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An unheralded hero of Mexico’s Independence War

Shortly after Father Miguel Hidalgo launched the fight for Mexico’s independence from Spain in December 1810, he received a message from the priest of the small town of Ahualulco in Jalisco.

Padre José María Mercado had been influenced by Hidalgo’s thinking and was requesting permission to aid the rebellion by taking control of the port of San Blas.


Modern-day San Blas, located 90 kilometers north of Puerto Vallarta, is noted for its water birds, crocodiles and—unfortunately—its legions of pesky gnats. Through most of the colonial period, however, San Blas was New Spain’s most important Pacific Coast port, because its bay was deep enough to allow the entrance of very large ships. So renowned did the port become that it inspired American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to immortalize San Blas in his final poem, “The Bells of San Blas.” These church bells represented, in Longfellow’s verse, as:

“a voice of the Past,

Of an age that is fading fast,

Of a power austere and grand;

When the flag of Spain unfurled

Its folds o’er this western world.”

That was not to be for long though. Hidalgo readily gave consent to Mercado’s plan to capture San Blas and take down the Spanish flag.

The priest wasted no time. He swiftly raised an “army” of 50 indigenous volunteers and marched northward from Ahualulco, located 60 kilometers west of Guadalajara.

They took Tepic and soon his contingent of warriors numbered 1,000. Finally, without a fight, San Blas surrendered to them.

This was no small prize. In the late 18th century, San Blas was not only the launching point for voyages to California but also for ambitious expeditions all the way to Canada and Alaska.

San Blas housed plenty of Spanish artillery, and Mercado’s plan was to send everything he could find to Hidalgo and his army that was cutting a swath through western Mexico.

That may sound fairly simple, but you must take into account the condition of the route between San Blas and Guadalajara, where he hoped Hidalgo would receive the big guns.

Says historian Luis Pérez Verdía: “Only a person who knows that camino could comprehend the heroic effort that Mercado undertook. It’s rough the whole way, but he had to get through the deep and impassible barrancas of Mochitiltic.”

Royalist general José de la Cruz once said he found transporting four small cannons along this route “a task more difficult than fighting many battles.”

The trickiest part of that 275-kilometer track was getting through Mochitiltic Canyon, located 35 kilometers northwest of the town of Magdalena.

pg9bEven in modern times, this canyon — today more popularly called the Plan de Barrancas — used to pose formidable problems for anyone trying to drive from Guadalajara to places such as Tepic and Puerto Vallarta.

“It was torture,” recalls old-timer Bob Gibson. “You would drive out of Magdalena and soon come to an incredibly steep, winding road saturated with vehicles going both ways, all moving at the speed of turtles. Inevitably you would find yourself directly behind a string of huge buses, belching great black clouds of diesel smoke, and you had no hope whatsoever of passing them. That’s what it was like for at least an hour and when you reached the other side of Plan de Barrancas, you’d find you had traveled horizontally only two kilometers.”

Thanks to the construction of the Guadalajara-Tepic toll road in the 1990s, motorists no longer have to suffer the tortures of the Plan de Barrancas. In 1810, however, this was the only route, with no paved roads going through it—just a steep, dirt track.

So how did Mercado get the cannon to Guadalajara?

In 1872, Jalisco historian Ignacio Navarrete described the transportation of the cannon six decades earlier as “a feat beyond comparison.”

He wrote: “With hundreds of Indians glued to each of them like ants, without the assistance of machines, rigging or tackle, by pure strength of arm, they moved those cannon through that hellish canyon. This is heroism!”

Mercado may have transported anywhere from 40 to 100 cannons (reports vary) from San Blas to Guadalajara.  But when he learned that Hidalgo had been badly defeated at the battle of the Puente de Calderón, he ordered the pieces that were moving through Mochitiltic Canyon at that moment to be thrown over the side of the cliff, so the royalists wouldn’t be able to get their hands on them.

pg9cSadly for Mercado and Hidalgo, the local priest in San Blas was unsympathetic to their cause. His name was Padre Nicolás Santos Verdín and he soon organized the Spanish loyalists, who eventually repossessed the cannon.

Mercado was now threatened with the same fate that befell Hidalgo: shameful defrocking and execution.  In the end, he denied Spain that satisfaction and, it appears, leaped to his death from the top of a high precipice.

A few years later, in January 1826, a certain R.W.H. Hardy happened to be traveling through Mochitiltic Canyon and recorded his experience:

“This is new-year’s day,” he wrote, “and I hope never again to pass over so detestable a track! The road was made zigzag; and even then it was almost impassably steep; so much so indeed, that a drove of mules which preceded us, when ascending the second and third turnings of the road, appeared to be perpendicularly above us; so that, if they had fallen, they must have come upon our heads.”

Eventually, continued Hardy, “we reached the summit, to our great joy, and presently lost sight of the barrancas of Michitiltic (sic). .. Having proceeded some distance along the road which leads from the summit behind us, we observed, lying on the ground, a cannon dismounted. It was a sixteen-pounder, which Father Mercado had left six or eight years ago in the same situation that it now occupies.”

Rumor has it that even today several pieces of cannon are still scattered around or at the bottom of Mochitiltic Canyon, hidden in what Hardy called “that majestically beautiful confusion of mountain, precipice and valley,” forgotten testimony to Mexico’s unfaltering resolution to shake off the yoke of Spanish colonialism.

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