The chance for change came during the aftermath of the French invasion of Spain in 1808, when Napoléon Bonaparte replaced King Ferdinand VII with his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Most peninsulares backed the king; most criollos, however, inspired by the example of the recent American and French revolutions, talked and dreamed of independence. One such group, urged on by a firebrand parish priest, acted.
“¡Viva México! Death to the gachupines!” Father Miguel Hidalgo, shouting his impassioned grito from the church balcony in the Guanajuato town of Dolores on September 16, 1810, ignited action. A mostly indígena, machete-wielding army of 20,000 coalesced around Hidalgo and his compatriots, Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama. Their ragtag force raged out of control through the Bajío, massacring hated gachupines and pillaging their homes.
Hidalgo advanced on Mexico City but, unnerved by stiff royalist resistance, retreated and regrouped around Guadalajara. His rebels, whose numbers had swollen to 80,000, were no match for a disciplined, 6,000-strong royalist force. On January 17, 1811, Hidalgo (now “Generalisimo”) fled north toward the United States but was soon apprehended, defrocked, and executed. His head and those of his comrades hung from the walls of the Guanajuato granary for 10 years in compensation for the slaughter of 138 gachupines by Hidalgo’s army.
Others carried on, however. A mestizo former student of Hidalgo, José María Morelos, led a revolutionary shadow government in the present states of Guerrero and Oaxaca for four years until he was apprehended and executed in December 1815.
Morelos’s compatriot, Vicente Guerrero, continued the fight, joining forces with criollo royalist Brigadier Agustín de Iturbide. Their Plan de Iguala promised “Three Guarantees’—the renowned Trigarantes: Independence, Catholicism, and Equality—which their army (commanded by Iturbide) would enforce. On September 21, 1821, Iturbide rode triumphantly into Mexico City at the head of his army of Trigarantes. Mexico was independent at last.
Independence, however, solved little except to expel the peninsulares. With an illiterate populace and no experience in self-government, Mexicans began a tragic 40-year love affair with a fantasy: the general on the white horse, the gold-braided hero who could save them from themselves.
Iturbide, crowned Emperor Agustín I by the bishop of Guadalajara on July 21, 1822, soon lost his charisma. In a pattern that became sadly predictable for generations of topsy-turvy Mexican politics, an ambitious garrison commander issued a pronunciamiento or declaration of rebellion against him; old revolutionary heroes endorsed a plan to install a republic. Iturbide, his braid tattered and brass tarnished, abdicated in February 1823.
Antonio López de Santa Anna, the eager 28-year-old military commander of Veracruz, whose pronunciamiento had pushed Iturbide from his white horse, maneuvered to gradually replace him. Meanwhile, throughout the late 1820s the government teetered on the edge of disaster as the presidency bounced between liberal and conservative hands six times in three years. During the last of these upheavals, Santa Anna jumped to prominence by defeating an abortive Spanish attempt at counterrevolution at Tampico in 1829. “The Victor of Tampico,” people called Santa Anna.
In 1833, the government was bankrupt; mobs demanded the ouster of conservative President Anastasio Bustamante, who had executed the rebellious old revolutionary hero Vicente Guerrero. Santa Anna issued a pronunciamiento against Bustamante; Congress obliged, elevating Santa Anna to “Liberator of the Republic” and naming him president in March 1833.
Santa Anna would pop in and out of the presidency like a jack-in-the-box 10 more times before 1855. First, he foolishly lost Texas to rebellious Anglo settlers in 1836; then he lost his leg (which was buried with full military honors) fighting the emperor of France.
Santa Anna’s greatest debacle, however, was to declare war on the United States with just 1,839 pesos in the treasury. With his forces poised to defend Mexico City against a relatively small 10,000-man American invasion force, Santa Anna inexplicably withdrew. United States Marines surged into the “Halls of Montezuma,” Chapultepec Castle, where Mexico’s six beloved Niños Héroes cadets fell in the losing cause on September 13, 1847.
In the subsequent treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost nearly half of its territory—the present states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado—to the United States. Mexicans have never forgotten; they have looked upon gringos with a combination of awe, envy, admiration, and disgust ever since.
For Santa Anna, however, enough was not enough. Called back as president for the last and 11th time in 1853, Santa Anna financed his final extravagances by selling off a part of southern New Mexico and Arizona for $10 million in what was known as the Gadsden Purchase.