September 10, 2010

Los Insurgentes: The Poets, Publicists and Spies

It began as a love story. Leona met Andrés, at her uncle's law firm, where he was working as a lawyer. The two became instantly besotted with each other. He asked her to marry him and she immediately said 'yes!' But there was a problem. Her uncle forbade the union outright. As a staunch royalist, he could not permit his beloved niece to marry Andrés Quintana Roo. The man was an insurgent!

Leona VicarioLeona Vicario was a wealthy woman. She had been born, in Mexico City, on April 10th, 1789, as an heiress to a Creole fortune. Her full name was Maria de la Soledad Camila Leona Vicario Fernandez de San Salvador and Montiel de Quintana Roo, which possibly explains why she introduced herself as merely Leona Vicario.

She had been orphaned at a young age, hence the fact that she was now living under the guardianship of her uncle, Agustín Pomposo Fernández de San Salvador.

She had been 21 years old, when news spread of the insurgency swarming into their direction. Though secretly sympathetic to the course, she wasn't actively involved in it. She was too busy flirting with Andrés, a man who wrote such beautiful poetry.

Andrés Quintana Roo, on the other hand, already had a bit of a history of subversive action. Andrés Quintana RooHe was born Eligio Andrés Quintana Roo, on November 30th, 1787, in Mérida, Yucatán, as the son of José and Maria Ana Matías Quintana Roo.

José had established the first printing press in on the Yucatán Peninsula; and he'd already caught the eye of the authorities with publications that bordered upon insubordination.

(It should be noted that there was no Mexican state of Quintana Roo (pron. keen-TAH-nah ROH-oh) at this point. It's a common error to see his name rendered as Andrés de Quintana Roo. There was no 'de' about it. The state was named after Andrés, not the other way around. He came from Yucatán; Quintana Roo is the state underneath that.)

In 1802, at the age of 15, Andrés Quintana Roo had joined the Sanjuanistas, being taken there by his father, José. This was a group of Mexican Creole political thinkers, who met at San Juan Church, in Mérida. It was led by Padre Vicente María Velásquez, a priest who had an especial interest in the plight of Indians and indigenious Maya workers. These people tended to be kept on starvation wages, working long hours in the fields and plantations of Spanish overlords. The group discussed freedom of the press, education for all (including the 'peasant' classes), universal suffrage and other such radical ideas of the time. They also condemned the privileges of the Spanish, over the native people.

José Matías Quintana Roo was later to be arrested and sentenced to incarceration at the notorious San Juan de Ulua island prison, off the coast of Veracruz. His publications, fuelled with the ideas of the Sanjuanistas, had finally proved too much for the Spanish governors to stomach.

Real y Pontificia Universidad de Nueva España
The Royal and Pontifical University of New Spain

Meanwhile, his son, Andrés, was well away. At the age of 21, Andrés had moved to Mexico City to complete his education. He had gained his primary qualifications at the Seminario de San Idelfonso de Mérida (San Idelfonso Seminary, in Mérida), but, in order to be a fully practicing lawyer, he needed to enter Real y Pontificia Universidad de Nueva España (The Royal and Pontifical University of New Spain). Thus it was that, two years later and close to his 23rd birthday, he was still in the capital city, hearing from his boss that he was not going to be allowed to marry Agustín's niece.

The couple were stunned. With his father in prison and Hidalgo's army on the march, the injustices sparking the cause had now crashed straight into Andrés's personal life. He gave in his notice. He left the building. He rode straight out to meet the Army of the Insurgents and he joined it.

Leona Vicario was no less incensed. She was 21 years old and, as far as she was concerned, her uncle had no right to interfere in her marriage plans like this. Until now, she had kept out of the insurrection. She had played the society woman and she'd been a good girl. No more. Leona also packed her bags. She moved to Tacuba, which is now part of the Miguel Hidalgo borough, in the north-west of Mexico City, but then was a town slightly apart. Then she got active.

Leona Vicario

For a start, Leona Vicario found like-minded women and organized them. They acted as spies and couriers for the rebels. She financed them from her own fortune. It is believed that, by the end of the War of Independence, Leona had personally contributed over $80,000 pesos to the cause. (In today's money, that would be the equivalent of roughly $1,330,000 pesos.)

They aligned themselves with the Guadalupes, a clear signal that they supported the Virgin of Guadalupe. This was highly significant at the time, especially in Mexico City. It was also the reason that Hidalgo was using the Virgin of Guadalupe in his speeches, slogans and flags. While now, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a common icon throughout Mexico, back in 1810, it was used only by the caste Indians and indigenious people. Not by people of Leona's class.


Virgin of Los Remedios
The Virgin of Guadalupe (left) and
the Virgin of Los Romedios (above)


Virgin of Guadalupe


The Virgin of Guadalupe is a depiction of Mary, Mother of Christ, but as a brunette with a darker complexion. As a wealthy Creole, of Spanish descent, Leona should have been casting her lot with the Virgin of Los Remedios. This was Mary, Mother of Christ, looking altogether richer, with paler skin and much lighter brown hair. This is Mary as the Queen of Heaven; while the Virgin of Guadalupe was Mary as a humble woman. She wore a cloak spun from agave (the plant which is also the main ingredient in tequila). She had symbols around her that dated back from Atzec goddesses.

Leona's faction of the Mexico City Guadalupes were all women of high status and even better connections. They were able to use their society lifestyle to gain information from the Realista officer class and those close to the viceroy. They were able easily form a network of informants that passed this information onto the leaders of the insurgency. After the battle of Monte de las Cruces, when it seemed that Hidalgo's Army of the Americas was about to storm Mexico City itself, the ranks of the Guadalupes swelled. Many of the ladies were now quite open about their involvement. They thought that Mexican independence was just around the corner.

But then Hidalgo ordered the retreat and, within months, he and the other leaders had been arrested and executed. Many letters, signed by El Guadalupes, were found upon them, giving important (and hitherto classified) information. The authorities had to act and so began a program of search and arrest within the city itself. Many of the more indiscreet ladies were captured. Within their respective camps, Leona and Andrés both escaped detection. But they weren't finished with the independence movement yet.

Andrés was on the run. He moved from city to city, using his publishing knowledge to create two newspapers: 'Semanario Patriótico Americano' (American Patriot Weekly) and 'Ilustrador Americano' (American Illustrator). Both received wide circulation, promoting Mexican independence and all of the insurgent groups. It got the news out there, as well as inspiring people to join them. The viceroy's office wanted greatly to close them down.

Ilustrador Americano


Leona continued her intelligence work. Hidalgo and his people may be down, but others were rising into prominence. She found out who they were and she ensured that they were now in possession of her information and funds. She also received messages back, explaining what was needed on the front line. Chief amongst them was armaments. Leona took it upon herself to persuade the gunsmiths of Nueva Vizcaya (modern-day Chihuahua, Durango, Texas and New Mexico) to join the rebel's cause. This was a step too far and she was betrayed by one of them.

Leona was arrested on January 13th, 1813. She absolutely refused to name her colleagues nor anyone in her network of contacts. If she had been a man, she would probably have been sent to prison or executed. But she was a lady of breeding and therefore that would not have been appropriate. Instead, she was sent to a convent. El Convento de Belén de las Mochas (the covent of Bethlehem, in the Mochas) was still within Mexico City. She was only there for four months, before three insurgents, disguised as Realistas, visited her under the pretext of further questioning. Colonels Antonio Vázquez Aldarna and Luis Alconedo (and a third man) soon spirited her out of the gates to freedom.

José María Morelos
José María Morelos


She was taken to Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, where she met up with José María Morelos. Morelos was the bright star of the current insurgency hopes, but life with his army wasn't easy. Used to the finery of salons, Leona was now on the road. She was seeing first-hand what the battlefields were like, as she camped with them and supported them as best she could. In response, her own property and goods, in Mexico City, were confiscated by the viceroy.

The army arrived in Michoacán state, where many insurgent groups were congregating.tlalpujahua They were seeking to create an government and a declaration of independence was already being drafted.

Up in the hillsides, hidden deep within the hundreds of mine shafts, the López Rayón brothers had been smithing guns and other armaments for the insurgents, until just a month before. That was when the Realistas had overwhelmed El Gallo hill and forcing them to evacuate.

Many of Leona's letters, or whispered communications, had ended up in Michoacán. But they was not the only things belonging to her here. In the municapality of Tlalpujahua, she was reunited with Andrés Quintana Roo. There was no uncle between them now and they were married without delay.

In September, 1913, José María Morelos read out the Sentimientos de la Nación (Feelings of the Nation), at the Congress of Chilpancingo. This was their Declaration of Independence and it named Andrés as the governor of Puebla. This, however, was a government still in hiding. Though that didn't stop them passing a series of laws, with Andrés as a senior congressman, presiding over many of the committees. The couple were forced to move frequently, still publishing newspapers and doing their best to support the cause in whatever way possible.

In 1818, their daughter, Genoveva, was born. This caused them to stay too long in one place, while Leona was heavily pregnant and then gave birth. Their location was discovered by the Realistas and the whole family was arrested. After a short period in prison, the family were offered a pardon, on condition that they were exiled to Spain. They accepted it and left the country. They were doing no good in prison and they had a baby.

However, they were soon back. Mexico had finally achieved independence, in 1821, and Andrés took his seat as part of an official government. The couple were given the Ocotepec Hacienda, in the plains of Apam, as compension for their financial and property losses during the struggle. They resumed their positions at the top of Mexico City's society. Leona died there, in 1842, and Andrés, in 1851, both peacefully.

Andrés Quintana Roo
Andrés Quintana Roo


Where to Visit:


* San Juan Church, Mérida. This is the place where the Sanjuanistas met, consolidating and enflaming Quintana Roo's passion for the insurgency.

* San Juan de Ulua, Veracruz. The fort, which has been alternatively used as a fort, prison and the seat of government, is now a museum owned by the Mexican Navy. This is the place where José Matías Quintana Roo was imprisoned for subversive publications.

* Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca. This is the city where Leona met José María Morelos. The city is a UNESCO Cultural Site.

* Tlalpujahua, Michoacán. This is the city where the couple were reunited and married.

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