The region just east of us, from the city of Guanajuato all the way down to Queretaro, is known in Mexico as the Cuna de la Independencia, or the Cradle of Independence. It was here, amid the mountains of the Sierra Madre and the plains of the bajio, where Mexican nationalists declared their independence from Spain in a rebellion that began in 1810 and ended some ten bloody years later. This area, in other words, is the Mexican equivalent of New England.
And if this is Mexico’s New England, then the small town of Dolores Hidalgo is its Lexington (the two towns are actually Sister Cities). Here in little Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo launched the rebellion by calling his parishioners to independence in a fiery speech in the early morning hours of September 16, 1810. (Longtime readers will recall that we witnessed the annual reenacted grito in Mexico City last September – you can read about that adventure here). But I’m getting ahead of myself – Hidalgo’s rebel yell is much more interesting with his backstory included.
The Life of Miguel Hidalgo (you can skip this part, but I don’t think you should!)
Miguel Hidalgo was born in 1753, in Guanajuato, to a criollo family. In the absurdly complicated hierarchy of race and class in the Spanish colonies, criollos were those of European descent but who were born in the New World. Due to the location of their birth (some things haven’t changed), criollos faced a legally institutionalized glass ceiling above which they could not rise.
Still, criollos were the equivalent of the upper middle class, and as such young Miguel was provided with an advanced education; eventually, he entered seminary and was ordained a priest when he was in his early twenties. From there he went on to teach at a prestigious school in Morelia, and before long became known as a hotshot young scholar, surely destined for great things.
During the decade he taught as a professor, however, he gained a reputation of one who was, to use the dreaded term, “unorthodox,” in his teaching as well as in his lifestyle. He earned the nickname el zorro, the fox (not to be confused with the masked “Zorro” of Mexican California). Father Hidalgo, in other words, attracted attention to himself, and in these days of the Inquisition, drawing attention to yourself could get you in trouble in short order. In 1804 he was transferred from his prestigious seminary post to a remote rural parish, presumably banished there as if it were Siberia, never, the powers that be hoped, to be heard from again. “But this reassignment,” as one of the museums I visited dryly put it, “proved to be fateful.”
In his new rural parish in Dolores, Father Hidalgo’s life took a dramatic turn. Rather than treating his assignment as a punishment, he threw himself into the collective life of his parishioners, organizing a pottery cooperative, cultivating silk and planting vineyards. He learned several indigenous languages and reached out to the lowest social castes. In other words, the Mexico Semester Program might say, Father Hidalgo became a practicing liberation theologian more than a century before the term would be invented. (He also, it should be noted, faced the pitfalls of liberation theology, coming under criticism from contemporaries for neglecting his parishioners’ spiritual lives, as well as for his general “restlessness.”)
Within a few years of arriving in Dolores, Father Hidalgo met Ignacio Allende, a fellow criollo discontent (nearby San Miguel de Allende would be named for him). In 1808, when Napoleon destabilized the Spanish monarchy, Hidalgo, Allende, and several fellow conspirators began plotting their next move. A plan was formed to declare independence – and with it armed rebellion against Spanish rule – in the city of Queretaro in November 1810. In September, however, Hidalgo received word that the plot had been uncovered by the authorities, who were on their way to arrest the rebels. The conspirators fled to Dolores, where they hurriedly met in Hidalgo’s house to discuss their options. There was little time and few alternatives. By the early morning hours, a decision had been made.
At 5:30 in the morning on September 16, long before sunrise and the normal time for church, Hidalgo rang the bells of the parish, the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, or the Parish of Our Lady of Sorrows, named for an image of Mary (the patron saint of Mississippi, who knew?) in which the mother of Jesus suffers at the sight of her son being crucified. Hidalgo’s cry for independence (read his supposed exact words here) would become known as the Grito de Dolores, named for the town and its parish church but which, thanks to this coincidental background, literally translates as “the cry of sorrows," or "the cry of pain.” From this parish named for the Virgin Mary, Hidalgo and his ragtag army went forth carrying a flag with, as a symbol of their American identity, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. With a history like this, is it any wonder that I think of Mexico as the land of Maria?
My Historical Adventure
Well. So much for backstory. Dolores Hidalgo is located in Guanajuato state about halfway between the city of Guanajuato and the city of San Miguel de Allende. But with our time running short, I knew Chris and I wouldn’t have time for another weekend Mexican road trip together. If I wanted to visit the birthplace of Mexican independence – and, amateur history buff that I am, I definitely did – I’d have to go myself. So, before dawn on Thursday morning I boarded a bus heading east, ready for adventure.
The first bus took me from Lagos to León (this ride before dawn), and from León I boarded a bus to the city of Guanajuato, where the Lonely Planet mentioned regular bus service to Dolores. This final leg of the trip, from Guanajuato to Dolores, was the prettiest. The bus snakes it way up into higher altitude, first offering passengers gorgeous views of the colorful city of Guanajuato (nice to see you again!) before heading even further up onto a winding highway that hugs the cliffs of the tree-covered mountainsides. I haven’t felt this much of a thrill on a bus ride since that early morning journey through the mountain jungles of Chiapas on my way to Palenque.
Five hours after leaving Lagos de Moreno my bus finally rolls in to the tiny but bustling town of Dolores Hidalgo. Upon leaving the bus I immediately see a very large shrine to the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos in the bus station, the only such religious shrine there. ¡San Juanita! I make a mental note to tell Chris about it when I get home.
I pull out my Lonely Planet guidebook and study its street map of Dolores. The central plaza is only a few blocks north of the bus station, so I start walking in what I hope is the right direction and I reach the plaza within a few minutes.
And then there it is: The place where it happened. Somehow this feels more like a holy place than most of the churches we’ve visited this year. It is a place where something monumental happened, right here, in this place, some two hundred years ago, an event far enough away to be legendary but close enough that its effects are still felt, like aftershocks of an earthquake. I find myself struck by this place as a link between Mexico and the United States – and so many other countries of the American continents, for that matter. Independence, I realize, is part of the common story of the Americas; it is something that binds us together as brothers.
I head to the church first, and walk inside. It’s surprisingly beautiful, though poorly maintained. There is a Taxco-like churrigueresque façade and churrigueresque side altars, all impossibly detailed sculptures of stone, metal, and wood. I sit for a moment in the pews, then walk outside, pausing at the door to look out on the plaza, as I imagine Hidalgo did on that fateful morning. Next to the church entrance is an 8-foot-tall pillar with an electronic counter on it counting down the days to Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial. 447 days, 11 hours, 39 minutes, and 7 seconds… 6 seconds… 5 seconds…
From the parish church the rebels went to the town jail and freed all the prisoners, and so I, walking their path, walked the few short blocks to the prison, which is now the Museum of National Independence. It proved to be a surprisingly excellent museum, one of the best I’ve been to in Mexico, with English translations next to all of its explanations. The independence museum mostly told the story of Miguel Hidalgo, who I had previously only known as the rebel leader who, especially in Guadalajara, is depicted principally as crazy-looking. Who knew Hidalgo was a hundred times more interesting than that?
Hidalgo, the museum tells me, was eventually captured and executed less than six months after crying the grito from the doors of his parish church. After being shot by a firing squad, his head was cut off and placed in a birdcage so that it could be hung in a prominent place in the city of Guanajuato as a symbol to would-be rebels. Hidalgo’s decomposing head hung there for ten long years while the war dragged on, but after the war was eventually sent to Mexico City where it was buried under the Monument to Independence. Is this monument the famous Angel of Independence? I’m not sure. I make a note to find Hidalgo’s head when we’re in Mexico City next week.
From the prison I walk to Hidalgo’s house, where the rebels met in secret on the morning of September 16. It is also now a museum. I was going to skip this one, until I noticed that it was run by INAH, the National Institute of History and Anthropology. INAH museums are, as a rule, really well done, so I figured I had to check this one out. I shouldn’t have. It was lame, full of replicas of various “important” documents, and all of its explanations were in Spanish. Tip: If you ever go to Dolores Hidalgo – and you should, since I’ve already told you to go to San Miguel and Guanajuato – definitely go the Museum of National Independence, but don’t bother with the house of Miguel Hidalgo. You can see it fine from the outside.
That was about all I needed to do in Dolores – and I needed to be getting home besides, what with my five-hour bus ride ahead of me – so I snapped a few more photos of the plaza and the church, grabbed a torta to go at a popular-looking restaurant, and bought a ticket for the first leg of my several-stage journey home.
Reflection (also skippable, if you like)
This has, I have to say, been a very thought-provoking week for me. I took two adventures on my own, which was an experience in its own right. Still, I thought the two adventures had nothing to do with one another, but in Dolores I realized that they perhaps had more in common than I had supposed.
My visits to Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo were actually both visits to places dedicated to priests, ordained ministers, each of whom had served his parishioners in a very particular way. Each found himself opposed to powerful forces, and each, in the service of his parishioners, led their parishioners in resistance to those forces, specifically those forces that they believed threatened their parishioners’ ability to live as God intended them to live. Am I oversimplifying? Of course – but bear with me for a moment.
Toribio Romo refused armed rebellion, but he did choose a path of resistance when he continued to administer the holy sacraments to his people in full violation of the law, an act of liturgy-as-resistance that brings to mind William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. Miguel Hidalgo, on the other hand, rejected the brutal hierarchies of his day by forging cross-cultural, cross-class relationships and building up the community of his parish through cooperative economic life. And then, unlike Toribio, he chose the path of taking up arms, uttered the Cry of Pains, and unleashed a bloody war that quickly spiraled out of his control. That last part is easy to glorify as history but hard to justify as principle; if I were writing the story as an ideal I’d prefer a peaceful resistance akin to MLK or Ghandi’s spiritually-sourced people’s movements.
Still, I’m holding Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo in my head and in my heart this week, two examples of priestly vocation lived out in the Americas in the last two centuries. They are worth remembering, I think, as I continue to ponder the vocation of ordained ministry in the Americas in the twenty-first century, and as I prepare to take these many adventures back across the border.
And of course, here's my inevitable Dolores Hidalgo photo gallery: