Who Was Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla?
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was a Mexican Catholic priest. On September 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo rang the church bell from his parish in Dolores to announce an uprising against Spanish rule. His makeshift army captured major cities before he suffered a major defeat outside Guadalajara. Father Hidalgo fled north but was captured and executed in 1811. The anniversary of his call is celebrated as Mexico's Independence Day, with Hidalgo remembered as the "Father of Mexican Independence."
Early Years and Education
Father Hidalgo was born on the Corralejo hacienda near Guanajuato, New Spain (Mexico), on May 8, 1753. The second son of Cristóbal Hidalgo y Costilla, administrator of the hacienda, and Ana María Gallaga Mandarte y Villaseñor, Hidalgo enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as a creole – a citizen of Spanish descent – though he endured a major loss at age 9 with the death of his mother.
At age 12, Hidalgo and his older brother, José Joaquín, were sent to the city of Valladolid to continue their education. After completing his coursework at Colegio de San Nicolás, Hidalgo studied philosophy and theology at the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, graduating in 1773.
Teacher and Free Thinker
Ordained a priest in 1778, Hidalgo returned to Colegio de San Nicolás to teach philosophy, Latin grammar and theology, eventually taking on the positions of school treasurer, secretary and vice-rector.
Despite his vows to the Church, Father Hidalgo was not interested in following the accepted path of an 18th century Mexican Catholic priest. He espoused the works of European Enlightenment thinkers, socialized freely, acquired properties and reportedly fathered several children out of wedlock.
Hidalgo became rector at San Nicolás in 1790, but his extracurricular activities drew the scrutiny of other faculty members, who accused him of mismanaging funds, and he left the school in 1792.
Dolores Parish Priest
Following stints in the towns of Colima and San Felipe Torres Mochas, Hidalgo moved to Dolores in 1803 to replace the recently deceased Joaquín as parish priest.
Outside of his parish duties, Father Hidalgo studied languages, cultivated vineyards and olive groves and opened a pottery-making plant. He also showed his compassion for underprivileged members of the community by holding workshops for them to learn skills like carpentry and blacksmithing.
Meanwhile, Hidalgo became prominently involved in intellectual circles that harbored increasing concerns over political control of New Spain. After Napoleon Bonaparte forced out King Ferdinand VII in 1808 and placed his brother Joseph in charge of Spanish territories, Hidalgo and his allies formulated plans to overthrow the regional viceroy and establish a ruling body loyal to the imprisoned Ferdinand.
'Grito de Dolores' and Rebellion
When word of his impending rebellion leaked to the Spanish, Hidalgo was forced to speed up his plans.
Early in the morning of September 16, 1810, he rang the church bell at his parish and issued his famous Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores") to rally the people to arms as he waved the banner of Virgin of Guadalupe.
With military captain Ignacio Allende as his second in command, Hidalgo led a mob of mestizos, Native Americans and creoles into neighboring towns and cities, the makeshift army swelling as it took control of San Miguel, Celaya and Guanajuato.
Unbowed by his ex-communication from the Church, and seemingly unable to curb the excessive violence committed by his followers, Hidalgo continued the charge through Valladolid and Toluca. However, he paused before an expected attack on Mexico City in early November, giving the royalist army the opportunity to catch up with his forces at Aculco.
Regaining his footing after a retreat to Guadalajara, Hidalgo formed a provisional government that decreed an end to slavery and the restitution of lands to Indigenous peoples. Additionally, he launched a short-lived revolutionary newspaper, El Despertador Americano ("The American Alarm Clock").
Defeat, Capture and Death
On January 11, 1811, Hidalgo concentrated his men at Calderón Bridge outside Guadalajara to meet the smaller but better-trained royalist army. The rebels suffered a devastating defeat and fled, prompting Allende to strip Hidalgo of his command.
The remains of their force then headed north to join an uprising in modern-day San Antonio, but were captured in Coahuila on March 21. Found guilty of treason and defrocked, Hidalgo reportedly impressed onlookers with his gallantry before being executed by a firing squad in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811.
Legacy as the 'Father of Mexican Independence'
Although Hidalgo's decapitated head was displayed in Guanajuato as a warning to other insurgents, the uprising continued in the absence of its spiritual leader, with Mexico achieving independence in 1821.
September 16 has since earned recognition as Mexico's Independence Day, with the president traditionally reenacting Hidalgo's Grito de Dolores on the eve of the national holiday.
The priest's remains have been reinterred in the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City, underscoring his legacy as the "Father of Mexican Independence," while his name lives on through his old parish town, now known as Dolores Hidalgo, and the Mexican state of Hidalgo.
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