EL PIPILA—An Unlikely Hero
By Herbert W. Piekow
Despite a large red sandstone statue of El Pipila in Guanajuato, there is little written about this unlikely hero of the 1810 Mexican War of Independence; in my opinion he is Mexico’s first veteran for civil justice and independence. Juan José de los Reyes Martinez Amaro was born in 1782, and at the age of 28, this young miner became one of the war’s first heroes.
Not all heroes die in battle. El Pipila lived to the age of 81, but during the insurgents’ battle to take Guanajuato he was willing to give his life for the cause. Juan José was born with both mental and physical defects and earned the nick name of El Pipila because of the peculiar gate when he walked; the term El Pipila refers to the way a hen turkey walks, sort of like an old sailor’s peculiar lop-sided gait. Like most people who do not entirely fit into society´s mold, Juan José was often ridiculed and made fun of. Juan José or El Pipila was a miner from San Miguel, now San Miguel de Allende. He worked in the Mellado Mine; founded in 1558 it was one of the first mines in Guanajuato. In 1810, at the time of the revolution, Guanajuato was the largest exporter of silver in the world. Today silver and other minerals are still exported.
The War for Independence began on September 16, 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo, a creole priest, from the nearby town of Dolores, gave his famous midnight speech calling for independence from nearly three hundred years of Spanish rule. The speech, although no one knows the exact words, is repeated at midnight each September 15th and is known as “Grito de la Dolores” or “Shout of Dolores.” Today the reenacted speech is usually given by the town´s mayor. El Grito starts the beginning of the yearly Independence Day celebrations and every Mexican listening shouts the response, “Viva Mexico!”
Less than two weeks after Hidalgo´s call for freedom, and the sacking of nearby San Miguel and Celaya, Father Hidalgo found himself the leader of an angry and unruly mob, a rebel army that neither he nor his compatriot and fellow leader, Ignacio Allende, who had some military training, could control. Father Hidalgo´s rebel “army” descended on Guanajuato and eyewitness accounts said the “army” numbered between 20,000 and 50,000 angry people. Most were peasants and Indians armed with machetes and clubs.
These were people who had suffered generations of neglect, abuse and high taxes by Spanish authorities; the people of Mexico were ready for blood. The unruly peasants were allowed to loot every Spanish and Creole home from San Miguel to Guanajuato, and this attracted more would-be looters. When the rebels passed through Celaya, the local regiment, composed mostly of Creole officers and soldiers, switched sides and joined the rebels, bringing with them some guns and munitions; however, they did not have cannon. When Hidalgo´s hordes arrived in Guanajuato they were soon joined by the local miners and other poor workers.
Juan Antonio Riaño, the Royalist leader of Guanajuato, was a personal friend of Hidalgo´s. Hidalgo sent his friend a letter offering to protect his family. Riaño and some 400 royalist forces decided to fight. They chose to fortify the large public granary (Alhóndiga de Granaditas); the two story granary had three foot thick stone walls, was surrounded by a water filled moat with a long causeway the only access. All of the Spaniards moved their families and wealth inside the fortified building.
Hidalgo´s people were incited by the prospect of so much wealth in one location and laid siege to the granary where the Royalists forces and Spaniards fought for their lives and the lives of their families. Hidalgo ordered some of his men to the nearby rooftops, where they hurled stones onto the granary roof, eventually collapsing the roof under the weight of the accumulated stones. While directing his men, Riaño was killed. His second-in-command, the town assessor, ordered the men to run up a white flag of surrender.
As the attackers moved in to take prisoners, the ranking military officer in the compound, Major Diego Berzábal, countermanded the order and the soldiers opened fire on the advancing mob. The furious attackers thought the “surrender” a ruse and furiously redoubled their efforts. However, the granary, even with its roof caved in, was well fortified, and the Spaniards were better equipped.
The intense battle raged for five hours with nearly 3,000 of Hidalgo´s followers giving their lives for the cause, or for the possibility of riches. As dusk began to claim the daylight, young Pipila, along with his compatriots, sat in the local cantina drinking pulque and discussing the length of the siege when one realized that the Achilles heel of the stone fortress was its wooden gate.
However, with the Spanish musketeers above the causeway leading to the entrance, it was impossible to advance towards the door. There were already hundreds dead along the route leading to the fortification. Pipila asked his comrades to strap a large flat rock to his back, to protect against musket balls and fire from above. Grabbing a torch and carrying a jug of tar around his neck he began to slowly make his way across dead bodies to the wooden gate of the granary.
Getting to the wooden gate, he spread the tar he had been carrying over the structure; then with trembling hand she put the torch to the tarred gate. As soon as it was breached the slaughter of soldiers, Spaniards, women and children began. The wanton taking of defenseless lives and the unbridled looting disgusted Allende and caused the dissolution of his friendship with Hidalgo. The town of San Miguel has preserved Allende´s family hacienda as a museum and added Allende to the end of its name to reflect Mexico´s national hero.
Pipila was the first, and most unlikely, hero of Mexico´s War for Independence. Today he is remembered not for his deformities but for his strength and courage. Because no one really knows what Pipila truly looked like, Guanajuato’s stone monument is of a muscular man, holding aloft a flaming torch high over the city.
The statue is at the top of a hill overlooking Guanajuato; one can climb up a rugged winding pathway, or take a funicular railway which runs up the hill from behind the church of San Diego. From here one gets the best vantage of Guanajuato for photographs. The entire city unfolds below, a great view in every direction. Besides the view, take time to appreciate a great man, a man whom some ridiculed because of his limitations, but one who saw an opportunity and had the strength and courage to help make a change.