27 de Septiembre: Mexican War of Independence Re-enactment in Tonatico, Mexico, By Oswaldo Guadarrama
In the early morning of September 16, 1810, in the small town of Dolores, Guanajuato, a catholic priest by the name of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, rang the bells to his church and made a call to arms which triggered the armed conflict that was the Mexican War of Independence from Spain.
It is now over 200 years later, and all throughout Mexico, Independence Day is celebrated on September 16. Not many places, however, celebrate the day of the consummation of the war of independence, which took place on September 27, 1821. This is about one of the few places that do; this is about Tonatico.
Tonatico is a town with a population of about 13,000 people in the southern part of the State of Mexico, 153 kilometers from Mexico City. The name comes from Nahuatl origins, and it means “place of the sun”. The municipality’s main economic activity is agriculture (mainly corn and onions); it has a large percentage of people who migrate to the United States, and is a popular tourist destination thanks to its thermal springs as well as its main church, which houses the statue of Our Lady of Tonatico. It is generally a very nice and quiet place to live.
Once a year, on September 27th, a special celebration takes place; the re-enactment of the war of independence from Spain.
First celebrated in the year 1859 (even before the town was officially erected in 1870), the people of Tonatico await this day all year long, as it is its biggest, most peculiar and most representative of its cultural events.
This year was significant for the re-enactment. Last year, following the tragic events of the September 19 earthquake, it was almost cancelled, but ultimately it was carried out in a much smaller and more restricted way. This year, things went back to normal.
Early in the morning, I awake to the sound of snare drums and trumpets in the distance; the parade is about to start. You can see people already gathering around, pulling out chairs and setting them up along the sidewalk of the main street, its 10:00 a.m. and people are already drinking. I set up in my usual spot, outside my grandparents’ home, and wait.
characterized as being one of the biggest and most organized of the region, this parade is a long one (about 2 hours in length), and it can be divided into two sections; the first half is your typical parade comprised of all of the town’s schools (this is where the drum and trumpet sounds come from), police and military, government employees, and various floats featuring the local pageant queen as well as representatives from other nearby municipalities. If up to this point I haven’t made it clear that Tonatiquenses are really, really into celebrating this day, I hope this next piece of information will help get that point across: a lot of people participate in this parade, and I mean thousands. This is especially true for the people that dress up to represent the troop of “Guarines”; an interpretation of the rural, untrained, rebel soldiers that aided in the war. I can literally see a wave of people that stretches for blocks and blocks. Another troop that has become more popular in recent years is the “Gachupines”; these are the Spanish army soldiers dressed head to toe in blue denim. There are also troops for the Costeños and the Apaches. The Costeños represent the rebel soldiers from the coast; they dress in all black clothing and carry mosquetes (homemade firearms which they stuff with gun powder). The Apaches play the part of the indigenous people that fought in the war alongside the insurgent army; they spend the duration of the parade performing beautifully choreographed dances and songs.
“Early in the morning, I awake to the sound of snare drums and trumpets in the distance; the parade is about to start. You can see people already gathering around, pulling out chairs and setting them up along the sidewalk of the main street, its 10:00 a.m. and people are already drinking.”
Despite the large volume of participants, this is surprisingly well organized. It is very important for the locals to try to be as authentic as possible (within reason, you can’t keep this many humans from taking out their cell phone in 2018), so a strict dress code is enforced for the people that wish to participate in any of these troops.
When the parade is over, I make my way to the town’s main square; this is where the down time before the re-enactment takes place. It’s a party; there are thousands of people drinking and dancing on the street.
At around 4:30 p.m., the actual re-enactment started. There are many “battles” waged between the Insurgent Mexican army and the Spanish soldiers throughout the main streets of town, these are known as “entradas” (this makes reference to when the insurgents would enter a new city). The weapon of choice in this war is eggshells filled with flour (there is supposed to be strict control over this, but one or two rotten eggs have been known to slip by). I found myself following these street battles, often ending up right in the middle of them, surrounded by thick clouds of flour and mosquete explosions. You have to be on your toes to avoid the storm of eggshells raining down on you at all times, I unfortunately could not escape a couple of them to the face this time. After about an hour of these street brawls, it’s time to end the war with one final fight.
In the middle of an open field on the edge of town, a big wooden structure known as “El Gallinero” (the chicken coop) stands about eight meters tall. This is where the main battle, and the conclusion to this re-enactment, takes place. I make my way there right as it’s just about to begin. The Spanish soldiers rush through the field and start climbing “El Gallinero” where they will remain for the duration of this fight. The goal is for everyone on the ground to hit them with eggshells while they stand atop the wooden structure. Lots of people just sit around and watch, but many more are active participants. I dodge many flying eggshells, many more hit me. There are people on horses running around and I can hear explosions from every direction. It is very chaotic, but somehow everything remains relatively safe and enjoyable for all present thanks to its tight organization. I try to climb the wooden structure but am quickly turned away because I’m not dressed the part; maybe next time.
The re-enactment comes to its big finale when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla is executed by the Spanish soldiers atop “El Gallinero” and is then carried off by the Apaches. After this is over, I observe as kids climb and have their own wars; it was finally their time to play.
Although this is the official end to the day, the celebration continues unofficially well into the night, with everyone drinking and dancing until it’s time for the people of Tonatico to go home and wait for the next year.
Overall, this year’s re-enactment was a success thanks to the excellent organization by the locals that do their best to try to keep this tradition safe, fun, authentic and alive for future generations. There were no fights, no one was seriously injured( I myself ended up with only a bump in the forehead, a sunburn, a perforated eardrum, and I looked like I had been at a bakery all day), and most people ended their night on a positive note.
I hear all the time about how traditions are being lost, and while it is true that times are changing, this particular day is one that the people of Tonatico will still be participating in long after I am gone. I hope these photos conveyed some of the emotions the people of this town feel toward this particular part of their culture. I can’t wait until next year. FP
All photos taken with a Canon Sure Shot A-1 on Kodak Gold 200 film. All photos 2018. Published here with permission, © Oswaldo Guadarrama