13 September 2008

El Grito de Dolores

Before I came to Mexico in January of 1999 I really didn't know much about the country. At that time I came down to do a job and never dreamed that I would end up staying. To me, the history of Mexico was a jumble of Aztec and Mayan ruins, Hernán Cortes and his Conquistadores, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries like Padre Kino and Junipero Sera, old churches, General Santa Ana (from the old Disney movie about the Alamo), various other generals of all types and sizes, Emperor Maximilian and Carlota, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, Ritchie Valens and La Bamba, Speedy Gonzalez, the Frito Bandito, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. After a few years I was able to put this jumble in some sort of order but I finally realized that 489 years of “modern” Mexican history is too much to absorb in one lifetime not to mention the pre-Columbian history that came before. The best that one can do is try to get a handle on it. Why? Because if you are living in Mexico and studying Mexican Spanish you soon realize that a large portion of the language is entwined with history and culture of this great country.

Having said all that I think that if you take six expat Gringos and Canucks in Mexico and ask them about Mexican history they will no doubt give you six different versions depending upon their depth of study, the places that they have visited, and the books that they may have read. It reminds me of John Godfrey Saxe´s poem about the blind men and the elephant. Every time that I think I may be getting closer to true enlightenment I find myself groping around like a blind man and I hit a wall. I feel like Charlie Brown getting very close to kicking the football only to have Lucy snatch it away at the last moment and just like Charlie Brown I find myself flat on my “arse”.

One thing that I have learned is that the history of Mexico is actually part of a bigger history involving Europe, the Catholic Church, the Spanish monarchs and the divine right of kings, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, The Masonic movement, the Indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Arab peoples, the Jewish people, the birth of modern democracy and the evolution of technology. Each one of these topics is like a gear that is part of a big complicated tapestry weaving machine. If you don't understand how the gears fit together you can't really understand how the machine weaves. The best that you can do is to tug on little threads on the edge of the resulting tapestry and let them lead you into the weave like a little bug.

As a result of my foray into the jungle of the Mexican past I have identified a number of heroic figures who, whether they are true heroes or not, have nevertheless cast their spell upon me. One of these figures is Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican Independence. Fortunately I live in the “Cuna de Independencia Mexicana”, the “Cradle of Mexican Independence”. I live not far from Corralejo Hidalgo near Pénjamo, at the base of San Grigorio, where Miguel Hidalgo was born on May 8th, 1753 and I have visited that location several times. I have also visited “La Francia Chiquita”, his house in San Felipe Torres Mochas where he read and discussed literature that sprung from the French Revolution. I have been to his house in Dolores Hidalgo where he gave the shout called “El Grito de Dolores” on the night of September 15th, 1810 and set off to lead the fight for Mexican independence. I have been to Atontonilco where he adopted the flag of Our Lady of Guadalupe as his standard and finally I have stood at the corner of the Alhondiga in Guanajuato and stared at the actual hook where his head hung in a cage for 13 years after he was captured by Spanish troops and executed by firing squad.

If one were to begin studying Mexican history I suggest that the fight for Mexican Independence is as good a place as any to start. I suppose that if you have some kind of compulsive disorder and insist on starting at the beginning I will understand but it is almost impossible to know where the beginning is. I guess you could start at about AD1000 (1000 CE) and work your way up from there but that is pretty boring stuff unless you are an anthropologist and like reading things like the “begats” of the Old Testament. You could also start with Hernán Cortes in 1519 and I guarantee that it is a fascinating story but since this is the “Mes de Patria” (Month of the Fatherland) when we celebrate the heroes of the fight for Mexican Independence it would be as good a time as any to begin learning about some of the events that shaped the Mexico that we know today.

It is very interesting to note that at the time of the “El Grito de Dolores”, the people of Dolores referred to themselves as Americans to differentiate themselves from the Spaniards because at that time the the name of the country was “Nueva España” or “New Spain” and word “Mexico” had not yet come into vogue. The exact details of the actual shout have long been debated by historians but a popular consensus is that it went something like this:

¡Viva la Independencia!

Long live Independence!

¡Viva America!

Long live America!

¡Muera el mal gobierno!

Death to bad government!

Of course nowadays they shout “¡Viva México!” Instead of “¡Viva America!” but how ironic it is that the third line of the shout is “Death to bad government!”. It seems like this cry is just as apropos today all over the world the same as it was in Mexico almost two hundred years ago.


Gary Denness said...

This is the start of my favourite part of the year in Mexico. Ok, I have to admit I hate Mexico's summer...rainy season doesn't sit well with an Englishman. I could have stayed home for that! I'll be off to Huichapan again this year for Independence Day, which is nearer the spot he shouted the grito than I am at present. Soon after falls Day of the Dead, then my birthday, Christmas and finally the lavendar blooms of the Jacaranda trees before the rains return.

Have you read any of Gary Jennings Aztec books? They are pretty popular with newly arrived TEFL teachers in DF. I often recommend Aztec Rage, which sees the fictional Don Juan de Zavala (IIRC) joining Father Hidalgo on his war march. It's hardly in depth history, but it's a good fun intro to the country's history. Most people (I think everyone I have ever spoken to!) prefer Aztec, but Aztec Rage in my opinion was the best of the bunch.

Steve Cotton said...

Bob -- Nice summary. One of the tragedies of the response to el Grito was that Hidalgo could not control the centuries of moral outrage that had been dammed up amongst the Indians. But that outrage gave an impetus to the independence that would be won from Spain. And then the Indians had to wait (some would say still wait) until the Revolution to have their demands heard (if not met). But that is a tale for another day.

Anonymous said...

Gary, someday you must come with me to Dolores Hidalgo for the shout and feel the shivers run up and down your spine :)

No, I haven't read Aztec Rage but now I must.

Well said, Steve!

GlorV1 said...

Well my history is not very, ahem, up to par with what I have read, but I do appreciate the "grito." Father Hidalgo looks very stern, almost scary. His head hung on a hook for 13 years?, and on "albondiga street." Makes you want to not make albondigas anymore. :) geez. How do you know so much Mr. Bob? You are very scholarly. I bid you farewell and happy day to you.

Anonymous said...

The hook is on a building called the "Alhondiga" which was a place to store gold, silver, grain, and other supplies of the Spaniards. The hook has nothing to do with "albondigas" (meatballs). You are so funny!

Check out the following:

Billie Mercer said...

Bob, you are right. There is something special about being in Dolores for the Grito. We did that last year. But warning, lots of Mexicans like to be there too. It was really a crush of people after the grito. Parents were handing their children up to the guys on the fire trucks to get them out of the crush.

Gary Denness said...

I'd love to get to Dolores before I leave Mexico. Next year I really want to go to the Zocalo in DF, which I have missed out on so far. Then Dolores. I'll look you up and remind you of your offer!

Anonymous said...

You're on Gary! We ought to stop in San Miguel and bring Billie with us. I think I'll buy and old fire truck and fix it up and we can go in that. Nothing like being prepared :)

Pol14 said...

Hi, I got to your site by chance, and, being a nitpicker, couldn't help but to notice two small imprecisions: it should be
"¡Viva la Independencia!" and
"¡Muera el mal gobierno!". Notice that in the first case, according to your version, it would seem that a certain person named "Independencia" is being hailed and in the latter, that the government "dies". Translating your versions they would be: "Independence lives!" (but in spanish it suggests Independence is a person, as explained before), and "The bad government dies!".
Thanks for your patience, Pol

Bob Mrotek said...


Thanks for the nudge. You are ever so right. I made the correction. Feel free to nudge me any time you like but have mercy okay? :)

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.