During the beginning of the 1800s, the citizens of Laredo kept a watchful eye on what was happening in Europe between Spain and France. In September 1808, the alcalde of Laredo had received a copy of the formal declaration of war by Ferdinand VII against Napoleon Bonaparte.
Shortly thereafter, Napoleon invaded Spain and forced the abdication of King Ferdinand VII. In his place, Napoleon placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte. Many creoles in New Spain did not like their new king, thus the time was just right for a rebellion to take place. Consequently, a group of creoles loyal to King Ferdinand VII met in Querétaro to plan the overthrow of the dominant peninsular Spaniards.
One of the conspirators was Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the parish priest at the remote village of Dolores, of about 15,000 inhabitants, and located southeast of San Felipe de los Herreros, north of Guanajuato. Before their plan could be executed, however, word had leaked out to the Spanish authorities.
Having no choice but to put their plan in motion as quickly as possible, on the morning of September 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo enthusiastically rang the bells of his parish church to summon his parishioners for Sunday Mass. Standing tall at the pulpit, the quinquagenarian priest, with round shoulders, penetrating green eyes, white-haired and slightly balding, began uproariously exhorting his parishioners to join him in the fight for independence from Spain. In part, he proclaimed, “My friends and countrymen: neither the king nor tributes exist for us any longer. We have borne this shameful tax, which only suits slaves, for three centuries as a sign of tyranny and servitude…The moment of our freedom has arrived. The hour of our liberty has struck…The cause is holy and God will protect it….Long live the Virgen of Guadalupe! Long live America, Long live Fernando VII, for which we are going to fight!” His exhortations became known in Mexican history as the “Grito de Dolores.”
Within a week after the Grito de Dolores, the first official news of the revolt reached Laredo. It was an official proclamation issued by Viceroy Don Francisco Javier Venegas, calling for popular obedience and confidence in his government. Four days later, the citizens of Laredo received a second proclamation from the viceroy, placing a price of 10,000 pesos for the death or capture of Father Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, and Juan de Aldama.
The viceroy called upon General Félix María Calleja del Rey to suppress the insurgents, who managed to drive the army of revolutionaries northward with very decisive defeats. In the meantime, Father Hidalgo ordered Mariano Jiménez to take command of San Luis Potosí and the adjoining northern provinces to include Coahuila, Nuevo León, Nuevo Santander, and Texas. Once in control of these provinces, Jiménez directed his attention to the settlements along the Río Grande.
The revolution, however, was not easily suppressed, and it gathered strength among the Indians and mestizos. Juan Vicente de Arce kept the authorities of Laredo informed on the conditions of the revolt. On Saturday, October 27, 1810, he reported to the alcalde, Don José Ramón Diaz de Bustamante, on the conditions in the Villa de San Miguel and the town of Dolores.
A month later, the alcalde issued a proclamation to all the citizens of the Villa de Laredo to take up arms in order to defend the sacred rights of the Catholic religion, King, and country. A week later, on Wednesday, November 28, 1810, the alcalde, Don José Ramón Diaz de Bustamante, received a decree from the Archbishop of Mexico and from the viceroy urging the citizens to take the necessary precautions against the insurgents. He was kept informed on a weekly basis by letters, edicts, and decrees.
Accordingly, he posted these official notices at San Agustín Plaza. And two days later, on Friday, November 30, 1810, the parish priest of Laredo received a decree from the Archbishop stating that all parish priests were responsible for announcing the edict of the excommunication of Father Hidalgo to the parishioners during Sunday services.
On March 20, 1811, the alcalde at Laredo received another edict from Don Félix María Calleja del Rey. In the document he is listed as “Brigadier of the Royal Army, Sub-Inspector and Commander of the 10th Brigade of this kingdom of the dependent Internal Provinces, and Commander General of the Army fighting the insurgents.”
He stated that this edict has been “approved by the Superior government of this Kingdom for the order and safety of the people, and the pardon and punishment of its offenders….in order to establish order and peace for the citizens.”
The edict lists 22 articles and all of them are quite explicit, ranging from pardon decrees, use of weapons, punishment by the death penalty for disobeying any one of the articles, aiding and harboring the insurgents, secret meetings in their homes, curfews, and others. Here are some examples:
Article #1: “A pardon decree issued by His Excellency, the Viceroy, on November 12 of last year  to all those who having repented want to sever themselves from the insurgents and will be granted eight days of grace from the day in which it is made public in whatever town, ranch, hacienda, or house.
Article #2: “Those who present themselves after the prescribed time or who may be apprehended, the justices will keep them under arrest and will immediately notify the military chief or safety council that may be in that province. The local authorities will list the names in a book of the individuals who will take advantage of the eight-day period of grace. They will present themselves to take advantage within the previously noted period of grace and will receive free for their safe-keeping a safe conduct document.
Article #4: “If those captured were one of the leaders, such as Hidalgo, or Allende, or Abasalo, whoever would capture them and can verify it would receive diez mil pesos noted in said bond to the person who captures the two Aldama brothers, Hidalgo, or Allende and he who would execute any other of the leaders would be rewarded with an amount of money. Furthermore, a very honorable position that will provide a decent living for the rest of his life will also be awarded.
Article #5: “All firearms including machetes and knives that might be in custody of any person regardless of class or condition will be turned in to the local judge within 24 hours…The person who does not comply with the above law shall receive the death penalty.”
Article #6: “The same death penalty will be imposed upon those who know of someone who has some firearms or ammunitions but does not report them immediately.
Article #8: “Any gathering of more than six persons on the streets is prohibited. The infantry patrol have orders to disperse them immediately by gunshot.”
Article #9: “Any person without distinction of class, who is seen on the streets after ten o’clock will be arrested…and will have to pay the corresponding fine…”
Article #10: “In case of a gun-fight or any incident, no citizen shall leave his house. Anybody who disobeys will be considered a rebel and will be shot in the act. In such circumstances, everybody shall remain inside their homes and shall not even look out the window.”
Article #11: “Any person who has bought or acquired money, silver, jewelry, clothing, etc. from the insurgents should report them to the authorities twenty-four hours after this decree has been issued. He who does not obey shall be treated and punished as a rebel….the same will apply to persons who conceal any information about their neighbors doing business with the insurgents.”
Article #12: “All the belongings of the rebels and of the accomplices shall be denounced immediately and confiscated by the authorities…”
Article #14: “No person will be allowed to leave the town nor to travel without an authorized pass or a passport. This law applies to all persons regardless of class or rank. The persons who are caught without any identification papers shall be treated like an insurgent and he who does not have the proper papers and is found carrying a weapon shall receive the death penalty.”
Article #15: “The same death penalty shall be imposed upon whoever is found carrying firearms of any kind without the permission of the authorities.”
Article #17: “In any town, ranch, or hacienda, where the rebels are given food, quarters, money, horses, saddles, or any other item pertinent to the wars, the people should do as little business with them as possible. Even though they may be parents, sons, brothers, or relatives. The inhabitants will be decimated and executed.”
Article #18: “In any town, hacienda, or ranch where there are rumors that the insurgents are having a meeting or that emissaries from the rebels come to incite a rebellion, and if nobody notifies the military chief immediately, the Justices and the townspeople will be treated and punished as enemies of the country.”
Article #20: “Nobody will be allowed to have secret meetings in their homes. The person who is aware of such meetings and does not report it to the respective judge…will be treated as a rebel even though he may have never attended such meetings. The authorities will closely watch such activities and will sentence those who “are caught to a very drastic penalty even to the death penalty, depending upon the circumstances.”
Article #22: “Any town that has been pardoned and again returns voluntarily to the insurrection without outside intervention will be burned and its inhabitants will be executed.”
With these stringent and severe laws, the Spanish authorities hoped to keep the citizens of Laredo loyal to the Spanish Crown.
(J. Gilberto Quezada is a retired public school administrator, an award-winning author, writer, novelist, essayist, and poet. His political biography, Border Boss: Manuel B. Bravo and Zapata County, published by Texas A&M University Press in 1999 received the prestigious Texas Institute of Letters Award, the Webb County Heritage Foundation Award, and the American Association for State and Local History Award.)