San Antonioians have celebrated Mexican Independence Day since 1821. The have every reason to do so. Although San Antonio was nearly 800 miles away from where Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla first launched his famous rebellion with “El Grito de Dolores,” San Antonioians also fought and died in the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain.
First, a brief history of Spanish rule over Mexico, which included the province of Texas, is essential. In the three centuries that Spain ruled over its colonies in Mexico and Latin American, much changed for the inhabitants.
When Spain conquered Mexico in 1521 by defeating a large army of Aztec warriors under Montezuma, Spanish Royalty had little experience in governing far away colonies. Over the three hundred years of ruling Mexico (1521-1821), the Spanish Crown allowed the creation of a highly stratified caste system whereby Spaniards born in the European peninsula held all the important positions of government and ran the businesses which in turn made them wealthy and powerful.
The Mexican Independence movement began because the creoles—the sons and daughters of Spanish parents who had been born in New Spain—had been denied access to power and wealth. Life was even worse for the mestizos—those of mixed parentage—Indian and European. Spain had so many colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean, that few Spaniards emigrated to Mexico.
The growing Mestizo class also grew restless and unhappy with their virtual exclusion from government jobs and land grants. The Indios and African natives fared even worse, as most were relegated to peonage and slavery.
Under the Spanish haciendas system or plantations, native Indios labored for only food and housing. In many regions of Mexico, Indian labor experienced abuse and oppression and over three centuries, millions died from harsh work conditions or diseases that the European brought to the new world. In some parts of Mexico, Spaniards imported slaves to replace Indian labor pushing exploitation to its zenith by 1800.
The most disturbing aspect of Spanish rule was the exploitation of Indian labor to extract the mineral and natural wealth of Mexico for the benefit of the Spanish Crown. Spanish royalty wasted much of its gold on warfare against France and England, as well as Crusades against the heathen.
Spain, with a population of 10 million, controlled an empire of more than 14 million. However, Spain fell to Napoleon in 1808 and the Spanish King had relinquished his throne to Napoleon’s brother. The time seemed right for rebellion in the New World. Over the next two years, rebel forces rose up throughout South America.
In the small Mexican town of Dolores in the province of Guanajuato, Mexico, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his famous “Grito de Dolores” on the evening of September 15, 1810. Father Hidalgo was able to enlist the Mestizos and Indians in the rebellion because they were willing to join the Creoles to end Spanish rule. Hidalgo’s call for land redistribution and racial equality appealed to them.
Mexicans living in Texas called themselves Tejanos and though small in numbers, joined the rebellion and engaged in numerous battles for Independence. San Antonio, the largest town in Texas at the time, had a population of 2,000 and was considered the crown city of the Texas province. Spanish Royal forces had crushed a rebellion in the San Antonio area in 1814—at the famous Battle of Medina where more than a thousand Texans were killed in battle.
When the Mexican Independence movement began in Mexico, Texas was just a small part of an enormous Spanish empire in the Americas. There was much at stake, for that empire extended from present-day Guatemala to the Bay of San Francisco, and included the western states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.
This year, like many years in the past, many Mexican Americans in San Antonio and other cities across the West and Midwest will celebrate Mexican Independence on the evening of September 15, and all day on September 16th. In these American cities with large Latino populations, dignitaries will read a “Grito de Dolores” proclamation, recalling the ideas of land redistribution and racial equality Father Hidalgo y Costilla championed.
The end of the Spanish Empire resulted in the creation of more than a dozen new nations. With the loss of the Americas, Spain lost its seat among the most powerful and respected countries of Europe. Mexico, which won its independence in 1821 after ten years of fighting the Spanish royal forces, began a new chapter in history as an independent nation.