Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Essays < or The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire < Research <

Prologue by C.M. Mayo
for the book by Luis Reed Torres,
El Libertador sin patria
Publicaciones Doble EE, 2017
ISBN 978-607-97750-50-1
In this magnificent and astonishing study and collection of nineteenth century speeches and other texts, many retrieved from the deepest recesses of diverse archives, Luis Reed Torres brings us rich material for reconsidering the question, what does it mean to be Mexican?

This is a trickster of a question, for there is no way around a proper answer that does not include a figure whom official Mexican history tends to belittle, that is, the author of the Plan of Iguala, the Liberator, and Emperor of Mexico, Don Agustín de Iturbide.

But first a confession and an explanation. I am not Mexican but married to a Mexican, and having lived in Mexico for more years than I have lived in my own country, I have grappled with this question of what it means to be Mexican, both directly and indirectly, in all of my works. The most relevant here is The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, a novel based on the true story (and many years of my own spelunking into archives) of the grandson of Agustín de Iturbide in the court of Mexico's second emperor, that Icarus of an Austrian archduke, Maximilian von Habsburg.

As every Mexican school child learns, Agustín de Iturbide ended up before a firing squade in 1824, as did Maximilian in 1867. And they have more in common. As the popular and official versions of Mexican history would have it, they were both ambitious, arrogant, avaricious and, most damningly, anachronistic. They sat on thrones! They wrapped themselves like tamales in ermine capes! Iturbide sported preposterous sideburns, while Maximilian's red beard was so luxuriant it seemed it might sprout paws and scamper off on its own. Their fleeting reigns may have been separated by some four decades of civil wars, foreign invasions and the loss of vast territories, and if the former cast off the yoke of the Old World, while the latter brought it back (not in his rhetoric but in his person and in support from the French Imperial Army, among others), in the popular mind of today, these characters seem less tragic than farcical, two peas in a pod of ridiculousness.

But if we aim to see these men clearly, we need to take into account their historical and political context. For much of the nineteenth century, monarchism, if not the only form of government on the menu, was nonetheless mainstream. In Iturbide's lifetime, the United States with its republic modeled on the Roman was still widely considered a radical experiment; the tumult and terror of the French Revolution and its aftermath was yet within living memory. Furthermore, both the monarchies of Iturbide and Maximilian enjoyed the blessings of the Pope—and perhaps for the younger generation I need mention that the Catholic Church was then a far more formidable institution. And if the ranks of Mexican monarchists had shrunk by the time Maximilian happened on the scene in the 1860s, they were nonetheless ardent and powerful—powerful enough to get this archduke who was second in-line to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a descendant of the Spanish Habsburg kings, over the ocean and onto the cactus throne, and, moreover, for his Imperial balls and other entertainments, to fill Mexico City's Palacio Imperial—and many municipal palaces—with the cream of Mexican society.

What does it mean to be Mexican? Of the many layers of answers to this question, the two most essential were laid down in the nineteenth century: the first answer was Iturbide's; the second came with Maximilian's defeat.

That first answer was a stroke of genius—"the master key," as Luis Reed Torres calls it, articulated by Agustín Iturbide in the 1821 Plan of Iguala. It came at a desperate moment when New Spain had been riven by years of not only ferocious rebellion against Spain, but ruinous race and class wars. Then a royalist officer, Iturbide had been dispatched by the viceroy to pursure and crush the insurgent leader, Vicente Guerrero. Long story short, after some weeks, Iturbide finally met Guerrero and proposed that they join forces to fight for independence from Spain. With the Plan of Iguala, writes Reed Torres (my translation):
"from this moment forward, all social groups made up of white Spaniards, creoles, mestizos, Indians, blacks, etc., will be simply and fully be Mexican. Iturbide thus became the creator of our nationality."
Iturbide, a criollo, that is, a Mexican of Spanish descent, named New Spain "Mexico" after the Mexica, or Aztecs, certainly not the only indigenous group but the one dominant at the time of the Conquest.

At that point Iturbide's next step was not to place the crown of Mexico upon his own head. In order to avoid "the fateful consequences of ambition," as he himself put it, his aim was to bring a sufficiently blue-blooded Catholic European to Mexico City to rule as the new country's constitutional monarch. To modern readers this surely sounds peculiar, but in the early nineteenth century, this was a move many people considered both apt and judicious. However, no such European royal house would release a prince and the pressure was on for the Liberator, the generalisimo, to assume the throne himself—as Reed's study makes clear.

It would be as difficult to exaggerate the popularity Iturbide enjoyed at that moment as for the people of that time to guess that his rule as Emperor of Mexico would collapse so catastrophically in only ten months. (It remains a point of debate to what degree this was by Iturbide's own shortcomings or by the winds and tides, most especially fiscal, that would have been beyond the strength of any government to withstand, or to the intrigues of the regime's enemies.)

But despite Iturbide's fall, throughout the nineteenth century, his role in Mexican history was remembered and honored—and not only by conservatives, but by the most outstanding of Mexico's intellectuals. Writes Reed Torres (my translation), "Not one, I repeat, not one of these writers, politcians and military officers, all liberals to an extreme, ever denied to Iturbide the honorable title of Liberator of Mexico"—and the contents of this collection that you, dear reader, hold in your hands stand as solid evidence.

So why is it that Agustín de Iturbide has been belittled and overlooked in modern Mexico? As Reed Torres details in his final part of his book, Agustin de Iturbide's second martyrdom came with a vote in the Mexican Congress in 1921. And I submit that one part of the multi-part answer to why emotions ran so high can be found in the second essential layer of an answer to that question, what does it mean to be Mexican?

This second essential layer of an answer came with the collapse of Maximilian's Second Empire and the triumph of the Republic, a moment encapsulated in my novel—and in fact—in Maximilian's letter of October 25, 1866 to Doña Alicia Green de Iturbide, the American mother of the then four year-old grandson of the Liberator. To quote from that letter:
"In fulfilling the repeated requests by yourself, your husband, and others of your family members, I hereby cede all responsibility for having violated the indicated contract, which was made for the exclusive benefit of your son and your family, to you, who have broken it."
I realize my assertion may seem strange. Let me explain.

This contract, in which Maximilian recognized the descendants of Agustín de Iturbide as Highnesses, granted them pensions, and assumed responsability for the education of the two grandsons (the younger, Agustín de Iturbide y Green, to remain in Mexico City, and the teenaged namesake son of the deceased Salvador, to study abroad) was celebrated in Chapultepec Castle on September 15, 1865.

In sum, in this and with many other public gestures, Maximilian celebrated the Liberator, and the Liberator's family collaborated closely with Maximilian. I believe that some of the Iturbides, above all Angel, the father of the little prince, were compelled by fear. The most enthusiastic signatory was the Liberator's third and unmarried middle-aged daughter, Josefa de Iturbide who, as per the contract, would be, together with Maximilian, co-tutoress of her godson and nephew, the then two-and-a-half year old Prince Agustín de Iturbide y Green.

Maximilian had excellent reasons to co-opt the Iturbides. Above all, the presence in Mexico, and indeed the living breathing existence of any descendant of that national hero and prior monarch represented a dangerous opportunity for any nationalist conservative opposition to his rule to coalesce. Moreover, while the eldest son of the Liberator had no legitimate offspring, the second son, Angel, and his American wife, had an attractive little boy born in Mexico City in 1863—the year before Maximilian's arrival. More dangerously, after several years of marriage, Maximilian and his consort Carlota had been unable to produce a child.

It bears underlining that in a monarchy, the lack of an heir represents grave risk to the state. Carlota did not sign Maximilian's contract with the Iturbides, but as her correpondence with Maximilian shows, she encouraged the arrangement with the Iturbides and she personally negotiated it. She would have been painfully aware that in other places and other times empresses unable to produce an heir had been discarded, in one way or another.

There are more chapters to the story of Maximilian's attempts to secure an heir (among them, he tried to import one of his Habsburg nephews). Nonetheless, for all practical purposes, by the contract of September 1865, an heir presumptive to the Mexican throne was in place: Agustín de Iturbide y Green, grandson of the Liberator.

It was a collaboration filled with misunderstandings. It embarrassed both Maximilian and Carlota; it divided the Iturbide family, bitterly; and the American mother, forcibly exiled to Paris, got up quite the international scandal, prompting a January 9, 1866 front page story in the New York Times about "the kidnapping of an American child" by "the so-called Emperor of Mexico."

What sparked my interest was that such a person existed—this last prince of the Mexican Empire, Agustín de Iturbide y Green—and that I, having lived in Mexico and having read about its history for many years at that point, had never heard more than a whisper about him. And of course, as an American married to a Mexican, I was intensely curious to learn more about my countrywoman, Alicia Green de Iturbide.

However, it took me several years to uncover the puzzle-pieces of this story and then fit them together because, apart from the Second Empire being a laberinthically transnational episode, when it comes to the Iturbides, what sources mention them immediately mist over with vagueness and, oftentimes, head-shakingly blunderous errors. With the exception of the single page in Egon Caesar Conte Corti's masterwork, Maximiliano y Carlota, an early history based on a careful study of Maximilian's archives in Vienna, not a one of these historians and memoirists of the Second Empire seems to have fully comprehended Maximilian's motives for, nor all the points of his contract with the Iturbides. Not a one that I ever found mentions the second edition—yes, there is a second edition of 1866—of the Reglamento para el servicio y ceremonial de la corte (the court's book of protocol) with its all new first chapter specifying, with elaborate precision, the very special status of the Iturbide Princes.*
*For detail on sources, see the "The History of the History" at the conclusion of the novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books, 2009). This essay is also available in Spanish translation by Agustín Cadena on my website at http://www.cmmayo.com/esp-ultimo-p-historia.html
Many readers of my novel have remarked on my having spun a novel out of "a little footnote" of Mexican history. But to consider the grandson of Agustín de Iturbide in the court of Maximilian a "footnote" is a profound misunderstanding. A monarchy asserts the mystical embodiment of its people in the person of a hereditary sovereign. In other words, in a monarchy, the heir, though he be in diapers, is the guarantee of the regime's future, and more: he is the living symbol of his future people—his subjects.

Would Mexicans be subjects, creatures born to obey—or citizens of a republic, who with their full rights, participate in creating their own polity?

This was the question that the liberals, in their triumph over Maximilian and monarchism, won the power to answer.

To return to Maximilian's letter of October 25, 1866 to Doña Alicia Green de Iturbide. By those strokes of his pen, in annulling his contract with the Iturbides, Maximilian turned an Imperial Highness and heir presumptive into a normal boy. Maximilian never did abdicate, but in this letter he did the nearest thing to it, for he was acknowledging, albeit with pique and an appalling disingenuousness, that the Mexican monarchy had no future.

Mexicans would not be subjects.

Citizens can participate in an infinite number of ways, but one of the most vital is in questioning and correcting their own history. This Luis Reed Torres has done in this rescue of this chorus of Mexican voices—public and liberal voices of the nineteenth century—speaking to us of their recognition of and respect for the Liberator, Agustín de Iturbide.