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Early centuries
European invasion
Spanish empire
     New Spain
     Virgin of Guadalupe
     Expansion to the north
     Cry of Dolores
     Agustín de Iturbide

20th century

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New Spain: 1521-1539

From early in the colonial period Mexico is a cornerstone of the Spanish empire. Royal officials are sent out in 1523 to rule what Cortes has conquered, and the area is given in 1535 the status of a viceroyalty under the title New Spain. The viceroy controls not only Mexico but the entire Caribbean - though from as early as 1539 part of this large territory has some autonomy as the captaincy general of Guatemala.

Naturally the first royal officials are newcomers from Spain. But it will remain royal policy to send out a Spanish-born governing clique (who become much resented locally as peninsulares or gachupines) rather than allowing any real power to the colonial settlers.


Spanish settlement is first achieved on the semi-feudal basis of allotting encomiendas to conquistadors. At the same time friars arrive in large numbers to fulfil one of the main purposes (in contemporary eyes) of an otherwise brutal and grasping campaign of conquest. This more respectable purpose is to bring Christianity to the unenlightened inhabitants of America.

The thoroughness of the conversions, soon claimed by the friars in impressively large numbers, may be doubted. But missionaries such as Las Casas make great efforts to protect the Indians from their new masters. And at Guadalupe, as early as 1531, Mexico is blessed with a miracle which reconciles many to the religion being thrust upon them.


The Virgin of Guadalupe: 1531

A major difficulty for the friars, in attempting to convert the Indians, is that Jesus Christ is inevitably seen as the god of an alien race of white conquerors. This problem is neatly solved by a miracle.

Near Tenochtitlan (subsequently the site of Mexico City) there is a hill sacred to the goddess Tonantzin, who is believed by the Aztecs to be the virgin mother of several other gods. Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Christianity, is on this hill in 1531 when a beautiful Indian lady, dressed in rich clothes, appears to him in a vision. She speaks to him in his own language, Nahuatl. She tells him that she is the Mother of God and 'one of his kind'.


Juan Diego asks how he can prove that he has seen her. She tells him to gather the flowers from the hilltop in his cloak and to give the bundle to his bishop. When he does so, a miraculous image of the Virgin with Indian features is found to be imprinted on the fabric.

The Aztec virgin rapidly becomes the most popular saint in Mexico. Her image is even today Mexico's most sacred object - still supposedly on Juan Diego's cloak, and seen through the centuries above the altar in the succession of churches built at Guadalupe to house the famous icon.


Expansion to the north: 16th - 18th century

The desert regions to the north of Mexico are of little appeal to Spanish settlers in the 16th century, though the familiar rumours of cities paved with gold prompt treasure-seeking expeditions into New Mexico and parts of Texas in 1540 and again in 1598. No treasure is found, but interesting details are brought back of the Indians living in the region - particularly of the Pueblo in their multi-storied towns.

The religious orders in Mexico are naturally stimulated by the news of more Indian tribes awaiting the Christian truth. Friars move into New Mexico, which becomes essentially a mission frontier - though there is a Spanish administration based in Santa Fe from 1610.


By the mid-18th century New Mexico is a reasonably stable northern province of New Spain. At the same period there is very sparse Spanish settlement in Texas (partly in response to French penetration of the area from neighbouring Louisiana). And there is a sudden new interest in California, where again the pioneering efforts at settlement have been made by Roman Catholic missions.

In California, as in Texas, the impulse to settle the regions is largely in response to external pressures. The Spanish government, which maintains a claim to the entire Pacific coast of America, feels threatened by a new Russian interest in the area after the second voyage of Vitus Bering.


In the early 19th century, when the movement for independence is sweeping through Latin America, the region of New Spain is in many ways unlike other provinces. The social fabric of this long-standing Spanish viceroyalty is deeply conservative in its loyalty to crown and church.

This characteristic is significant in Mexico's eventual achievement of independence, in 1821. Yet the first step towards independence is more in keeping with the mood prevailing elsewhere. The famous 'cry of Dolores' in 1810 is brave and in the end unsuccessful. But it is undeniably a romantic gesture of revolution.


The cry of Dolores: 1810-1815

Napoleon's seizure of the Spanish throne in 1808 provokes many secret societies in Mexico - devoted either to the cause of the deposed Ferdinand VII or to full independence from Spain. One such society, in San Miguel near Dolores, is betrayed to the police. Some members are arrested, others flee. But one, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, has a different response.

Hidalgo is a parish priest in Dolores. On 16 September 1810 (celebrated now as Mexico's independence day) he rings the bell of his church to summon the parishioners. He then makes an inflammatory speech, proclaiming an end to Spanish rule, equality for Mexico's various races, and redistribution of land.


This passionate manifesto, which becomes known as the grito de Dolores (cry of Dolores), has immense appeal to the poor and underprivileged, whether they be mestizos or Indians. Hidalgo selects as his banner Mexico's most famous image, powerfully effective in this context. It is the Virgin of Guadalupe, an icon of the Virgin Mary with Indian features.

Vast excited crowds rally to this banner. They sweep through the towns between Dolores and Mexico City, arriving eventually at the gates of the capital itself. Here, mysteriously, Hidalgo pauses. The impetus is lost. His followers begin to drift away.


Hidalgo's remaining forces are defeated at the bridge of Calderón, near Guadalajara, in January 1811. Fleeing north, hoping to reach safety in the United States, the priest is captured, defrocked and tried. He is put before a firing squad in Chihuahua in July. But his cause survives for several more years under the leadership of his colleague José María Morelos y Pavón, also a priest.

Morelos is a more practical leader than Hidalgo. Victories at Oaxaca in 1812 and Acapulco in 1813 give him control of most of southern Mexico. In 1813 he summons a congress at Chilpancingo. In November the congress declares Mexican independence.


In the following year, 1814, the Spanish position is strengthened when Ferdinand VII is restored to his throne and reinforcements can be sent out to Spanish America. Morelos is captured in October 1815. Like Hidalgo, he is defrocked and is shot as a rebel.

For the next five years the independence movement is checked in Mexico. When it revives, in 1820, Mexico is once again out of step with the rest of Spanish America. Elsewhere liberal sentiments have encouraged rebellion against Spain. In Mexico the precise opposite happens. Fear of liberalism provides the impulse which finally brings Mexican independence.


Agustín de Iturbide: 1820-1824

In 1820 a coup in Spain against the reactionary Ferdinand VII forces him to bring in a liberal government (see Liberal and conservative). It is this development, profoundly unwelcome to Catholic and conservative circles in Mexico, which results in the sudden break with Spain.

The agent of change is a Creole officer in the Spanish army, Agustín de Iturbide, who has won his reputation by his severity and violence against the independence movements of Hidalgo and Morelos. He now abruptly changes sides, finding a formula which unites nearly all Mexicans behind him. His policy, published at Iguala in February 1821, has three distinct strands.


In his Plan of Iguala, Iturbide proclaims immediate independence from Spain, promises equality for Creoles and peninsulares in the new Mexico, and declares a ban on all religions or sects other than Roman Catholicism. With this programme Iturbide is able to lead a force, known as the Army of the Three Guarantees, which rapidly wins control over the whole of Mexico.

A newly arrived viceroy, sent out by the liberal government in Spain, signs on 24 August 1821 the treaty of Cordóba recognizing the independence of Mexico (a concession subsequently but ineffectually denied by the Spanish crown).


With this much so rapidly achieved, the recent alliance between the many factions of Mexico soon crumbles. Iturbide makes use of the prevailing chaos to declare himself emperor of the new nation, as Agustín I, in May 1822. The notion of a republic was never part of his programme (his stated intention was to offer the crown to some European prince).

In the event the self-appointed emperor proves an incompetent ruler and loses the support of his army. He abdicates, in March 1823, and goes to Europe. His turbulent story ends when he returns in 1824, unaware that he has been condemned to death in his absence. He is captured and executed. But whatever the upheavals and uncertainties, Mexico is now undeniably independent.


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