Life and Major Accomplishments of Miguel Hidalgo, the Founding Father of Mexico
Some people make history while others recount it. On the morning of September 16 of 1810, the people of Dolores in Central Mexico were summoned by the ringing of a church bell. Shortly after, a voice cried out to the people that had gathered, and with all the fervor it could muster, admonished them to rise and fight for their independence by resisting the oppressive rule of their Spanish colonial masters.
That voice belonged to the Dolores Parish priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla; a revolutionary icon whose overwhelming ambition led him on a bloody path to history making. His momentous speech –“Grito de Dolores”– was the driving force that led to the Mexican War of Independence. Hidalgo and other members of his rebellion, including Ignacio Allende, were captured on March 21, 1811 in Coahuila. Hidalgo was sent to Chihuahua where he was stripped of his clerical profession and executed on July 30, 1811.
Today, September 16 is marked on the Mexican calendar not only as a day to celebrate the country’s independence but also a day to commemorate a voice whose power echoed far beyond the Dolores parish and rippled through many parts of the world.
Early Years: Education, Ordination & Early Career
Baptized into the Roman Catholic faith in the Parish church of Cuitzeo de Los Naranjos, Hidalgo was the second of the four surviving children of the wealthy Cristóbal Hidalgo y Costilla and his wife, Ana Maria Gallaga.
Hidalgo was a native of Guanajuato and a criolla, a name given to a person of Spanish ancestry born in Spanish America (i.e. New Spain). While at the Colegio de San Francisco Javier in Valladolid (now Morelia), he studied among the Jesuits and was well known for his academic exploits.
Around the time Jesuits from many countries in Western Europe and their colonies were being removed, Hidalgo had further studies at the Colegio de San Nicolás. On a later educational endeavor at the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México, he read philosophy and theology and acquired a bachelor’s degree upon graduation in 1773.
It was discovered in later years that the would-be priest refused to pursue a doctorate degree at the same university because he believed the faculty was made up of a bunch of ignoramuses. During this time, Hidalgo possessed a sharp mental ability that earned him the nickname “El Zorro” (The Fox).
In 1778, at age 25, Hidalgo was ordained a Catholic priest, a position some historians believe he held for economic gains. If that were true, Hidalgo would not be the only priest with such motive since it was a common practice at the time.
Rector & Free Thinker
For 13 years, beginning around 1779, Hidalgo worked at the Colegio de San Nicolás as tutor of philosophy, theology and Latin grammar. In due course, he built a reputation as a top theologist. The Catholic priest enjoyed a steady climb up the success ladder and become vice-rector of the school. In 1790, he was eventually named rector.
In spite of his vows to the Church, Hidalgo refused to conform to the prescribed ways of an 18th century Mexican Catholic priest. He defied the rules of the Catholic Church in Mexico and adopted the radical Enlightenment ideologies of the Liberalism of the French and other European countries. He acquired properties, gambled, and socialized freely.
Eventually, Hidalgo’s extracurricular activities came to the attention of authorities who also accused of mismanaging funds. He was consequently dismissed from his position as rector in 1792.
Parish Priest of Dolores
In 1802, Hidalgo succeeded his late brother, José Joaquin, as the priest of the town of Dolores (i.e. today’s Dolores Hidalgo located in north-central part of the Mexican state of Guanajuato). This came after years of serving in parishes in the towns of Colima and San Felipe Torres Mochas. Beyond his priestly duties, Father Hidalgo studied different languages and got involved in the business of pottery making.
Inspired by his Enlightenment ideas, he started questioning long-held political and religious views regarding such matters as papal authority. In fact, it seemed Hidalgo’s life was an album of paradoxes. He neither had the calm lamb-like composure of most priests nor adhered to the rules regarding clerical celibacy. It is even believed that the parish priest fathered a number of children with several women out of wedlock.
Despite his idiosyncrasies, Father Hidalgo had a benevolent side. In an effort to economically empower the Dolores community, he taught his parishioners how to rear bees, make ceramics, and produce textile products. He organized workshops for training in carpentry and blacksmithing. He also got involved in business activities which used the community’s natural resources in order to help the underprivileged.
As a secular priest, Hidalgo did not take a vow of poverty. As a result, he built brick-producing factories and cultivated olive groves and vineyards. Hidalgo hanged out in intellectual circles that shared common concerns over the political climate in New Spain and questioned the absolute monarchy of the Spanish king. His activities even got him into trouble with the Mexican Inquisition, fortunately, he was later acquitted due to the lack of evidence.
The Buildup to the Mexican War of Independence
At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the Mexican natives were agitated at Spanish rule because of the racial inequality and the unfair redistribution of land in New Spain. A number of rebellions and conspiracies took place to lay the groundwork for a Mexican autonomy. Significant among these events were the Querétaro Conspiracy and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
The Querétaro Conspiracy of 1810
The Conspiracy of Querétaro of 1810 was so called because it was started in Santiago de Querétaro. It was the first armed conspiracy that formed the foundation of what would become the Hidalgo Revolt (1810-1811).
The conspirators included a diverse group of creoles ranging from military men, lawyers, government officials to religious and business men. The leading members were New Spanish colonial officer, Mayor Miguel Dominguez Alemán and his wife, Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, captain of the Spanish Army, Ignacio Allende, and Father Hidalgo. Hidalgo was invited to be part of the conspiracy due to his high profile connections in both Bajio and New Spain with the likes of the mayor of Guanajuato, Juan Antonio Riaño.
The group, which was well-structured and organized, usually met under the disguise of the Literary and Social Club of Querétaro. They also had a considerable number of ammunition and weapons (mostly pikes and swords.) The conspirators recruited royal soldiers, scouted royalist barracks and dedicated hours deliberating and going over their plans. They were committed to ensuring autonomy and equal rights for Mexicans, especially the creoles, by December, 1810.
Proliferation of Enlightenment ideas and the Napoleonic Wars
Spain colonized Mexico after the rule of the former governor of New Spain, Hernan Cortez, over the Aztecs. Not only was Mexico Spain’s richest colony in the Americas, it was also the largest territorial unit in the Spanish colony of New Mexico.
For over 300 years, many native Mexicans lived in poverty because of the Spaniards’ repressive policies. The activities of Spanish mercantile also caused great suffering to the people. The Spaniards hoarded food that could have been used to feed the people during a period of famine that lasted from 1807 to 1808. These natives became victims of various Spanish abuses and dehumanizing excesses.
The situation hit a turning point in the early part of the 19th century when the American and French Revolution further fanned the rise of the Enlightenment ideology which advocated for equality, liberalism and nationalism. As more and more native Mexican elites became exposed to the ideas of Enlightenment, the desire for a life without European rule increased.
Around this time in 1808, the famous French general, Napoléon Bonaparte, marched his army south and invaded Spain (a former ally against the United Kingdom) during the Peninsular War and forced King Ferdinand VII of Spain to abdicate. The French emperor and general then proceeded to install his older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as the new king of Spain. Joseph would reign as king of Spain from 6 June 1808 – 11 December 1813.
This development led to a crown legitimacy crisis which sparked a series of conflicts throughout Spain. The effects of these conflicts spread to Spain’s American colonies, including Mexico, which decided to take advantage of the power vacuum and fight for their independence.
The viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Xavier Venegas, had been informed of an insurrection against the Spanish royal government in Mexico. The news was investigated and plans to capture the conspirators were underway. One Mexican insurgent was captured and an arrest warrant was issued for the rest of the conspirators. Some of the conspirators, including Allende, wanted to go into hiding but Hidalgo urged them to go forward with the rebellion.
Throughout the region, the news of a possible Mexican revolt quickly spread. Little by little, more men, including craftsmen and potters, joined the rebels at Hidalgo’s parish. After collecting some weapons, the rebels headed to the town prison and freed about 50 prisoners who had been convicted because of their support of the fight for independence.
Hidalgo’s famous cry of independence: Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores)
In the wee hours of September 16, 1810, the people of Dolores woke up to the ringing of a church bell (the Bell of Dolores) from the direction of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, where Father Hidalgo regularly held mass. The bell was followed by the cry of the priest, summoning his parishioners to gather at the church.
In an earnest speech and with a banner in hand, Hidalgo urged the people to take up arms and join him fight against the inequity and injustice that have been perpetrated under Spanish rule for many centuries. Apart from calling for independence, Hidalgo’s famous cry demanded an end to slavery and for the lands of the natives to be returned to them.
Shortly after the Hidalgo’s public proclamation of a rebellion against Spanish rule, about 550 men came together to form an army.
Meaning of Grito de Dolores
Hidalgo’s cry became widely known as the “Grito de Dolores” or the “Cry of Dolores.” The word “dolores” is Spanish for “pain” or “sorrow.” Therefore the expression is literally translated as “Cry of Sorrows.”
While Hidalgo’s exact words have been the subject of numerous scholarly debates, they agree on the main idea conveyed through his words. English historians have attempted to translate the speech as follows:
Long live religion. Long live our Blessed Mother of Guadalupe. Long live Ferdinand VII. Long live America and death to bad government.
Hidalgo leads the Mexican War of Independence
The Mexican War of Independence was not a single coherent event. In reality, it comprised a series of battles and revolts that resulted from heightened political turbulence that marked the period in both Spain and Mexico.
The War started on September 16, 1810 and ended on September 21, 1821. The major events that highlighted Hidalgo’s contribution to the revolution have been discussed below:
The Siege of Guanajuato
This siege began on September 28 of 1810. Hidalgo and co-conspirator Allende led an angry mob on a march toward San Miguel El Grande in south-western Mexico. Hidalgo carried a banner which had an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe; a symbol of his faith and a foil to the Spanish loyalists’ Virgin of los Remedios.
Upon the insurgents’ arrival at San Miguel Grande, they were joined by many of the Queen’s Regiment forces. The mob killed some Spaniards in the city, while others either had their homes looted or were put in prison. Afterwards, the insurgents invaded the city of Celaya, where the Spanish counterparts surrendered without resistance.
The mob continued on to the city of Guanajuato where they were met by an army of about 500 Spaniards and royalists at the large public granary. The native Mexican troops were made up of over 4,000 people at this point. For almost 5 hours, the opposing forces engaged in combat. Eventually, the insurgents surrounded the granary and killed all the Spaniards inside. While these battles were being fought, Hidalgo used collaborators to send word of the revolt across the major cities.
Monte de Las Cruces
On October 30, while the rebels were headed toward Mexico City to capture it, Viceroy Venegas quickly gathered an army to meet them. The rebels engaged in a firefight with the Spaniards in the Battle of Monte de Las Cruces. The royalists were no match for the numerically superior insurgents and got themselves killed.
Having defeated their Spanish foes, Hidalgo and Allende decided to turn back towards the city of Guadalajara, a decision that would prove fatal. Historians have not been able to find common ground concerning why the duo and their men retreated though they had been closer to their original destination.
On their way to Guadalajara, they were ambushed by a large Spanish force. Hidalgo and Allende decided to split to continue the fight. Hidalgo made his way toward Guadalajara in the company of his secretary, Ignacio and a few men, while Allende moved toward Guanajuato.
Hidalgo suffers defeat at the Battle of Calderón
In January, 1811, the two insurgent armies reunited and made a defensive stand near the banks of the Calderón River to meet the royalist army in what came to be called the Battle of Calderón.
The Battle of Calderón Bridge was the last major confrontation of the first stage of the Mexican War of Independence. The rebels, who were led by Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, and Mariano Abasolo, among others, had more than 80,000 forces. On the other hand, the Royalist forces of New Spain, who were commanded by Spanish military officer Félix María Calleja del Rey, had between 5500 and 8000 men.
During the confrontation, a Spanish ammunition ignited in a rebel ammunition supply point, scattering the rebels, with many fleeing to the north.
Betrayal & Capture
As the rebels licked their wounds after the Calderón defeat, it was decided to restock on ammunitions. A few weeks later, in March, Hidalgo and his senior officers honored an invitation from Ignacio Elizondo, a top official New Leonese. The rebels hope to secure vital weapons from Elizondo. However, on their way to Elizondo, the rebels were ambushed and captured by Royalist troops. Father Hidalgo was one of the rebels that was captured by the Spanish forces. For his role in the betrayal and capture of Father Hidalgo, Elizondo is usually compared to the American traitor Benedict Arnold.
How did Miguel Hidalgo die?
Hidalgo, together with Allende and other key members of the rebellion, was tried and found guilty of treason. Hidalgo was stripped of his holy orders and honor before he was executed by a firing squad in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811.
To send a stern message to Mexican independence fighters, Hidalgo’s head was decapitated and was hanged on the public granary of Guanajuato. His remains were eventually reburied in Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument. The other leaders were tried earlier and found guilty of the same charges. They were killed in June, 1811.
Though the leaders of the insurgency were killed, their deaths did not in any way slow down the fight for independence. The Spanish authorities had inadvertently turned those leaders into martyrs, this in turn made the independence fighters even more determined to fight to the bitter end.
Fellow revolutionary Catholic priest, José Maria Morelos y Pavón, assumed leadership of the struggle for Mexican autonomy until he was captured and executed in 1815. General Vincente Guerrero led the independence movement thereafter. Other revolutionaries whose names are synonymous with the Mexican Independence struggle include Juan Aldama and Guadalupe.
Eleven years after Hidalgo’s execution, Mexico finally attained independence when the Treaty of Cordoba established Mexico as an independent constitutional monarchy led by Emperor Agustin de Iturbide.
Father Hidalgo’s Significance Today
Like most countries in the world, their national fathers are those monumental figures who played a most influential role in establishing a system of governance and promoting the nation’s identity. For Mexico, that monumental figure is Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Without a shred of doubt, the famous Hidalgo’s cry was the fuel that drove the Mexican’s fight for their independence.
To this day, Mexico has a tradition which sees the president of the Republic make an appearance at the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City every September 15 at 11p.m. to reenact the “Grito de Dolores”. This is usually followed by a shout of “Viva Mexico!” three times and the ringing of the same bell Hidalgo did in 1810. The bell is seen as a national treasure and kept at the National Palace.
If you have been a regular guest at Mexican night parties, Christmas Eve fireworks or other celebrations, you might have heard the “Grito de Delores” being enacted to honor the heroic deeds of the great revolutionary figure. Hidalgo’s speech not only inspired Mexico’s independence, it also spurred on other independence movements in Latin America.
While many countries commemorate their Independence Day by vivid recollections of their founders signing the Constitution and formally establishing a state, Mexico’s independence is celebrated by remembering the beginning of an 11-year bloody war.
Hidalgo’s usage of Our Lady of Guadalupe in his revolt against Spanish rule
Father Hidalgo adopted the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his banners. The rebels that fought along his side had a battle cry titled “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.” As a result, the image came to be seen as one that evokes nationalism and the fight for social justice.
The banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a famous Roman Catholic image of the Virgin Mary as she appears to Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican believer. It’s believed that event occurred in December 1531. Juan Diego, who was initially a non-Catholic, was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Also called the Virgin of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is today the patron saint of Mexico, served as the patroness of the Hidalgo revolt against the Spanish.
In Spanish the patron saint is called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Today, her image is one of the most important symbols of Mexico.
To honor his contributions to Mexico’s politics, many places and buildings in Mexico have been named after Hidalgo. These include:
- Ciudad Hidalgo (town in the state of Chiapas.)
- Dolores Hidalgo (municipality of Guanajuato)
- Hidalgo Station of the Mexico City Subway
- Michoacana University of San Nicolas de Hidalgo, University of Mexico
- There is a borough in the capital, the Mexico City, called Miguel Hidalgo. Created in 1970, the borough was named after Father Hidalgo.
Did You Know?
- In Mexico, two days are set aside for Independence Day celebrations. On the evening of September 15, loved ones gather to have dinner and watch the presidential ceremonial rituals on television. Over the years, Mexican government officials have held these ceremonies at the historic city center of Zócalo.
- On the 2nd day, September 16, Mexicans would usually congregate to watch their country’s Independence Day parade either on television or at the venue of the ceremony.
- After the death of Father Hidalgo in 1811, the Bell of Dolores was moved the parish in Dolores to Mexico’s National Palace. That famous bell is rung every year on Mexico’s Independence Day by the president of the country.