Anáhuac & Rome: Converging Indigeneity and Religiosity in Mexico’s Republican Moment

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Arturo Chang

After having read Fray Servando Teresa de Mier’s Historia de la Revolución de Mexico (1813), Henry Cullen, an English observer of the American revolutions, wrote to Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar with concerns that Mexican insurgents would revive Aztec religious practices. The Historia was replete with syncretic imagery that overlapped indigenous and Christian cosmologies to portray a Mexican past where the colonial legacies of Spain were relegated to irrelevancy. Mier’s Historia also framed Mexican insurgency as an ethno-religious movement set on restoring the powers of the Anáhuac Empire. The word “Anáhuac” comes from Nahuatl and was primarily used as a geographic term that identified the territory of the Nahuatlacas, “the great Earth encircled and surrounded by water.”[1] Anáhuac took on a political valence in the fifteenth century by indigenous groups collectivizing against Aztec domination and seeking to declare war against the “Mexicans” for the murder of the chiefs of Chalco.[2] In eighteenth century New Spain, Anáhuac was undergoing popular renewal to reveal a new moment of resistance—this time against Spanish colonial order. Cullen’s hurried letter to Bolívar, it turns out, was not entirely mistaken. Mexican insurgents used indigenous revivalism to reframe the revolution as a restorative act that subverted colonial authority by appealing to the successes of ancient American civilizations.

Bolívar’s response to Cullen, now known as his “Jamaica Letter,” presented Mier’s Historia as part of a broader Pan-American movement rooted in the “irrevocably fixed” destiny of American independence.[3] Bolivar praised Mexican insurgents for instrumentalizing religious loyalties and political enthusiasm to produce “a passionate fervor for the sacred cause of freedom” through a veneration of the Lady of Guadalupe “superior to the most exalted rapture that the cleverest prophet could inspire.”[4] While Bolívar reasonably claimed the intersection between religious passions and popular politics was an idiosyncratic feature of Mexican insurgency, he seems to have downplayed the importance of indigenous cosmologies for collectivizing Pan-American revolutionary discourse.[5]

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 2.06.19 PM
Luis de Mena, Virgin of Guadalupe and Castas, 1750.

By the 1810s, indigenous revivalism was a common rhetorical feature of Pan-American narratives that reinforced a historical rupture between the Old and New Worlds.[6] The American hemisphere was amidst a contentious negotiation of the histories and identities that would characterize post-colonial change during the Age of Revolutions (c.1775-1850). In my dissertation, I trace the convergence between religion, indigeneity, and republicanism in Mexico, Colombia, and Peru to illustrate some of the ways these categories were interwoven catalysts of popular revolution.[7] In this analysis, I briefly outline the ways Mexico’s revolutionary context pushes us to rethink the “rigorously secular,” nationalist, and elite features of republican political thought.

Political theorists like Niccolò Machiavelli, James Harrington, Charles de Montesquieu, and Alexis de Tocqueville contended with the necessity of religion as a conditioning power in society that could nonetheless act as a competing source of authority and destabilize rule.[8] The loyalties and public commitments of republican citizens are in the rule of law, after all, which delineates the practical boundaries of liberty to enable equal participation within the body politic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau also addressed this problem in the Social Contract (1762) by weaving together republican virtue, the common good, and religious passions in what he called “a purely civil profession of faith.”[9] The resulting religiosity of civic virtue established “sentiments of sociability,” for Rousseau, and was thus integral to the preservation of an otherwise entirely secular republic.[10]

The wave of insurgencies that shook New Spain in 1810, however, was neither elite, nor nationally bound, and was far from secular. The first phase of popular rebellion was led by creole and mestizo parish priests—a class that generally framed the ideological aims of independence and was persecuted for teaching republican thinkers.[11] Insurgencies began in the rural areas of New Spain and were largely composed of indigenous actors, farmers, peasants, merchants, and artisans marching toward metropolitan centers. The preliminary phase of Mexico’s independence movement culminated with the Congress of Anáhuac, where Jose Maria Morelos announced the Constitution of Apatzingán (1814) and the emancipation of all Americanos. Americanos, in this case, was defined comprehensively as all people born on American soil in the eve of revolutions.[12] The Constitution designated Roman Catholicism as the official religion of independent Mexico, eliminated all social and ethnic distinctions, abolished slavery, and exiled all peninsular Spaniards (Gachupines) from New Spain.[13] Mexico’s republican moment was characteristically religious, popularly driven, and internationally identified through indigenous revival (Anáhuac) and hemispheric unity (Americanos).[14] In other words, republicanism was transformed amidst its deployment in the wider American Age of Revolutions, and the hemisphere found unity through ethnic belonging by referencing the story of the Anáhuac peoples born of the world (cemanahuac).[15]

The innovations of republicanism in the Americas, I suggest, began with a purposeful return to indigeneity and an attempt to delineate a new relationship with their historical legacies. Jesuit thinkers of the eighteenth century, like Carlos Sigüenza de Góngora, Francisco Javier Clavijero, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, and Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzman, led the first wave of indigenous revivalist rhetoric by publishing historical works in response to European scholarship on the “New World.”[16] Studies of indigenous history in the eighteenth century proved instrumental for legitimizing independence projects in the nineteenth century by reframing the hemisphere’s relationship with colonial history.[17] This initial phase of indigenous revival comprised a struggle to re-appropriate the colonial legacies of the “New World” and open a path toward post-colonial worldmaking by way of a renewed understanding of indigeneity as a concept of foundation.[18] Francisco Clavijero’s Historia Antigua de Mexico is an example of this intellectual movement. Clavijero studied the history, geography, and environmental conditions of New Spain in response to European naturalist arguments but with little interest in fomenting a revolutionary trajectory.[19] Clavijero’s work, however, would set the historical parameters for Mexico’s independence movement through the restoration of the Anáhuac empire[20]

Mier’s 1794 sermon on the commemoration of the Lady of Guadalupe politicized indigenous revival by converging it with Catholic symbolism and American myth.[21] Mier’s theological and political work on indigenous belonging would be fundamental for illustrating the connection between local insurgency movements, national revolution, and the broader international post-colonial enterprise. Insurgent leaders in New Spain used the saliency of indigeneity and Catholicism to manipulate the scope of the movement and legitimize their cause by reference other insurgencies throughout the continent. The rebellion lead by Miguel Hidalgo in 1810, for example, collectivized popular actors against Spain by marching behind a banner of the Lady of Guadalupe. Four years later, after Hidalgo’s death, Morelos inherited the creole-Catholic loyalties of his teacher but internationalized indigenous revival at the Congress of Anáhuac by granting civic protections to all Americanos born in Mexico.[22] While Morelos and the Anáhuac order perished, this wave of syncretic activity merits further attention as a feature of indigenous thinking and the transformation of republican thought in the Americas. Recent work on the Age of Revolutions reveals the need for a renewed understanding of American Political Thought that accounts for the importance of hemispheric thinking and post-colonial imaginaries. I suggest starting with indigeneity and religion as convergent ideological features of American insurgency deployed to sever republican language from its colonial legacies.

Arturo Chang is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and a Franke Graduate Fellow with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. His dissertation studies the emergence of Pan-American discourse and its influence on popular insurgency movements in Mexico, Colombia, and Peru during the Age of Revolution (c. 1775-1850). His research in American Political Thought traces the innovations of indigenous actors and narratives of ethnic belonging for post-colonial nation-building and institutional design. His broader research interests are in popular movements, revolutionary change, post-colonial thought, and comparative political theory. This research was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Buffett Institute for Global Studies and the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Northwestern University.

Title Image: Diego Rivera, Niños Pidiendo Posada (1953).

Suggested Reading

Brading, D. A. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots and the Liberal State 1492-1866. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Earle, Rebecca A. The Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810–1930. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007.

Ducey, Michael T. A Nation of Villages: Riot and Rebellion in the Mexican Huasteca, 1750-1850. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

Mallon, Florencia E. Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru. First edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Simon, Joshua. The Ideology of Creole Revolution: Imperialism and Independence in American and Latin American Political Thought. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Viroli, Maurizio. Republicanism. Translated by Antony Shugaar. 1st edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.


[1] Chimalpahin, Annals, 85-86; Brinton, On the Words “Anáhuac” and “Nahuatl,” 6-7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bolívar, “Carta de Jamaica,” 5–6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bolívar’s relegation of indigenous revival to Mexico was in line with his more conservative approach to republican revolution, which emphasized Creole-elite participation in the nation-building process and attempted to inherit the social hierarchies of the Spanish colonial system. See: Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution.

[6] Earle, “Creole Patriotism and the Myth of the ‘Loyal Indian’”;  cf. Earle, The Return of the Native.

[7] This is a condensed version of a chapter from my dissertation, entitled, “Imagining America: International Commiseration and National Revolution in the Modern Post-Colony” where I trace the emergence of Pan-American discourse and its influence on popular insurgency movements during the Age of Revolution. My chapter on Mexico, entitled, “Anáhuac & Rome: Restorative Revolution and Indigenous Republicans in Nascent Mexico,” analyzes the deployment of indigenous revivalist rhetoric and the roles of indigenous actors during Mexico’s republican revolution. I aim to demonstrate that republican concepts underwent popular transformations through their connections with indigeneity. The latter was deployed as a post-colonial concept of belonging throughout the early modern Americas. In doing so I am indebted to recent work by scholars of the American hemisphere, in particular,  Joshua Simon, Caitlin Fitz, Lina del Castillo, Rebecca Earle, Angelica Bernal. See: Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution; Fitz, Our Sister Republics; Bernal, Beyond Origins; Del Castillo, Crafting a Republic for the World; and Earle, The Return of the Native.

[8] Viroli, Republicanism, 94; Connolly, The Life of Roman Republicanism, 61; Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy; Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 9, 19, 30;  and De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 47, 68.

[9] Rousseau, The Social Contract, 150.

[10] Rousseau, 150,151; Ball, Reappraising Political Theory, 227.

[11] Torres Puga, “Rousseau en Nueva España: presencia y recepcíon antes de 1808.”

[12] Constitution of Apatzingán (1814).

[13] Brading, The First America.

[14] Brading, Los origenes del nacionalismo mexicano.

[15] Brinton, On the Words “Anáhuac” and “Nahuatl”, 5.

[16] By the mid-eighteenth century two competing stereotypes characterized the rivalry between peninsular Spaniards and Spanish American residents of the colonies. On the one hand, peninsular Spaniards were ridiculed through portrayals of the “Gachupines” as “ignorant, avaricious, tradesman.” On the other hand, Creoles were portrayed as “well-born wastrels” and passive beneficiaries of Spanish colonial policy. Indigenous stereotypes of Aztec barbarity were also commonplace in this period, repeated among thinkers like Abbé Raynal, Buffon, and William Robertson. See: Brading, Classical Republicanism and Creole Patriotism, 39; Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World.

[17] It is important to contextualize the emergence of indigenous revivalism within the institutional conditions of the Bourbon Reforms, and later, with the political destabilization of the Spanish monarchy during the Peninsular War. The Bourbon Reforms established common experiences of subjection to absolutist colonial institutions which in turn highlighted the political purchase of Pan-American unity. See: Sabato, Republics of the New World; Guardino, The Time of Liberty; Guardino, Peasants, Politics, and the Formation of Mexico’s National State; Pagden, Spanish Imperialism and the Political Imagination; Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World.

[18] I use Adom Getachew’s concept of “worldmaking” here to characterize the collective movement to build post-colonial imaginaries in the Americas. See: Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire.

[19] Brading, The First America, 453; Clavijero, Historia Antigua De México Y De Su Conquista.

[20] Clavijero, Historia Antigua De México Y De Su Conquista.

[21] Mier’s sermon resulted in his subsequent exile to Europe where he met with Simón Rodriguez, Simón Bolívar’s former teacher, and Lucas Alamán, a conservative Mexican merchant. In London, Mier collaborated with José Maria Blanco in publishing El Español (1812-1814), the first known newspaper to have openly advocated for American independence from Spain. While it is difficult to assess how much José María Blanco’s and Mier’s collaboration on El Español influenced radical sentiments in Mexico, the publication nevertheless coincided with the outbreak of republican insurgency. See: Brading, Orbe indiano.

[22] Guardino, The Time of Liberty.

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