On September 16, 1810, a progressive priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla became the father of Mexican independence with a historic proclamation urging his fellow Mexicans to take up arms against the Spanish government. Known as the “Grito de Dolores,” Hidalgo’s declaration launched a decade-long struggle that ended 300 years of colonial rule, established an independent Mexico and helped cultivate a unique Mexican identity. Its anniversary is now celebrated as the country’s birthday.

Background to Mexican Independence 

The land that is now Mexico fell into Spanish hands in August 1521 when Hernán Cortés and his army of conquistadors toppled the Aztec empire, ushering in three centuries of colonial rule and importing new diseases that decimated once-flourishing native populations. Under orders from the Spanish king, Charles V, Cortés founded a capital city—Ciudad de Mexico—on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, and a series of viceroys took command of the territory, which was dubbed New Spain.

Did you know? Despite his traditional education for the priesthood, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rejected or questioned many of Catholicism’s most fundamental tenets, including the Virgin birth, clerical celibacy and the existence of hell.

The earliest revolt against the Spanish colonial government was led by Martín Cortés, the illegitimate son of Hernán Cortés and his translator, a Mayan-born woman known as La Malinche. In the years leading up to the Mexican War of Independence, most plots to end Spanish rule were devised by Mexican-born Spaniards, or criollos, who ranked below native Europeans within Mexico’s highly stratified caste system. The criollos’ approach largely excluded Indigenous Mexicans and mestizos—people of mixed ancestry like Martín Cortés—who were often deprived of the most basic political and civil rights.

Mexican War of Independence

Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain from 1808 to 1813 heightened the revolutionary fervor in Mexico and other Spanish colonies. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a respected Catholic priest (and an unconventional one, given his rejection of celibacy and love of gambling) issued a passionate rallying cry known as the “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”) that amounted to a declaration of war against the colonial government. So named because it was publicly read in the town of Dolores, the Grito called for the end of Spanish rule in Mexico, the redistribution of land and a concept that the criollos’ earlier plans had deliberately omitted: racial equality. Though a criollo himself, Hidalgo extended his call to arms to mestizos and people of Indigenous descent; their significant contribution of manpower changed the tenor of the revolt.

Hidalgo led his growing militia from village to village en route to Mexico City, leaving in their wake a bloodbath that he later came to deeply regret. Defeated at Calderón in January 1811, Hidalgo fled north but was captured and executed by firing squad in Chihuahua. Others took the helm of the rebellion, including José María Morelos y Pavón, Mariano Matamoros and Vicente Guerrero, who all led armies of Indigenous and racially mixed revolutionaries against the Spanish royalists. Known as the Mexican War Of Independence, the conflict dragged on until 1821, when the Treaty of Córdoba established Mexico as an independent constitutional monarchy under Agustín de Iturbide. Just 18 months later, the republican insurgents Antonio López de Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria ousted the emperor and established the first Mexican Republic.

Celebrating Mexican Independence

Although September 16, 1810, marked the beginning of Mexico’s struggle for independence rather than its ultimate achievement, the anniversary of the Grito de Dolores has been a day of celebration across Mexico since the late 19th century. The holiday begins on the evening of September 15 with a symbolic reenactment of Hidalgo’s historic proclamation by the president of the republic and the governor of each state. The next day, typical activities include parades, bullfights, rodeos and traditional dancing. In 2010, the festivities included a special—if somewhat macabre—feature: In honor of the country’s bicentennial, the remains of 12 men who fought for Mexican independence—including Hidalgo, Morelos, Matamoros and Guerrero—were exhumed in a military ceremony led by President Felipe Calderón.

Many non-Mexicans, particularly in the United States, often mistake the Cinco de Mayo holiday for a celebration of Mexican independence; instead, it commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the French-Mexican War.