September 17, 2010

Los Insurgentes: "A Little Body of Unconquered Men."

"Even in the darkest days of the long revolution, (Guerrero) was the leader of a little body of unconquered men, who kept alive the cause of independence."

Vicente Guerrero had only just turned 18, when he left home to fight for Morelos. He had been learning his craft, as a gunsmith, in his native Tixtla, but he carried only a sword. Like many flocking to the cause, he came from humble beginnings. This, ultimately, was to be his true tragedy.

Vicente Guerrero
Vicente Guerrero

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña was born, on August 10th, 1782, as the son of Juan Pedro Guerrero and María de Guadalupe Saldaña. His father was a mule driver. They were not rich, living in Tixtla's poorest quarter of Tlaltelulco. None of the children had any formal education at all. Vicente had spent most of his childhood helping his father on the drover trails. For Juan, getting his son into the gunsmithing trade had been a huge coup for his family. It had involved seeking the patronage of distant cousins, who had made their own money in the cannon and gun trade of southern Mexico. Their agreement, to take on their improverised relative, helped enormously in other ways.

In the strict social hierarchy of 18th century Mexico, Juan's family were registered in the Criollo (aka creole) class. These were people with pure or mostly Spanish blood, who were disdained by the Peninsulare elite (people born in Spain, but living in Mexico). However, the Criollos out-ranked everyone else: the indigenious people; those of mixed blood; the peasants; and the slaves. No-one with even a drop of African blood could count as a Criollo, even if the rest of their veins coursed with pure Españoles.

This was a problem. María de Guadalupe Saldaña was mostly African, with a strain of indigenious Mexican Indian blood. Before her marriage, she had been categorised as a Negro and was subject to all of the heavy restrictions that that entailed. For a start, she was forbidden, by law, to even wear jewellry nor fine linen. That would have been ornamentation beyond her station. Not that the family could afford such luxuries. Her husband may have had enough Spanish blood to be considered a Criollo, but Maria's status condemned her children, and Juan by association, to the lowest class of all.

As the rich, landowning Guerrero relatives intervened, bribes were paid, registrars tipped off and papers signed. Juan and Maria breathed a sigh of relief. Their boy was legally Criollo and enlisted in a trade that would see him rise above his beginnings. They had done their absolute best for him and it had worked better than they could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Then Morelos brought his army into nearby Acapulco and laid siege to the San Diego fort. It was November, 1810, and, as his horrified parents looked on, Vicente threw it all away.

Tixtla, looking towards Acapulco

Guerrero was placed into Hermenegildo Galeana's regiment, fighting alongside Nicolás Bravo. He distinguished himself well in battle and was quickly promoted to the rank of captain. Now under Morelos's direct orders, he was placed at the helm of a band of men. Armed almost solely with clubs, they nevertheless achieved considerable victories against the Realistas (Spanish army in Mexico). In a series of sortees in south Mexico, Guerrero's peasant class army managed to take 400 prisoners, from a Realista army that had only numbered 700 in the first place. He was also to seize a large consignment of weapons.

The humble boy from Tixtla had so impressed Morelos that, in November 1812, Guerrero was elevated to the rank of lieutenant colonel. When Morelos was shot, in 1815, that left Guerrero as the most senior officer still standing.

This was the insurgency's darkest hour. Three years of defeats had already knocked the wind out of the rebellion. Many of those who had left their fields to take up arms, now crept back to renew their lives. The Spanish were winning. Morelos was dead. Hidalgo's resounding battle cries now rang as hollow memory, in the defeated dreams of the populance. For a bitter majority, the war was over and they had lost. They had no option but to take up the viceroy's offer of a pardon, to all who surrendered. It was against such mass despair that Guerrero stood. But he refused to go home.

Vicente Guerrero
Vicente Guerrero

For the next six years, Guerrero led his tiny army through South Mexico. They were not large enough for those great, grandstanding battles that had marked the campaigns of Hidalgo and Morelos. But they could still take cities and towns, in the name of the rebellion. They managed to hold the entire of the region, now known as the state of Guerrero, until independence was won. They scored addition victories in taking Ajuchitán, Santa Fe, Tetela del Río, Huetamo, Tlalchapa and Cuautlotitlán. In time, the army's ranks swelled from 100 to over 1,000.

The stories are legion. The odds were stacked against them. Guerrero's bravery was often reckless. It sometimes bordered upon the suicidal. Like the time when the way forward was a river, peppered with Spanish bullets. Guerrero threw his sword to the opposite bank and, screaming out, "I follow my sword!" He plunged into the water. Gunfire blazed and the river became a death-trap of shrapnel. But none of them hit him. He made the bank and whipped up his sword. It was like he had divine protection! The army followed and the town was taken.

Vicente Guerrero

In 1819 came one of the most poignant scenes of the whole insurrection. Guerrero was a thorn in the side of the Spanish, who had nearly succeeded in stamping out the rebellion for good. Viceroy Apodaca called in Juan Pedro Guerrero and made him an offer. If he could persuade his son to surrender, then Vicente would be pardoned and allowed home. Moreover, the viceroy would personally bestow upon the old man a plot of land, and the finances to maintain it. The family would be rich. They'd soar in hierarchy of their people. They would be made. All he had to do was make his son stop.

It must have broken Vicente's heart to look into his father's eyes. The old man had sought him out in the mountains, where the rebel army were concealed from the Realistas. There was the poverty of his childhood, represented in the lines of his father's face. All of the struggles and doing without, that had allowed his parents to put food into the bellies of their children. The humiliation of having to ask distant relatives for charity, to give their son a trade. It could be over; and his father wanted it to be over. It was either that or a hopeless cause, where the end was almost inevitably going to be the firing squad.

Guerrero's men were watching him. His defection would probably be their defection too. His was the reckless spirit, which kept them going. Guerrero hesitated for a long time before answering. When he did, he addressed the small army, "Compañeros, this old man is my father. He has come to offer me rewards in the name of the Spaniards. I have always respected my father, but my country comes first." Juan broke down into tears. He knelt in the dust and wrapped his arms around his son's legs. In front of them all, he begged. It had been a heart-wrenching decision, but Vicente stuck with it. "My motherland is first."

Agustín de Iturbide
Agustín de Iturbide

A year later, the viceroy sent a renewed force, under the command of the charismatic Agustín de Iturbide, to deal with Guerrero. Over the next two months, Guerrero's guerillas were victories in a number of small squirmishes. They knew the terrain too well and Iturbide was more sorted to leading in open battlefields. However, another way of looking at this was that Iturbide wasn't trying very hard. The Realista general had his own rebellious sympathies and, for months, had been initiating a whispering campaign amongst his own troops. Bribes oiled some palms; promises, politics and passion stirred the sentiments of others. He was ready to swop sides and take his considerable army with him.

On January 10, 1821, Iturbide sent a letter to Guerrero. It proposed that they join forces to take the country. It outlined three guarantees that Iturbide was prepared to honor: Mexican independence from Spain; the abolition of the caste system, creating equality for all Mexicans; and Roman Catholicism as the official state religion. It was a suspicious development, but Guerrero had no doubt that the offer was genuine. The intelligence seeping through, from Mexico City, told its own story. However, a question mark hung over Iturbide's motivation. The general was an ambitious man.

Just under five years previously, the viceroy had embarrassed Iturbide, accusing him of siphoning off Realista funds and profiteering from the war. Iturbide had been relieved of his post. It had taken a year, and the services of an auditor, to regain his position. The viceroy had eventually withdrawn the charges and reinstated Iturbide, but the slur to his character remained. It rankled with the proud general.

Without the rebellion going on, Iturbide might have staged a military coup anyway. But with the rebellion, and, more to the point, with Guerrero on side, Iturbide could just win the hearts and minds of the people too. Guerrero was popular. His support would ensure a smooth transition of governments; and if the price was Mexican independence, then that suited Iturbide too. He came from a high-ranking and wealthy Criollo family, landowners of a Vallodolid hacienda. His father, Joaquín de Iturbide, was descended from Basque nobility. Agustín de Iturbide was willing to become Mexico's first Emperor.

Emperor Agustín I

Guerrero conidered it. Many believed that, if Mexican independence was to happen, then its first leader should be the man who'd kept the flame alive during those hopeless years. But Guerrero looked in a mirror and saw his African ancestry staring back. He knew that the elite in society would rail at that. These were the people with the funds and connections to start a brand new rebellion, after independence was secured. The mass of the lower classes would be right behind him, but whom did that serve?

Guerrero was not a politician. The letter, which had prompted these deliberations, had had to be read to him, because Guerrero was not formally educated. He couldn't read. He could speak a dozen languages, all of the dialects of the indigenious Indians and Mexicans, whom he'd encountered on the drover trails and in the military. But he was not a stateman. He didn't know the etiquette and old school tie intrigues, that would swarm around a man on the international stage. His people would be ill served by his fumbling the opportunity. They would be better off with Iturbide presenting policies that Guerrero could negotiate in the background.

GuerreroIturbide's motivation might be suspect, but Guerrero saw the rebellion's best chance here. Not only for independence from Spain, but for its continuation as a valid country in its own right. A future without civil war. Once which could have its constitution forged in the human and civil rights manifesto of the whole insurgency. One where all of its people, not just the elite, could have personal opportunities; education; job prospects; freedom from crippling servitude and tributes, which kept those at the bottom in absolute poverty.

Iturbide could take the country; Guerrero could keep it peaceful. Iturbide would be acceptable to the higher classes; Guerrero could render him acceptable to the lower classes. With so many personal sacrifices behind him, Guerrero let the greatest prize of all slip from his fingers. In a series of meetings with Iturbide, Guerrero agreed to not challenge him for the position of leader. He would be the second in command.

Plan de IgualaGuerrero also knew where Guadalupe Victoria was hiding. He'd been in contact with him throughout the man's public disappearance. Guerrero called Victoria in now and secured his support for the proposal. On February 21, 1821, a proclaimation of independence was made. The Plan de Iguala set out the three guarantees that would accompany independence. The merged armies of Iturbide and Guerrero stood behind it. It was common knowledge that they were making preparations to march upon Mexico City.

When the end came, it was a bloodless coup. Juan O'Donojú had only recently been installed as viceroy, having arrived in Veracruz on July 21, 1821. But he read the situation well. He knew that the Spanish were going to be defeated. The combination of Iturbide and Guerrero meant that practically the entire country was behind them. The viceroy could't even leave Veracruz. It wasn't safe. Six weeks after setting foot in the country, O'Donojú issued a counter proclaimation. He was prepared to meet with the leaders and to put into law some of their demands.

In September, 1821, While Guerraro and Bravo dealt with the isolated pockets of Realista defense, Iturbide met with the viceroy and discussed terms of surrender. O'Donojú acknowledged that Mexican independence was inevitable, but used all of his political acrumen to ensure as little bloodshed as possible, in the withdrawal of the Spanish.

By the 22nd, all Realistas had left Mexico City. On September 24th, 1821, the insurgents, headed by Iturbide, Guerraro and Victoria, entered it. Three days later, Viceroy O'Donojú signed the Act of Independence. Mexico was now a free country.

Liberating Mexico

Where to Visit:

* Tixtla de Guerrero, Guerrero. Originally called simply Tixtla, this town is the birthplace of Vicente Guerrero. Both the 'de Guerrero' and the state are named in honor of him. The house in which he was born still stands, in the suburb of San Isidro (originally Tlaltelulco). There is a monument, outside the house, and a plaque on the wall. The site also includes a memorial garden. The town itself contains a statue of Vicente Guerrero.

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