skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

The History And Legends Of Mexican Independence

Audio

Aired 9/15/10

200 years ago a band of rebels in Mexico began what became a very long and brutal struggle for independence from Spain. We'll talk about some of the history, the famous figures, the legends and the traditions that have grown up around the celebration of Mexican Independence. And how relations between the US and Mexico have evolved into the present day.

200 years ago a band of rebels in Mexico began what became a very long and brutal struggle for independence from Spain. We'll talk about some of the history, the famous figures, the legends and the traditions that have grown up around the celebration of Mexican Independence. And how relations between the US and Mexico have evolved into the present day.

Guests

Eric Van Young Ph.D., award-winning historian of colonial Mexico

Iris Engstrand, professor of history at the University of San Diego

Jahdeal Vargas director of Tijuana Convention & Visitors Bureau

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. On the morning of September 16th, 1810 a rebel army in Mexico, made a strike for independence against Spanish rule and marched on Guanajuato, a major colonial mining center. That action marked the start of a hard fought, decade-long war of independence in Mexico. Starting in the early hours of this Thursday morning, towns and cities all over Mexico will begin celebrating the bicentennial of Mexican independence. All this hour we'll be learning more about the history and the mythology that surrounds Mexico's struggle for freedom from Spain, and how that struggle has shaped both Mexico and the United States. I’d like to welcome my guests. Dr. Eric Van Young is historian of colonial Mexico and a professor in the department of History at UCSD. And Professor Van Young, welcome to These Days.

DR ERIC VAN YOUNG (Professor of History, University of California San Diego): Thank you, Maureen. It’s nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And my second guest is Dr. Iris Engstrand. She’s professor of History at the University of San Diego, and editor of The Journal of San Diego History. Professor Engstrand, good morning.

DR. IRIS ENGSTRAND (Professor of History, University of San Diego): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question about the struggle for Mexican independence or you’d like to share memories of how Independence Day is celebrated in Mexico, give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Professor Van Young, how significant is September 16th to Mexico’s identity as a nation?

DR. VAN YOUNG: Well, highly significant. If you – The point of comparison, the point of relevant comparison would be July 4th, of course, in the United States. There is a long and elaborate and highly developed national—and I use the term mythology advisedly—but national mythology in Mexico which is, of course, replete with great heroes and great events, and it really is marked as the starting point of modern Mexican nationalism and what would be referred to in Spanish as ‘lo Mexicano,’ Mexicanness, essentially. So it’s really a very important point and of course it also has become bound up with the religious aspects of Mexican nationalism in the form of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who’s very much identified with the rebellion for independence from Spain.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Let – Professor Engstrand, let me ask you basically the same question with that emphasis on the comparison between the U.S. Independence Day. How do the two compare in the national psyche?

DR. ENGSTRAND: Well, I think the main thing is July 4th is known a little bit more throughout the world whereas Mexican Independence Day, September 16th, sometimes among the Americans here, not among the Mexicans, of course, does go unnoticed. And I think it’s very good that you’re having this program to distinguish it from Cinco de Mayo, which sometimes is mistakenly referred to as Mexican Independence. But here, the Mexicans who have grown up in the United States really don’t have the same feeling about Mexican independence and in Mexico, of course, Miguel Hidalgo, the hero of Mexican independence, is equal to George Washington although myths have grown up around both heroes just as heroes usually, those things happen. But I say this is a kind of a celebration that we need to know more about here, especially in Southern California.

CAVANAUGH: If you could, Professor Van Young, give us a kind of CliffNotes version. I did a very, very short synopsis of what happened on September 16th, 1810. But if you could, give us an idea of what happened on that date that makes it so significant.

DR. VAN YOUNG: Well, in the early morning hours of September 16th, the highly educated and rather free-thinking parish priest of the town of Dolores, which is in central Mexico, near the city of Guanajuato that you mentioned, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, raised the banner of rebellion against the Spanish colonial regime, although it is interesting to note that independence was not initially on the agenda. Essentially what he – what his agenda was, was to keep New Spain, as Mexico was then known, out of the hands of the French, who under Napoleon Bonaparte had, of course, two years earlier invaded and dominated the Iberian Peninsula, usurped the Spanish throne, and put Bonaparte’s brother, Jose, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. So, really, one of the great mottos mobilizing forces of Hidalgo’s rebellion when he made the famous Grito of Dolores, which, of course, the Mexican president repeats every Independence Day in Mexico from the balcony of the National Palace, his motto was to defend religion and the Spanish king.

CAVANAUGH: Ahh…

DR. VAN YOUNG: So there is the irony…

CAVANAUGH: That is ironic.

DR. VAN YOUNG: …in this case that, in fact, the movement initially begins as a defense, in essence, of colonial status rather than a condemnation of it. And what follows is that he quickly gathers a group of rural laborers and mine workers and other people and one gets the coalescing, as you mentioned, of an army very quickly. They attacked, eventually, the city of Guanajuato. There was a famous incident where the municipal granary there, the Alhondiga de Granaditas, which is, today, a very lovely museum was attacked. The local attendant, the highest official in the area, had holed up there with the Spanish residents of the city, and by Spanish one needs to make a distinction between those who were of Spanish derivation, born in New Spain and those who were Peninsular Spaniards. The people in the Alhondiga were eventually the Peninsular Spaniards. There were hundreds of them. The place was besieged. Hidalgo’s forces broke in. At this point Hidalgo was having a bit of trouble controlling them, and there was a famous slaughter of some hundreds. The numbers are somewhat in dispute. And that’s really the series of kickoff events of the independence wars that go on, as you pointed out, for another decade.

CAVANAUGH: A nickname of today is El Grito. Why is it called El Grito? And that means the cry, right?

DR. VAN YOUNG: The cry, yeah. You know, it’s ‘arise, Mexicans.’ It’s, you know, the cry of freedom, essentially, is the way that it’s been portrayed, although, as I point out, there’s some irony in the fact that most of the leaders of the independence movement, although there were differences as there are in any large scale political mobilization, most of the leaders initially, I think, were more in favor of preserving a certain return – restoring a certain amount of political autonomy within a reformed Spanish empire and defending their status within the Spanish monarchy rather than immediately breaking for independence from Spain.

CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we are inviting you to join the conversation if you’d like with your questions and your comments at 1-888-895-5727. My guests are Dr. Eric Van Young and Dr. Iris Engstrand. And, Professor Engstrand, one of the things that really struck me as I did some research into this because I must admit I think that I’m probably like a lot of people, I don’t know a great deal about Mexican history, is how long this took, how long this struggle took for Mexican independence and how really, in some ways, brutal it was. Many of the leaders of the Mexican independence movement lost their lives, I mean were executed by the powers that be.

DR. ENGSTRAND: Yes, it was – It started out not particularly well organized and, as Eric will say, the march on Guanajuato was a little bit premature according to Hidalgo’s plans because they found that there was some resistance among the royalists, who were the Spanish people mostly in Mexico City at that time, were going to oppose this. They had to start very soon. And then Hidalgo, without a clear plan and without some cooperation of other parts, when he ended up in Guadalajara, he was eventually captured and then executed in 1811. Of course, by executing him, he became the martyr, the symbol of independence. But his role was taken over by another priest who had been a student of Hidalgo’s, Jose Maria Morelos. And then, because again of conditions in Spain, which is a really deciding factor, when Morelos was gaining ground, Fernando VII, who was the actual Spanish king was returned to the throne. So the movement was – lost a little bit of its enthusiasm and then Morelos was captured and then eventually executed.

CAVANAUGH: And then the war became against Spain instead of France.

DR. ENGSTRAND: Yes, and when it turned out that Fernando VII was not El Deseado, the desired one, and turned out to be very conservative and decided not to have representation from Spanish America, which had been accepted in Spain while the government was in an exile, actually the – in Cádiz. So this is another turning point but the revolutionaries rallied again and kept fighting and, as you mentioned, there were a number of deaths and – but is by about 1818, 1819, some of the royalist troops did finally decide that the handwriting was on the wall and they should join the revolutionaries. And that’s what brought it to a conclusion.

CAVANAUGH: Before we move on, I would like to talk just a little bit more about Father Hidalgo, Professor Van Young, because not only is he a fascinating character historically but he also has become the stuff of legend.

DR. VAN YOUNG: Yes, he has. He really was an interesting and complex character. He was highly educated. And priests, of course, parish priests were, even the upper ecclesiastical hierarchy particularly in Mexico were amongst the most educated people at the time. At the very least, they had some seminary education. But Hidalgo himself had been university educated although for reasons that are not entirely clear, his education didn’t go as far as it was supposed to. He was being groomed for high ecclesiastical office. He was the rector of a major university at that time, of which there were very few, in western Mexico, in the city of what is, today, Morelia. He was disgraced for some inconsistencies in the books while he was rector of the university. But then gained a very important post in this town of Dolores as a parish priest that carried with it a fair income. The interesting thing about Hidalgo, though, is that he was – even among the group of highly educated ecclesiastics in Mexico, or in New Spain, many of whom where somewhat liberal in their ideas, Hidalgo seems to have been on the more progressive fringe. In fact, he maintained a literary salon in his home in the town of Dolores, today, Dolores Hidalgo. It was known as little France because he was so – he read so widely and had such heterodox notions. He was also very sympathetic to the fate of the poor, engaged in a good deal of local economic development, founded some pottery works and brick works and other things like that to foster local economic development. So he was really quite, quite, for the time, a bit of a free thinker, even had some illegitimate children, which was not that uncommon for priests at the time. So he really is a complex character.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit about the legend that grew up around him after his death.

DR. VAN YOUNG: Well, the legend, of course, has to do with the making of icons, which one has in any revolution. George Washington occupies, as Iris has pointed out, the same role. We know, apropos of that, that mythologies grow up around these people to legitimate them and I think I would refer to this as a teleological phenomenon, that is to say they become mythified, almost not divine but important figures so that these rebellions and revolutions can be seen to be almost inevitable and led by, in this case, a martyred figure. Now we know in George Washington’s case that not only did he not chop down a cherry tree but he never confessed it to his father. So these myths are, you know, and the myth of Mao Tse-Tung or the myth of some of the French revolutionaries would be equivalent. Hidalgo has become an iconic figure, is portrayed in many of the great public murals of the country in popular art forms, in literature, in film. One always sees him with a wreath of snowy white hair, somewhat bald, a vigorous man in his fifties, as he was at the time, a somewhat charismatic figure. And what’s, I think, been washed away in the mythification is the fact that while he may have been good at kicking off this movement, he was less good at controlling it. He had absolutely no military talent. He had a capacity for making wrong decisions at key moments. But one can’t detract from him. These historical figures come at important moments of inflection in history and they simply are great men, and I think Hidalgo falls into that category despite some of his flaws and insufficiencies.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our discussion about the Mexican bicentennial that begins at midnight on Thursday and – actually it begins on midnight tonight, and we will be – continue taking your calls and talk a little bit more about the relationship and how the relationship between Mexico and Tijuana and San Diego has evolved through the years. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.


CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. It is Mexican’s bicentennial that begins tomorrow, and we’re talking about – a little bit about Mexican history and how the struggle for independence in Mexico shaped both Mexico and the United States. My guests are Dr. Eric Van Young. He’s historian of colonial Mexico, a professor in the Department of History at UCSD. And Dr. Iris Engstrand is professor of history at the University of San Diego, and editor of The Journal of San Diego History. We’re taking your calls with your questions, your comments. If there’s something you always wanted to know about Mexican independence, now’s the time, 1-888-895-5727. I want to – before we leave this – the discussion about what actually happened on September 16th, 1810, Professor Van Young, I would like to know and perhaps you can also tell us, Professor Engstrand, how is Mexican independence, how is that whole movement tied to Catholicism?

DR. VAN YOUNG: Well, of course, the movement is initiated by priests who were very active in – throughout the period, not just Hidalgo and Father Jose Maria Morelos, that Iris mentioned, who was a student of his in seminary and then took over the leadership after Hidalgo’s death. But there are other priests as well, not only in the military leadership but in as ideologues of the movement, but there is also a profound sense of religiosity of the defense of Catholicism initially against a real or imagined French atheism since the French Revolution, of course, by the 1790s, during the Reign of Terror really discounts traditional Catholicism and develops the cult of reason and things of that sort. I mean, this was well known in Spain and its American dominions and it was seen to be a frontal attack on religiosity. And then, of course, there is the traditional devotion which is growing in the 18th century to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who’s the national patroness whose day of celebration falls on December 12th, and the Virgin of Guadalupe becomes embroiled in the independence movement because Father Hidalgo, after the Grito of Dolores on September 16th, makes his way through a number of small towns in this area of the country which is known as the Bajio. In one of them, he picks up a standard, a flag essentially, with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. And since popular devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe was so intense, there is, therefore, this kind of double helix developed between religion and politics so that in those ways and because of the traditional religiosity of the Mexican, particularly the popular classes, religion becomes a particular object of defense and popular motivation in the movement.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, that tying religion to politics, has that been a tradition that has continued into almost the present day in Mexico? Dr. Engstrand?

DR. ENGSTRAND: Well, first of all, the one thing that the Spaniards and the Mexicans—we’ll kind of distinguish between the two—agreed upon even in their Plan of Iguala, which was the final joining of the two armies, that they would protect and respect the Catholic Church. So Catholicism was never an issue. It was always going to be very important and it’s actually not until the – actually the 1910 revolution, which is also the centennial this year, that the church was one of the targets of the revolution because of its ownership of property mainly. And Mexico has always maintained a very important religiosity, as Eric has said, and the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe is very, very important. And it’s interesting that the church itself, the religion has never really died out. And despite various problems with the government and even with different regimes and after 1910, it’s very hard to have put down the fervent belief in the Catholic faith.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Engstrand, as editor of the Journal of San Diego History, I wonder if you could take us back in time to the western part of the United States in 1810. The western – Most of the west was Spanish Territory at that time, right?

DR. ENGSTRAND: Yes, a whole area that we would call the Spanish southwest, beginning in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, parts of Colorado. And actually the movement toward independence had very little effect in the area here, in San Diego especially, they didn’t even know it was going on and in Baja, California and as well because of the communication and because it was a very – kind of a – although it was a large incident for Mexico, it didn’t have repercussions either in Baja, California or what we would say is the Spanish southwest, although there were partisans in what would be now Arizona and northern Sonora but it didn’t really have any kind of effect here in California until probably 1818 when a renegade, we call him sometimes a pirate, a privateer, Bouchard came from Argentina in the name of the revolution but turns out that he was mostly pillaging and burning and didn’t have a sort of a goal in mind and finally left. But it’s not until 1822 when they receive a representative who says, you know, we have had a war for independence and now you’re under Mexico, and here in San Diego they said, oh, okay. You know. There wasn’t a lot of ceremony and they really didn’t realize what the repercussions would be so they took down the Spanish flag and put up the Mexican flag and the only unhappiness in San Diego, we have a diary of Juana Machado, says that the Spanish soldiers had to cut off their braid. And that was the one thing that they didn’t really like about the changeover of government.

CAVANAUGH: Is there – What kind of physical remnants of that time can we see here today in San Diego?

DR. ENGSTRAND: Well, I don’t think that except the fact that it’s from that time on that we are in California under Mexico, but the Mexican government—and Eric can attest to this—after that time was really in a state of flux and they had a number of changes of government whereas here things went along between 1810 and 1821 more or less as they had been, which did involve quite a bit of smuggling, a little bit of trade with foreigners and essentially left independently. And it wasn’t until 1822 when they become a part of Mexico that we have the first elected governor here in California who was native born. And then, again, between 1822 and 1846, the beginning of the U.S.-Mexican War, the governors here were probably more stable than the presidents in Mexico itself. So Mexico was still finding itself during this period.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Professor Van Young, we were talking a little bit about the legends of the Mexican Revolution, I wonder who were some of the heroes?

DR. VAN YOUNG: Well, first and foremost, of course, one has Father Hidalgo himself, then I think almost equally revered as a figure but a man in some ways, perhaps less of an intellectual or less overtly of an intellectual, certainly less well educated, but a very bright fellow and something of a natural military leader is Jose Maria Morelos, who is much venerated in a slightly secondary role. Then there are, of course, a number of people that we would refer to these days, and were referred to at the time, as Creoles. That is to say essentially Spaniards or people of Spanish extraction. If one wants to apply a racial descriptor, white people of elite status. Hidalgo’s second in command co-conspirator, who had maintained a very uneasy relationship with him because of the way military command was distributed and the political goal that were much debated within the movement’s leadership initially, was a man named Ignacio Allende. He was seconded by other military officers. These were people of elite background essentially, some of whom were major property owners who had much more limited political goals. So Allende was seconded by a man named Juan Aldama, and then through the course of the movement, which lasted 10 years, as you pointed out…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, right.

DR. VAN YOUNG: …there are other figures that emerge and, ironically enough, the person that actually consummates Mexican independence was also a Creole, also a wealthy background landowner named Agustín de Iturbide, who actually is a – fights on the Royalist side and rather brutally suppressed all the rebels, all the rebel movements that he could find, but changes his allegiance at the very end of the period and he’s the one who consummates Mexican independence and after a brief interim period, in 1822 and 1823, launches a monarchical experiment in Mexico itself and becomes the briefly lived Emporer Augstín I. So – And there are a number of other secondary figures who are quite interesting.

CAVANAUGH: Now, and you bring me up to the question Professor Engstrom (sic) alluded to earlier, and that is one of the major differences between the U.S. war of independence and the Mexican war of independence is that the Mexican struggle did not lead immediately to a democratic government. And actually Mexico had to wait about 100 years for that. Tell us about that, Professor Engstrom (sic).

DR. ENGSTRAND: Well, I wouldn’t say they had to wait 100 years but sort of almost.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DR. ENGSTRAND: And all during this early period and at the same time as you asked before, the American westward movement was very strong and the government of the United States, as people know, was very stable. We had a series of very competent presidents but from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Monroe, they were very interested in the west and so the – probably the major event that happens for Mexico, and unhappily for them, is the independence of Texas. And so most of the focus of their intention in the late 1820s and 1830s is when they – probably they think now mistakenly invited Americans to settle in Texas. And then the Americans began to outnumber the Mexicans and fought their way to independence and that’s where the Alamo comes in and that entire episode. And then the United States moves ahead eventually to annex Texas, which is another blow to Mexico. So this leads into the Mexican War, which eventually terminates in the loss of Mexican territory, approximately 50%.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DR. ENGSTRAND: So it was the United States in a very strong westward expansion position and Mexico still suffering under some difficulties with leadership.

CAVANAUGH: We have on the line with us right now a new guest. Raul Rodriguez is a transborder historian who is a professor of Mexican and Chicano Studies in Tijuana and at SDSU. And, Raul, welcome to These Days.

RAUL RODRIGUEZ (Professor of Mexican and Chicano Studies, San Diego State University): Good morning, Maureen, and I want to say good morning to my old professor from UCSD, Eric Van Young, and I do know who…

DR. VAN YOUNG: Hi, Raul.

RODRIGUEZ: Hi, Eric.

DR. VAN YOUNG: It’s nice to share the air with you.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, same here. And I also know Professor Engstrom (sic) from USD.

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. I’m glad we all know each other.

DR. ENGSTRAND: Right, it’s a small world.

CAVANAUGH: I would love to get your perspective, Professor Rodriguez, about Mexican independence as a border residence (sic) – as a – because you have your time sometimes in San Diego and sometimes in Tijuana. So how do you see the bicentennial and the celebrations and the attention that’s being given to Mexico, do you feel that that’s sort of adequate? Or would you like to see more people focusing on it?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, being born and raised on the border, on this side of the border…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

RODRIGUEZ: …in Mexico, I do consider that probably the most important civic, political, historic celebration is no doubt Mexico’s independence. Not so much the Mexican Revolution even though it is closer to us, about 100 years, but despite the fact that independence is 200 years, almost 40% of Mexicans considered it more important than the Mexican Revolution…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

RODRIGUEZ: …about 14% of Mexicans nationwide. And being raised on the border, there’s no doubt that the – probably the most important fundamental icon that would identify us as Mexican would be Mexico’s struggle against Spain, then the Mexican Revolution known as Cinco de Mayo. And I do recall as a child and adolescent that the civic celebration we looked more forward as a time for fiesta and a very joyous event is Mexico’s independence, not its revolution, not the Cinco de Mayo and not even mother states.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you think that…

RODRIGUEZ: So there’s no doubt…

CAVANAUGH: Why do you think that is?

RODRIGUEZ: I think probably, probably, this is just a hypothesis, is that with this so close to the U.S., something that tells us that you’re far from monolithic Mexico. I call monolithic Mexico this centralized, highly politicized, nationalistic view of our historical past. When you are right next to the most powerful nation, that you need something to solidify your identity as a Mexican. So I think that border residents, even though I’m somewhat Americanized or gringoized since I’ve had my formal education on both sides of the border, there is no doubt that Mexico’s independence does help solidify that identity as a Mexican, vis-à-vis American culture or influence. And as Baja, California – and I’m a resident of Baja, California for almost 61 years, I do have some ambivalent thoughts about it as far as being a part of Mexico, being forgotten by those powers that be in the center and how Baja, California, more than any other place, on its future northern border with the U.S., how it has been underestimated or almost forgotten. For example, Morelos start about giving away the Californias, Alta and Baja, for U.S. recognition, for…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

RODRIGUEZ: …support. Yes. And then you have Hidalgo, when he was captured fleeing to the north, I think he set a pattern that some Mexicans later on continued, which is to give recognition from the U.S. And we forget that, how being right next to the most powerful nation it has, in a way, determined the conditions, the internal events in Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our discussion about the Mexican Bicentennial and continue to take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.


CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the Mexican Bicentennial. My guests are Professor Eric Van Young, Professor Iris Engstrand, and on the phone, we have Professor Raul Rodriguez. And I wanted to let everyone know they can call in at 1-888-895-5727. Professor Van Young has something that he wants to say in response to what Professor Rodriguez was saying just a moment ago. And that is…?

DR. VAN YOUNG: Thanks, Maureen. Just a brief point. I think Raul has made a very good point that independence in Mexico may have acquired a certain heavier specific gravity than the celebration of the revolution because it’s necessary as a way to differentiate the identity of Mexico from its northern neighbor. There is another factor, I think, which is with the passage of time events tend to acquire a certain golden haze so the extra century there may have helped make independence more important. But also I think the outcomes of the revolution of 1910 are much more ambiguous. It does generate a civil war, which lasts for a good decade and while it has its iconic figures, Pancho Villa and Zapata and others less well known to American audiences but equally important in Mexican history, it is a more ambiguous, more chaotic situation, and the legacy of the revolution, I think, is still rather ambiguous in Mexico whereas independence, of course, is a fight of good guys against bad guys and it has a much clearer outcome so it’s easier to celebrate it.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Rodriguez, as you were saying, that because it establishes a national identity you think that the celebration of Mexican Independence Day is perhaps celebrated a little bit more in Baja, California than even in other parts of Mexico. I’m wondering how is it celebrated? Professor Rodriguez, are you there?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I’m here. No, I don’t think it’s quite that – that is, that we celebrate it with more enthusiasm than in central Mexico. No. No, my point is that of all the civic, historical celebrations, no doubt the independence is the one that we look more forward to.

CAVANAUGH: Got it. My question…

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah…

CAVANAUGH: …to you, sir, is…

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …how do you celebrate Mexican independence in…

RODRIGUEZ: Well, personally, how, well, there’s always the famous Fiestas Patrias where it starts today around ten o’clock up to the Cry de Grito at twelve o’clock. And I recall very, very vividly that my parents would take us but not that late because then the effervescence of the festivities would go over and spill with a lot of drinking and that sort of the patriotic spirit would die out. But Fiestas Patrias is where you have a parade before, usually the following day. It is, I think, celebrated with the same enthusiasm as in central Mexico. But this closeness to the U.S., again, I want to emphasize that even in a nationwide survey, 40% of Mexicans have no problem identifying Spain as the old mother country where you have almost 40% of Mexicans who do not know exactly which country had colonial rule over Mexico. But that’s not so much interesting but 20% of them identify the U.S. as the mother country of Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

RODRIGUEZ: And this is a national survey.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

RODRIGUEZ: And…

CAVANAUGH: That’s disturbing.

RODRIGUEZ: That’s quite disturbing. And I think what Professor Van Young said is quite right. As far as comparing the Mexican revolution and Mexico’s independence, there is no doubt about Mexico’s independence. It’s more obvious, it’s very visible. We severed ties with Spain. But on the other hand, the Mexican revolution, I think, is still somewhat debated, not as hotly, and the fruits of almost a million that passed away and all the destruction, there’s still some debate if it really was a revolution in the political…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

RODRIGUEZ: …semantic connotation.

CAVANAUGH: As we get down to our final minutes here, I would like to start talking a little bit about how exactly this bicentennial is going to be celebrated. And as you pointed out, Raul Rodriguez, it starts with a ceremony that happens every Mexican Independence Day called El Grito. And I’m wondering, Professor Van Young, what does the Mexican president do?

DR. VAN YOUNG: Well, the Mexican president wears his sash of office, comes out on the balcony of the National Palace, the Palacio Nationale, which is the official res – well, it’s actually not the official residence but it’s the official seat of national power of the executive in Mexico. It’s on the Zócalo, which, of course, is this great and actually world recognized central square. It’s a vast central square in the heart of Mexico City near which, interestingly enough, the old Aztec pyramids and the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had also its center. He comes out on the balcony I guess around midnight or something like that, wearing his presidential sash. There’s a vast assemblage of people in the Zócalo and he makes the Grito, you know, long live Mexico, long live liberty, etcetera. You know, as I was – as we were commenting during the break, of course, the actual text of the Grito is unknown. It was reported by contemporaries and has been kind of consolidated in an oral tradition and now has stabilized and I think from one Mexican president to another it’s quite – it’s quite consistent. But we don’t actually know what was said. In the bicentennial year, for obvious reasons, because human beings seem to have a fondness for decimal celebrations and 200 years is a big deal, there, of course, are larger national celebrations. There are illuminations all over Mexico City. There has been in this year a whole series of events, musical events and conferences and lectures and art exhibits and things like that going on not only in Mexico City but in provincial cities as well. There has been, I should add, some controversy in Mexico, where I travel frequently and have a great many professional colleagues, about the nature of the bicentennial celebrations. There is a national committee which is headed by a very prominent non-academic historian but the national committee over the last year and a half or two years, appointed by the president, has gone through a leadership change six times.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

DR. VAN YOUNG: It started out under the leadership of Pro-Tem Cardenas, whose name…

RODRIGUEZ: Umm-hmm.

DR. VAN YOUNG: …would be known to some of your listeners as the candidate for president who started to break the prijemni in Mexico but it’s changed so often and been rather diluted that the actual, from my perspective and this is a delicate matter, the actual kind of national reflection on the heritage of independence has somewhat been submerged in a certain amount of kind of fireworks and bright lights rather than actual thinking about what it means.

CAVANAUGH: I see. We have a caller on the line. Javier is calling us from Escondido. Good morning, Javier. Welcome to These Days.

JAVIER (Caller, Escondido): Good morning. Yeah, I just wanted to let you know that we’re celebrating the bicentennial and the revolution for November here at the Children’s Museum with an exhibit in partnership with the Mexican Consulate of San Diego and we have children’s artwork from around the world, from the different embassies and consulates on display, as well as interactive art activities and so we’re encouraging, welcoming families to come out and just to point out that some of the top artists from all the places around the world are – were here from San Diego. So that’s pretty exciting. And we’re just encouraging people to come out and see what children – how children have depicted those – the revolution and the independence.

CAVANAUGH: And where is this on display?

JAVIER: It’s at the Escondido Children’s Museum. And…

CAVANAUGH: And how long does it run?

JAVIER: It’ll be through November.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I thank you for calling in. Thanks very much for letting us know. I was – I know that he mentioned the Mexican Consulate and there’s something, that you wanted to tell us, going on at the Mexican Consulate, Professor Van Young.

DR. VAN YOUNG: Yes, on November 6th in Balboa Park at the Mingei Museum, there is what I would refer to as a popular academic conference. It’s open to the public. It’s free. There will be some very prominent historians, someone who’s well known to San Diegans as a historian of Mexico, my retired emeritus colleague from San Diego State, Paul Vanderwood, has been on this show a number of times, most recently talking about his book about Agua Caliente Resort will be there.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

DR. VAN YOUNG: I’ll be there. There will be several other people. There’s an extremely prominent Mexican historian named Enrique Florescano who will also be there. And we’ll all be giving short talks on independence and the revolution both. And as I say, it’s a relatively informal event. It’s open to the public and it’s free. That’s on November 6th at the Mingei Museum and anybody in the public who’s interested in it, I think can probably find it on the consulate’s website.

CAVANAUGH: And I know, Professor Engstrom (sic), you have an event coming up just this weekend.

DR. ENGSTRAND: Yes, on Saturday, September 18th, the San Diego History Center or the San Diego Historical Society, as it was previously known, is sponsoring a bus trip to the Tijuana Cultural Center where they have an exhibit on the independence and I think as – I’m glad that Javier called in. I think we should be doing more as far as I’m concerned in the various museums with some kind of a show on the Mexican heritage.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, Professor Rodriguez, I’d like to get your take. Do you think that there’s enough notice being taken about the fact that Mexico is celebrating its bicentennial?

RODRIGUEZ: I do agree with Professor Van Young that it has been a very controversial and contentious debate over the organization of this bicentennial compared with the centennial, which occurred 100 years ago, and the way we find Mexico now with this climate of insecurity and the economic doldrums, it has dampened the high-spirited attitude that we should expect but I think—and I say this in my classes on both sides of the border—when it comes to independence, I am sometimes very cynical about it. I think that we should reflect what it meant for Mexicans 100 and 200 years ago. What it was to start a new life with a new identity, stop being a colony and now a nation state. I think we would gain more by pondering on that fact and not succumb to cheap, commercialized or pedantic forms of civic spirit fomented by those in power.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

RODRIGUEZ: And I do invite the Mexicans and non-Mexicans to ponder on that fact, what it means to become independent, self-autonomous and to start a new life. I think we should concentrate more on that.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Engstrom (sic), when it comes to pondering things, there have been some tensions lately between the United States and Mexico and I’m wondering if you think that this might be an opportunity, contemplating the Mexican revolution, our shared colonial past, the U.S. and Mexico, might – we might be able to come to some sort of a new idea about the two nations in connection with each other.

DR. ENGSTRAND: Well, I think, and Eric will agree, I think it’s sad that 20% of Mexicans think that the United States is the mother country, which is really disturbing as historians but I think the Mexicans, the people of Mexican descent who live here, need to study more about their own history.

RODRIGUEZ: That’s right.

DR. ENGSTRAND: And I think they have very many…

RODRIGUEZ: That’s right.

DR. ENGSTRAND: …ideas that would be important for the Americans who live here to understand our heritage and our long association with Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I think we’re going to wrap it up there. I want to thank you all so much for speaking with us. Dr. Eric Van Young, thank you.

DR. VAN YOUNG: It was a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Iris Engstrand, thank you so much.

DR. ENGSTRAND: I’m always happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Professor Raul Rodriguez, thank you for calling in.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, thank you, and I want to say goodbye to Professor Eric Van Young and Iris Engstrand.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

DR. ENGSTRAND: Bye, Raul.

DR. VAN YOUNG: Bye, Raul.

RODRIGUEZ: Adios.

CAVANAUGH: That sounds great.

RODRIGUEZ: Bye-bye.

CAVANAUGH: You can – We have an events section at KPBS.org and you can keep up with all the related events surrounding the Mexican Bicentennial here in San Diego throughout the year. If you’d like to comment on anything that you’ve heard today, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days, and stay with us for hour two right here on KPBS.

We've upgraded to a better commenting experience!
Log in with your social profile or create a Disqus account.

Please stay on topic and be as concise as possible. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Community Discussion Rules. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus