Vicario, Leona (1789–1842)

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Vicario, Leona (1789–1842)

Mexican revolutionary, born in an age of upheaval in Europe and the Americas, who became the most no-table woman of wealth and privilege to join the struggle for Mexican independence from 1810 to 1821. Born María de la Soledad Leona Camila Vicario Fernández de San Salvador (but from childhood known simply as Leona Vicario) on April 10, 1789, in Mexico City; died at home in Mexico City on August 21, 1842; daughter of Gaspar Martín Vicario (a wealthy merchant born in Spain) and Camila Fernández de San Salvador y Montiel (of a distinguished family of Toluca, Mexico); educated at home in religion, Spanish and French, history, painting, sketching and music; married Andrés Quintana Roo (the future statesman), in 1813; children, Genoveva (b. 1817); María Dolores (b. 1820).

Orphaned and an heiress at 18 (1807); learned of French occupation of Spain (mid-1808); sympathized with educated Mexicans' efforts (late 1808) to establish a national congress; deplored Spaniards' violent removal of viceroy from office (September 15, 1808) for supporting Mexicans' desire for a voice in their government; after independence movement began (September 16, 1810), contacted and aided the revolutionaries (1811–13); detected (February 28, 1813); fled Mexico but was recaptured and imprisoned in a convent in Mexico (March 11, 1813); freed by patriots (late April 1813); joined insurgents and married Andrés Quintana Roo, one of the intellectual lights of Mexican independence (late 1813); with husband, suffered incredible hardships eluding enemy for four years; first child born in a hovel (1817); accepted pardon (1818); returned to Mexico City (early 1820) where second child was born; after independence was achieved (1821), her husband served in cabinet, legislature, and supreme court while she retired to private life.


her letters in defense of her role in the Mexican independence movement appeared in the newspaper El Federalista Mexicano (February–March 1831).

Leona Vicario, born into a society characterized by extreme male dominance, was a wealthy woman of independent mind and resolute will. In an age when middle- and upper-class women occupied themselves exclusively with domestic affairs, Vicario took a great interest in the public sphere. And at a time when well-off Mexican women seldom left their homes unchaperoned, during the Mexican revolution for independence she traveled hundreds of miles from home. Her companions were mostly men who, like her, were bent on independence from Spain. During the 1810–21 struggle, she challenged most of the stereotypes concerning "the weaker sex" and "woman's sphere." In her day, Leona Vicario was admired by patriots and scorned by traditionalists. Since her death and for over 150 years, she has been an icon of Mexican history.

Leona Vicario had a conventional and pious upbringing as the only child of a self-made Spanish immigrant and a Mexican-born mother of Spanish origin. Her father Gaspar Martín Vicario, born near Palencia in Old Castile, was one of tens of thousands of impoverished Spaniards, going back to the Conquest, who went to Mexico in search of wealth and social position. As was true of most gachupines, as Spaniards were derisively called by Mexican criollos (whites born in Mexico), Gaspar worked and possessed such good business sense that when he chose Doña Camila Fernández de San Salvador y Montiel as his second wife in 1787, he had amassed a considerable fortune as a merchant. Camila, whose father died when she was a child, brought no dowry to her marriage, but she did bring class to her union with Gaspar. At the time she married him, all three of her brothers had attained high positions in the judiciary, in the university, and in the revenue service.

If they were educated at all, women of the wealthy class were educated at home. As an only child, Leona's parents lavished their attention on her schooling, especially her religious education. However, Leona also learned to speak and to write with grace and eloquence, and to paint and sketch well. She learned French well enough to try her hand at translating into Spanish one of the great works of the early French Enlightenment, Archbishop Fénélon's The Adventures of Telemachus. As well, Vicario studied music, but insisted that she sang badly.

What distinguished Leona from most young women of her social class was her interest in serious literature, as shown by her reading of Fénélon. She also read the works of the 18th-century Spanish polymath Friar Feijoó, which is of interest, as Feijoó was a champion of both women's education and of the criollos of America. It disturbed Feijoó that criollos were systematically excluded from all but the lower to middling positions in the Spanish colonial government. Vicario was also acquainted with Buffon's works on natural history, and read the learned Spanish Jesuit Hervas y Panduro's Idea of the Universe. She read some fiction, as the German Joachim-Henrich Campe's The New Robinson and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, but her tastes tended toward works on history, politics, art and the sciences.

From Fénélon, Vicario learned that in governing, those who rule should avoid absolutism, war, luxury, adulation and corruption. Rulers should keep the taxes low, Fénélon reminded a future king of France, and be always mindful of the public good. Leona, like many other educated criollos, was aware that Spanish absolutism had increased rather than diminished since the start of the French Revolution. In addition, luxury, adulation, and corruption were pervasive in the Spanish court. And, to pay for Spain's wars against France and England, by 1808 taxes and forced loans were at very high levels in the Spanish colonies.

Vicario's life changed drastically in 1807, when first her father and then her mother died. Camila left her only daughter a considerable fortune of over 100,000 pesos. To help the 18-year-old Leona administer the inheritance prudently, Camila appointed her eldest brother, who was also Leona's godfather, to serve as his niece's legal guardian. Agustín Pomposo Fernández de San Salvador y Montiel was one of Mexico's most distinguished lawyers and was past rector of the capital's Royal and Pontifical University. He was scrupulous in his administration of his dear niece's fortune. Aware of her independent will but need for protection, he arranged to rent a mansion for Leona in which he and his family occupied a separate wing.

After her mother's death, Vicario was for months engrossed in repairing and furnishing her part of the mansion her uncle had rented. However, given her interest in public issues, she had to be aware of the political drama that was unfolding in Mexico City. Early in 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain and deposed King Charles III and then his heir Prince Ferdinand (I), later king of the Two Sicilies. When Napoleon installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, all of the Spanish colonies were thrown into turmoil. In many colonial cities, the criollos seized the opportunity to establish either a junta or a congress which they hoped would eventually be the vehicle for separation from Spain. In Mexico, Viceroy Iturrigaray, an undistinguished and corrupt executive, gave into the demands of the criollos for a national congress, which native-born Mexicans would clearly dominate. In Mexico in 1808, there were only some 70,000 Spaniards out of a total population of about 7 million.

To prevent the Congress from meeting in Mexico City, on the night of September 16, 1808, some 300 well-armed Spaniards deposed the viceroy and imprisoned the most prominent advocates of a national congress. For the next 12 years, Mexico was to endure harsh military rule and a bloody revolution which took the lives of over 500,000 Mexicans.

We do not know Vicario's initial reaction to the unprecedented events of 1808. Mindful that her kind uncle Agustín was publishing pamphlet after pamphlet in defense of the colonial system, she probably kept her own counsel. She must have felt extremely ambivalent about the crisis at hand. On the one hand, she was the daughter of a Spanish father, but on the other she was also the daughter of a Mexican mother and a woman of liberal ideas. Her loyalty toward her Spanish heritage was demonstrated by her devotion to the Virgin of Remedios, who was associated with the success of the Spanish conquest. However, Vicario was also devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron of the conquered. Guadalupe became the symbol of Mexican nationhood after a parish priest, Miguel Hidalgo, began the long revolt against Spanish rule in September 1810.

Father Hidalgo was captured and executed early in 1811, but the rebellion continued in the western and southern provinces. Sometime that year Vicario chose sides, for by early 1812 she was corresponding with the followers of Hidalgo's successor, the lawyer Ignacio Rayón. To protect her correspondents and herself, she devised elaborate ciphers and used literary pseudonyms. She also became associated with the "Guadalupes," a secret society of criollos who favored the insurgents, as the proponents of independence were called.

While Agustín was fulminating against the rebellion, his cousin Juan Bautista Raz y Guzmán was leading the Guadalupes. The society engaged in espionage and transmitted information on troop movements to the badly outnumbered insurgents. They also supplied the insurgent leader Rayón with monetary aid and, most important, a printing press. Until the press arrived at Rayón's headquarters in late 1811, the insurgents lacked the means to counter royalist propaganda. Three female relatives of Leona, including Raz y Guzmán's wife, were able to get the press out of Mexico City by concealing it in their coach. The women were chosen for the dangerous mission precisely because it would have been unthinkable to search upper-class women or their coach. Later, in April 1813, when Vicario fled the capital to join the insurgents she took with her printer's ink and other accessories for the press.

During 1812 and until early 1813, Vicario provided the insurgents with funds for badly needed food, clothing, arms and ammunition. She also came to the financial aid of the wives and children of captured or deceased insurgents. One question that has not been addressed by biographers of Leona Vicario is how she was able to aid the insurgents while living adjacent to her pro-royalist uncle Agustín. There is no evidence that, up to March 2, 1813, Agustín was aware of his niece's activities on behalf of the insurgents or of the involvement of other relatives in the Guadalupe Society. In fact, not until 1815, when the revolution was moribund for a time, were Raz y Guzmán and his associates placed under arrest for aiding and abetting the insurrection.

It is not love alone that determines the actions of women…. The desire for the glory and liberty of their homeland are sentiments not unknown to them.

—Leona Vicario

Vicario escaped detection until February 27, 1813, when one of her servants, who was carrying her letters, some clothing, and two watches to the insurgents, was intercepted by the royalists. Threatened with death, he revealed her identity. On learning of her danger, on March 1 Leona precipitously left Mexico City in the company of three female companions, ostensibly to attend a country picnic. For the next ten days, from March 1 to 11, Vicario sought vainly to elude capture. She endured the first physical hardships she had ever experienced in her life. Ill due to exposure, lack of food, and polluted water, Leona was persuaded by her anguished uncle Agustín to return to Mexico and accept an indulto, or royal pardon. The authorities assured him that his niece could return to her house and that she would not be harassed by the dreaded Junta of Security and Order.

However, the duplicity of the royalists was notorious. On March 11, 1813, she was taken by force to the Convent of Belén where for weeks she was interrogated relentlessly about her pro-insurgent activities. Her interrogators were unable to break her will, and she steadfastly refused to implicate anyone but herself. Informed of her situation in April 1813, Rayón dispatched three insurgent officers to Mexico City to enter the convent by a ruse and free Vicario from her captors. Dressed in rags and with a coal-blackened face to escape detection, the once elegant heiress traveled hundreds of miles to insurgent territory in the west. There she joined her first cousin, Manuel (eldest son of her hapless uncle Agustín) and Andrés Quintana Roo, the young man she had fallen in love with two years before.

Andrés Quintana Roo was a gifted poet, writer and law student from Yucatan, who, by 1810, had come under the wing of Leona's uncle Agustín in Mexico City. As Agustín's legal assistant, Quintana Roo saw a great deal of Leona, which distressed her uncle. Earlier, Agustín had arranged for her engagement to a promising and wealthy young man who was abroad at the time Leona met Andrés, serving as an American delegate to Spain's first parliament in modern history. Agustín also became increasingly suspicious of the young Andrés' political leanings and discouraged contact between Andrés and his niece.

Early in 1812, Andrés decided to throw in his lot with the insurgents, and left Mexico City for Tlalpujahua in western Mexico with Agustín's eldest son, Manuel. Agustín must have been stunned on learning of his son's defection. Once among the insurgents, Andrés began publishing one of the most distinguished newspapers of the insurgency, the Despertador Americano, or the American Awakener.

After Leona's reunion with Andrés and before the end of 1813, they were married in a rural parish in Tlalpujahua. Within months, however, and by early 1814, the insurgents led by generals Morelos and Rayón had been decisively defeated and only the most stalwart revolutionaries refused to give up.

Among the stalwarts were Leona and Andrés, who, despite incredible physical hardships, refused to seek a pardon until early 1818, a year after the birth of their first daughter, Genoveva . By 1818, most of the insurgent leaders were either dead or had accepted a royal pardon. The young family was ordered to leave the country for Spain, but they were unable to do so because the same royal government refused to return any of Leona's seized property. For two years Leona, Andrés and their child lived in seclusion in Toluca, some 80 miles from Mexico. They were finally permitted to return to the capital early in 1820. In that year, Andrés received his law degree from the Royal College of Lawyers and Leona gave birth to their second and last child, María Dolores . After independence was achieved in 1821 and until his death in 1851, Quintana Roo served successively as under secretary of State, member of Congress, government mediator, and, finally, justice of the Mexican Supreme Court.

From 1818 until her death in 1842, Vicario retired to the domestic sphere, speaking on public issues only when attacked in print by the ultra-conservative enemies of her husband. While her husband pursued an active career in the government and as a journalist, Vicario devoted her time and energies to managing a large household and educating her two daughters, Genoveva and María Dolores. She also devoted considerable time to administering the urban and rural properties she had been awarded by the Republic in 1824 in compensation for the total loss of her fortune in service to her country. By the time of her death in August 1842, she was widely revered as the "strong woman of Mexican independence." The then president of the Republic, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, an old acquaintance despite his political differences with Leona and her husband, led the enormous funeral procession to the cemetery of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Mexico City. Nine years later, her husband was laid to rest at her side. In 1910, their ashes were interred in the Independence Column on the broad avenue of the Reforma in Mexico City, joining the remains of other outstanding heroes of Mexican independence.


Echánove Trujillo, Carlos A. Leona Vicario: La mujer fuerte de la independencia. México: Ediciones Xochitl, 1945.

García, Genaro. Leona Vicario: Heroína insurgente. México: Editorial Innovación, 1985.

González Cosío D., Bertha. Los Sepulcros de Santo Domingo y Cocheres: Una casa en el centro histórico de la Ciudad de México. México: INBA, 1993.

Sosa, Francisco. Biografías de Mexicanos Distinguidos. México: Oficina Tipografica de la Secretaría de Fomento, 1884.

suggested reading:

Staples, Anne. Leona Vicario. México: Departamento Editorial de la Secretaría de la Presidencia, 1976.

Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio