One of the most fascinating forms of ancient literature is what is called a tragedy. It’s a human interest story acted on stage involving a person of greatness and importance who can’t deal with a situation or disaster under circumstances he or she is unable to control.

Although traditional tragedies take place in olden European locales, Rio Grande Guardian readers will be surprised to learn that using the same criteria used by Greeks and Romans, Tamaulipas and South Texas have their own tragedies featuring names such as Montemayor, Canto, Gutiérrez de Lara, Iturbide, Zapata, Cortez, and dozens more. In hopes of encouraging readers to learn more, I offer a glimpse into one of these captivating stories.

Agustín de Iturbide
Agustín de Iturbide

The Tamaulipas Tragedy takes place in the years embracing Mexico’s 1821 independence from Spain. The saga begins in Iguala, Guerrero, many miles to the south. It was there that on February 24, 1821, Agustín de Iturbide (the main character) representing the Spanish colonial army, and Vicente Guerrero, acting for the Mexican people, signed “El Plan de Iguala” outlining Mexican independence.

Who was Agustín de Iturbide? That he had extraordinary natural ability is certain. In his book, “Mexico”, Enrique Krause, quotes Simón Bolivar’s opinion of Iturbide: “Bright and swift … like a brilliant shooting star. This man had a singular destiny. His life served the freedom of Mexico.”

Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu was born September 27, 1783 in Valladolid, Mexico. His father (Joaquín de Iturbide) was of Basque gentry and owned extensive land holdings.

As a young man, Agustín attended El Colegio de San Nicolás, the oldest university in America (est. 1540). He also managed one of his father’s haciendas. Here he developed superb riding skills, later earning him the non de guerre of El Dragón de Hierro (The Iron Dragon), in the Spanish Army.

By 1808, political unrest in Spain echoed also in New Spain. The dashing young lieutenant had entered military service as a teenager, and quickly developed solid leadership skills. He thus witnessed the Mexican independence movement from its infancy. While he may have closely followed its progress, Iturbide didn’t like what he considered the barbaric means used by the insurgents to achieve independence. Displaying loyalty to Spain, he rejected an offer from his distant kin, Father Miguel Hidalgo for a general’s commission in the rebel army.

In reality, much had happened before the events of September 16 “El Diezyseis”. Early insurgent leaders included little-known Mexican Criollo patriots Gabriel J. de Yermo, Juan Francisco Azcárate y Ledezma, Francisco Primo de Verdad y Ramos, and José Mariano Michelena. In truth, it was they who laid the foundation stones supporting Mexico’s independence from Spain.

It seemed that Iturbide was destined for greatness. Repeatedly, he demonstrated brilliance in the battlefield, including the eventual defeat of General José Maria Morelos. Thus, Viceroy Felix Maria Calleja promoted Iturbide to Colonel and gave him command of a regiment.

Still, while enjoying popularity as an effective military officer, Iturbide encountered intense criticism. Serious accusations (cruelty, corruption, and profiteering) were convincing enough for the viceroy to relieve Iturbide of command. Albeit, one year later, Iturbide was back in good standing. The charges were dismissed when the viceroy was persuaded to believe that only Iturbide could handle remaining rebel forces led by General Vicente Guerrero.

Moreover, the New Spain viceroyalty composition was in peril because King Ferdinand VII had been deposed. Gradually, Iturbide began to think that Mexican independence was the only solution. He thus pursued a coalition of liberal forces. Accepting the Criollo revolt, he achieved peace with General Guerrero. Soon after, with Guerrero’s and Guadalupe Victoria’s backing, Iturbide became the leader of the Mexican independence movement.

The new Viceroy Juan O’Donojú, arriving in Mexico in July of 1821, realized the inevitable. Meeting with General Iturbide shortly afterward, Mexico’s independence became a reality.

On September 27, 1821, his birthday, General Iturbide leading his army marched into Mexico City in triumph. Though, he wasn’t taking over as ruler. Actually, Iturbide expected a Spanish noble to fill the leadership position. However, once Ferdinand VII regained his throne, he disavowed any Spanish support for Mexico’s independence.

Amid the chaos, the new congress in Mexico City named Iturbide as Emperor. His realm was vast — from Panama, west to the Pacific Ocean, north to the Oregon territory. Included were today’s states of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas.

Unfortunately, the alliance he had created with liberals, landowners, and the church was short lived. Almost immediately, problems with congress arose, causing a standoff with the Emperor. Certain congressmen were actively opposed to his rule and he suspected them of leading plots against him. In response, Iturbide dissolved congress and halted freedom of the press.

Along with implementing unpopular economic policies, steps to remove him from power began. So, to avoid a bloody civil war, he abdicated, bringing a quick end to his tenure. Thus, the Iturbide family went into exile first to Italy and then to England.

Nevertheless, congress feared his return to power. As such, they passed a decree labeling him a traitor, to be shot if he ever set foot in Mexico. In effect, his enemies wished to stem Iturbide’s great popularity among the Mexican people.

With limited financial resources, Iturbide kept himself busy writing his memoirs and reading reports of Mexico’s continuing social and political unrest. There’s no doubt he felt accountable for the future of Mexico’s independence that he had gained. Coupled with a perceived Spanish invasion to reclaim New Spain, he was persuaded to return home. (Alas, he was unaware of the death warrant issued against him.)

Iturbide landed at Soto La Marina, Tamaulipas, on July 14, 1824. Although the people received him enthusiastically, military authorities had no choice but to arrest him. He was then escorted to Padilla, the municipal seat of Tamaulipas. After a quick trial, he was sentenced to death per the congressional decree.

As often has happened in Mexico after 1821, U.S. agents also have roles in this tragedy. That’s because U.S. appetite for Mexico’s northern territories prompted the U.S. envoy to persistently entice high Iturbide officials to sell its northern territory to the U.S. (Though the attempted bribes were flatly rejected at the time, the U.S. eventually took the land by force in 1848.) Other figures waiting in the background in this drama are co-plotters, General Santa Anna and Lorenzo de Zavala, a name well-known in 1836-era Texas history.

Of great interest to Tejanas and Tejanos is that after José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, the first president of Texas, returned to Mexico in 1824 from exile in Louisiana, he was named the first Tamaulipas Governor. Regrettably, signing his friend Iturbide’s execution papers was one of his first official duties as governor. Also, Don Bernardo’s brother, José Antonio Gutiérrez de Lara, a Catholic priest, with much grief gave the former Emperor his last rites. Agustín de Iturbide died (age 40), July 19, 1824 in Padilla, Tamaulipas.

Facing a firing squad, Iturbide delivered these inspiring words of encouragement to his countrymen:“Mexicans! In the very act of my death, I recommend to you the love to the fatherland, and the observance to our religion, for it shall lead you to glory. I die having come here to help you, and I die merrily, for I die amongst you. I die with honor, not as a traitor. I do not leave this stain on my children or on my legacy. I am not a traitor. No.”

A Greek tragedy hero couldn’t have said it any better.