Meaning of September 15 and 16 Independence Day

The days September 15 and 16 are special holidays in the history of Latin America.  It is important to discuss the meaning of these days when, for too many people in the U. S., because of money-hungry advertisers, the days are now comprised of beer commercials and Latino stereotypes.   A hidden meaning is the unity that diverse racial groups played in organizing for their “independence.”

On September 15th, the peoples of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua celebrate their independence. On September 16th, Mexico celebrates its independence. And now, these celebrations also include the independence of Chile on September 18th, and Día de la Raza (Columbus Day) on October 12th.

The independence movement in Mexico was sparked by a priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla on September 16, 1810.  Ringing the bell of his parish church in the village of Dolores, and under the banner of the Virgen of Guadalupe, he brought together 80,000 mestizos, indios, mulattoes, former black slaves, and alienated criollos who eventually created an independent nation – the nation of Mexico – independent of Spain.  

Hidalgo was replaced by another parish priest, José María Morelos y Pavón, who had African ancestry, and who called for social and racial equality as well as independence from Spain.   Morelos recruited an army made up largely of indigenous and mestizo – but also recruited African Americans and mulatos from the sugar plantations.   In 1815, Morelos was captured and executed – but the banner of independence was taken up by  by Vicente Guerrero, an indio- mestizo.

By the middle of the 1820s almost all of the Latin American colonies had achieved independence from Spain. The new nations, with a combined population of about 16 million, and Brazil, grew out of movements also that brought together  Native Americans, mestizos, people of color, and many women in fighting for their freedom. They also fought to abolish Black slavery.

However, it is important to point out that this independence – did not mean an end to inequality, poverty, and social injustice.

Today, one of the issues that has been used to divide the various racial groups is the issue of citizenship. There has been a tendency by some to define citizenship primarily as a legal construct with distinct rights and privileges attached, often conferred by one’s country of birth and/or one’s parentage.   Some nativist groups have used the constitution to claim that all undocumented immigrants are “criminals” and need to be deported since they are not legal citizens.  Here, they use the legal definition of citizenship as a means of attacking immigrants.

While all working class people in the U. S. do not have full citizenship in terms of guaranteed employment, health care, and education, the issue is how the right to citizenship has been constructed.  As early as 1790, Congress passed a law that defined American citizenship as being only for “free” white immigrants resulting in “non-white immigrants” not being allowed to be naturalized until the passage of the Walter-McCarren Act of 1952.  Today, the experience of many indigenous, African American,  mestizo, and people of color in general – have the commonality where legal citizenship does not insulate a group from social and economic exclusion.  In the case of Mexican-origin people, although they were considered citizens of the U. S. after 1848 – this did not insulate them from the use of laws to take their land.  In the case of African Americans, although supposedly freed from slavery, the reality is that they continued to be used for their cheap labor without full rights.   Legal citizenship, in this context, is a hollow promise creating citizens “in name only.”

If legal citizenship is going to be more than an empty victory, we need to offer a vision of full citizenship that is both legal and social in nature.  True citizenship goes beyond narrow legal definitions to include equality in all spheres.  It is in this effort to achieve full citizenship where African Americans, mestizo, indigenous, Latino, people of color, women, and working class people in general share a common ground today.  It is this commonality that gives us a historical and contemporary reason to celebrate the concept of independence – a concept that is still somewhat abstract – because the pursuit of justice and equality is still something that is ongoing and still needs to be achieved.

 

 

 

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