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The Changing Face of Mexico

Mexico celebrated 195 years of Independence in 2005

Parades, fairs, dancing, and fireworks mark the celebration of Mexican independence. (Image source. More about the photograph)

Slideshow

View a slideshow of photographs from celebrations of Mexican Independence Day.

Every year on the 16th of September the President of Mexico addresses the Mexican people from the balcony of the National Palace with the modern version of the famous Grito de Dolores. He shouts Vivas! to the leaders of the Mexican Revolution and ends with a cheer echoed three times by the huge crowds that have gathered: “Viva México!” His cry is echoed throughout Mexico by the governor of each state. The Grito, or shout, caps a day of festivals in Mexico City and other urban areas and ushers in a new year of independent Mexico. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds the people of the origins of their nation and those that fought and died so that Mexico may be free.

The Grito commemorates 16 September 1810, when a parish priest in the town of Dolores in the State of Guanajuato, Miguel Hidalgo, rang the church bells and called his parishioners to fight for independence. The movement for Mexican independence, officially proclaimed in 1821, had several precursors. In the eighteenth century there were over 100 small, ill-advised rebellions, but none came close to realizing the goal of a Mexico independent of Spain and rule by criollos, or people of Spanish descent who were born in the colony of Nueva España, or New Spain. The movement that began in 1810 was the first that attracted large numbers of the population, most notably the indigenous peasants.

Miguel Hidalgo was a criollo who was more concerned with the daily needs of his parishioners than their spiritual ones. He was tired of the constant poverty and mistreatment the people received from the peninsulares, or the Spanish administrators who came to New Spain for profit. Hidalgo introduced new industries such as wool weaving, carpentry, and bee keeping to help the economic condition of the peasants and started a reading group with like-minded criollos.

New Spain had been in constant political turmoil since Napoleon seized the Spanish throne in 1808. The Napoleonic threat united the criollos and mestizos, offspring of mixed marriages between Spanish and Amerindian. As the literary societies that Hidalgo initiated grew in popularity, a date was set for the declaration of revolution: 8 December 1810. Months before the date arrived however, the plan was revealed to the authorities and the leaders were sought by the Spanish officials. Deciding that the time had come to ignite the people, Hidalgo rang the church bells in the early morning hours of 16 September, calling his parishioners to mass.

No one knows exactly what Hidalgo said that early September morning. Dozens of different versions have come down to us today, but each speech has a common theme. The priest was calling his people to fight to restore the true religion and protect their natural rights as Mexicans, not as subjects of distant Spain. The enormous army that Hidalgo was able to muster was comprised mostly of indigenous peasants with criollo leaders and was able to capture many important cities, even threatening the Capital. In early 1811 the makeshift army disbanded and Hidalgo was betrayed, tried, and executed. In his place arose another priest-leader, José María Morelos. Morelos would lead the various factions that desired independence for the next four years. With the death of Morelos in 1815 the revolutionary fervor subsided and the banner of revolution finally was picked up by a conservative criollo general, Agustín de Iturbide. In an ironic twist, the conservative Iturbide joined the once liberal revolution in response to the adoption of a liberal constitution in Spain. Although the ideology of the new leaders was not that espoused by Hidalgo and Morelos, the nation was independent and the Mexican people were able to decide the direction of their own future.

Mexican independence day is often confused with the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Actually, Cinco de Mayo celebrates a victorious battle fought by the Mexican troops against French invaders. From 1858 to 1861 Mexico fought an internal war called the War of the Reform. Liberals and conservatives fought bloody engagements over the role of the Church in government, and the desire for a more liberal constitution. Finally in early January of 1861 the liberals emerged victorious and Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian, was elected President. Juárez inherited a war-torn, bankrupt country. As domestic affairs commanded more attention and the foreign debt continued to grow, Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on all debts owed by the Mexican government. Believing that the new President was repudiating all the debts incurred by the previous Mexican governments, French, English, and Spanish warships collected along the Mexican coastline. The English and Spanish were appeased with notes of credit, but the French decided to take matters one step further. Emboldened by the fact the U.S. was embroiled in its own Civil War and would not enforce the Monroe Doctrine, Napoleon III of France saw an opportunity to take control of Mexico. The well-trained and well-financed troops marched from the coast up to the central plateau where sits Mexico City, but met a ragtag army of Mexican troops in the town of Puebla. Led by General Zaragosa with the cavalry led by the future Mexican dictator, Porfiro Diaz, the Mexicans vanquished the French Dragoons in the early morning hours of 5 May 1862. Although this did not signify the end of French military involvement in Mexico, the Mexican army had won a great victory and showed to the world that they were able to defend their borders.

Both the 16th of September and the 5th of May are celebrated in Mexico to commemorate the continued independence of the Mexican nation. The festivities are marked by parades, fairs, dancing, and fireworks. Similar to the 4th of July celebration in the United States, the Mexican celebration is enjoyed by all members of the nation and is a great display of national pride.