Every country has its own origin story. Mexico is no different. Just as the United States was born from a war for independence from Great Britain, Mexico, or “New Spain,” also fought and won (sort of), its own war for independence from Spain. This episode explores how Mexican artists Juan O’Gorman and Román Sagredo captured key moments of Mexico's fight for independence.
Ross Chambless: Every country has its own origin story. Mexico is no different. Just as the United States was born from a war for independence from Great Britain. Mexico, or “New Spain” as it was called, also fought and won – well, sort of “won” – its own war for independence from Spain. One of the most remarkable and detailed mural depictions of Mexico’s war for independence was painted by Juan O’Gorman, from 1960 to 1961. It’s in the Museum of National History, in Castillo de Chapultepec, in Mexico City.
Juan O’Gorman’s 1961 mural “The Cry of Independence” can be seen in El Castillo de Chapultepec in Mexico City.
Fanny Blauer: I would say this mural is covered with a series of symbolisms that go from the creation of the Mexican identity, until the implementation of the principles that allowed for the existence of a country.
Ross: Fanny remembers first seeing the mural in-person as an elementary school student on a field trip in Mexico.
Fanny: My first impression was extremely confusing. There are a lot of people in this mural. Nobody is smiling. There are many different colors of skin. I remember thinking about this because of the idea of Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, who was a main iconic figure during independence. She always appeared as very serious, not a very nice woman. But in fact, she was amazing.
Ross: She’s the woman wearing green riding a white horse on the right side.
Fanny: That was for me the number one confusing aspect of Mexican history. Nobody looks happy. Everybody is mostly men. Those who are mestizo or white are still wearing European outfits, the indigenous people are still carrying their indigenous clothes. Their features are very different. And something that made me wonder, what is going on here, is this man who is on his knees, who might be Iturbide, holding this indigenous man’s hands. It made me think of Jesus Christ. Back then, I didn’t think of how the Church played a huge role in the implementation of what colonialism was. I see Virgin Mary, this woman who is crying for her son. And this man being held, by the man that is going to save him and he’s on his knees, dark skinned.
Ross: In this episode, we’re talking about what a couple historical images can tell us about Mexico’s war for independence. O’Gorman paints a picture of a new country already struggling with racial, social divisions from the beginning.
Fanny: Injustice, of course. Inequality. Those two main characteristics represent the tyranny of human creation.
Ross: At the same time, Fanny says the mural shows the early aspirations to create a new country that would treat everyone equally.
Fanny: Juan O’Gorman presents a series of documents – I found this interesting. You can see different figures in the mural are holding different documents.
Ross: If you look closely you can see men holding pages of manuscripts containing the written ideas for what they thought would be best for governing a new nation of Mexico at the time. O’Gorman also divides his mural into three parts by signifying different colors for the sky overhead. O’Gorman painted the colonial period with a dark, overcast sky.
Fanny: It was the implementation of his religious ideas and political values that eventually were creating a corrupted country.
Ross: Over the middle of the mural – where the fight for independence takes place - the clouds begin to part.
Fanny: And then, the sky moves to a blue sky. You see that? It means the success of being independent now. I thought it’s a very iconic way to show the evolution of this independence movement.
Ross: So, what triggered this uprising in New Spain? Let’s take a look.
Here is an informative video about Mexico's War for Independence.
Ross: For the first three centuries, the main function of New Spain’s government, it seems, was to squeeze as much wealth from the country as possible and ship it back to Spain.
Susan Vogel: Mexico really was just providing raw materials to Spain, which made it the most powerful economic force, trading force.
Ross: Wealthy elite Spaniards could enjoy chocolate, colored dyes, and silver and gold exported from Mexico. People in Mexico basically put up with it. It was a very racially-divided, hierarchical society with Spanish and Spanish-born decedents – known as Creoles – at the top of the social system. But beginning in 1808, after Napolean conquered Spain and installed his brother as King, things started to change with the new authority.
Luis Lopez: Spain’s military presence was pretty low, they tried to bring that back up to a powerful position. Of course, this didn’t sit well with elites in the Americas. They were trying to make a name for themselves, to establish themselves. The colonies are pretty well sufficient at this point. They’d been there for generations, and that connection with Spain isn’t so strong anymore.
Susan: Interestingly it wasn’t a peasant revolt. It wasn’t the indigenous people of the poorest of the poor, people at the low levels of that caste system that sparked that independence. It was the more privileged people like Father Hidalgo, who enjoyed these privileges. They’re the ones who began the efforts towards independence.
Recreacion Grito de Independencia gives a dramatized account of Father Miguel Hidalgo leading Mexico's fight for Independence.
Ross: In this clip from the documentary “The Cry of Independence” Father Hidalgo is shown bravely leading a crowd of machete wielding Mexicans into revolt. He is celebrated as the slightly bald, long white-haired, revolutionary leader of Mexico’s fight for independence.
Susan: Father Hidalgo, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, he was university-trained. He was a priest, a priest who questioned the virgin birth. He got in trouble with the Church because of his ideas. He also was very influenced by the enlightenment. He read banned books, which included those from Thomas Jefferson and Jean Jaques Rousseau. He had these enlightened ideas that centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy rather than the church. And he came to believe ideas such as liberty, progress and tolerance. So, in fact, the independence movement from Spain took from the U.S. phrases like “All Men are Created Equal” and “unalienable rights”. So, very much influenced by what was going on in the U.S.
Ross: Juan O’Gorman’s mural of the revolution portrays many prominent figures from the period. You see Hidalgo carrying the banner of the Lady of Guadalupe very prominently – she became a unifying image for the indigenous peoples. Here’s Fanny.
Fanny: You see Virgin of Guadalupe being carried by Hidalgo. You see the indigenous people being punished in their own land. You see main figures such as Hidalgo, Morelos, Iturbide, Leona Vicario. I always look at how many women are in these paintings. We see Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez. We see an indigenous woman on the left side. And many flags represented, like the flag of 1492, the year the Americas were discovered.
Ross: This mural moves the viewers’ eyes to the right. And one of the last images we see is a group of men sitting in a half circle, again holding up what appear to be important documents. The man standing before them is revolutionary leader Jose Maria Morelos. Morelos would assume power in the struggle for an independent Mexico after Hidalgo was captured and executed.
Fanny: It’s probably finally the creation of a declaration of independence forming a constitution that belongs to Mexico. The documents that made what the new country was Mexico.
Ross: The last figure sitting on a horse at the end of the mural, is Iturbide, gearing up for a fight with Guerrero. Which, by the way, leads us to our next painting to discuss briefly.
El Abrazo de Acatempan by Román Sagredo (1870) is in the National Museum of History.
Ross: The “Abrazo de Acatempán,” painted by Román Sagredo in 1870, shows a meeting between two men: Agustin de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero. This happened in February 1821. The lighter-skinned Iturbide on the left was the head of New Spain’s royalist army. Guerrero, the darker-skinned many on the right with his arms held out on both sides, was the leader of the insurgent troops fighting for independence.
Iturbide had been a fierce, and sometimes very cruel fighter against civilians and the insurgent rebels. And his mission had been to find and destroy Guerrero, the man now standing before him with his arms outstretched.
Fanny: He wanted to destroy the insurgent forces that Guerrero, Vicente Guerrero represented. But he was not able to. Guerrero knew his territory very well, the South region of Mexico. He knew how to ride those regions among them mountains and hide. And Iturbide was not able to catch him. So, it’s believed Iturbide sent a letter to Guerrero saying, “let’s talk.”
Ross: After 11 years of war, both sides were looking for some resolution. The story is that Iturbide asked Guerrero to finally surrender and receive a full pardon. Guerrero rejected that pardon offer, but he agreed to meet with Iturbide to discuss the independence of Mexico.
"El Abrazo de Acatempán" has been depicted in different ways by different artists.
Ross: This painting symbolically captures the moment in February 1821, that Agustin Iturbide, the military leader who had been fighting for Spanish interests, decides to switch sides – realizing that the better cause was standing up for the revolutionaries, and the liberation of Mexico. This was a moment that historians say was critical for Mexico’s fight for independence. Iturbide and Guerrero’s meeting was known as the "Embrace of Acatempán", named after the place where they agreed to discuss their plan for peace.
Susan: We’ve seen some of the “abrazos” before in the art. One with Cortés and Malinche. And then the one with the Spanish conquerors and the Aztec warrior. So, when I see a painting called “Abrazo” I’m always a little skeptical, thinking, is this going to be a happy union or an unhappy union? When we see the power coming together with the weak, and the people with the insurgents, you wonder what the outcome is going to be. Especially when the indigenous person is standing like Christ on a cross in this Catholic country.
Ross: She’s talking about Guerrero with his arms outstretched.
Luis: This almost reminds me of a borderline pat-down. Right? You have the Spanish soldier saying let me make sure you have nothing on you before we have this chat. Because we are here to work together but I don’t trust you.
Susan: It does look like “arms up”, "hands up, out of your pockets", it does. Doesn't it?
Luis: It could also look like a passionate, emotional discussion. I tend to talk with my hands. I also like how the artist represented each person. Guerrero is very much mestizo, although I’d say he’s very much vaquero I would say, versus Iturbide who is Spanish and colonial. And also, Guerrero is brown, his hair dark. Iturbide has lighter skin, looks like a lighter brown or blond hair. the artist depicted most likely what it was because you tend to see artists kind of altering things, and so I really like this aspect about this painting.
“The Cry of Dolores, also known as the day of the Shout of Dolores, is celebrated on the night of September 15, when the Mexican President rings a bell at the National Palace in Mexico City at 11 pm. The President then gives the cry of patriotism, based on the cry of Dolores, also called the cry of independence. One of Mexico’s greatest heroes Miguel Hidalgo is believed to have made the cry of independence (El Grito de la Independencia) in the town of Dolores, in the north-central part of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Hidalgo was one of the nation’s leaders during the War of Independence in Mexico. There is no scholarly agreement on Hidalgo’s exact words, but his speech – the cry of Dolores – was made on September 16, 1810, to motivate people to revolt against the Spanish regime. Hidalgo’s army fought against the Spanish soldiers for independence, but he was captured and executed on July 30, 1811. Mexico's independence was not declared until September 28, 1821.
—Guadalupe Tovar (volunteer, Artes de México en Utah)”
Ross: Iturbide and Guerrero were negotiating the so-called “Plan of Iguala”. It was a 3-point plan to unite a coalition of divided political interests: The Mexican liberal insurgents, the nobility, and the Catholic Church. Mexico would be free from Spain, the Church would be the only accepted religion in the new country, and all inhabitants of México were to be promised equality, meaning the complicated caste system – that divided Spaniards, Creoles, Mestizos, and permitted slavery – was supposed to be abolished.
Susan: The result of this was also the three-colored flag for Mexico. With red for the blood of heroes. White for purity and the Catholic faith, and green for hope.
Unfortunately, this abrazo may not have turned out well either because Iturbide becomes Emperor.
Fanny: Right, and he was highly criticized later.
Ross: Unfortunately, this was not the end of fighting and violence for political power in Mexico. Far from it.
Fanny: You look at all the events that took place after the independence; it was war after war and the Mexicans are always looking for something that makes them feel happy and at peace in their own country. The idea is that the Mexican independence and everybody who participated, was the Creoles, but they didn’t represent indigenous people. They represented the people who wanted independence from Spain, but with the same ideology as Spain. That tells a lot about the history of Mexico about what has been achieved in the last 200 years.
A political map of Mexico from before the Revolution until its end in 1821.
Ross: Ultimately the struggle was then – and still now – about control of resources. And as for that quaint notion about abolishing the Spanish social class system?
Fanny: The indigenous people always were seen and have been seen as second-class people who are there to be farmers or producers, but not having the same opportunities as the ones who control the power.
Susan: This launched a period that was very tumultuous. When we teach this period, we’re always like ‘oh my gosh’, we’re going to have to talk about 31 presidents, two monarchs, and two constitutions over a 55-year period. I tell people if you want to go back in history, you don’t want to be a ruler of Mexico during this period. You would have been likely to be executed. Seven heroes of the independence movement were executed. This is not uncommon when a country becomes independent. It’s often the case that there’s a lot of turmoil in establishing itself.
Ross: Juan O'Gorman's mural "The Cry of Independence", can be seen in El Castillo de Chapultepec in Mexico City. "El abrazo de Acatempan" by Román Sagredo, in the National Museum of History. You can see images of both of these works at the website and home for this podcast
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Elias Torres, Gustavo Santaolalla, Antonio Pinto, Phillip Glass, Elliot Goldenthal, and Gheorghe Zamfir. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
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