Ann Summa for The New York Times
By JONATHAN KANDELL
Published: August 19, 2010
The remains of the original patriots — most notably, Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio de Allende — were interred at the base of the monument. And I recall the thrill of hearing a politician scream out the Grito de la Independencia, the cry allegedly uttered by Father Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810: “Down with bad government and death to the gachupines!” — a pejorative term for colonial-era Spaniards.
Today, as it wrestles with economic troubles and drug wars, Mexico is also commemorating its bicentennial with architectural restorations, concerts, literary events and gala festivals, the bulk of which will take place in September in the formerly silver-rich state of Guanajuato, a three-to-four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City.
It was here, in the communities of Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende — the latter two adding the names of their local heroes after independence — that the revolt against Spain first erupted. Today, irrevocably linked by history and geography, but wholly distinct in character, the three towns remain tourist oases from the dreadful drug-related violence erupting elsewhere in the country. And — thanks to bicentennial fever — they are now linked, along with a dozen others, by the Ruta de la Independencia, broadened and newly paved, making travel among them easier than it’s ever been.
In June, guided by historical accounts and childhood nostalgia, I spent a week traveling this zigzagging course, which traces the several hundred miles taken by Hidalgo’s largely impoverished insurgents and Captain Allende’s more upper-class militia during the ebb and flow of their uprising against the gachupines.
My first stop was Dolores, which, as the place where Hidalgo first called for revolt, is known as the cradle of independence. Even today, his presence permeates the town, from the thriving ceramics industry that he championed to the ubiquitous statues and plaques commemorating his leading role in the independence movement.
Dolores, an insular and provincial town of 55,000 inhabitants, with streets laid out in a simple grid, is not as popular a destination as San Miguel or Guanajuato. Except for shops selling azulejos (decorative tiles) and Talavera (brightly colored pottery), its commercial activity revolves around whitewashed one-floor establishments selling screws, bolts and replacement parts for antiquated household goods and farm machinery.
Dominating the architectural landscape is the yellow and pink, richly Baroque-style parish church where Hidalgo, a priest, preached the gospel and insurgency. Known as the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, the church looms over a large bronze statue of Hidalgo on the broad, tree-shadowed main plaza that evokes memories of Mexican towns in the 1950s. A municipal band struck up a waltz in a stone-and-metal gazebo. Two elderly men stood on a straw mat in bare socks, while a cobbler repaired their shoes. Vendors peddled balloons and wheeled toys. On the edges of the plaza, children and parents cooled off with paper cups of Dolores’s traditional shaved ice in flavors like avocado, chili, tequila, beer and cactus leaf, along with lemon and orange for more conventional palates.
I was tempted by the nearby food stands offering charcoal-grilled cobs of corn slathered with red chili paste and shredded local cheese, but instead held out for Dolores’s finest culinary outpost, Carnitas Vicente, a simple, clean restaurant facing a traffic-choked avenue about four blocks northeast of the plaza. The carnitas, minced roasted pork wrapped in handmade tortillas and topped with spicy sauce and fresh guacamole, are so enticing that aficionados travel miles to eat them. A dozen truckers lined up at the counter, instructing the chef on what pig parts they favored, while local couples, students from the nearby university and young families occupied the tables.
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JONATHAN KANDELL, a former Latin American correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of “La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City.”