Father Hidalgo’s bittersweet farewell
Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811) is celebrated as the George Washington of Mexico, the father of his country. He was the first to declare war on the Spanish gachupines who had brutalized the native peoples. Schooled as a Jesuit priest, Father Hidalgo’s family had been in New Spain since the 16th century. They were middle-class criollos, having lighter skin and closer blood ties to Spain. Father Hidalgo was 57 years old in 1810, sturdy of body and slightly balding with piercing, green eyes. He was claro moreno, which meant he passed as a criollo.
Father Hidalgo was not strict about his role as a priest, and did not believe much in celibacy. He proved this by fathering two daughters while he was a priest. He also had a passion for gambling, and took to joining the people in their fiestas and celebrations. He had a great social conscience, however, and truly loved the people he served. He saw how unjustly the Indians were treated by the Spanish, and resolved to free them from the “tax of shame” that they had paid for too long.
On September 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo climbed the tower of his church in Dolores, Mexico, early in the morning, rang the church bells and implored the people to follow him. The people gathered and heard a fiery speech, asking them, “Who will follow me?” Then Hidalgo cried out in a loud voice: “¡Que viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! ¡Que viva la independencia! ¡Que viva México!” Responding to his brave words were three men, trained in military combat, who would become his most powerful generals: Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama and José Mariano Jiménez.
Father Hidalgo’s army grew to over 80,000 and had many victories, yet they also burned, looted, killed and stole property from gachupines and criollos. Hidalgo was beside himself trying to control them. As his army stood at the gates of Mexico City, ready to invade, Father Hidalgo could go no further; the slaughter would be too great. So, he relented, enraging his generals. Soon his army met defeat at the hands of the Royalist Army. Later, Allende and Aldama were questioned about the looting, stealing and killing and they denied being part of it. Father Hidalgo did not; he claimed responsibility for what his army had done, saying, “May God have mercy on me!”
The following year, on March 21, 1811, Hidalgo and his generals, while en route to the United States to purchase supplies to replenish their weakened army, were captured by General Elizondo of the Royal Army, then bound in chains and transported to Chihuahua to await execution. Eventually, their severed heads would be hung in iron cages on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato. Anyone who looked upon them with sympathy was threatened with death by Royalist soldiers. Ten years went by, and the remains of the heroes of the War for Mexican Independence grew to have great significance to the people of Mexico and stirred them to continue the fight for freedom.
During the 98 days of his imprisonment in a tower, Father Hidalgo wrote messages of thanks on the walls of his cell, thanking his captors for their kindness. The morning of his execution, July 30, 1811, Father Hidalgo gave his jailers candy that he had hidden under his pillow, a bittersweet gesture of farewell to comfort his executioners, who were heartbroken over the task they had to perform.
The word “hidalgo” means nobleman. Father Hidalgo lived up to his name; he lived and died as a nobleman – the Father of Mexican Independence.
Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her award-winning career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Contact her at stellapopeduarte.com.