The old bus lumbered up the winding cobblestone road to Cristo Rey, one of the world’s tallest statues of Jesus Christ. Marking the geographic center of Mexico, this rocky mountaintop location affords a panoramic view of the Bajio, a fertile plain considered the cradle of Mexican Independence.
In the Bajio, the colonial Spanish cultivated the tremendous mineral wealth of the region. During the 300 years of Spanish rule, the prolific Valenciana Mine overlooking the town of Guanajuato produced 30% of the world’s total silver. Enriched by this silver mining wealth, the Spanish built spectacular cities, and exploited and dominated the native population.
With Spain distracted by its own Peninsular War against the French, the oppressed people of the Bajio seized the opportunity to declare their independence. On September 16, 1810, on the steps of the parish church in town of Dolores, the creole Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the church bell and called the townspeople to fight for their freedom. In Dolores Hidalgo, I stood on those same parish steps, and imagined the fervor of that day and the zeal of those in attendance.
This declaration of independence, known as “El Grito de Dolores”, was a battle cry that rang out across the Bajio. The next day, the inspired locals traveled to the small town of Atotonilco and its magnificent parish church. I also traveled here to see the beautiful “Sistine Chapel of Mexico”, where the insurgents acquired a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe that unified them in their endeavor.
Under their banner, they marched from Atotonilco to San Miguel, coalescing a militia along the way. San Miguel was the home of the military professional Ignacio Allende who served as the lieutenant general of the determined but poorly equipped insurgent army. I also marched around San Miguel de Allende, now a lovely expat haven, to visit the museum and former home of Allende.
As the insurgents captured territory within the Bajio, their militia quickly grew into the tens of thousands. By the time they reached Guanajuato, just 12 days after El Grito de Dolores, they vastly outnumbered their Spanish adversaries. Fearing for their lives, the Spanish secured themselves inside a fortified stone granary known as the Alhóndiga de Granaditas.
The insurgents were unable to penetrate the rock-hard Alhóndiga until a poor freckle-faced miner nicknamed El Pípila strapped a flat slab of rock to his back for protection and single-handedly charged the front door. With a torch and a flammable container of tar, he burned down the stout wooden door, and opened the flood gates to the first major victory of the crusade for independence.
From Guanajuato, the triumphant army advanced on Mexico City. Allende wanted to attack the capital, but Hidlago refused. Instead they withdrew, lost their momentum, and were ambushed in the northern state of Coahuila. Hidalgo, Allende, and other leaders of the insurgency were captured and assassinated. To discourage future rebellion, the Spanish hung their severed heads from the four corners of the Alhóndiga.
Eventually, eleven years after Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores, a skilled military general and diplomat Agustín de Irtubide brokered a compromise between the insurgent and royalist factions, and was installed as monarch. Finally free from Spain, Emperor Agustín was the first leader to rock the cradle of a newborn independent Mexico.
Featured Photo: The mountaintop statue of Cristo Rey, a pilgrimage site and geographic center of Mexico.