Father Hidalgo was never going to be your run-of-the-mill Mexican priest. As early as his school days the wily teenager became known as ‘El Zorro’, the fox. And though he earned his degree in philosophy and theology in 1773, and a life of priesthood beckoned, across the Atlantic something far more interesting had gripped his imagination. The Age of Enlightenment, the cultural movement of the intellectuals, had insinuated itself across the length and breadth of Europe. Back in the Old World it continued to be an extraordinary time for radical thinking, emphasizing reason and individualism over tradition: with his head buried in the books of the liberated French scribes the young Miguel Hidalgo lapped it up. Immanuel Kant coined the movement, “…the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature ignorance.” By the time Hidalgo was ordained as a priest, in Europe the philosophers were no longer looked upon as a gathering of gibbering lunatics, the writers could expound their potty theories without the fear of being strung up from a gas lamp, and society at large considered it quite in order to be a syphilitic poet with a craving for absinthe. Things had changed a good deal in the last one hundred years. Music, the arts and the sciences had all come to the fore. Voltaire’s scribbling questioned the authority of the catholic church, the music of Bach, Haydn and Mozart shaped foreign policy, a young artist from Aragon called Goya was wooing the Spanish court, Luigi Galvani sexed up the sciences by conducting electricity through a frog’s leg and, whilst innate ideas were being debated in the coffee houses of Europe’s major cities, a work entitled The Treatise of Human Nature flew from the shelves of the best London bookshops. Throughout such upheavals Mexico remained a conservative country, much under the thumb of Spain. Nevertheless, it was into this changing world that Hidalgo emerged, and he seemed thoroughly determined to immerse himself in the new order. A life of clerical celibacy would not do for him. He took to dancing and gambling, and shacked up with a lady named Maria Manuela Herrera, with whom he sired two daughters, before moving on to a Senörita Quintana, with whom he fathered another three. As the parish priest of Dolores, Hidalgo preferred to leave the clerical duties to his vicars, freeing his time to promote a range of economic activities, including grape cultivation and raising silkworms, and going on to establish factories for making bricks and pottery, all of which he hoped might go some way towards improving the lives of those in the poor rural communities. Life had to change for the people of Mexico, of that the priest was sure. But his activities ran contrary to Spanish interests. During the drought and resulting famine of 1807-1808 the Spanish merchants refused to release the stored grain until demand had sufficiently inflated the price. Frustrated and angry with the government, it was a turning point for father Hidalgo. He steeled himself for the fight he knew must come.
The year 1810 was not a good one for Spain’s American colonies: the governors of Caracas were rattling their sabres, the citizens of Bogota had declared independence, and the people of Buenos Aires expelled the Spanish viceroy during Semana de Mayo. Such events as these, however, were probably the least of Spain’s worries. For the past three years the country had been embroiled in the Peninsular War: its lands crawled with French troops, its economy was on its knees, political and social fragility reigned and the Spanish monarch, Ferdinand VII, had a white-knuckle grip on his crown. In Mexico Miguel Hidalgo used such turmoil to his advantage. On September 15th 1810 he ordered his brother to go with a group of armed men and persuade the sheriff to release all the prisoners in the jail. The following day, September 16th, he called mass at his parish of Dolores and, in front of a crowd of some three hundred people, he gave what has come to be known as the Grito de Dolores (the cry of Dolores)….in effect, it was the start of the fight for Mexican independence. The priest balanced his argument perfectly, lending full support to the church and the rule of Ferdinand VII, whilst insinuating that the Spanish ruling elite in Mexico were really co-conspirators of the emperor Napoleon of France. Such was his popularity, within a couple of months Father Hidalgo was marching at the head of an army numbering some 100,000 rebels, though in truth they were an ill-disciplined, machete-wielding rabble that left a trail of destruction and slaughter in their wake. The speed and ferocity of Hidaldo’s army initially caught the Spanish viceroyalty off-guard, though his streak of ruthlessness, and the bloodletting and the looting, began turning the liberal creoles, previously big supporters of Hidalgo’s ideals, against him. By the time Hidalgo’s forces reached Mexico City even the sedentary Indians of the Valley of Mexico had grown fearful of his tactics. In the face of what he might have deemed overwhelming odds Hidalgo chose not to attack the city and instead retreated to the north, a decision which did not inspire his unruly followers, who began deserting in large numbers. With promises to abolish slavery, the tribute system and taxes on alcohol and tobacco he continued to garner the support of the peasant classes, though the backbone of his army was broken and the fight, for now, was over. By the 21st March 1811, six months after the uprising had begun, father Hidalgo was captured and taken to Chihuahua. He was found guilty of treason by a military court and executed by firing squad on the 30th July. Hidalgo may have failed in his endeavors but, crucially, he had shown the people what was possible. Hailed as the Father of the Nation, Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores is today celebrated as a precursor of the Mexican War of Independence. Stood before his executioners he is said to have uttered, “Though I may die, I shall be remembered forever, you all will soon be forgotten.”
A stroll in Oaxaca
The lovely town of Oaxaca is a twenty minute ride from the Overlander Oasis, even quicker if you get a collectivo driven by a guy attempting to qualify for the Dakar Rally. And there’s a few of those. The town makes a great place for a stroll, and to sober up after all the celebrations.