If you ever get the chance to go to Mexico, choose San Miguel de Allende for the “Fiestas Patrias” or Mexican Independence, September 15th and September 16th. It is a chance to feel the excitement of history played out as you will see it nowhere else.
San Miguel is a typical, quaint Mexican town where a magnificent pink spired Cathedral looks across a shady tree-lined plaza at the 300 hundred-year-old stone-carved Presidential Palace. The town is built into the mountains of northwestern Mexico. Each narrow cobble-stoned street winds in and out, and up and down, among brilliant ochre and orange facades. Each home, built tight against its neighbors, looks out onto the street through an elegantly carved stone archway. If you peek in, you will see a hidden garden patio built around a sparkling, splashing Moorish fountain.
The small village was founded in 1542 around a natural spring by a Franciscan priest, long before the United States was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. The town, however, really came into its own two hundred years later during the 1750s. King Carlos III, through his Bourbon Reforms, improved and modernized silver-mining methods, tremendously increasing the output of the mines.
San Miguel el Grande became the entrepot where hundreds of mule-trains gathered to carry rivers of silver and gold from the surrounding mountains down to Queretaro and onward to Mexico City and eventually Spain itself. Everyone grew rich. It showed in the magnificent carved stone palaces they built both in San Miguel and in Mexico City.
With the Bourbon Reforms came the radical ideas of the European Enlightenment. Suddenly, the intelligentsia were discussing the concepts of equality, liberty and the rights of man. The new philosophies spread slowly into the Americas, especially into the British Colonies. Hard as Spain tried to keep these scandalous thoughts out of their colonies, the impact of the American Revolution in the middle of the 1700s inspired the Liberal Creoles, their mixed-blood Mestizo brethren and especially the native peasants to dream of independence from Spain.
San Miguel el Grande became a hotbed of intellectual ferment. Ignacio Allende, a Captain in the Spanish Army, was one of these conspiratorial Creoles from San Miguel. A creole, for both Latin America and French Louisiana, was a person of European blood but contaminated by being born in the New World. In the eyes of the Spanish he may have had Spanish blood, but he was a second-class citizen. It was these Creoles who led the fight for Mexican independence, and it is in San Miguel el Grande where the fight for liberty is reenacted every year.
We had driven to nearby Dolores (named for Our Lady of Sorrows) on September 15th to view the festivities. In 1810, our Captain Allende and others had conspired with Father Hidalgo, the parish priest from Dolores, to separate from Spain. Their plan was to start their revolt in December. Learning from Allende that the conspirators had been betrayed and were about to be captured and executed by the Spanish, Father Hidalgo started the Mexican “Grito” or shout for independence at midnight on September 15th in Dolores. He rang the church bells to call the peasants to war.
That action is reenacted all over Mexico on the night of September 15th, but never more so than in Dolores where it all began. Our little town of San Miguel celebrates being the first town to be liberated by Father Hidalgo, producing a massive reenactment of the move for independence. The entire town was draped and decorated in green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag.
Glittering bunting, satin ribbons and sparkling lettering covered every window, doorway and rooftop. Families and visitors crammed the streets where mariachis played, and vendors sold anything with the Mexican colors. Flags, key chains, pendants, noisemakers, cups, plates. We particularly liked the wild shaggy green, red and white wigs or long flowing tresses of green, white and red with matching inch-long eye lashes. Of course, we had to buy one of each and join the shouting crowds. By midnight, as the bells ring, giant firework towers called “Castillos” explode into whirling, spinning, sparking, crackling firecrackers.
On the way to and from Dolores, we noticed groups of runners, from as few as five or six to several dozen, young and old, from all over Mexico and Central America. Carrying lit torches, they run to San Miguel each year on September 15th, accompanied by ambulances, trucks and support staff. There they gather at the church for a midnight mass and to relight the torch of liberty.
Back in San Miguel, the next day, reenactors portrayed Captain Allende and Father Hidalgo as they storm into town. Two hundred men, some in the uniform of the Spanish Queen, others in 19th century frocks, come thundering up the cobble-stone streets on horses, their hooves striking sparks, shouting “Viva Mexico,” “Viva Allende,” “Viva el Padre Hidalgo.”
Behind them come hundreds of peasants who made up the army. They wear their typical white cotton manta pants and shirts with straw hats. On their backs, they carry rolled up “petates” or straw mats as bed rolls. The women, in long skirts and sandals, carry small sacks of corn and food, along with their children wrapped in rebozos, to support their men. Their only armament were machetes and pitchforks, and the torches they carried at the front of their units.
At the plaza, they reenact the capture of the Spanish government officials, receive the blessings of Father Hidalgo and the church and then the horses go thundering out of town. Thousands of families cheer and scream themselves hoarse, as we did, before repairing to the local restaurants.
There we celebrated with lunches of Chile En Nogada. This is a typical local dish of stuffed green chiles, dipped and fried in batter and covered in a white sauce and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds, to honor the green, white and red of the Mexican flag.
Don’t miss Mexican independence in San Miguel. now San Miguel de Allende, renamed for the hero of the independence, as little Dolores is now Dolores Hidalgo.