The day an independent New Mexico was born, a fiesta erupted.
Church bells rang out in Santa Fe, religious processions unfolded in the dusty streets, and there was much celebrating. Gunfire lingered into the night, as parades, dancing, eating and drinking carried over into the early morning. New Mexico no longer was a kingdom, province and colony of Spain.
On Sept. 16, 1821, Mexico declared independence from Spain after over three centuries of monarchical rule by that nation.
The fight for independence had a messy start in 1810 when the Catholic priest Miguel de Hidalgo y Costilla issued his Grito de Dolores, a rallying cry for independence from Spain. It was not to be, as the upper classes were reluctant to unite with the poorer mestizos and Natives Hidalgo pulled together for the revolution.
Still, the seeds of enlightenment, freedom and equality, ideals of previous revolutions in the United States and France, were planted in what would become the nation of Mexico.
These events would have an effect on New Mexico as history unfolded, making the area part of Mexico.
New Mexico had been an appendage of Spain’s world empire for over two centuries, a colony at the end of the Spanish world where Natives and mixed blood Nuevo Mexicanos were governed by appointed governors and Franciscan priests from Spain and Mexico. Since 1598, New Mexico was ruled from Mexico City and was part of colonial Mexico.
New Mexico was intimately and intricately connected — culturally, politically, racially and historically — to the land and people that became Mexico. Under Mexican rule, New Mexico would have a similar development.
The last Spanish governor of New Mexico, Facundo Melgares, was a natural at transitioning New Mexico from colony to Mexican territory. Melgares’ account of the celebration resembled much of what has been described of how other towns and cities in Mexico celebrated independence from Spain. Melgares described the events with the finesse of a Mexican national propagandist, containing much truth if not a hint of exaggeration and flourish.
An American in Santa Fe at the time had a much more critical perspective of the proceedings and wrote with vitriol and a sense of Puritan superiority and disapproval about how the locals acted, shouted, drank, danced, and how the women were dressed and carried themselves.
The contrast in perspectives from a Spanish, then Mexican, governor and an American adventurer was stark and startling.
There is some indication some officials in the New Mexican government were unenthused about the transition. This attitude likely was less due to any loyalty to royalty; rather, a disdain for change in a place where change had come so rarely in the remote outpost.
Change was especially rare in towns such as Taos, Abiquiú, Las Trampas, or Truchas, where New Mexicans had learned for generations to rely on their own fortitude and knowledge of the local terrain and people for survival, and not faraway centers of government such as Madrid or Mexico City.
It was a shaky start for the new nation of Mexico. Just as the United States flirted with having a king, Mexico opted for an emperor after wrestling with the concept of a European monarch. What was the point of independence if not to shed such archaic notions?
Over the course of the next 25 years, Mexico would have about the same amount of changes of government, an instability that came partly from the foundations of the new nation being ancient institutions, such as absolute monarchy and the Catholic Church. This instability made Mexico vulnerable to the new, “get it done” United States to the north, which was created out from progressive ideas and new technologies.
For the most part, the New Mexicans embraced Mexican nationalism, which was not that different from Spanish rule, but had hints of democracy and liberty. The old caste system based on race was dissolved, and everyone declared a ciudadano Mexicáno, a Mexican citizen.
Efforts by the national government in Mexico City to centralize power and take away the rights of outlying areas such as New Mexico and Texas in the 1830s brought new taxation and resulted in revolts in both places — the more famous being the Alamo, and its New Mexican counterpart at Chimayó in 1837.
For more than 200 years, New Mexico existed as part of colonial Mexico, then for 25 years as a territory of Mexico. Those historical events shaped New Mexico and led to a war with the United States in 1846 that would change the state forever.
Rob Martínez, New Mexico’s state historian, writes a column about the state’s rich past every month in The New Mexican. View episodes of his YouTube series, New Mexico History in 10 Minutes, at tinyurl.com/NMHistoryin10.