Inquisition pronounced a detailed edict of heresy against Hidalgo, with charges (almost certainly true) that he had preached denial of the punishment for sin, the authenticity of the Bible, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the existence of hell and the Real Presence in the Eucharist – in addition to denouncing the popes and Church government.

However, the Inquisition’s edict carried clout — fearful of losing the support of his army, Hidalgo responded that he had never departed from Church doctrine in the slightest degree.

The Jig Is Up
Royalist forces marched to Guadalajara, and soundly defeated Hidalgo’s forces with a well-trained force numbering less than ten percent of the rabble under Hidalgo’s uncertain command. Once again, his men deserted him, forcing Hidalgo to flee.

Outside this church at Hacienda de Pabellón, on 25 January 1811, Allende and the other insurgent leaders took military command away from Hidalgo, blaming him for their defeats.

What was left of the insurgent “Army of the Americas” moved north through desolate mountain areas, hoping to reach the United States for support. Hidalgo gave up, however, and in Saltillo, publicly resigned his military post, proudly rejecting a pardon offered in return for his surrender. A short time later, he and his followers were betrayed and captured. 

As a priest, Hidalgo was not immediately subject to the civil authority and so was turned over to the bishop of Durango, who defrocked and excommunicated him on 27 July 1811. He was then found guilty of treason by a military court and executed.

At his execution, Hidalgo maintained his customary hauteur, presciently telling his executioners “Though I may die, I shall be remembered forever; you all will soon be forgotten.” His body, along with the bodies of Allende, Aldama and José Mariano Jiménez were decapitated, and the heads were put on display on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato. The heads remained there for ten years until the end of the Mexican War of Independence to serve as a warning to other insurgents.

Hidalgo’s headless body was first buried in the Church of St Francis in Chihuahua and then transferred to Mexico City in 1824 where they are buried under the Monument to Independence El Ángel in Mexico City, along with those of other heroes of the insurgency.

The Monument crowns a traffic circle.

Hidalgo’s Rehabilitation
Such a monumental failure, responsible for wide-ranging death, maiming and desolation, would seem an odd choice for the role of paterfamilias of the Mexican Republic. So, what accounts for this?

First, few Mexicans are aware of this version of events. Twentieth century politics have carefully insured that a heroic version of Hildalgo as a man of the people and a martyr for liberty has become institutionalized in both schools and holiday-making; each year on the night of September 15, the President of Mexico rings the bell of the National Palace in Mexico City and repeats a shout of patriotism — a ‘Grito Mexicano’ based upon the “Grito de Dolores” — with the names of these heroes of the Mexican War of Independence and ending with the threefold shout of ¡Viva México! from the balcony of the palace in the Plaza de la Constitución.

Every year, bell-ringing presidents wave the Mexican flag, a military band plays the Himno Nacional Mexicano, and half a million spectators from all over Mexico and tourists applaud a man they really know very little about.

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