Chasing My Insurgent Granny

by Pete McBride on January 27, 2015

A “distant relative” heads into the central Mexico’s colonial towns to find a revolutionary named Josefa, the star in his family saga.

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This could be it. A treasure trove of a library in what was a 16th century Franciscan monastery might be where my great-great-great-great-great-(ony 5 greats) grandmother and I finally. . .meet. Marimba music lilts outside. In the sun-splashed library room, shelves crammed with bound parchment paper, religious leather journals, and government letters sit below walls hung with Catholic relics and cracked oil paintings. I’m told there are roughly 14,000 historic documents in the archive. What I don’t see are temperature and humidity control devices. I better not cough; centuries of Mexico’s written record could be reduced to dust.

It’s two weeks into my ancestral scavenger hunt through Mexico’s central highlands. My quarry, Josefa Ortiz Dominguez, has thus far been eluding her distant grandson. Too many muddy patches obscuring my craggy roots. But now, perhaps, pay dirt?

David Vega (the librarian here for 30 years, I would later find out) greets me. I explain my mission. Of course he’s heard of Josefa: She was and remains the heroine of Mexico’s 19th century War of Independence against Spain. She was also the mother of 14 children. David smiles and suggests he might be able to help.

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Within minutes, he brings me a pile of handwritten letters dated 1806. The Gs and Qs have flamboyant, playful swirls. I imagine they shadow the arc of the feathers that penned them. Stamped on the letters signed by Miguel Dominguez, Corregidor—Josefa’s magistrate husband—are Spanish government seals. Moments later, David returns to my table and hands me a thick book. It is an account of “Los Corregidores” offspring. Pay dirt. Finally something. Queretaro’s oldest building (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) is going to unveil my family’s genealogy story. How David retrieved these documents so quickly, astounds me. He heightens the sense of mystery when he says, “You can feel the spirit in the books.”

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For generations my family has boasted about our connection to Mexico’s great revolutionary. Without her courageous involvement, the story goes, Mexico’s liberty would have been delayed—at the very least. (In the end, after 11 years of war, the colonial government had no choice but to hand the reins to the local loyalists.) Heroism aside, though, it is Josefa who I credit for my bleeding passion for Latin culture, food, and rhythms. I’ve also come to believe she is the root of a rebellious streak that has me marching through life to a rumba beat. I want to know her better.

I open the book David gave to me and think of my grandfather, who introduced me to our family’s famed heroine. Years ago, he gave me a rare, devalued 20 Mexican peso bill with Josefa’s faded portrait. I carry it with me now.

My search begins in the bustle of Mexico City, where splashy murals, oversize plazas, and a friendly vibe nearly distracted me for days. But I am eager to head north to the Ruta de Independencia, a series of winding mountain roads that connect the colonial hotspots of San Miguel, Hidalgo, Guanajuato, and Queretaro—all key to Mexico’s revolutionary history.

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Some two hours north of Mexico City, I drive down a cactus-covered hill as the radio crackles to life with the accordion strains of norteño music. Candy-colored buses and tired looking trucks flank me. On the road’s shoulder ahead, three charros (cowboys) move a herd of loose-skinned Brahman cattle—swirls of dust chasing their sashaying horses. Over the next hill, on the outskirts of the prosperous city of Queretaro, I head north onto a mighty historic stretch of road. On September 13, 1810, a rider galloped some 40 miles from Queretaro to the cobblestone streets of San Miguel. He carried an urgent message from an activist named Josefa—Maria Josefa Crecencia de la Natividad Ortiz Tellez Herón Dominguez, to be precise. Yes, the leading lady of my bloodline.

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No one knows the exact words of that note, but history got the message—Begin the revolution NOW. In 1810, fed up with the second-class treatment of Mexico’s people, Josefa and her revolutionary colleagues spawned a plan from her Queretaro home to break from Spanish rule and liberate Mexico. But word had leaked four months early and Spanish officials lost no time rounding up the insurgents. Josefa’s husband, Miguel, aware of his wife’s activities, locked her up in their home. But somehow she managed to slip her historic notice through the keyhole to a rider. That simple act toppled the first domino in what would come to be known as Mexico’s War of Independence.

My plan is far less ambitious: I am following in Josefa’s footsteps and consuming everything Mexican Revolution—museos, música, molé, and more. I’ll finish my ancestral hunt at Josefa’s home in Queretaro—where it all began. I visited this town years prior for a study abroad program. Today those memories have faded. But I recall one thing. Serendipity should be my guide. The beauty of Mexico is often measured not in its planned efficiency but in its melodic rhythms that push one to a different beat. And serendipity often proves to be the best drummer for that beat.

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In arty San Miguel (picture colonial Mexico meets Santa Fe) I expect to find revolutionary trivia and lore scattered in inviting secret alleys and magnetic music-soaked plazas. While I discover a culturally rich town with sweeping views, I uncover nothing about my ancestor. My quest is temporarily placed on hold. In the meanwhile, a rodeo at a local ranch offers balm for my frustration. An old friend has invited me to Rancho Emilia, an elegant throwback to the 1800s, down to such details as horse stalls crafted with hand-hewn timbers. When the rodeo starts, I watch another century swirl before me. Sombrero-clad charros gallop through explosions of red earth as escaramuzas (cowgirls) ride sidesaddle in swishing Spanish dresses. Bulls are ridden and mariachis trumpet.

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A man in the audience stands, toasts the rodeo, downs a tequila shot, and starts to sing. His deep baritone carries the haunting nostalgia of a broken-heart ballad. The 12-piece mariachi band immediately jumps in. Violins pierce the air. The crowd is captivated. Dust clings to the sweat on my face. I am right where I want to be—back two centuries and ready to add to the music. I belt out some notes as my thoughts return to insurgent granny Josefa.

On September 15, 1810, Josefa’s message reached a co-conspirator, Father Miguel Hidalgo. At 6 a.m. on September 16—celebrated as Mexico’s Independence Day—Hidalgo rang his church bell and delivered a historic sermon that would serve as a rallying cry. It was time to pick up arms, march north, and send the Spanish home.

By car it takes me 30 minutes (half a day by horse in 1810) to reach the plaza of the blue-collar pueblo of Hidalgo. Children’s laughter punctuates the tranquil vibe. Edging the plaza is a school, the Escuela Corregidora. (Josefa became known affectionately as La Corregidora—the feminine version of Magistrate). FYI – the term is a play on her husband’s given title – too much info but many like to make that distinction.) Metal etchings and bronze busts of Josefa surround the building. In the center of town I find statues of Father Hidalgo and Josefa. I visit the cathedral where Hidalgo inspired his flock—mostly peasants—to become an army. Outside, a jovial scene: people singing and two-stepping to the polka beat of folksy ranchero music. A young woman belts out a heartfelt solo, her eyes clenched shut and her brow furrowed. I ask her what the song means. “It is a song of love and freedom,” she says, adding, “I love to sing, music carries my blood.”

I push on toward Guanajuato, down the Revolution Highway, for more Josefa scouting and Day of the Dead festivities. The road is just about empty, with spectacular curves and sweeping views of La Sierra Gorda. The few vehicles I encounter, mostly weathered trucks, wave me on. Within an hour, eye-popping views of Guanajuato’s kaleidoscope-colored architecture flash past as I descended into the city’s tunnels that carry me through time.

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In late September 1810, Hidalgo hurried his ragtag wagon train of insurgents along the route I now drive. When they reached Guanajuato, they solidified the revolution by surprisingly overtaking the Spanish barracks. Hidalgo’s army then moved north. A few months later, he and his cohorts were captured by the Spanish and executed. In an effort to thwart further insurgent activity, the Spanish displayed the head of Hidalgo and his three top men in cages suspended on the corners of a granary—for ten years. Contrary to plan, the gory symbols served to strengthen revolutionary resolve. I walk through the granary, now an open-air museum. A giant mural of Hidalgo’s caged head covers the stone floor. His eyes seem to follow me.

Back outside (changed because Museum is open-aired courtyard), I stroll a maze of alleys and tunnels that create an atmospheric blend of Spain and Mexico. When I reach Jardín de la Union, Guanajuato’s heart, I encounter painted skeletons wandering the square. A clown makes people howl as roving mariachis keep up the beat. In restaurant Cafe Valadez, off the plaza, I sit down to a cesar salad with a dressing of bleu cheese ice cream (surprisingly good). A father stands to sing “O Sole Mio” to his family at a nearby table. Perfect accompaniment to my ice cream salad.

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The next day, November 2— (cut – All Saint’s is technically Nov. 1 according to Mexicans)—I visit a cemetery blanketed with people and fresh flowers. Miniature skulls made of sugar are sold everywhere. This holiday, also known as the Day of the Dead, is all about recalling the departed. I spend the afternoon wandering the walled Pantheon that overlooks hilly Guanajuato and its gravity-defying architecture, thinking about Josefa. I stroll back downtown at dusk. Murals of skeletons made from colored sawdust have magically appeared here and there on the pedestrian streets. One mural looks to be a rendition of Hidalgo with Josefa profiled in the background. But I’ve seen enough statues and murals. I wanted the real Corregidora. Its time to visit her home in Queretaro.

Its not my first visit colonial city. Call it a simple twist of fate. Twenty years ago, in an attempt to work on my Spanish, I’d applied for a college semester abroad in Spain. I was turned down—and offered an option to study in a city I’d never heard of. Queretaro. I said yes. En route by train from Mexico City, I opened a package my grandfather had given to me before I headed off. In it were a 20-peso bill emblazoned with a picture of a woman, a bundle of letters, a hand-scribbled family tree, and a typed note: Peto— I am delighted to know you are going to Queretaro. You are headed to the center of your family’s history.

Queretaro appears about twice the size I remember it. To my delight, I quickly find Calle La Corregidora and turn toward the centro historico, weaving through vaguely familiar blocks until I reach Hotel Casa Marquesa. Located a few cobblestones from the central plazas, it is the perfect base for my familial explorations. My room’s name: Doña Josefa. No kidding.

I walk the streets. Déjà vu greets me on every corner. The statue of Josefa looming over the Plaza Independencia looks better than I recall. Restaurants and chic bars with dappled light fill what were ghostly streets when I studied here years before. And just as I’d encountered in every town along the Independence Route, live music bubbles from many an open door.

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I climb to the city’s aqueduct overlook. Just above sits Josefa’s tomb. Once the site of heated revolutionary fighting, Querétaro’s Pantheon is now a memorial for Josefa, her husband Miguel, and other historical dignitaries. La Corregidora is the only woman honored. Inside, I listen as two Mexican women discuss the revolution. I ask them about Josefa. The shorter of the two looks at me, cups her right hand low by her waist, moves it up and down and smiles. I understand the gesture of male bravado perfectly. The taller of the two women shakes her head. “I don’t agree,” she says. “Josefa was just doing her duty. Little do they know that the woman in question is my huevos grandes granny.

The next day, I tour Josefa’s home, now the town’s main government building. It is in perfect historic condition with white stucco and a courtyard. Two guides kindly lead me to the stateroom. “Today, this is where anything important happens,” one tells me. It is the very room where Josefa’s history-changing “start the revolution” message slipped through the keyhole—and went viral. As her distant relative and, I like to believe, kindred spirit, I can’t help but wonder: Could I start a revolution? Do I, or my inner Latino, have the guts?

The next day, on the suggestion of a friend, I visit Queretaro’s regional museum, considered the epicenter of revolutionary history. Within those museum walls is a library. . .

When David the librarian hands me the exact text I’ve been searching for, I know I have reached the dragon’s lair of my quest. From my pocket I pull out my grandfather’s handwritten family tree sent two decades ago, swallow my hesitancy, and open the book. Immediately I find a family tree and zealously search for familiar names.
I trace the chart of names detailed in my grandfather’s letter—backwards. I cross reference with the book—going forward. Dominguez–Dominguez. They start to match.

But then they don’t.

Something isn’t right. I check both again—three, four, five times. The two lists don’t line up. Our family names don’t match any offspring of Josefa’s grandchildren. No bueno. Then I notice a blurb about Josefa’s fifth son, named Miguel (our alleged link). He moved to southern Mexico (our Dominguez relatives lived there too), but there is little documentation of his life beyond that. He married but had no marriage license, nor children. Then I read in Spanish: “One family claims to be related, but have been proven to be imposters.”

The marimba music outside, stops. A shadow sweeps across the room. I realize I am not who I think I am. I have not descended from a famous revolutionary. The sangre of Mexico’s great heroine does not dance (like that image. Run is fine too) in mine. My non-revolutionary blood starts to rise.

I leave the museum in denial. Must be a mistake. My grandfather liked stories, but how could this tale carry on for seven generations? Is this the power of mythology—a story too good to be disrupted by the facts? That night I call a few family members and share my discovery. My cousin Laurie asks, “You mean we’re related to some average locals and not the woman on the Mexican 20-peso bill?”

“Yuuuup.”

“Wow. Think of all those school presentations our nieces gave,” she says.

“I know.”

Imposters. It starts to sink in. My family’s proverbial connection to historical fame is, well, fiction. Or is it? Many revolutions have led people to change identities. And there is always the question of illegitimate children. After Hidalgo was executed, Josefa was captured and sent to Mexico City by a Spanish battalion (she allegedly spat in the face of every soldier). Her life was spared but she was imprisoned for eight years.

Was there a secret 15th child during imprisonment? Did her son Miguel have undocumented offspring? Does it really matter?

My journey opened a portal to a time in a region whose soul is music and whose heart is friendliness. Not to mention the molé. My lurking inner Latino might not come from Josefa’s DNA, but it still jumps when a mariachi wails.

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On my last night in Queretaro, I stumble on a little Oaxacan style restaurant, Maria’s Bici. Featured 12 flavors of molé. My dream. After asking (begging), they let me sample them all. Two musicians play aching campesino tunes. People merrily share tables, jokes, and tequila. I might fight a revolution for this, I realize. Such simple joy, such decadent molé, and such rich, decent humanity. Isn’t that enough to fight for? Maybe this is not the Mexico Josefa dreamed of, but it seems better than the one she revolted against.

Perhaps fate’s humor is that my grandfather died before discovering our family’s genealogy twist. I’m not sure he would have cared whether it was truth of myth he carried onward. Why not do the same? We must all pave our own ways, but it is fun having a force in one’s past—real or imagined. So I decide to adopt Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, La Corregidora, as my favorite and only insurgent granny, just like my grandfather did.

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Hindu 'Happy Hour' from Pete McBride on Vimeo.

October 13-19, 2013140807-mcbride-ganges-06Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual of worship in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) is offered to one or more deities. Throughout the length of the Ganges river, formal and informal aarti rituals are performed daily. Aarti ceremonies like the above, further upstream in Varanasi, are often heavily choreographed events involving music, speeches, and fire.

Just as the gale winds surge and the rain increases, a man struggles toward the bank of the Ganges. His eyes squint in determination as raindrops lash his face. His body leans into the gusts. He’s holding carefully in front of him a plastic bag and a small plastic statue of a Hindu goddess, a miniature replica of Durga.

When the man reaches the edge of the concrete pier, he throws the idol. It hovers in the wind briefly. Then he swings the bag into the river as well. Both items partially sink in the roaring current. The plastic bag, now open, reveals its contents: papers, miscellaneous trinkets, and debris. It looks more like garbage than a spiritual offering.

140807-mcbride-ganges-01During the festival of Durga Puja, a celebration of good over evil, a trombone band ignores the fury of a cyclone as they march down the streets of Patna, headed to the Ganges River to give offerings.

Immediately, the man starts cheering wildly and joins a group of some 50 others, all men, young and old, jumping and dancing, completely unfazed by the cyclone trying to drown us. A parade of vehicles and more revelers carrying more statues, some life size and bigger, are headed our way. A policeman does his best to keep the joyous riot from falling into the flooded river. Durga Puja, a festival celebrating good over evil, has officially started here in Patna, India.

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Drenched, shivering, and fearful our cameras are dying quick deaths in the downpour, our team flees for the hotel in a taxi carefully decorated with scores of lights and an orchestra of paint. Rain pours from the heavens in volumes I’ve never experienced, not even in rain forests. Everything floods—roads, restaurants, shops. Our hotel lobby is shin-deep in water by the time we arrive. Amazingly no one seems to notice or care. The world here is celebrating. Trombone bands march, revelers dance, and lines of floats carrying intricate Hindu statues all slowly migrate toward the Ganges, where they will be heaved into the flow as offerings. Some sink, but most wash ashore downstream, joining hundreds littering the banks.

140807-mcbride-ganges-03On the outskirts of Calcutta, residents decorate elaborate Hindu statues during Durga Puja and then offer them to the Ganges River.

After 40 days of chasing this holy river from its thin air source high in the Himalaya to the edge of its delta here in Patna, our team has grown accustomed to such celebratory reverence. We have also grown fatigued and are racing the clock to complete our mission. A record monsoon delayed us in the headwaters and now we are slowed again, drenched souls stalled in the eye of a raging cyclone. A deluge of rain and some 400 river miles stand between us and the point where the Ganges River finally kisses the Indian Ocean at the Bay of Bengal—the end of our journey.

Over the next five days we hopscotch downstream via train, ferry, rickshaw, bicycle, and more colorful taxis—some with windshield wipers and lights, some without. At times I feel like a fish swimming through the river, upstream at night. And everywhere, people wildly, passionately celebrate Durga Puja, all dumping their handmade Hindu idols into the river.

I marvel at how each and every mile of this sacred Ganges is so deeply loved and intertwined with local rituals. But in many cases, it looks loved to death. The religious symbols and offerings that represent devotion frequently become pollution downstream. Lead paint and plastic seem ubiquitous.Throughout the Ganges, Hindus and others come to the Ganges daily to revere its power or pray like these young Hindu monks further upstream in Rishikesh. Many pilgrims will walk weeks to collect Ganga jal (Ganges water) to bring back to their villages as good blessings.

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To attain a better grasp of the river’s health, we bring water-testing equipment the entire way. The results in many locations are as expected. Heavy metals and nitrates spike. And in certain troubled areas, oxygen levels plummet. On the Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges carrying the runoff of New Delhi’s economic boom, we test a section flowing past the Taj Mahal in Agra. Not surprisingly, the river reveals zero dissolved oxygen—a dead river. When we wade out among garbage, sewage, and who knows what else, the data merely confirms what our senses are screaming—the Yamuna River in Agra is far from healthy and full of garbage and waste—every putrid kind.

140807-mcbride-ganges-04Young men bathe in a communal bath in the streets of Calcutta, not far from the Ganges River.

But this is the amazing part. When we meet the Yamuna again downstream at Allahabad some 300 miles downstream and roughly halfway down the Ganges, our samples show dissolved oxygen similar to those found in healthy rivers. Somehow, someway, the Ganges is restoring itself on certain levels (heavy metals remain high in Allahabad). Perhaps there are some curative powers or obscure minerals that support the river’s ongoing real or mythical health. Either way, it has lasted for centuries.

The British East India Company used only Ganges water on their three-month long journey back to England because it stayed “sweet and fresh.” Scientifically, many point to the unusually high levels of bacteriophages, or just phages—viruses known to eat bacteria which keep disease at bay. But few can explain where and why the antibacterial properties originate. As early as 1896, a British scientist documented thriving cholera bacteria dying when put in Ganges water. And experts have yet to fully explain the river’s ability to sustain and revive its high oxygen levels. It is often called the mystery factor or the X factor.

The spiritual answer often becomes the fallback. Ma Ganga, India’s national river, is god—the creation of Lord Shiva himself, the god of destruction in the Hindu pantheon. Of course it can kill bacteria.

140807-mcbride-ganges-05People in the Ganges Delta are accustomed to flooding. The train station in Calcutta continues to operate relatively normally despite two feet of water left by a cyclone.

Throughout our journey, my science-based upbringing struggles to accept the spiritual answer. Regardless, I am frequently moved by the open-armed reverence for the river and its healing powers. Ironically, my backyard river, the Colorado—known worldwide for the Grand Canyon—is neglected, challenged, and thus no longer reaches the sea. In short, people turn their backs to it. In India, people face the Ganges daily, yet a civic concern for abusing the river is almost entirely nonexistent. Most believe Ma Ganga will repair itself. One woman told me, “Babies defecate in their mothers’ laps all the time and the mother cleans it. The Ganges is our mother. It is no different.”

Such thinking forms the paradoxical view that perplexes me every river mile we travel. Those that revere it most pollute it equally. And yet, many of those same believers complain that the Ganges is dirty—too polluted to even swim in anymore. The situation, from an environmental perspective or logical view, is inexplicable.

140807-mcbride-ganges-08On Sagar Island, near the end of the Ganges, ferry boats and cargo ships move endlessly up and down the river delivering people and goods.

Despite all I’ve heard, know, and seen floating in the Ganges, I swim or wade in it almost everywhere we go. Crazy, perhaps, but I want to experience the river firsthand, like locals do. Do I feel my sins washed away? I’m not sure. Time will tell, but I do feel invigorated after every dip.

And do I get sick? Yes, but not from swimming. Rather food poisoning—ironically from eating fish at a fancy restaurant. (Foolish, but I was craving protein after weeks struggling to fully adopt the standard vegetarian diet).

After 45 days of chasing this sacred flow 1,550 miles from nearly 18,000 feet and minus 20-degree temperatures to sea level and 110 degrees, we reach the end at Sagar Island. The cyclone subsides and the sun struggles to emerge. I weigh 30 pounds less than when we started. Teammate Jake Norton is 15 pounds lighter and Dave Morton remains the same weight (we suspect he’s superhuman). The air is humid and sweltering and nothing seems more fitting than going bodysurfing. Jake, Dave, and I sprint out to greet the small, glassy swell rolling onto the beach. Even Ashley Mosher, our second camerawoman who is leery about Ganges water, joins us for a dip. The brackish water is bathtub warm but feels delightfully cooler than the air. A pack of children quickly joins us, and laughter echoes across the bay.

140808-mcbride-ganges-01Where the Ganges River symbolically kisses the Bay of Bengal on the east side of Sagar Island, many Hindus believe the location to be sacred and visit to give offerings to Ma Ganga, Lord Shiva, and even a pack of stray dogs. It took 45 days to travel the 1,550-mile length of the Ganges to reach this point.

As we splash in the water used by some 400 million people upstream, I reflect on this river that is revered and reviled, dammed and diverted, cherished and neglected and in some cases nearly destroyed. Despite all the devotion we witness from aarti celebrations throughout to the Durga Puja offerings, it is easy to wonder if people will realize a simple concept: Sacred and unique as it may be, this river will need more than prayer to survive, despite all its healing properties. After washing the sins of so many for so long, when will India effectively clean the sins of industry, agriculture, and devoted love thrown daily in the lap of their national mother, Ma Ganga?

A few days before we depart, my friend Madhav, the Hindu monk who travels with us for much of the journey, says, “The time is now.”

Perhaps India’s newest prime minister, Narenda Modi, is listening. In late July 2014 his government proposed committing around $340 million to cleaning India’s lifeline. Known to have over a hundred names, perhaps the Ganges will once regain the adjective: clean.

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.

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