José María Morelos: A True Mexican Hero
Learn the story of Jose Maria Morelos, the rebel Catholic priest who fought against the Spanish Empire, betrayed religious ideals, was saved by a 12-year-old warrior, and worked hand by hand with pirates in order to obtain independence from Europeans using a European constitution as a base.
This insurgent and liberal was anointed by the Father of Independence Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who didn’t want to part ways with Spain but rather to place Ferdinand VII back in the throne, making Jose Maria Morelos the first to genuinely express a need for full independence.
Much like Hidalgo, Morelos was a priest, military, and natural-born leader but also a politician. A key figure of Mexican history and the true father of Mexican Independence. He declined titles like “Your Highness,” and called himself “The Servant of the Nation.”
This controversial persona was a clerk who fought against the Spaniards to liberate Mexico from colonialists, who were at the same time deeply related to the Catholic church. He was in charge of the second stage of the Independence of Mexico, and served as a catalyst, and inspired the general population to rise in arms and give themselves to a higher cause: sovereignty, dignity, equality, and a better life.
Sounds like a fairy tale mashup but these are some of the Jose Maria Morelos facts you will find throughout this article. Read ahead to find out about the achievements and challenges this charismatic leader had to face.
¡Aprendamos de la creación de México!
Let’s learn about Mexico’s creation!
Jose Maria Morelos Biography
Jose Maria Morelos: Early Years
His complete name was José María Teclo Morelos Pavón y Pérez and was born in the former Valladolid, today Morelia—named in his honor—in 1765. According to oral tradition, the family’s last name really was Sandoval, but people called them the moreros that later transformed into Morelos due to the fact that they sold moras (berries).
As his father abandoned the family, he was forced to work at age 14 at an uncle’s hacienda (ranch), becoming a cowboy, muleteer, and manager. He learned about agriculture and cattle raising and became fascinated by grammar studies, one of his mother’s interests, whom he took care of during her last years.
Jose Maria Morelos: A Priest and A Rebel
Later, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavón studied the ecclesiastical career. There, he became acquainted with the problems of the society of New Spain, the oppression of the lower castes, and injustice and abuse from the Spanish Empire.
After a decade of practicing as a priest, Miguel Hidalgo commissioned him as insurgent chief of the south. His intentions were to resign the Parish but he learned in a Jesuit document that priests can rise in arms when there is a dire need that generates utility to the republic. He was supposed to take important cities and ports that communicated Mexico with Asia and Europe.
He was named by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla General de los ejércitos americanos para la conquista y el nuevo gobierno de las provincias del sur, con autoridad bastante or “General of the American armies for the conquest and new government of the Southern provinces, with plenty authority.”
Then, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavón united forces with the Galeanas: Hermenegildo and his nephew Pablo. These two were descendants of English pirates that arrived in Guerrero in the 1700s. They had a cannon they used on holidays and could be of use to Morelos.
Jose Maria Morelos Demands
- To take care of the assets of the Catholic church.
- Punish any attempt of caste warfare and public sins.
- Observe the military hierarchy by merits.
- To reiterate what Hidalgo dictated, to establish a new government in the hands of the Americans.
- Abolish slavery, tribute, peninsular debts and gunpowder monopoly.
- To work in harmony.
The last point seems only diplomatic when it actually was the most important one while executing different actions during Jose Maria Morelos campaigns both as a military and as a politician. While other personalities quarreled over egocentric rewards and titles, Morelos focused on working together as a whole.
He later received support from another iconic family, the Bravos: Leonardo, Máximo, Miguel, and Leonardo’s son and independence hero: Nicolás Bravo. Vicente Guerrero—who eventually consummated Mexico’s independence—joined them. He was a muleteer from a little town in Guerrero—named after Vicente—. Afterward, a Law student called Miguel Fernández Félix also joined the cause. He eventually changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria alluding to the victory of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the face of the insurgent cause, and became Mexico’s first president.
Morelos Achievements During Mexico’s Independence
After the killing and beheading of the first Mexican Independence leaders Hidalgo, Allende, and Aldama, Morelos was invited to organize and lead the insurgents, he accepted. Also, he strengthened his relationship with the indigenous people of the cities where he stayed. He believed that the “naturals” or natives shouldn’t have paid diezmos (tithes) or tributes for living and eating from their own land.
As he was a part of the Congress and the Insurgent Board he was always a conciliator and worked in harmony with other parties even if they differed constantly.
Felix Maria Calleja
Jose Maria Morelos managed to conquer most of the South of Mexico along with pieces of the central part. In today’s state of Morelos, he developed his most important military action known as the Sitio de Cuautla (Cuautla Besiege), making him the first enemy of the royal army. All of this while trying to survive tuberculosis.
Félix María Calleja besieged Cuautla, cut off food and water supplies, and poisoned wells with dead animals. He offered a pardon to Jose Maria Morelos and all of his soldiers, but he responded that he offered the same thing.
Calleja and the royal army started advancing unnoticed but a twelve-year-old took a cannon and fired it, making the army step back. His name was Narciso Mendoza and people know him as El Niño Artillero or “the gunner boy.” Something almost no one knows about this character is that this kid became the great grandfather of Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata.
Leonardo and Nicolás Bravo
The insurgents realized the situation was untenable and broke the besiege fence. The royal army took Leonardo Bravo and executed him in spite of Morelos trying to negotiate his life in exchange for 800 Spanish prisoners. So Jose Maria Morelos ordered Leonardo’s son, Nicolás Bravo to kill them, but he spared their lives. They were so grateful that they joined the insurgent cause.
Jose Maria Morelos: the Politician
With every city he took, Jose Maria made laws as he went. Some of them were the reduction of taxes and the establishment of gunpowder and weapon factories. He was the first insurgent to sanction anyone who affected the civil population, making him other than a guerrilla like many of the cause leaders.
He took Oaxaca and Acapulco and later formed the Anahuac Congress to organize the nation, dividing it into three powers—legislative, judicial, and executive, as it is still today-—and electing Congresspeople. They were responsible for approving the first Constitution of Mexico which took elements from the US and French constitutions.
Here, he wrote the document that changed the country for good: Sentimientos de la Nación (Sentiments of the Nation), remarking the equality among Mexicans and the abolishment of slavery.
Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon was elected Generalísimo which he was hesitant to accept. The newly-elected Congress gave him the title of “Serene Highness” which he turned down and decided to change to “Servant of the Nation.”
Morelos was removed from this position eventually and was made a Congressman. He collaborated and redacted laws of the first promulgated Constitution ever in the History of Mexico. On the same day, they elected the Supreme Government and Morelos said it was “the best day of his life.”
Jose Maria Morelos Death
Morelos tried to take his natal city Morelia against his advisor’s wishes, but royalist Agustín de Iturbide defeated his troops—yes, the same Agustín de Iturbide that later switched to the insurgent cause and consummated Mexico’s Independence along with Vicente Guerrero becoming Mexico’s first Emperor—.
Jose Maria was captured in Guerrero with 200 insurgents by the Spanish troops, the rest of the men and Congress members avoided the same fate thanks to the strategic efforts of Nicolás Bravo. The orders from the crown were to kill 150 men in front of Jose Maria Morelos and to send the rest as slaves to Manila, Philippines, which was a part of the Spanish Empire.
During the first trial, Morelos was accused of high treason to the King, the country, and God, sabotage of the viceroyalty, and causing massive deaths and destruction of public and private property. Then, an ecclesiastical trial followed by the Holy Inquisition, where he was accused of violating celibacy by having 3 illegitimate children and of ignoring the ex-communications raised against him.
Days later, there was a ceremony where the General Inquisitor performed the religious degradation ceremony that made Morelos and some of the people present cry. He finished the act by saying como a hijo ingrato, te echamos de la herencia del Señor (like an ungrateful son, we cast you out of the Lord’s inheritance).
The objective of making Jose Maria Morelos go to publicly known trials was to discredit him as he was considered a bad citizen and bad Catholic by the authorities. The Inquisition declared him a heretic and was sentenced him to life imprisonment in an African convent.
Jose Maria Morelos Shooting
On December 22, 1815 he traveled by foot with 50 guards to Ecatepec, he prayed the 51 psalms, confessed his sins, blindfolded himself, took a crucifix, and exclaimed: “Lord, if I have done well, you know it, if I have done wrong, I take refuge in your infinite mercy.” The guards shot him dead at 4 pm. His remains lay within the Independence Column in the Angel of Independence Monument in Mexico City.
Jose Maria Morelos Legacy
Jose Maria Morelos was a remarkable and humble personality that shines in school textbooks for prioritizing the nation—that didn’t even have a name back then—and its “feelings”, that he knew from the stories of the people that inhabited it. He is remembered as a faithful, loyal servant of Mexico and as the first one not to put his personal interests and agenda before the homeland’s.
You can go to beautiful Janitzio, an island in Michoacan, famous for holding the most emblematic Day of the Death Celebration of Mexico, to see the Jose Maria Morelos 156 ft (47.75 m) tall statue.
You can also find one in the limits of Mexico City, a location that is part of the Freedom Trail. There are others in the state of Morelos, Jalisco, plenty in the capital—like in the Angel of Independence and the Ciudadela—, in Ecatepec de Morelos—at his house, now museum, where he spent his last hours—and in his natal city of Morelia, close to the Historic Downtown Square. There is even a Jose Maria Morelos statue in Panama City!
Also, you can admire Diego Rivera’s work by contemplating his “Mexico Throughout the Centuries” mural, part of a style and artistic movement called Mexican muralism. This piece was meant to educate people who couldn’t read by looking at the visual history of Mexico. Nevertheless, this is just a taste of all the art dedicated to Jose Maria Morelos.
Learn More About Jose Maria Morelos and Mexican History!
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