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New Mexico Learns of Independence from Spain

Mexican Independence Day Celebrations in New Mexico
September 16th: 1821-1846

By Robert Torrez

New Mexico was part of the Mexican Republic from 1821 to 1846. Historical documents in the Mexican Archives of New Mexico show that during this time nuevomexicanos celebrated the commemoration of Mexican independence from Spain, planning for these occasions with great care and participating in them with enthusiasm.

The first evidence of this type of celebration in New Mexico shows up in the year following Mexican independence. On the evening of December 10, 1822, bonfires, ringing bells, artillery salutes, and music accompanied the planting of a tall flag pole at the center of the plaza in Santa Fe, on which flew a white flag inscribed with the symbols of Mexican independence. These activities signaled the beginning of three days of ceremonies celebrating the installation of Agustin de Iturbide as Emperor of Mexico, during which time local government officials took a public oath of allegiance to their new leader.

Reported activities included daily parades through the main street and around the plaza. Featured in the parades were floats with patriotic themes, local officials and dignitaries mounted on horses, files of marching soldiers, musicians, and two troupes of matachines, one comprised of children and the other of adults. The description of these events suggests that these parades were formal occasions, but the general public obviously reveled in the special theatrical presentations, dances by several pueblo Indian groups who were invited to attend, table games, and the series of grand balls which culminated the festivities every evening. The report of the celebration proudly concludes, "there was not the slightest disorder in any of the entertainments, as everyone was extremely happy with their exaltation of the Emperor to the throne...."

This 1822 celebration, while related to the events of Mexican independence, did not actually occur on the 16th of September. It was not until five years later that the Mexican Archives provide some indication that this particular date may have been observed locally. A document originating in Chihuahua on August 11, 1827, entitled "Preparations and ceremonies which should be made to celebrate the civic and religious functions on the 16th and 17th days of the coming September, as recommended by the special commission named for that purpose..." describes the various events planned in order to mark "the glorious shout of Independence." The celebration would open with a solemn Mass in honor of the individuals who had given their lives for the cause, followed by the customary speeches, artillery salutes, and other events "appropriate to the dignity of the occasion." Unfortunately, this document does not specifically record whether these activities were observed in New Mexico at the time.

The earliest evidence of plans for an actual 16th of September celebration specific to New Mexico comes from an August 25, 1835 document published by a committee of five local residents (Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid, Ramón Abréu, Antonio Robidoux, Agustin Duran, and Jose Dolores Madrid) assigned the task of organizing the events for Santa Fe’s commemoration of "the glorious anniversary" of Mexican Independence. Their fourteen-part plan opened the celebration at midnight of the 15th with a protracted twenty-one gun salute which was timed to conclude with the playing of the Diana (the Mexican equivalent of reveille and taps) at dawn on the 16th. The initial canon shot would also signal a general ringing of the church bells in the city which was to last a full hour. At the same time, the officers of the ayuntamiento, or town hall, along with all government officials and the troops, were to congregate in front of the Palace of the Governors and, accompanied by musicians, proceed in a formal procession around the plaza. At each corner of the square, the procession was to halt while a patriotic speech was made. The remainder of the plan noted that the city streets and plaza should be liberally adorned with colorful hangings and decorations and that the streets and all buildings well illuminated throughout the evening. A number of religious ceremonies, speeches, parades, Indian dances, games, and a baile de la lonja, were also planned. Concluding the activities, on the afternoon of the 17th a bullfight was to be held on the plaza. No documentation has been found, however, to determine with any certainty how much of this plan was actually carried out.

The grandest of New Mexico's celebrations of Mexican Independence apparently took place in 1844. A bundle of documents in our Mexican Archives describes an elaborate program put together by a commission consisting of twenty-nine of Santa Fe's most distinguished residents. The commission met on July 28, 1844 to begin planning for "the celebration of the anniversary of our glorious Independence," and, as commissions are apt to do, their first action was to establish subcommittees and assign specific responsibilities to each one. The four subcommittees were organized as follows:

Committee #1, to plan for refreshments: Feliz Zubia, Tomas Ortiz, and Antonio Sena;

Committee #2, to arrange for public entertainment: Juan Bautista Vigil, Serafin Ramirez, and Francisco Baca Ortiz;

Committee #3, to arrange with the governor and military authorities for the firearms and other accoutrements needed for military salutes: Juan Maria Porras, Donaciano Vigil, and Francisco Ortiz y Delgado;

Committee #4, to meet with church officials for the various religious ceremonies: Agustin Duran, Felipe Sena, and Benito Larragoite.

Although no specific committee seems to have been given the task of raising funds to cover expenses, the records show that several dozen individuals donated 434 pesos, 2 reales for the occasion. These donations ranged from the 80 pesos, 4 reales attributed to "Capitan Ortiz y Baca" and the 55 pesos from "Juan Escolem" (John Scully?) to the 2 pesos donated by Pablo Dominguez.

The refreshment committee also presented a detailed report prepared by Antonio Sena with fascinating recommendations for what were considered "indispensable … refreshments for the dance planned for the 16th." Included in the long list of pastries were marquesotes, puches, coronas, soletas, encaladillas, dulces, biscochos de regalo, along with mirtelas and aquas frescas. Sena's report also lists the individual ingredients for each of these items and the estimated cost of each one. The committee suggested a budget of slightly more than 165 pesos to pay for the refreshments, with the most expensive items being the 74 pesos allotted for forty-three flasks of wine and twenty-five of aguardiente which were to go into the last listed item, the punch.

The entertainment committee also presented detailed recommendations, noting it hoped that every activity be should "be worthy of the grand objective" they were celebrating. They then detailed the following activities which were to begin the night of September 15:

1. The evening would begin with a serenade. At nine, the interior and exterior of all the government buildings were to be fully illuminated and a speech presented by the alcalde, Don Tomas Ortiz. At eleven, a general ringing of bells would begin, a salvo of artillery would be fired, and fireworks would be set off by the citizens of the city. These activities, noted the committee, were to serve "as a joyous remembrance of the moment at which the immortal Hidalgo proclaimed our National Independence at the Pueblo of Dolores." A short notation at the end of this paragraph indicates that these activities were approved, except for the speech by Ortiz. There is no indication if someone else was assigned to perform this task;

2. At dawn on the 16th, the musicians of the troop would open the festivities with the Diana in front of the palace, followed by an artillery salute; at that moment, the pabellon nacional, the national flag, would be unfurled at all the public buildings, accompanied by a general ringing of bells. At seven, a Mass of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated in all the chapels of the city, with a committee of the "patriotic commission" in attendance at each. At nine, the governor, accompanied by all the civil and military officials, would proceed to the parish church where the vicar was to celebrate another mass, at the end of which a solemn Te Deum would be sung. Afterwards, the governor and president of the Territorial Assembly would lead all the attending dignitaries in a procession to the main plaza where they were to install the cornerstone of a monument which was to be erected to commemorate Mexican Independence. From there, they would proceed to the palacio to receive the greetings of the day and then form a procession which the governor would lead through the main street to the Alameda. There the governor would present a speech on a stage that had been set up for the celebration. The notation at the end of these recommendations indicates all this was approved, with the exception that the governor's speech would be in the afternoon;

3. The afternoon of the 16th, the military band would play at the Alameda, while volarines, acrobats, and maromeros, tightrope walkers, entertained along the street. That evening at eight, fireworks would be set off unless the weather interfered. If that occurred, the fireworks were to be postponed until the night of September 27th. After the fireworks, a series of public dances were scheduled to end the celebrations. One of the dances was to be held in the sala of the palace and two others at sites which were to be designated by the ayuntamiento. These were all approved;

4. For the 17th, a solemn memorial Mass was scheduled to honor all who had died for their country; then, with the plaza having been fenced, corridas de toros, bullfights, would be held for as many days as agreed to by the governor and the president and secretary of the planning commission. These were also approved.

The final report of this commission was submitted to the governor after the celebration was over, on October 13, 1844. In the style typical of the time, the report, which was signed by commission president Juan Felipe Ortiz and secretary Bernardo Vasquez Franco, apologizes profusely for any shortcoming and errors in the execution of the celebrations and reporting. By all indications, it appears to have been a grand fiesta.

During recent years, there has been a resurgence of September 16th celebrations in New Mexico and across the Southwest. Although some have criticized this as inappropriate in our country, it bears reminding that New Mexico was part of the Mexican Republic for twenty-five years. That historical fact, along with the presence of many Americans of Mexican descent as well as Mexican immigrants in America today, is reason enough to explain the renewed interest in celebrating the 16th of September in the Southwest.