Streets of Mexico – August 2023

Agustín de Iturbide

Was Agustín Iturbide a hero or a villain? An opportunist or a patriot? As with so much of Mexican history, it depends whom and when you ask.

Iturbide distinguished himself early in his military career. A gifted horseman and courageous leader, he scored repeated victories against larger forces, earning him the nickname El Dragón de Hierro (The Iron Dragon).

Iturbide may have been sympathetic to the idea of independence, but turned down Miguel Hidalgo’s offer to become a lieutenant general. “Independence cannot be achieved with massacres or bloodbaths,” he explained. Disgusted with republican (democratic) ideas, he ended up leading armies against both Morelos and Guerrero, referring to all the insurgents as “perverse,” “bandits,” and “sacrilegious.” Merciless, he imprisoned their mothers, wives and children; and he once executed 300 rebels to celebrate Catholic Good Friday.

This was the man who secured independence for Mexico?

Yes. After Spain adopted a liberal constitution that limited both the king’s and the church’s power, and after it became plain he could not likely defeat Guerrero, Iturbide crafted his famous Plan of Iguala. It outlined three cornerstone guarantees: freedom, religion, and union. (Mexico would separate from Spain, remain an exclusively Catholic country, and abolish its caste system. Iturbide later designed Mexico’s flag, its three colors—red, white, and green—symbolizing those guarantees.) Iturbide offered something to all Mexicans, which enabled him to lead their now-unified armies triumphantly into Mexico City. After eleven years, the War for Independence was over, Iturbide its most feted hero.

Iturbide oversaw the provisional governing board, from which he pointedly excluded all insurgents, including Guerrero. Meanwhile, the euphoric crowds demanded Iturbide become their king. He first offered the crown to the apparently soon-to-be-deposed Spanish king instead, then to other European monarchs; but none accepted. And so, the Mexican congress declared Iturbide to be Mexico’s emperor, Augustín the First.

Had this been Iturbide’s devious plan all along?

Regardless, his reign lasted but a few months. Facing mounting republican opposition, which exploded into violent rebellion, desperate, he disbanded congress, Iturbide abdicated and went into voluntary exile in Europe. There, he received an invitation from the now-restored Spanish king to lead the reconquest of Mexico for Spain. Instead, he returned to Mexico to, he claimed, defend his country from such an invasion.

Somehow, Iturbide had missed the memo about congress declaring him a traitor, an outlaw to be killed.

Just before his execution, Iturbide bravely proclaimed, “Mexicans! In the very act of my death, I recommend to you the love to the fatherland, and the observance to our religion, for it shall lead you to glory. I die having come here to help you, and I die merrily, for I die amongst you. I die with honor, not as a traitor….”

This is a selection from Ellison’s recently published book, Mexican Streets: Tales of Tragedy and Triumph.

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David Ellison
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