As a history professor, my dreams of wealth and rock n’ roll fame in young adulthood evaporated long ago. But just before this Mexican Independence Day on September 16, my professional moments sparkle, to use an un-academic term. Being a former Mexican-American GED student in cholo garb, these moments of enlightenment – for me and my students – are about as priceless as any such moments of a respective jale. It’s my time to teach about Mexican Independence (which is not Cinco de Mayo), and that revolves around traditional themes of economics, warfare, and world politics (Bo-ring!). But students who hated history in high school, suddenly pay attention to me at least as much as to what’s on the PowerPoint slide or on their cell phones. I’m actually holding their attention for about 75 minutes per class, all told.

I ask rhetorically, “Who was responsible for Latin American independence?” No answer? Napoleon Bonaparte, of course! Interested yet? (Eyes widen slightly.) “Who initiated the Mexican war of independence?” No answer? Privileged White men who called themselves Americans – they soon extended that definition to people of color and women, out of necessity and convenience. By themselves they didn’t have the numbers. (Now I have them.)

The positive vibe reverberates, whether it is a class of young women in Latinx studies or my class on “conflict in Mexico,” which is always of a healthy demographic mix. With political dialogues (or monologues?) surrounding the teaching of race in schools and universities, and debates swirling around the 1619 Project, Mexican independence provides a broader context – something badly needed in a political environment of constant historical distortions. It covers race, class, gender, and colonialism; themes college students and graduates recognize from their ethnic studies and humanities classes, which trickle into the media in all of its forms. Here I state the historic complexities of “good guys” and “bad guys,” to use gendered vernacular. (Warning! This is documentation, not “indoctrination.”) So here is the story:

First, we have Napoleon, emperor of the first French Empire … 

The violence of the French Revolution, where tens of thousands of people were beheaded or otherwise disposed of in “The Terror” of the 1790s, led to Napoleon’s rise. He was a strongman who nonetheless pledged to spread the ideals of liberty and republic in opposition to the European monarchies and a powerful Catholic Church. In this secular crusade, French imperial armies overtook the Spanish Crown as part of Napoleon’s campaign to “liberate” his neighbors from the chains of Church and King. His brother Joseph Bonaparte, naturally, ascended to the throne of Spain after King Fernando VII abdicated and fled Madrid in 1808. 

When news reached the Americas, prominent Spanish “Americans” took up arms against the French Empire. They used what scholars call “the mask of Fernando” as a pretext, pledging loyalty to their king and simultaneously asserting national independence.

There was a problem: no independence army existed in New Spain, as Mexico was called; no Simón Bolívars to lead it. Spanish-led militias contested any attempted overthrow of the royal order, rather violently, executing and often dismembering would-be insurgent leaders. 

Plotters of Mexican independence were quickly jailed. Knowing this fate, a charming, middle-aged parish priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla saved himself from arrest by ordering church bells to ring in the town of Dolores, in today’s Guanajuato state, as a signal to parishioners who were overwhelming Indigenous or of mixed-race (casta) background. “Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!” He reportedly shouted to them in the famed Grito de Dolores – which marks Independence Day ever since. “Death to bad government! Death to the Spanish born!” After three centuries of third-class status, parishioners responded in force. A crowd of some 600 swelled to thousands. Other privileged men joined the cause, assuming leadership roles. The affair ended badly. The crowd of new freedom fighters massacred hundreds of Spanish-born people (and perhaps others) in Guanajuato, the provincial capital. 

Witnessing events, some officers in the improvised army abandoned the Father, a man better suited to life as an intellectual priest – or professor? – than a revolutionary general. In the end, Father Hidalgo’s forces failed to enter Mexico City. He was captured and executed in 1811. 

Jose María Morelos and Act II … 

José María Morelos, a priest of mestizo (mixed-race) ancestry, assumed leadership of the fledgling rebel army. Not a trained tactician, he read up on military strategy and led a more organized force to several victories over Spanish royalist forces. Appealing to women for support, hand-drawn leaflets urged proper Spanish American ladies “to war with cruel swords” as rebel leaders opened a propaganda front. The momentum did not last. In 1814, Fernando again became the uncontested Spanish king. He didn’t buy the “mask of Fernando” stuff and sent reinforcements to Spanish America. Independence armies were crushed. Morelos was captured and executed by firing squad the following year. 

Among the last remaining rebel holdouts, Vicente Guerrero was of African descent and spoke an Indigenous language rather than Spanish. He joined with Augustín de Iturbide (Ee-TOUR-bi-day), a Spanish-descended officer who declared Mexican independence and assumed leadership over a factionalized but reinvigorated army. Both men led that force into Mexico City in triumph in 1821. The new rulers established an independent Mexican Empire under Emperor Augustín I. It was overthrown after eight months. The new victors established a federal republic. 

This is a simplified version of a very complex story where several academic themes intersect. In the history of the Americas, Western-style “liberal” nationalism is not solely rooted in leadership of European descent. Such is a context that expands traditional public discourses on race and class to which Americans are accustomed. Another important lesson in a post-2020 election world is this: When members of an angry crowd say they will kill people, believe them.

E. Mark Moreno is an Associate Professor of History, Texas A&M University-Commerce. He teaches about all periods and regions of Latin American history, including upper-level and graduate classes on...