Iturbide’s Legacy: Independence and the Flag
By RICARDO CASTILLO
In theory, Mexico should be commemorating its Independence Day every Sept.27; in practice, it’s never happened and most likely never will since the nation celebrates independence on Sept. 16, in remembrance of the first uprising by priest Miguel Hidalgo.
But just as important as Hidalgo is the man that crafted the country’s independent separation from Spain after three centuries of colonization, Agustín de Iturbide. He is remembered as the one military and political (in that order) leader who managed to bring Mexico’s independence about.
Though not exactly forgotten by historians, Iturbide has been practically pushed to the back of the country’s history books. In the most recent discussion of Iturbide’s role in Mexican history, when the republic’s 200th anniversary was to be commemorated in 2021, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador opted for skipping the matter altogether, casting aside mentions of some – very few by the way – who consider him as the founding father of modern Mexico.
Most of the disgruntle against Iturbide is hardly ever mentioned, but what is not forgiven of him was his relentless enmity against Miguel Hidalgo, military peer Ignacio Allende and also priest Jose Maria Morelos, all three of whom Iturbide defeated on the military field and finally sent to their executions at the hands of representatives of King Ferdinand VII of Spain in those days between 1810 and 1816.
Even if he was not a true Spaniard – born in Spain, that is – Iturbide was recognized as a leader of the colonial government and was even governor of the silver-producing region of Guanajuato for four years. He was also a beloved protégé of Viceroy Felix Calleja.
Iturbide’s separation from the crown of Spain began in 1816, when he was brought to trial on charges of brutality and administrative corruption. During the trial, for the first time in his life, Iturbide was treated as a creole or “criollo,” a descendent of Spanish parents born in Mexico. Criollos had limitations as to how far up they could rise up the ranks of the Spanish government. Only those born in Spain were assigned to the highest positions.
Iturbide changed during the trial, but given his military upbringing, he endured humiliation based on his criollo status. Iturbide went into social oblivion and not much of him was known during 1818.
By 1819, the Spaniards could no longer battle the growing force of the military leader of what is now the state of Guerrero, Vicente Guerrero, and then Viceroy José María Apocaca approved the new appointment of Iturbide as the general to lead the elimination of Guerrero’s army.
By that time, Iturbide had grown weary of fighting against the independence revolutionaries and after a series of initial skirmishes against Guerrero, he opted to accept the old military adage that if you can’t beat them, join them.
During 1820, in an act of sheer treason against the king of Spain, Iturbide began establishing contact with Guerrero, inviting him to join his army as he too was now on the side of independence from Spain. Their meeting took place on Feb. 10, 1821, with the signing of a peace agreement and a commitment to seek independence from Spain.
Iturbide wasted no time and moved quickly to unite the rest of what was left of the Spanish Army, most of it led by criollo generals who upon witnessing his decisive leadership, joined ranks to unite with the thousands of Guerrero rebels.
Iturbide refrained from suppressing the few battalions still loyal to Spain, and in the meantime, he also summoned unlikely sympathizers in old cadres of criollos, as well as the Catholic Church. The main bishop in Mexico City at the time agreed to join the independence movement, only only if it was agreed upon that there would be no other church but the Catholic in the new republic. Iturbide, a practicing Catholic, saw no problem with that.
By August 1821, the still ruling viceroyalty announced that a new viceroy, Juan O’Donojú, would be arriving soon. Iturbide rushed to meet O’Donojú in the town of Cordova letting the new viceroy know that he had no army backing and that he was the commander-in-chief of the new independent Mexican Army.
O’Donojú, a liberal, signed an agreement, accepting the power transition with the offer to the king of Spain to continue governing the colony if the ruling Bourbon family decided to send a representative.
The army, led by Iturbide, decided to enter in victory for the independence movement on Sept. 27, 1821, which was also Iturbide’s 38th birthday.
Iturbide took the natural strongman leadership that came from having declared independence. Among the clauses to be respected was that the post of emperor of Mexico would be open to a Bourbon family member who wished to govern the nation. The one requisite for the job was the candidate had to physically live in the nation. However, up until then, after 300 years of colonial rule, not a single king of Spain had ever stepped on American soil, as Mexico was known in Spain.
Under the circumstances, by April 1822, a movement began in the streets of Mexico City clamoring for “Agustin Emperor,” and Agustin and his wife were crowned emperor and empress in late May.
The imperial experience, however, was a very bad idea and turned out to be short-lived. By December 1822, General Antonio López de Santa Anna declared an insurrection in the port of Veracruz, and on Feb. 1, 1823, potential leader Guadalupe Victoria, along with Santa Anna ,proclaimed the Mata House Plan, calling for the principles of a popular and national form of governance, and calling for the end of the empire which by then had been nixed by the popular congress.
By March, Iturbide decided to step down and peacefully cancelled the imperial concept of government.
The triumvirate, however, fearing Iturbide might be up to a coup, decided to send Iturbide into exile. While he was away in Italy and then England, he was sentenced to death if he ever set foot again on Mexican land.
Iturbide did return on July 14, 1824, arriving at the Soto la Marina, but was promptly arrested, tried and executed without much of a chance of a legal defense. As his last act, to show he did not fear death and was not a traitor, he handed out gold coins to the soldiers who made up the firing squad that shot him.
The nationalists replacing Iturbide promptly established a triumvirate government and began the road to electing a president and establishing a new constitution, with the first president, Guadalupe Victoria, who took office in December 1824.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of Agustín de Iturbide, whose memory is a shadowy thought in the minds of most Mexicans.
The only thing to truly remember about Iturbide is indelibly written in the Mexican flag, which he designed with the colors green, white and red, as well as the image of the foundation of Mexico, an eagle eating a serpent while standing on a cactus, which was the symbol drawn by the Aztecs.
Summing up, Iturbide gave the nation independence and a banner to represent it before the world and be proud of.
That sounds like grounds for a fair recognition, if it ever comes.