Travelling on the Mexican independence trail

My earliest political memory is of an elementary-school trip five decades
ago to the Angel of Independence, the golden winged statue atop a soaring
marble column in the heart of Mexico City, where my parents had recently moved
from New York. Though I can’t remember the exact year of the outing, it was
certainly on 16 September; the day Mexico celebrates the beginning of its long
War of Independence (1810-21) from three centuries of Spanish colonial rule.

The remains of the original
patriots – most notably, Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio de Allende – were interred
at the base of the monument. And I recall the thrill of hearing a politician
scream out the Grito de la Independencia, the cry allegedly uttered by Father
Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810: “Down with bad government and death to the
gachupines!” – a pejorative term for colonial-era Spaniards.

Today, as it wrestles with economic
troubles and drug wars, Mexico is also commemorating its bicentennial with
architectural restorations, concerts, literary events and gala festivals, the
bulk of which will take place in September in the formerly silver-rich state of
Guanajuato, a three-to-four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City.

It was here, in the communities of
Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende – the latter two adding
the names of their local heroes after independence – that the revolt against
Spain first erupted. Today, irrevocably linked by history and geography, but
wholly distinct in character, the three towns remain tourist oases from the
dreadful drug-related violence erupting elsewhere in the country. And – thanks
to bicentennial fever – they are now linked, along with a dozen others, by the
Ruta de la Independencia, broadened and newly paved, making travel among them
easier than it’s ever been.
In June, I spent a week travelling this zigzagging course, which traces the
several hundred kilometres taken by Hidalgo’s largely impoverished insurgents
and Allende’s more upper-class militia during the ebb and flow of their
uprising against the gachupines.
My first stop was Dolores, which, as the place where Hidalgo first called for revolt,
is known as the cradle of independence. Even today, his presence permeates the
town, from the thriving ceramics industry that he championed to the ubiquitous
statues and plaques commemorating his leading role in the independence

Dolores, an insular and provincial
town of 55,000 inhabitants, with streets laid out in a simple grid, is not as
popular a destination as San Miguel or Guanajuato. Dominating the architectural
landscape is the yellow and pink, richly Baroque-style parish church where
Hidalgo, a priest, preached the gospel and insurgency. Known as the Parroquia
de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores, the church looms over a large bronze statue
of Hidalgo on the broad, tree-shadowed main plaza. My own tour began at
Hidalgo’s mustard-and-ochre-walled residence on Calle Morelos, a block south of
the main plaza. Built in 1779, the house was damaged and looted during the independence
wars and decreed a museum in 1863. Visitors can also look out at an interior
patio off the living room, where Hidalgo staged European music recitals and
native dances to which upper-class whites, middle-class mestizos and humble
Indian artisans were invited.

With his army of ragged
parishioners wielding machetes and spears, Hidalgo headed – on foot – 19 kilometres
southeast to one of the colony’s largest pilgrimage sites, the cavernous church
known as the Santuario de Atotonilco. Founded in 1750 atop thermal springs used
by Chichimecas, Otomis and other tribes for their religious rituals, in
Hidalgo’s time the Atotonilco sanctuary drew multitudes of Indians and
mestizos, who proved ripe recruits for his crusade.

Today, pilgrims still pour into
Atotonilco, a village of only about 600 permanent inhabitants, dominated by its
enormous sanctuary. Built in the colonial Baroque style with a blue-tiled dome
rising behind high walls, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. In
the nave of the sanctuary, pilgrims gazed up at murals and frescoes depicting
the life of Christ and walked past an alcove with a particularly bloody wooden
sculpture of the flayed Jesus. The more severe penitents wore crowns of thorns
and flagellated themselves with leather thongs.

I boarded another bus for the
eight-kilometre ride south from Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende, which I
used as a base for my visit to other points in the state of Guanajuato. San
Miguel, with about 60,000 inhabitants, is a richer, more attractive town than
Dolores. By sunset, much of the town seemed to congregate around El Jardin, the
small, leafy main square, anchored on its south by La Parroquia, the pink
Gothic-style parish church that is San Miguel’s most famous landmark.

Thanks to the deeper-pocketed
foreigners, San Miguel abounds with delectable restaurants and crowded bars.
The next morning, ready to resume my bicentennial tour, I headed to the home of
Hidalgo’s co-conspirator-turned-rival, Ignacio de Allende. An officer in the
royal army, Allende was a member of the elite Basque society of San Miguel,
where his family was involved in mining, agriculture, commerce, politics and
religious laymen’s fraternities. He shared with Hidalgo an increasing dislike
of incompetent, corrupt Spanish rule, and the two often met, clandestinely, in
various Guanajuato communities in the months before the independence uprising.

With Hidalgo’s initial support,
Allende was named commander of the anti-Spanish forces. He proposed a militia
led by Creoles – Spaniards born in the colony – like himself. But when the
Spaniards learned of the independence conspiracy, Hidalgo decided to act first.
Snatching military leadership from Allende, Hidalgo and his ragtag hordes
quickly took charge of the rebellion. A note on the wall of the Allende house
museum leaves little doubt about whom the local caretakers side with nowadays:
“Allende became the main instigator of the 1810 insurrection.”

The bitter rivalry between Allende and
Hidalgo would reach a nadir in the town of Guanajuato, a 90-minute bus ride
away and my final destination.

I have always found Guanajuato, now
with a population of 71,000, to be the most mysterious of Mexico’s colonial
cities. Traffic is diverted through tunnels whose stone ramparts look medieval,
while back at street level, stone footbridges and balconies create a European
Renaissance aura.

I lunched at Las Mercedes, where
the sopa negra de huitlacoche (corn smut soup) and chamorro de cerdo (pig’s shank
in a black bean stew) confirmed the restaurant’s reputation for imaginative
contemporary riffs on traditional central Mexican dishes. From the wide window
next to my table, there is a panoramic view of the city as it cascades down the
mountain sides into a canyon.

It was the same view glimpsed by
Hidalgo and his unruly army, now probably 20,000 strong, as they approached
Guanajuato on Sept. 28, 1810. The city was difficult to defend and had only a
small militia garrison. Rather than flee, the colonial elite chose to cloister
itself in the hulking, fortress-like public granary, the Alhondiga de Granaditas,
gambling that the rebels could be kept at bay until reinforcements arrived.
Instead, a miner, nicknamed El Pipila, carrying a flagstone on his back as a
shield, set fire to the Alhondiga’s huge wood doors, and the mob surged in.

Among the hundreds of dead were
friends and relatives of many upper-class co-conspirators, like Allende, who
never forgave Hidalgo for allowing the massacre. Allende refused to fight
alongside Hidalgo, and the two divided insurgent forces became easy prey for
the royalist army. By mid-1811, both men had been captured, executed and their
heads hung from the corners of the outer walls of the Guanajuato granary for a
decade until Mexico finally gained independence in 1821. A century later the
remains were transferred to Mexico City’s newly erected Angel of Independence.

Today, the Alhondiga is a museum of
Mexican history and art, with little reference to this murderous past. The
massive stone outer walls still evoke a citadel, but once inside, the building
reveals a neo-Classical beauty, with 40 Doric and Tuscan columns holding up two
galleries that wrap around an inner patio of white-and-gray stone slabs.

I ended my journey
along the Ruta de la Independencia with a funicular ride from the town centre
up a hillside to the 9-metre-high statue of El Pipila, the miner who burned
down the Alhondiga’s doors. The rolling urban landscape unfurled below, a
tranquil tableau of church domes, tiled roofs and verdant squares.
And then I glanced at the unsettling inscription on the statue’s base: “There
will be other Alhondigas to set on fire.”

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