Caste and Politics in the Struggle for Mexican Independence

University of Texas at Arlington, Wikimedia Commons

To understand the struggle for Mexican independence, it’s necessary to explore both the wider, international context and the internal, social conditions of New Spain.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 08.29.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


Scholars writing the history of Mexican independence might begin with two straightforward dates: On September 16, 1810, peasants across the countryside responded to Father Miguel Hidalgo’s call to rebellion and took up arms against the Spanish. Eleven years later, Spain agreed to recognize Mexico as an independent country. But it would be a mistake to assume a simple cause-and-effect relationship between these two events. Mexico’s struggle for independence presents historians with a number of complications that resist straightforward narrative.

To begin, the early leaders of the insurrection—Hidalgo and his lieutenants—were all defeated within the first five years. The struggle continued as a guerrilla war after 1815, but lacked a clear political agenda and could not overcome the smaller, but better-equipped, Spanish army. In 1821 the Spanish appointed the conservative, Mexican-born commander, Augustin de Iturbide to lead a final campaign against the rebels. To the surprise of the Spanish, Iturbide switched sides. He persuaded the remaining rebel leaders as well as other royalists to join him and Spain suddenly found itself without an army. Spain negotiated with Iturbide and agreed to Mexico’s independence, but on terms that met few of the demands of the original leaders or the people who had carried out the fighting for over a decade.

To understand this series of events, it’s necessary to explore both the wider, international context for Mexican independence and the internal, social conditions of New Spain. Independence movements in Mexico and throughout South America were, in part, sparked by turmoil in Spain itself. In 1808 Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula, forced the king of Spain to abdicate the throne, and installed his brother as ruler. As a result, the government of Spain became illegitimate in the eyes of its own citizens. The people of Spain rose up against the French invaders to defend their king, country, and the Catholic Church, and took government into their own hands by forming governing councils, or juntas. This upheaval within Spain not only encouraged stronger local governments throughout the empire, it also created an opportunity for people in the Spanish colonies to advance the cause of independence.

Spain had established the colony of New Spain, with Mexico City as its capital, after conquering the Aztec Empire in 1521. At its height in the late eighteenth century, New Spain stretched from present-day western Canada south through North America, west of the Mississippi and including the Caribbean, to the northern tip of South America. (Spain’s South American territories were administered under the separate Viceroyalty of Peru.)

Spain maintained control of its colonies by imposing two distinct legal systems: one that pertained to Europeans (the república de españoles) and one for native peoples (the república de indios). In practice, racial mixing produced a much more complicated social reality. As a result, social status in colonial Mexico was the result of a caste system, or permeable social hierarchy based on differences in wealth, inherited rank, culture, and skin color. European-born Spaniards received the greatest social privileges and legal protections. The next tier included criollos, also known as creoles (Mexican-born people of Spanish descent who were considered white). Below them were people of mixed European and Indian ancestry, known as mestizos, and indigenous people (Indians of many different cultures and languages). Finally, there were people of African descent, many of whom shared some European or Indian ancestry, and were referred to as mulattoes or grouped with mestizos. Indians and Afro-Mexicans were subject to severe discrimination and segregation and about 10 percent of Afro-Mexicans were slaves.

Individuals from all of these groups—except the European-born Spaniards—participated in the insurrection. But, as historian Virginia Guedea argues, they held different goals. Criollosympathizers lived primarily in the cities and focused on the issue of political autonomy from Spain. They “sought to create more opportunities for Americans to govern themselves.” The people who filled the ranks of fighters were rural peasants and workers, largely Indian and Afro-Mexican, whose main concern was “access to land and improved working conditions,” including ending slavery and the caste system. The rebels’ demands to change social conditions within Mexico alienated many criollos from the independence cause. Many criollos were unwilling to risk losing their property or privileges, and feared for their personal safety.

From the beginning, the war involved extraordinary acts of violence on both sides and this violence often gave the conflict more the appearance of a caste war or civil war than a war for independence. For example, the peasants who accompanied Hidalgo in the first days of the uprising slaughtered whole groups of Spanish nobles, including women and children. Spanish troops, in turn, committed violence not only against rebel fighters, but also against villages suspected of supporting the insurrection. After capturing and executing Hidalgo in July 1811, the Spanish displayed his severed head on a post for the remaining 10 years of the war.

By 1820 people throughout New Spain were exhausted by the violence. Resistance to Spanish rule was collapsing. However, the Spanish Empire was also in fragments. The Spanish king, Fernando VII, had been restored to power, but even so, between 1810 and 1821, much of Latin America had become independent. In 1820 Fernando VII temporarily implemented a more liberal constitution, extending political and property rights to more people, including Indians, throughout the empire. Ironically, it was this liberalization of Spanish government that prompted Iturbide, a conservative royalist, to change sides and fight for independence. The treaty that he negotiated with Spain, known as the Plan of Iguala, called for a constitutional monarchy in Mexico with a European ruler; equal rights for criollos and Spaniards (but not other groups); and establishment of the Roman Catholic Church as the national religion. In 1822 Iturbide dissolved Congress and declared himself emperor of Mexico. He was overthrown a year later and Mexico would be ruled by a series of dictators until the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920 produced the country’s modern constitution.

The documents that follow include accounts of Mexico as it was under Spanish rule, representations of the struggle for independence, and descriptions of the country after independence.

Images of New Spain

“Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail”: Mexican priest and scientist Alzate y Ramírez included this illustration in a work on the cultivation of cochineal insects, used to create a dye that was one of New Spain’s most important exports. / José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez. From Essay on the Nature, Cultivation, and Benefits of the Cochineal Insect [Memoria sobre la naturaleza, cultivo, y beneficio de la grana], 1777.

These documents offer striking, visual perspectives on New Spain. The first is an eighteenth-century illustration by Mexican priest and scientist Alzate y Ramírez of the practice of harvesting cochineal insects. The cochineal is native to Central and South America and lives on cacti. Aztec and Mayan people had traditionally used the insect to create a brilliant, red dye. After the Spanish conquest, cochineal dye became one of New Spain’s most important exports, second only to silver. Alzate y Ramírez wrote this essay on the lifecycle, cultivation, and uses of the cochineal insect for Antonio Bucareli y Ursúa, then viceroy of New Spain. This illustration portrays an Indian worker, wearing cochineal-dyed pants, scraping the cochineal beetles from the nopal cactus using a deer tail.

Reyno de la Nueva España [The Kingdom of New Spain]: Mexican geographer and cartographer Antonio García Cubas created this historic map to show the colony of New Spain as it was around 1800. / Antonio García Cubas. From Atlas pintoresco é historico de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos [Picturesque and Historic Atlas of the United States of Mexico], 1885.

Above is a map created more than 60 years after independence by Mexican geographer and cartographer Antonio García Cubas. García Cubas’ Picturesque and Historic Atlas is a collection of maps depicting Mexico’s commercial, political, and cultural achievements, as well as the country’s rich natural resources and ethnic diversity. This historic map of New Spain appears in the atlas surrounded by portraits of Spanish colonial rulers. It shows the borders of New Spain at the time of independence as well as the population and size of each intendencia, or administrative unit within the colony. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the map of Mexico would change dramatically and repeatedly, not only due to its independence, but also to the wider breakup of the Spanish Empire and the United States’ expansion through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), and the American Indian wars of the 1870s and 1880s.

The Insurgency

“Hidalgo”: English diplomat H. G. Ward included this description of the priest Miguel Hidalgo, sometimes called the father of Mexican independence, in his history of Mexico. / H. G. Ward. From México, 1829

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos are celebrated today as two of the most important leaders of the insurgency, the revolt against Spanish colonial government. On September 16, 1810, Hidalgo, a Roman Catholic parish priest, rang the bells of his church in the town of Dolores and urged his parishioners to rise up against their government. His speech would become famous as the Grito de Dolores (“the cry of Dolores”). Hidalgo had allies among the criollo (or Spanish-descended) elite and was a criollo himself. But he strongly objected to the social injustices of the Spanish colonial system and the deep poverty experienced by the majority of the population. He welcomed Indians and mestizos into his church and mobilized them in the armed rebellion. Paradoxically, Hidalgo’s speech emphasized loyalty to the Catholic Church and even to King Ferdinand. He called for “Death to bad government!” and ridding Mexico of the Spaniards, or Gachupines, whom he believed had oppressed its people for centuries.

“The Priest Hidalgo, Liberator of Mexico”: Mexican intellectual and politician Vicente Riva Palacio included this portrait of independence leader Miguel Hidalgo in his multivolume history of Mexico. / Vicente Riva Palacio, D. Joaquin Ramirez. From México á través de los siglos [Mexico through the Centuries], 1887

Hidalgo gathered thousands of followers, most of whom were poor Indian and mestizo farmers and workers. They were poorly armed and untrained in fighting, but they initially defeated the Spanish army in a series of battles and took control of Guanajuato and other important cities west of Mexico City. However, his army failed to take the capital. Hidalgo was captured, stripped of his priesthood and excommunicated from the Church, and in July 1811 executed by firing squad. He was then decapitated and his head displayed in Guanajuato, along with the heads of other leaders of the insurrection, for the remainder of the war.

“Morelos, Héroe de la Independencia [Hero of Independence]”: Mexican intellectual and politician Vicente Riva Palacio included this portrait of independence leader José María Morelos in his multivolume history of Mexico. / D. Joaquin Ramirez. From México á través de los siglos [Mexico through the Centuries], by Vicente Riva Palacio. 1887

José María Morelos assumed leadership of the insurgency after Hidalgo’s execution. Morelos came from a family of mixed African, Indian, and Spanish ancestry and was not a member of the elite. He distinguished himself as a military strategist and led the rebels to a series of victories over the Spanish army before he was captured and executed in December 1815.

A letter from church leaders in Mexico to parish priests in the diocese of Durango, condemning the rebellion against Spanish rule. / Pedro de Gamez et al.. 1812

The document above is an excerpt of a letter from church leaders in Mexico to parish priests in the diocese of Durango. The letter condemns those priests, such as Father Hidalgo, who participate in the insurgency, describing it as “an uprising against the rich people.” It accuses the insurgents of usurping the rights of the king and creating dissension and turmoil among men. The writers argue that the sole purpose of the clergy is to cultivate the spiritual health of their parishioners, and those priests who concern themselves with other things are guilty of abandoning the faith. They exhort priests to pray, to sacrifice, and to be especially diligent in their duties during these times of rebellion and war.

The letter is dated November 28, 1812, more than a year after Hidalgo’s execution, but refers to him as an ongoing threat. The writers compare Hidalgo to the Old Testament figure of Jeroboam, king of the northern tribes of Israel. Jeroboam is remembered for dividing Israel and for leading his people to sin by encouraging them to worship golden calves.

“Morelos”: English diplomat H. G. Ward included this description of José María Morelos, one of the early leaders of the Mexican War for Independence, in his history of Mexico. / H. G. Ward. From México, 1829

The other documents offer representations of Hidalgo and Morelos, created in the decades following independence. H. G. Ward was an English diplomatic representative to Mexico from 1825 to 1827. Vicente Riva Palacio was a Mexican intellectual and politician who published this multivolume history of Mexico, Mexico through the Centuries, in the 1880s.

The Colonial Caste System

Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain: Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian naturalist and explorer who traveled extensively in Latin America from 1799 to 1804, and later published this influential book on colonial Mexico. / Alexander von Humboldt. 1811
“The Caste System”: Henry George Ward was an English diplomatic representative to Mexico from 1825 to 1827, soon after independence. He published this history of Mexico on his return to England. / H. G. Ward. From México, 1829

The documents above offer two accounts of New Spain’s caste system from the perspective of European observers. Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian naturalist and explorer who traveled extensively in Latin America from 1799 to 1804, and later published this essay on New Spain. In this passage, von Humboldt quotes a bishop’s description of colonial society. H. G. Ward was a diplomatic representative to Mexico from England from 1825 to 1827, soon after independence. Both of these writers attempt to describe Mexico to people outside of the Spanish Empire and both were greatly influential in Europe and the United States.

Portraits of Independent Mexico

The images below portray the people of Mexico in the decades following independence. Claudio Linati was an Italian-born artist who moved to Mexico in 1825 and later published this collection of lithographs in London with French titles.

“Hacendado. Propriétaire [Landowner]” / Claudio Linati. From Costumes et moeurs de Mexique [Dress and Customs of Mexico], 1830
“Costeño. Nègre des environs de Vera-cruz [Person from the Coast. Negro from the Area of Vera-Cruz (Santa Fe) in Sunday Dress]” / Claudio Linati. From Costumes et moeurs de Mexique [Dress and Customs of Mexico], 1830
“Manière de voyager des Dames au Mexique [Mexican Ladies’ Way of Traveling]” / Claudio Linati. From Costumes et moeurs de Mexique [Dress and Customs of Mexico], 1830
“Servante Indienne [Indian Woman Servant]” / Claudio Linati. From Costumes et moeurs de Mexique [Dress and Customs of Mexico], 1830

The work below is by Mexican geographer and cartographer Antonio García Cubas who dedicated his life to representing the distinctive land and cultures of nineteenth-century Mexico. He produced atlases, portraits, and texts promoting ideas of Mexican national character and identity. In The Republic of Mexico in 1876 (translated from the original Spanish edition), García Cubas includes an ethnographic account of the Mexican people. He identifies three primary groups: whites, or Spanish descendants; mestizos, or people of mixed European and American Indian ancestry; and full Indians. He argues that, while the first two groups are thriving, the last is dying out.

Writer and geographer Garcia Cubas identified three primary groups in his brilliantly illustrated, ethnographic account of the Mexican people. Here, he describes the descendants of the Spanish. / Antonio García Cubas. 1876

Both of these works in some ways refer to the tradition of castas, or caste, paintings, which portrayed people as representatives of racial and ethnic groups. Castas paintings were first created in New Spain in the mid-eighteenth century and remained specific to that colony; no other Spanish colonies produced them.

Rediscovering the Mayan Heritage

“General View of Kabah”: English artist Frederick Catherwood observed and painted ancient Mayan ruins when he accompanied U.S. diplomat John Lloyd Stephens on a journey to Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula between 1839 and 1841. / Frederick Catherwood. From Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 1844
“Castle at Tuloom” / Frederick Catherwood. From Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 1844

One consequence of Mexican independence was that the country became open to foreign explorers who had not been permitted to enter under Spanish rule. Independence inaugurated what some referred to as “the second discovery of America.” One of these explorers was John Lloyd Stephens, an American diplomat, travel writer, and amateur archeologist, who found ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, which became part of southern Mexico. Stephens brought an English artist, Frederick Catherwood, with him on the voyage. Stephens’ illustrated account of the voyage, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, became enormously popular in the United States and Britain. Catherwood published Views of Ancient Monuments as a companion collection of lithograph plates made from watercolors that he had painted during the voyage.

“Temple at Tuloom” / Frederick Catherwood. From Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 1844

The work of Stephens and other archeologists in some ways facilitated the movement in postcolonial Mexico to celebrate the country’s indigenous history as an alternative to the Spanish heritage. But historians such as R. Tripp Evans caution that Stephens sought to claim the astounding accomplishments of the ancient Mayans as a precursor, not to modern Mexico, but to the United States, which he saw as the next great American empire.

Selected Sources

  • Evans, R. Tripp. Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820–1915. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.
  • Guedea, Virginia. “The Process of Mexican Independence.” American Historical Review (February 2000): 116–130.
  • Newberry Library. The Aztecs and the Making of Colonial Mexico [online exhibit].
  • Van Young, Eric. “The Raw and the Cooked: Elite and Popular Ideology in Mexico, 1800–1821.” In The Middle Period in Latin American History: Values and Attitudes in the 18th-19th Centuries. Edited by Mark D. Szuchman. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1989. 75–102.
  • Vincent, Ted. “The Blacks Who Freed Mexico.” The Journal of Negro History 79, 3 (1994): 257–276.

By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum



%d bloggers like this: