written by: Isabel Cunningham
• edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas
• updated: 1/29/2015
Mexican Independence Day celebrates the struggle to shake off Spanish colonial rule. The evening of September 15 is when the cry of 'Viva Mexico' rings out throughout the land. The next day, September 16, is a great national holiday. What happened on that day, just a little over 200 years ago?
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El Grito de Dolores
The Mexican war of independence started with a declaration, a speech given by a priest named Miguel Hidalgo from the town hall balcony of a town called Dolores (now 'Dolores Hidalgo', in his honour) on September 15, 1810. Hidalgo was an unconventional and humane priest who fathered several children, and who cared deeply about his parishioners' lives, their oppression and their poverty.
The call for action or 'Grito de Dolores' as it came to be known, called for the dispossessed of the land to fight to take back that land from their Spanish rulers. This sparked a long conflict.
The struggle for independence from colonial Spain resulted in the death of Hidalgo the following year, and an 11 years war, before independence was finally achieved (as it turned out, as much because of political changes within Spain as by force of arms).
El Grito de Dolores was the beginning of the end for an empire, which had stretched from California to Tierro de Fuego.
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Speeches and Fireworks
Mexican Independence Day is unique in that it commemorates the date of the speech, which started an armed struggle, not the day when that struggle was won.
Other nations remember the dates of great battlefield victories, but Mexicans commemorate an act of pure moral courage.
The celebrations start by the ringing of bells on the evening of September 15 to summon the citizens of towns across Mexico to listen to their mayors delivering the Grito in memory of Hidalgo from the town hall balcony. The traditional elements of the speech are repeated: the Mexican flag is waved, and "Vivas" are shouted out for the heroes of the fight for independence, for Mexico and for independence.
'Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morales!' 'Viva Mexico!' and 'Viva La Independencia!', ring out.
Fireworks and celebrations follow, and the next day, September 16, is the main public holiday.
That day is marked by bull fights, a telling sign that although Mexico has been politically independent for nearly 200 years, the cultural influence of Spain is strong to this day.
The war of independence ended with a treaty declaring Mexico's independence from Spain in the same month, September, but 11 years later, in 1821.
For that reason, the whole month of September is known in Mexico as the Month of Our Nation.
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The Colonial Classes and Their Legacy
In the days of Spanish colonialism, society in Mexico, then part of 'New Spain,' was highly stratified.The top layer consisted of Spanish born Spaniards (Peninsulares) who had moved to the colonised country to take up the highest positions in society; the next layer down was made up of people of Spanish ancestry, who had been born in Mexico (Criollos). After them, came those of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, the Mestizos. Next, came the indigenous population, and at the bottom, the ethnically African population, brought to the New World as slaves.
As in the USA, the movement for independence from the colonial power came from the descendants of colonists, as much or more than from the indigenous colonised people.
After independence, those social strata and their relative affluence and prestige based on racial origins still remained, and sadly, they still have much more than purely historical significance, even today.
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What About Cinco de Mayo?
Another Mexican holiday, the fifth of May, is sometimes assumed by North Americans to be Mexico's independence day. However, it is the date of the Battle of Puebla.
In the 1860s, following decades of war and struggle the Mexican republic had no choice but to default on loans from European countries, leading to invasion by the French army, and yet another war. The French intervention lasted from 1861 -1867. The best known date in the war against the French invaders was near its beginning - May 5, 1862 - when General Zaragosa defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.
The victory has been mythologized as a victory of the Mexican peasants against a far stronger and more numerous foreign army. However, the disparity was not in reality very large, and the defeat of the French rested mostly on Zaragosa's sound military tactics, and mistakes by the French. Interestingly, it was not the battle decisive in winning the war.
Nevertheless, it was a massive morale boost for the new Mexican republic, and was most welcome news in the USA, which had declared that interference in any of the Americas by a European power would be taken as an attack on the Union. The American Civil War was raging, and the fear of the Union side was that the French would favour and assist the Confederate forces if their power in Mexico was consolidated.
To this day, perhaps because of its resonance with the US at the time, there is far greater awareness in the US of May 5 than of the actual Mexican Independence Day in September. May 5 is the day when great quantities of Mexican beer are consumed the length and breadth of the States.
Both dates are holidays in Mexico, but the victory against the French has less meaning for Mexicans than does the brave priest's speech, which led to the overthrow of the principal colonial power, and the birth of an independent state.