Chapultepec Castle (Castillo de Chapultepec) is built on a hill of the same name in Mexico City. Aztec emperors used this site as one of ancient Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial homes.

It was here that Viceroy General Bernardo de Gálvez started building his home in 1785. Alas, he died suddenly the next year. Still, construction continued and when completed, succeeding viceroys used it as their residence.

Then, after being abandoned during the 1810-1821 revolutionary period, the palace was eventually designated as the national military academy in 1833.

After accepting the position of Emperor in 1864, Maximilian I and Empress Carlota arrived in Mexico City and made the palace their official home. As part of renovations, they added the French-inspired grand avenue, Paseo de la Reforma. Today, Mexico’s National History Museum is located there.

After independence in 1821, the palace served as Mexico’s presidential residence until 1934, when incoming President Lázaro Cárdenas chose nearby Los Pinos as his home.

Incidentally, Mexico’s current president, Andrés López Obrador, preferred not to reside at Los Pinos. Instead, he kept his Mexico City residence when he became president. However, he designated the National Palace as his presidential administrative offices.

Clearly as America’s only royal castle, the world renowned structure symbolizes the seat of Mexico’s national government. On a solemn note, it’s hard to mention Chapultepec without bowing one’s head and offering a moment of silence in memory of Cadet Juan Escutia and his fellow Niños Heroes.

Sufficient to say that Chapultepec Palace has seen its share of grief and intrigue. In fact, this article summarizes one such event.

The fate of President Vicente Guerrero qualifies as one of the world’s greatest tragedies. Of interest to 1836 Texas Revolution aficionados is the role Lorenzo de Zavala played in this critical period of Mexico’s history.

In 1829, President Guadalupe Victoria had just ended his four-year term as president (1825-29). He has the distinction of serving as the first freely elected president of the United States of Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos). Indeed, things looked bright for the young republic.  Elections were underway. Albeit, these were turbulent times.

Although Mexico had framed its government following the U.S. model, its congressional sessions were unproductive. Rather, elected officials made important decisions in one of two competing masonic lodge meetings. Thus, ample suspicion, plotting, and corruption covered the country with an aura of unease.

Running vigorous political campaigns were three individuals, all of military background:

  • Manuel Gómez Pedraza, a moderate and close friend of General Agustín de Iturbide, who had appointed him as commander of Mexico City’s garrison.
  • Anastasio Bustamante, a conservative who demanded unquestioned loyalty and disliked the press.
  • Vicente Guerrero, a mulatto and popular military hero. Notably, he co-authored (with General Iturbide) the Plan de Iguala, giving Mexico its independence. At the time, he counted General Antonio López de Santa Anna and influential liberal political leader, Lorenzo de Zavala, as very close friends and advisors.

When the election results were announced, Gómez Pedraza came in first, followed by Guerrero, and then Bustamante. Guerrero suspected voting irregularities. Taking a decidedly drastic step, he and General Santa Anna threatened to attack the capital.

President-elect Gómez Pedraza weighed his options and chose a non-confrontational approach. He left the city before assuming office, moving to England in exile. The result?

General Santa Anna and Lorenzo de Zavala installed Vicente Guerrero as President of Mexico.  Conservative Anastasio Bustamante, became vice-president. Sometime later, de Zavala’s friendship with General Santa Anna soured. He departed Mexico City, eventually settling in Mexico’s most northeastern province (state) of Texas.

Some historians believe that the coup d’état could have been avoided if only outgoing President Guadalupe Victoria had intervened, but he chose not to. Thus, the tenuous tenure of President Guerrero began.

Of mixed race (Mestizo father and African-descent mother), President Guerrero acquired an idolized persona among the masses. The reason is due toa human dynamics issue in Mexico that is poorly understood in the U.S. That is, indigenous people and many mestizos may be Spanish-surnamed and devout Christians, but they dearly value their Native American roots. That’s why many believed that through Guerrero, they would reclaim leadership powers in Mexico. Conversely, conservative elitist white members of congress considered Guerrero an ominous sign of things to come.

Still, President Guerrero set out to chisel a new face for Mexico, from a colonial-style façade to one of inclusion. He set out to improve the lives of poor peasants by endorsing industrial development and established policies benefiting public education and land reform.

Most importantly, Guerrero abolished slavery in Mexico on September 16, 1829, the first country in America to do so. Albeit, recent arrival Stephen F. Austin and Anglo U.S. immigrants flooding Texas were upset with the emancipation decree because they needed slaves they had brought with them from the U.S. to work their fields.

Therefore, exploiting the tumultuous times, U.S. immigrants started their revolution to reinstate slavery in Texas, eventually succeeding in 1836. Predictably, only nine years later, the Anglos traded Texas independence to join the U.S. as a slave state.

By December 1829, President Guerrero’s fortunes faltered. He had left the capital on a military campaign against insurgency in the south. In his absence, Vice-President Bustamante seized power by convincing the congress to declare Guerrero “incapable of governing.” Clearly, Bustamante’s actions represented affluent white society’s anxiety, since they feared Guerrero would soon confiscate their vast estates and return the lands to Mexican indigenous tribes.

The plan to arrest President Guerrero was simple, but effective. Apparently, an Italian ship captain, whose boat was docked at the port of Acapulco, lured the unsuspecting Guerrero aboard and arrested him. Sailing to a port in Oaxaca, the Italian captain delivered President Guerrero to his enemies and received a reward.

Conservatives were so afraid of President Guerrero that rather than offer him exile, they quickly convened a court-martial and found him guilty. Guerrero was executed by firing squad on February 14, 1831.

Newspaper journalists soon exposed the plot’s details. Not surprisingly, political rivals had planned Guerrero’s capture, including the hiring of the Italian ship captain. Mexico’s indigenous masses were shocked with the injustice, and extensively mourned his death. Contrariwise, white conservatives breathed a sigh of relief.

Afterwards, government officials restored his reputation. His remains were exhumed and reburied with honors in Mexico City. His widow received a pension and Guerrero’s family reclaimed its honor. The State of Guerrero is named for him, as are several towns, two of them on the Texas border (Guerrero, Coahuila, and Guerrero, Tamaulipas).

In ending this article, here’s some food for thought. Vicente Guerrero signed his emancipation proclamation decades before Abraham Lincoln’s. So, he should be as well-known as Lincoln in U. S. classrooms. The reason is that his decree included enslaved people in Mexico’s Northern Provinces (today’s U.S. Southwest, comprising Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, and surrounding area).

Finally, lacking a formal education, Vicente Guerrero was a remarkable individual who became an intrepid warrior, effective orator, and rose to lead Mexico. Most of all, he was a visionary who only wished to elevate his people from appalling poverty through education and making them partners in the nation’s industrial infrastructure.

The following words describe the win-win future he envisioned for Mexico: “A free state protects the arts, sciences, and trade…let’s do it in such a way as not to burden the nation. Thus, we will achieve abundant wealth for the nation, making her prosper in all aspects.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Chapultepec Castle. The photo was taken by Arturo Chavez and appeared in the Wikipedia entry for the palace.