Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo appeared more interested in bee keeping than bible reading. The fifty year old priest had arrived in Dolores Mexico in 1803 to fill a vacancy at the Catholic Church. But soon he was spending more time outside among the hills than inside among the candles. He was fascinated by the richness of the soil1 and surprised, perhaps, that the local agriculture took so little advantage of it. One might imagine the quizzical looks of the Indians upon hearing that the new priest would be offering instruction on olive cultivation and wine making, rather than The Lives of the Saints and Heroes of the Old Testament.2 There are those that think such activities may be closer to the pastoral spirit of Jesus, than others; but that is another discussion. For now, let’s just say, he was generally considered to be, somewhat, neglectful of the traditional duties of the parish priest. And, it is unlikely that he would have much disputed this.
His eyes were lively and perceptive, and would switch from magisterial to mischievous and back again, in the same glance. His interests were broad, his readings wide, his intellect strong with exercise, and his heart as big as his people. And to the extent that you were one of his people, you were blessed. He was a pastor. He was most definitely not a general.
But he was appalled. The contrast between the richness of the land and the poverty of the people seemed to him an injustice. Here was land so ready to yield abundance, so evidently blessed of God, and yet occupied by people so poor and so ill-prepared to reap its benefits. The new pastor set about to educate his people and to train them in modern industry.
He taught them to grow olives. He taught them to grow grapes and to make wine. He taught them to raise silkworms and to weave the silk into garments in their own creative designs. He trained them to work in leather. He trained them to keep bees, collect the honey and barter it for profit. He established factories for making bricks and spinning pottery. He encouraged every avenue that would cultivate their talents and bring them reward for their labor. And as he taught, the hopes of his people awakened, and so did hatred among some others.
The criollos hated the peninsulares who despised the mestizos, mullatos and indios. With few exceptions, a rigid caste system had evolved under three hundred years of Spanish Rule since the conquistadors first destroyed the indigenous polity.3 At the top were pure blood European born Spaniards, the peninsulares,4 so named for their place of birth.5 For them were reserved the places of honor at banquets, and the chief places in government. They became wealthy off of Mexico whose entire economy was organized to enrich Spain. The criollos were born of Spanish parents, but, being born in America and not Europe, they were forever, second class, restricted from advancement in the world of society and politics. Mestizo parentage was mixed European and American; Mulattos mixed African and American, and the Indios were native American. Upon the backs of these people rode the economy of Spain and the wealth of the King. These referred to the peninsulares as gachupines, that is, the ones who wear the spurs.
Spain ordered the restriction of certain industries, like olives and wine, lest they interfere with profitable Spanish exports. Miguel, however, was not overly concerned about royal orders in general, and bad ones in particular. For years he had spoken out against the tyranny of kings and the authority or popes, while hosting theater, dances and literature readings on Church property. He was immersed in the literature of the Enlightenment promoting the restriction of governments and the freedoms of the individual. He was just twenty three years old when northern brethren proclaimed, in words immortal, that governments existed to secure the certain unalienable rights of individuals. He followed intently the independence movement of those thirteen colonies from England and their growth as a nation. And then he watched with amazement, and then horror, the French Revolution, and then its destructiveness, and then the rise of Napoleon. He followed Haiti’s struggle for independence from France and watched Napoleon’s betrayal. And now, in his fifties, those early beliefs in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had matured into respect for these rights in every person he encountered as well as good governance. In his analytical mind, the richness of the soil, plus, the potential of the people, plus, his appointment to Dolores, equaled a divine tryst. He ignored the orders and continued to teach the people.
He also continued the literary meetings. The main meeting was hosted by Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, wife of the local corregidor, the chief political leader in the region. In her home, they discussed the writings of Rousseau, Jefferson, Madison and Locke, writings which foretold a new political age enshrining the dignity of humanity. “All men are created equal“, they read. All are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights“, they rejoiced. They explored the ramifications of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness“. Their minds reveled in the light; conversed deep into the night, and then, in the light of day, they did what they could, to lighten the loads of their brethren.
News came in 1808 that Napoleon Bonaparte had installed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain after ousting the hereditary King of Spain, Ferdinand VII. Throughout Mexico, surprise and then consternation spread. Many feared that Napoleon would conquer the whole of the Iberian peninsula, bring French rule to Mexico and destroy the Church in Mexico, as had happened in France. Some were for outright independence from all of Europe. Some supported the rightful Spanish Crown against the French. Many feared the peninsulares would betray Mexico to France to secure their own positions. The literature reading circle realized that their world had changed, and, by 1810, became a conspiratorial circle. Discussions moved from theories to practicalities, from possibilities to plans, and then to preparations. Associates were recruited, arms collected, and a date set for an uprising; it would be on a Monday, the 10th of December. But before preparations could be completed, three months ahead of the scheduled uprising, a list of the conspirators was handed to the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City.
It was September 13, a Thursday, when the arrest order was given. Josefa Ortiz, the hostess of the conspiring circle, was confined to her quarters, but managed to slip a message under the door with the whisper “To Miguel, Hurry!”
Two day’s hard ride later, the messenger arrived in Dolores. It was Saturday the 15th. One can imagine the priest, on his porch in the heat of that Summer evening, looking up from conversation at the sound of the horse and his rider approaching. Amid swirling dust the horse comes to a halt, glistening with sweat. The rider, dismounting hurriedly and almost stumbling, weary with the journey. Approaching rapidly, the messenger pulled the letter from his breast, ascended the few steps, and presented it to the priest. “For you, Senior Miguel. It’s from Josefa.”
The Pastor looks up to messenger and thanks him. Looking down at the message, he suspects he is looking at his fate. Hesitating just a moment, he received the letter. Unsealing and unfolding it, his eyes fell upon the words and heard Josefa’s voice, “we are betrayed.” Thanking the rider, he put the letter into his breast, and finishes his wine in the firelight.
The next morning, the bells were ringing at the church in Dolores Mexico. It was Sunday; and the poor of the land gathered to the church; and their pastor stood up before them, and opened his mouth. If a sermon is to be judged by its effects, then perhaps that morning was heard the greatest sermon since the Carpenter from Galilee. For that morning began the changing of the world.
The same afternoon, 600 men gathered with the pastor; and word spread through the countryside that they were marching against the gachupines and bad government. Six days later, 6000 were marching, and towns were overrun. In 16 days, they numbered 60,000. Some thought they were marching for King Ferdinand, some were marching against the French, and very many felt there was a supernatural air to the entire affair. They were 90,000 strong when they approached the gates of Mexico city. In a move ever after debated by historians, Hidalgo turned aside from a military battle which many thought he could have won. But the movement begun could not be quenched. After many ups and downs, in fifteen years not only was Mexico independent but so were numerous countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.
What was said that Sunday morning, has been variously described; but the truth is, we really don’t know. No record exists. But all the historians agree that the sermon is properly called, el grito de dolores, that is, The Cry of Dolores. The town’s name, of course, Dolores, comes from the word dolor, which means pain and bitterness. A linguistic coincidence? Perhaps. A divine providence? Who can say? But out of that town named Dolores, on that Sunday morning, came a cry which altered the course of the world. A gritty cry, out of an anguish, so startling that no one thought to write it down, so moving that its meaning was unmistakable.
Historians have discussed reports of a ‘supernatural air‘ about the entire movement, as though a Divine Providence was carrying them forward in their cause. Certainly, feelings, grander than those to which their impoverished lives had been accustomed, animated them. They’d been nothing and now respected, they’d been ignorant and now taught, they’d been taught to barter with their fellow man, as equals. If this was not the Love of God, it was certainly the Love of that pastor in Dolores. And it felt Good. And it felt worth marching for; and it felt worth dying for.
- “he was shocked by the rich soil he had found.”
- religious instruction was a characteristic of encomienda, and not a strong point for Hidalgo. During his previous pastorate, Hidalgo used his house as an exhibition hall, and promoted literary discussions, dances, orchestral music and French theater.
- their way of life
- after the Iberian peninsula