Times Past: Mexican struggle was brutal

September 15, 2012 

From 1810 until 1822, California, a colony of Spain, was left largely on its own as Mexico was embroiled in a war for independence.

Today marks the 2012 anniversary of Mexico’s “declaration of independence.” At 3 p.m. you can go to San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza to witness a recreation of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s ringing of the bells and shouting out the demand for independence from Spain, which had controlled Mexico since the arrival of Hernán Cortés in 1519 in Dolores.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Old Mission’s Spanish-speaking community will be celebrating with traditional food and games in the Mission gardens. Everyone is welcome to join in the festivities.

But just as the United States did not win its independence just by signing its Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, Mexico endured a long struggle before Spain was willing to grant freedom to its longtime colony.

From the beginning of the movement there were devastating rivalries. Father Hidalgo had been allied with Ignacio de Allende, a Basque nobleman living in the city of San Miguel that now bears his name. There was a falling out, and Allende withdrew his support.

Hidalgo’s rebel army didn’t fare well in battle on its own. Eventually, both men were captured by the Spanish royalist forces while attempting to flee to the United States.

They were handed over to the Spanish Inquisition for trial. Hidalgo’s mutilated body and both his head and Allende’s were put on display in the city of Guanajuato in the summer of 1811.

José María Morelos, a mestizo or person of partial Indian heritage, who like Hidalgo was also a priest, emerged to lead the struggle over the next three and a half years. Morelos was one of the leaders of the Congress of Chilpancingo in 1813, which abolished slavery and social distinctions against Native Americans.

But by 1815, Morelos was also captured, defrocked as a priest and executed.

In 1996, retired Cal Poly English professor Starr Jenkins published a novel on Morelos. The work is based on an unpublished biography begun by Starr’s mother, Beatrice Starr Jenkins, more than 50 years ago.

It’s titled “Morelos of Mexico: Man With a Future.” Starr’s novel provides insight into Morelos’ grasp of the need for true equality for all peoples if Mexico was to achieve lasting independence and democracy.

Col. Agostin Iturbide, who had captured Morelos, made sure that the mestizo leader was shot as a traitor.

Five years later, independence was achieved. But autonomy came at a price. Mexico’s property-owning creole class (of European as opposed to Indian or mestizo descent) supported the break from Spain chiefly because of a socially radical revolution in Madrid.

Under the so-called Plan of Iguala, social inequities and a monarchical form of government were preserved in Mexico. Ironically, Iturbide, the royalist officer who was instrumental in Morelos’ downfall, became Emperor Augostin I in 1821.

Iturbide’s empire lasted only eight months. The Mexican Congress became critical of Iturbide, so he dissolved it. In December 1822, Gens. Antonio López de Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria wrote and signed the Plan of Casa Mata to depose the emperor and create a republic.

That republic retained social inequalities. Concentrations of wealth have continued to the present. Antonio López de Santa Anna is better known to us as the victor at the battle of the Alamo and the man who later lost not only Texas but the northern half of what had been Mexico. His ambitions to be a “Napoleon of the Western Hemisphere” placed Mexico, a rich country, even more in debt and open to foreign invasions.

Meanwhile, Spain’s remote and neglected outpost in California prospered with its huge herds of mission cattle through trade with other nations. It came to like being left to its own devices.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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