Early in the morning on this day in 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla went to his parish in the impoverished community of Dolores, near Guanajuato, in Mexico. He rang the church bells, and then called for Mexican independence from Spain. He and his supporters, Creole intellectuals such as Ignacio Allende, alongside rural peasants, Indians, and Mestizos, began to march. Back in the colonial center, the monarchy had struggled through the Napoleonic Wars, and decades earlier the Crown ordered the expulsion of all Jesuits from the Empire, leading to conflicts between church and state. In resistance, Hidalgo uttered his famous Grito de Dolores and proceeded to lead hundreds of armed peasants under a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. However, it remains unclear precisely what Hidalgo actually said.
Today, commemorating the Grito de Dolores marks the beginning of Mexican Independence Day celebrations. By tradition, Mexican leaders shout the following Grito before a crowd:
¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Viva Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez!
¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la Independencia Nacional!
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!
Hidalgo’s speech would have looked quite different, especially because the contemporary wording honors heroes who came after Hidalgo’s execution in 1811. The original Grito de Dolores, most historians agree, emphasized the place of the Catholic Church. It criticized Spanish rule, but did not call for direct democracy: some accounts have him calling for “death to bad government,” but not necessarily for a different kind of government.
Hidalgo’s call to action began a decade-long, peasant-driven insurgency across Mexico, which would not officially see independence from Spain until 1821. After independence, Mexico continued to suffer under authoritarian caudillos during the nineteenth century. The Mexican Revolution, starting in 1910, began a century after Hidalgo’s revolt, and became another long, bloody conflict. Francisco “Pancho” Villa led peasant militants in the north, Emiliano Zapata led mestizo farmers in the south, and once again rural communities took up arms for land rights and liberty. A new Constitution was one result of the Mexican Revolution.
Hidalgo’s cry for independence galvanized the working poor in rural Mexico. The exact words he used may not be known, but Mexican history is a testament to the power of the words he chose. What he said is reflected in the thousands of individuals who chose to confront the imperial authority. Powerful words are never really lost in history, not when they move people to insist, to assert, to cry out for something better. There’s magic in that kind of language, one that continually reemerges to move us away from ourselves and closer to each other as a whole. It’s this kind of language that shapes and reshapes history.