Ortíz de Dominguez, Josefa (c. 1768–1829)
Ortíz de Dominguez, Josefa (c. 1768–1829)
Known as "the mother of Mexico's nationhood" and one of a handful of women of the elite class to support actively Mexico's independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821. Name variations: Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez; La Corregidora. Born María Josefa Ortíz Girón in 1768 (some historians cite 1775), in either Valladolid or Mexico City; died at home in Mexico City on May 3, 1829; daughter of Captain Juan José Ortíz and Manuela Girón, about whom nothing is known; probably educated at home by an older sisterand other relatives; could read and write with fluency when she entered the prestigious school and asylum for women, the Colegio de las Vizcaínas in Mexico City on May 30, 1789; married the distinguished government official, Miguel Dominguez, regularized in 1793; children: María Ignacia (b. 1792); J.M. Florencio (b. 1793); Mariano (b. 1794); M. Dolores (b. 1796); Miguel (b. 1797); M. Juana (b. 1799); M. Micaela (b. 1800); Remigio (b. 1801); M. Teresa (b. 1803); M. Manuela (b. 1804); M. Ana (b. 1806); J.M. Hilarion (b. 1807); M. Magdalena (b. 1811); M. del Carmen (b. 1812).
Despite their numerous children and her husband's high position in the royalist bureaucracy, both participated in a conspiracy in Querétaro to overthrow Spanish rule (1810); warned co-conspirators in neighboring Guanajuato, Father Miguel Hidalgo and militia Captain Ignacio Allende, that their plans to overthrow the viceregal government had been betrayed (September 14, 1810); arrested and imprisoned the day Hidalgo commenced the revolt against Spanish rule (September 16, 1810); released for lack of evidence of sedition (October 22, 1810); secretly continued to support the independence movement until arrested and taken to Mexico City under heavy guard (December 29, 1813); imprisoned in the Convent of St. Teresa (January 6, 1814); released due to serious illness (April 1814); resumed contacts with insurgents and rearrested (December 22, 1815); imprisoned in the Convent of St. Catherine of Siena until her release (June 17, 1817); after Mexico gained independence, deplored the seizure of power by ex-royalist Agustín Iturbide, who was crowned emperor (1822); refused to serve as "dame of honor" in the empress' court; vindicated after Iturbide's overthrow (1823); lived to see her husband's elevation to the highest ranks of the executive and the judiciary in the early Republic of Mexico.
Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez, the brave, decisive, and legendary heroine of Mexico's independence movement, has been admired, extolled and praised by Mexicans for over eight generations. Without her timely warning in mid-September 1810 to the priest-turned-revolutionary Miguel Hidalgo and his associates, the independence movement might have been postponed for years. Yet despite Josefa's enduring fame we know little about her parents, the year of her birth, or her first 20 years. What we do know for certain about Josefa from several authentic paintings and drawings is that she was a criolla, which automatically placed her in the elite ranks of the 10% of the Mexican population that could boast of primarily Spanish ancestry.
Orphaned at an early age and reportedly raised by an elder sister, in May 1789 Josefa entered one of the most notable schools for women in Mexico City, the Colegio de las Vizcaínas. Established earlier in the 18th century by enlightened and wealthy Vizcayans (Basques), the school was run by educated women and was a haven for genteel orphans, young women without dowries, and needy widows. At Las Vizcaínas, younger residents were given a rigorous religious education and were also taught the domestic arts, to prepare them for either a religious life or marriage.
In 1790, approximately a year after Josefa entered Las Vizcaínas, the school was inspected by members of the city council and Miguel Dominguez, a court attorney in the viceregal government. Miguel was one of the relatively few criollos to attain a high position in the Spanish-run bureaucracy in Mexico City and later in the provincial capital of Querétaro. He was a distinguished lawyer whose intelligence and integrity were, beginning in 1784, recognized and rewarded by three successive viceroys. When Miguel met Josefa, he was 34, and had been a lonely widower for four years. In need of a suitable wife to help him raise four children from a first marriage, Miguel soon asked the rectora (director) of Las Vizcaínas for permission to visit Josefa regularly. He was enchanted by her great beauty, high spirits, intelligence, and lively conversation. Within months, Miguel made known his desire to marry Josefa, and, early in 1791, she left the school with her intended.
Three years after leaving Las Vizcaínas, and at age 25, Josefa was raising her own two children as well as her four stepchildren. She was endowed with an exceptionally strong constitution, for between 1794 and 1812, she went on to give birth to 12 more children. Raised as an orphan, she delighted in her large family, lavishing all the love and nurturing she had missed as a child on her devoted husband and their children.
At the end of 1800 and after the birth of their seventh child, Miguel, who had for 15 years served several viceroys with distinction and probity, was named by Viceroy Marquina to the prestigious and remunerative post of corregidor de letras (chief legal and financial administrator) of the prosperous city and province of Querétaro. The provincial capital was the center of wool weaving in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, while agriculture, commerce, and artisanry also flourished in the province. As corregidor, Miguel was not only the chief legal and financial representative of the Viceroyalty, but was also president of the municipal council, protector of the Indians, inspector general of the province, and inspector of the many wool-weaving mills in the city of Querétaro.
After a long and arduous journey that took over a month, Miguel and Josefa arrived in Querétaro with their seven children and the youngest of Josefa's stepchildren. They occupied the second story of the splendid government mansion known as the "Casas Reales" or Royal Houses. While Josefa, known from this time forward as La Corregidora, managed a large residence and supervised their children's upbringing, the corregidor embarked on a new phase of his bureaucratic career.
So many soldiers to guard one poor woman! But I with my blood shall fashion a patrimony for my children.
—Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez
Miguel, who always took his duties very seriously, immediately began inspecting the obrajes and trapiches, or wool-weaving mills, that employed up to 4,000 workers in Querétaro alone. He soon discovered that the workers, who were lured to the mills by monetary advances, were miserably exploited by the mill owners and overseers, whom the workers characterized as "tyrants rotted by greed." The mill owners were primarily gachupines, a derisive term for peninsular-born Spaniards. While Spaniards in Mexico numbered only about 70,000 out of a total population of over 6 million, they were deeply resented by most Mexicans because they monopolized the highest positions in church and state and were vastly over-represented in commerce, banking, manufacturing, and mining in New Spain. In one of the most memorable reports to a Viceroy penned by a Mexican public official and dated November 17, 1801, Miguel detailed the horrible conditions in the woolen mills, contrasting them with the decent treatment accorded the debt-free workers in the tobacco factory, the treasury, and the artisans' shop in the city.
The corregidor's concern for the poor and oppressed won him the eternal enmity of the Spaniards in Querétaro, but the gratitude and love of the poor and those criollos who were as enlightened and compassionate as he. Josefa, despite her many concerns as wife, homemaker, and mother, devoted considerable time and attention to charitable acts. It is reported that no one in need was turned away from her door empty-handed. While the mill owners and other Spaniards did all they could to undermine the corregidor's position, Miguel and Josefa were looked upon as saintly by the needy, the oppressed, and the enlightened of Querétaro.
A series of dramatic events after the arrival of a new viceroy, Iturrigaray, in 1803 and lasting until independence was achieved in 1821, had a profound and mostly negative impact on Miguel and Josefa. In 1805, the viceroy, incensed at Miguel's eloquent protest against Iturrigaray's ill-conceived attempt to aid Spain by expropriating Mexican church funds that provided low-interest loans to many landowners and entrepreneurs, suspended Miguel from office. With the help of supportive and influential friends, the couple managed to survive until 1807, when Madrid ordered that Miguel be reinstated as corregidor. On the other hand, after Napoleon's troops occupied all of Spain by May 1808, a call by Viceroy Iturrigaray for the establishment of a national congress won the instant and enthusiastic approval of both Miguel and Josefa and many other criollos in the realm.
Iturrigaray's plan to include Mexicans in his government during the emergency was overruled by Spaniards in Mexico City who, in mid-September 1808, arrested him and illegally removed him from office. Many educated Mexicans, who by now wanted a total break with Spain, began holding secret meetings, first in the city of Valladolid (now Morelia) in western Mexico and, once the conspirators there were betrayed, in Querétaro.
In that city in early 1810, Miguel and Josefa and a number of criollo priests, lawyers, small landowners, civil servants and members of the colonial militia formed a "literary society" to cloak their true purpose. They met regularly at the Dominguez residence and then at other locations. The Querétaro conspirators corresponded and met with like-minded patriots in neighboring Guanajuato and accumulated caches of arms and ammunition in various safe houses in both provinces. By late August, and assured of the support of a number of militia units, the conspirators planned to begin an uprising in mid-October 1810. As happened in the 1809 Valladolid conspiracy, in Querétaro the plot was revealed by insiders who had a change of heart.
On September 14, 1810, the corregidores learned of the betrayal and took action immediately. That night, Miguel, in order to avoid further suspicion and to insure that his co-conspirators were unharmed by royalists, found himself in the anomalous position of having to round up and jail his fellow conspirators. Meanwhile, Josefa warned a loyal bailiff, Ignacio Pérez, who occupied quarters below her, of their danger. She begged him to warn four fellow conspirators in neighboring Guanajuato—the priest Miguel Hidalgo, and the militia officers Allende, Abasola, and Aldama—that their plans for the October uprising had been discovered.
As soon as the corregidora's message reached them, on the night of September 16, 1810, the resolute Father Hidalgo raised the banner of revolt in his parish at Dolores. Bearing the popularly revered image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, within days Hidalgo was joined by thousands of poor Mexicans who responded to his call by shouting "Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe" and, without any encouragement from Hidalgo and his associates, the ominous "Death to the gachupines."
The corregidores and most criollos who wanted independence had envisioned a purely military revolt between Mexican militia units and the royalist army. Instead, the Hidalgo revolt soon degenerated into a ghastly civil war in which civilians were the chief victims. Miguel and Josefa were especially appalled when 300 Spanish men, women, and children in Guanajuato were all slaughtered by hordes who, unlike their leaders, were bent more on revenge than independence. While many criollos shifted their allegiance back to the royalists after the massacres, Josefa, and to a lesser extent her husband, never wavered in support for independence.
On the night of September 16, when Hidalgo began the independence movement in Guanajuato, a minor official in Querétaro arrested and imprisoned both Miguel and Josefa. The next day a higher official intervened and released Miguel, who was returned to his post as corregidor. However, Josefa, no doubt because of her emphatic support for independence, was not released until October 22, 1810. At the time, she was pregnant with her 13th child, born on March 14, 1811, only months before Hidalgo and his associates were captured, interrogated, and then executed in late July 1811.
Totally dependent on his salary to support his family and convinced that independence was unattainable, Miguel had no alternative but to fulfill his duties until his term ended in 1813. Josefa, on the other hand, was unwavering in her support of Hidalgo's successors, the lawyer Ignacio Rayón in western Mexico and the priest-turned-general José María Morelos in the south. She wrote secretly to both from 1811 to late 1813, despite the high risk to herself, her children, and her husband.
On December 14, 1813, a viceregal political agent and visitor general wrote from Querétaro that "La Corregidora is the most effective agent [of the insurgency] in spreading hatred against the King, Spain and the [royalist] cause." On December 29, 1813, Viceroy Calleja, who was responsible for the military defeat of Hidalgo and his successors, ordered that Josefa be arrested and brought to Mexico City. That same day, Calleja wrote to Miguel that the "scandalous conduct" of his wife in support of the revolution had led to her arrest. Calleja warned Miguel that he was to do nothing to impede his wife's arrest for sedition. Miguel was forced to turn his wife over to a military officer and the many soldiers who accompanied him. On the way to Mexico City and as fearless as ever, Josefa tried to win over the soldiers who were guarding her. She was told to be silent by the officer in charge. Her famous response was, "You were ordered to take me prisoner but not to silence me. Carry out your orders and I will fulfill my obligations."
Josefa, ailing and in her last pregnancy, was imprisoned in the severe Convent of Saint Teresa. After appeals to Viceroy Calleja by her husband and herself, she was released to Miguel's custody by April 1814. Shortly after, she suffered a miscarriage. To increase their woe, Miguel was beginning to suffer from cataracts. In Mexico City, their eldest children supported them and paid the rent for the modest house they occupied on the aptly named "Street of the Sad Indian."
Despite their desperate situation, Josefa resumed her pro-independence activities by writing and meeting with other insurgents. On December 22, 1815, an incensed Viceroy Calleja had her arrested again, and she languished in the Convent of Saint Catherine of Siena until Calleja's more humane successor, Viceroy Apodaca, released her on June 17, 1817.
When Spain finally lost control of Mexico in August 1821, Miguel and Josefa, republicans to the core, were appalled when an ex-royalist army officer Agustín Iturbide seized power and had himself declared emperor of Mexico in 1822. Before his coronation, Josefa and Miguel met with old insurgents and anti-Iturbidistas in their modest residence. Detected by Iturbide's minions, they were placed under house arrest. After Iturbide's coronation, his consort Ana Maria Huarte Iturbide was in need of respected women to form part of her court. When her envoys offered Josefa the post of "dame of honor" to the empress, Josefa is reported to have responded that "she who is sovereign in her own home cannot be servant of an Empress."
Vindication for the long-suffering Dominguez family came after Iturbide was overthrown on March 30, 1823. Immediately after, a Supreme Executive Power was established to guide the emerging nation in its transition to a constitutional republic. Two days later, Miguel, despite his failing vision, was appointed to that body. After the promulgation of a new constitution on October 10, 1824, Miguel was appointed to serve as chief justice of the newly formed Supreme Court.
Despite these honors, the couple remained at the old house on the Street of the Sad Indian. Josefa, unlike another heroine of Mexican independence, Leona Vicario , refused any compensation for her enormous suffering and sacrifices in the cause of independence. Her health began to fail by 1827 and when she died on May 2, 1829, her distraught husband and children led an enormous procession to her "beloved prison," the Convent of St. Catherine of Siena, where she was interred. Her grief-stricken husband survived Josefa by a little more than a year.
While the memory of the exemplary corregidor is revered in all of Mexico, it is Josefa who has received the most attention in history books and in public monuments. After her death and into the 20th century, La Corregidora was memorialized by numerous plaques in churches, convents, government buildings, schools and private residences in Mexico City and Querétaro. An imposing statue of a seated Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez graces the beautiful colonial Plaza of Santo Domingo in the capital. A copy is also found in Querétaro; both stand as a fitting tribute to one of the most remarkable women in Mexico's history.
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Zárate Toscano, Verónica. Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez. México: Comisión Nacional para las Celebraciones del 175 Aniversario de la Independencia Nacional y 75 Aniversario de la Revolución Mexicana, 1985.
Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio