On September 16, Mexicans around the globe will celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from Spain. The day is marked by a national holiday in Mexico, a reenactment of a historic moment from the revolution’s leader, and an array of performances from fireworks to dance routines.
Often confused with Cinco de Mayo by people living in the United States, Mexico’s independence day actually marks the moment in 1810 when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest known as Father Hidalgo, made the first cry for independence. After a moving speech in the Mexican town of Dolores, Hidalgo took up the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Roman Catholic image of the Virgin Mary as she appears to Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican believer who was later sainted by the church.
“Independence commemorates the beginning [of the struggle],” says Elena Albarrán, associate professor of history and global and intercultural studies at Miami University in Ohio. “In this case, you celebrate the moment of insurgency, the possibility, and the hope.”
A decade-long struggle
As Hidalgo took up the banner of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, many people were inspired to follow him. Albarrán says they amassed a large, unruly, hodgepodge army that included women, children, grandparents, and livestock. Untrained and difficult to control, it was eventually defeated, with many of its members going back home to harvest their fields.
Hidalgo was defrocked as a priest by the Spanish Inquisition, says William Beezley, professor of history at the University of Arizona. He was later beheaded by the civil government as punishment for revolting, and his head was displayed in Guanajuato, where he and his army were charged with causing a massacre.
Another priest, José María Morelos, took up the mantle of revolution, sending home anyone from the first army without a weapon and horse. Beezley says this tighter version of the army was more effective, but Morelos was also eventually taken before the Inquisition and beheaded—and the struggle for independence sunk into a period of chaos as Mexico continued to fight a weakening Spanish rule.
Then, in 1821, Agustín de Iturbide, a Spanish-supporting soldier who flipped to become a leader in the Mexican independence movement, led troops into Mexico City, decisively seizing control of the city and declaring the country’s independence. His following political promise, called the Plan of Iguala or the Plan of Three Guarantees, sought to free Mexico from Spanish control, solidify the country as Roman Catholic, and ensure that all citizens were equal. Iturbide became emperor of the new nation, setting up a monarchy-style system and spending much of the new country’s budget on lavish clothes that resembled Austrian royal court fashions at the time.
Ultimately, this system failed as well. Military leaders jostled and vied for power, and, finally, a democratic republic was set up, led by an independence-era fighter—Guadalupe Victoria—who became Mexico’s first president.
“Mexicans don’t celebrate or acknowledge Iturbide as the father of independence,” Albarrán says. “The hero that’s selected as the father of independence uniformly is Father Hidalgo, the charismatic but disastrous priest who gets the ball rolling.”
Confusion with Cinco de Mayo
In America, people often confuse Mexico’s independence day celebrations with Cinco de Mayo, says Albarrán: “Every time I teach Mexican history and I ask students when the Mexican independence day is, they either have no idea, which is fine, or fully half or the majority assume it’s Cinco de Mayo.”
She says many Americans assume Cinco de Mayo came to the U.S. because immigrant communities brought it with them, but a big reason why the holiday is so played up in the U.S. is corporate promotion from adult beverage companies.
“Beer advertisers began promoting beer sales in Mexican communities and neighborhoods,” says Beezley. “It was an advertising gimmick and the date was wrong. It’s still sponsored in a lot of places that way.”
Albarrán says because Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico, it is celebrated on a vastly different scale there than it is in the U.S. She has seen this difference illuminated by her students. During an assignment where she asked students to blog with their peers in Mexico City, U.S. students posted about Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S.
“The Mexican students could not believe it,” she says. “They were cracking up, rolling around laughing. They couldn’t believe the hodgepodge of Mexican iconography and kitsch being incorporated into the U.S. celebration.” (Here's why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated)
Remembering the first revolt
As per tradition on Mexico’s independence day, however, the president honors the legacy of Father Hidalgo by performing a reenactment of sorts from the National Palace in Mexico City. Beezley says on the night of September 15 at 11 p.m., according to Mexican tradition and folklore, Hidalgo went into the parish church in the town of Dolores, rang the church bell, and told the villagers who came running that they needed to revolt.
“As a result, September 15, the president of Mexico will step out on the balcony, ring that same bell, and give a speech that is supposedly Hidalgo’s words,” he says. “Nobody wrote down what Hidalgo said. He was beheaded, so who knows what happened to the [real] version of it? But Mexicans across the country, and in the U.S., and wherever they are, can watch it on TV, and that’s what’s celebrated.”
Despite the uncertainty around Hidalgo’s exact words, the speech today celebrates his passion for Mexico and its people—and honors the moment when he pushed the country toward its eventual independence.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Agustín de Iturbide led troops into Mexico City in 1921; it was actually in 1821.