Agustín de Iturbide, who led the consummation of Mexico’s independence in 1821. Photo: Google

By RICARDO CASTILLO

Happy Mexican Independence Bicentennial Anniversary!

Sure, most Mexicans still consider Sept. 16, 1810, as the nation’s Independence Day, but in point of fact, the country really gained its sovereignty more than 11 years later.

And so, Monday, Sept. 27, is the day that Mexico as an independent nation actually turns 200.

For all practical and festooning purposes, Mexico’s independence bicentennial was commemorated in 2010.

The celebration was so glitzy that then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón even ordered a tower built on Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue, near the main entrance gates of Chapultepec Park, called the Stele of Light. As it turned out, the construction of that tower began with a 400 million peso budget, and ended up costing nearly 2 billion  pesos. For many, the Stele of Light ended up with a different moniker: the Monument to Corruption. But, then, that’s a whole different article…

The 2021 celebrations will be held without much fanfare.

The 2021 celebrations will be held without much fanfare. In addition to a reenactment of the country’s true liberation in the Zócalo Monday night, the noisiest event of the day will be a short-sized military parade at the Campo Marte polo grounds, also in Chapultepec Park, with the Mexican Army holding a military honor parade waving a collection of flags that were used by the Three Guarantees Army (Religion, Independence and Unity) led by then-strongman Agustín de Iturbide.

A unique feature of the 1821 liberation was the introduction of a new flag for the nation, a green, white and blue banner with the ancient Aztec symbol of an eagle devouring a serpent, which signified the foundation of the Mexica nation in 1325.

In the anniversary book of many a Mexican researcher, this was the real independence of Mexico because it meant the end of an 11-year-old civil war that left over a million dead – notwithstanding nonfatal casualties – by nationalist revolutionaries against the Spanish Army.

Curiously enough, 1821 also marked the 300th anniversary of the victory of Hernán Cortés over the Aztec Empire, which fell on Aug. 13, 1521. (As a side note, Aug. 13 was for nearly three centuries the national holiday of what the Spaniards called New Spain.)

Curiously enough, 1821 also marked the 300th anniversary of the victory of Hernán Cortés over the Aztec Empire.

But the conflict of commemorating two bicentennials is neither new nor a secret. It’s been like that for the past two centuries, with one after the other Mexican government administrations refusing to commemorate Agustín de Iturbide’s feat of maneuvering to defeat the Spanish Army and boot it out of Mexico forever.

The other top national hero, Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest who first called for independence from Spain, is revered to the point of sainthood and he is most definitely referred to as the Father of the Nation. Historians more often than not consider the real birth of the nation not to be the war of independence, which began in 1810, but 1821, when Iturbide brought about the consummation as of Sept. 27, 1821.

So why Hidalgo and not Iturbide?

Hidalgo was nabbed by the Spanish Army, tried, defrocked as a priest, executed by a firing squad in Chihuahua City and, just in case that were not enough, beheaded. All this transpired in 1811, 10 years before Iturbide’s glorious 1821 martial victory march into Mexico City.

Really, there are not many reasons to leave Iturbide’s name out of Mexican history. And it hasn’t been, by any means. But no government administration since the 1824 First Republic has paid him proper respect.

No government administration since the 1824 First Republic has paid Iturbide proper respect.

Even just at the beginning of this month in one of his daily press conferences, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was asked about this unfair treatment to the memory of Iturbide, and he answered that Hidalgo, and later José Morelos, represented a popular uprising, while Iturbide merely negotiated the consummation of independence to preserve the wealth and security of the white upper classes.

Other presidents in the past have offered other justifications to paint Iturbide almost as an outcast such who had imperial dreams since he coalesced when he was voted by popular demand to become the first emperor of Mexico in 1822.

That stint, however, only lasted eight months, since the very same military that had backed Iturbide to gain independence forced him to resign.

Coincidently, Hidalgo and Iturbide were both sons of a Spanish father and Mexican mother, hence considered as criollos, which awarded them in the eyes of the Spaniards a second-class status in the echelon of castes enforced in New Spain.

Furthermore, both were from Mexico’s lowlands (Guanajuato and Michoacán states, nowadays) and both believed in the preservation of Ferdinand VII as king.

Both Hidalgo and Iturbide were from Mexico’s lowlands and both believed in the preservation of Ferdinand VII as king.

Some historians claim that early after the 1810 uprising, and after Hidalgo had staged a gory victory over the city of Guanajuato, with his mostly indigenous troops slaughtering Spanish women and children, Hidalgo, during a bullfight in San Luis Potosí, asked Iturbide to become commander of the insurrectionist army. Iturbide, a Spanish-educated military man, then a captain in the Spanish Army, refused the offer on the grounds of the cruelty shown against the Spanish families of Guanajuato. Instead, Iturbide came out of that bullfight even more ready to serve the Spanish king.

And serve well he did. Iturbide became the hero of many anti-independent movement battles over the years, earning the unique privilege among Spanish Army officers of rising up the ranks- first to captain and then to colonel.

In 1814, as captain of the Celaya Cavalry Regiment, Iturbide attracted the attention of then-Viceroy Félix María Calleja. Iturbide’s feat was that in protecting several tons of silver that were moved. He fended off an attack by Ignacio López Rayón, who inherited the insurgents’ army leadership when Hidalgo was arrested and who wanted that silver “for the cause.” Iturbide fended off the attack at a bridge over the Lerma River in Salvatierra, now Guanajuato, and delivered the silver unscathed. This victory won him the political post of Guanajuato governor, both militarily and politically.

Iturbide is said to have governed Guanajuato with an iron fist. In 1816, he was accused by Guanajuato local priest Antonio Labarrieta and several merchants of corruption and the cornering of different trade markets, including the control of quicksilver (mercury). Viceroy Calleja had to remove Iturbide as governor, but considered him not guilty on the grounds that Father Labarrieta had been a sympathizer of Hidalgo when the war for independence began and coddled him during the Guanajuato siege. This saved Iturbide from demotion and he got to keep his title as colonel.

When Calleja was recalled to Spain by king Ferdinand VII, the new viceroy, Juan Ruiz de Apodaca, removed Iturbide from active duty. Iturbide spent from 1817 through most of 1820 managing the hacienda he inherited from his father and living in Mexico City. Very little is known about him during this period.

Life in colonial Mexico went on as usual, with not-so-minor headaches persisting. Viceroys Calleja and Apodaca had managed to reduce substantially the number independentist insurrects by early 1820.

Apodaca wanted to finish off all signs of insurrection and one of the main problem-makers was an old Hidalgo warrior, Vicente Guerrero, a black man who used to make his living as a load wagon master and horse and mule trader. He had several caudillos follow him, and among them all managed to keep the southern command of the Spanish Army at bay, almost restricting it to guarding the San Diego Fort in Acapulco. The land in between the port and Mexico City was Guerrero’s terrain.

On Jan. 1, 1820, different bells started ringing for the forgotten Colonel Iturbide. In Spain, General Gabriel de Priego rose up in arms against the absolutist and definitely tyrannical government of King Ferdinand VII. Priego demanded the return of the 1812 Cádiz Constitution, which lasted until 1814, when the king declared it void.

Under that constitution. Spaniards had learned that a democratic monarchy was a feasibility, but Ferdinand VII, a member of the old guard of absolutist kings of Europe through the Bourbon family, decided to return to old governance traditions.

De Priego’s rebellion awoke among Spaniards some sense of democracy and finally forced Ferdinand to sign a plea to abide, once again, by the 1912 Cádiz Constitution.

At the time, it could take 60 days for news to travel by sea from “the Metropolis” (Madrid) to New Spain. The news of the return to the Cádiz Constitution was finally received by Apodaca, who was forced by law to make it public in the government’s Official Gazette on May 31, 1820.

Definitely, in Mexican business circles it was not welcome news. The local Spaniards and capitalist criollos preferred living under the rule of a king. As such, during the summer months and well into autumn, a group of Catholic millionaires began secretly gathering at La Profesa Church in downtown Mexico City (now a religious art gallery) Their meetings would later be known as the La Profesa Conspiracy.  The group was headed by lawyer-priest and inquisition member, Matías de Monteagudo. The alleged conspirators were, besides being entrepreneurs, all the bishops in the New Spain colony.

Meanwhile, the insurrect groups in southern Mexico continued to grow and gain ground control of the region, something unacceptable for Viceroy Apodaca.

Meanwhile, the insurrect groups in southern Mexico continued to grow and gain ground control of the region, something unacceptable for Viceroy Apodaca. By October, 1820, the Southern Command top officer General Gabriel de Armijo was either asked to resign or submitted his resignation under pressure, leaving the post vacant.

Though there is no list of the La Profesa conspirators, it comes as no surprise that a representative of the group stood in line for an interview with viceroy Apodaca and proposed and recommended unemployed colonel Agustín de Iturbide for the post of Sothern Command leader. Apodaca accepted and on Nov. 9, 1820, Iturbide returned to active duty for his alma mater, the Spanish Army.

On Nov. 9, Apodaca is said to have instructed Iturbide on two courses of action: First, he told Iturbide to try to destroy and disband the group of regiments led by Vicente Guerrero, a feat a seasoned warrior such as Gabriel de Armijo had been unable to accomplish. Second, he instructed Iturbide to strike a truce and attract the insurrect leaders join the Spanish Army, in exchange for a slew of perks.

Iturbide traveled to the south, through a region covering from Cuernavaca to Acapulco, with many current State of Mexico and Guerrero regions under the military control of Vicente Guerrero.

Iturbide made preparations to move a strengthened 2,500-man army with well-trained soldiers. It took him most of December to transport his men into tactical defense and attack positions in the mountainous area.

On Dec. 28, a column led by Iturbide that was on patrol was attacked from the rear-guard by Pedro Ascensio Alquisiras, a Nahuatl native, causing great damage to the patrol. Iturbide managed to save face and avoid defeat by asking for  help from other nearby Spanish Army regiments.

In the ensuing days, there were several skirmishes with Guerrero’s troops, and Iturbide concluded that, given the difficulty of the terrain, it was not impossible to defeat Guerrero, but that it would cost a lot of lives. as proven by the first unfortunate encounter.

By this point, Iturbide had concluded, after much pondering, that it would be easier to unite forces than fight and that pretty much outlined some of the conclusions of La Profesa conspiracy, which was to establish a united front and come up with a different model for a government.

Both armies were at gunshot distance but did not fire.

Iturbide summoned the rebels to a face-to-face meeting to mend fences at a hamlet named Acatempan. Both armies were at gunshot distance but did not fire. Instead, Iturbide and Guerrero acknowledged each other as “patriots” and physically hugged each other, cheered on by both armies, in a gesture of unity historically known as the Acatempan Embrace.

On Feb. 24 their meeting came about and Guerrero happily submitted to the now-historical document known as the Iguala Plan, a 24-point outline on how to gain independence.

When Viceroy Apodaca received a copy of the Iguala Plan, he immediately called Iturbide a traitor. He summoned other Spanish forces to join him to undo the strengthened army Iturbide was pooling together.

A plus for Iturbide was his experience fighting the insurgents and the fact that he had made many criollo officer friends who, along with the regiments they commanded, flocked to Iturbide’s side.

Iturbide spent several hectic months disbanding the Royalist Army and attracting new sympathizers to his Iguala Plan for governance. It was not easy, and there were dozens of skirmishes and battles, but in the end, the remnants of the Spanish Army could not hold their ground against the growing Iturbide army.

On July 5, Viceroy Juan Ruiz de Apodaca was overthrown from his political chiefdom by a group of Spanish military brass. Apodaca, acknowledging defeat, submitted to Francisco Novella as “pro-tempore viceroy.”

The Spanish Courts appointed Lieutenant General Juan O’Donoju to take command of Apodaca. He was sworn in in Veracruz upon arrival, but to the news that, with the exception of Veracruz, Mexico City and Acapulco, the entire nation supported Iturbide’s Iguala Plan. On July 24, O’Donoju (actually, O’Donnohu, as he was of Irish descent) met with Iturbide in Córdoba and signed with him the Treaty of Cordoba, which outlined the Iguala Plan demands and path to follow.

Iturbide, O’donoju and Pro-Tem Viceroy Novella met on Sept. 13 at the  National Palace to finalize arranging the power transfer. Upon agreement, Novella ordered the return of all Spanish troops to Cuba – to then head for Spain – and the dispersion of all native soldiers.

With that stage ready, the so-called Three Guarantees Army marched on Sept. 27 (incidentally, Iturbide’s birthday) to Mexico City, achieving definite independence for the Mexican Empire from Spain.

So back to the original question: Who was Mexico’s true liberator, Hidalgo or Iturbide? At this 200th anniversary of the consummation of independence, both would be the right answer, but even today, that’s a hard sell topic in Mexico.

 

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