A poor Nahuatl Indian boy was born in the countryside near the city of San Luis Potosi in Guanjuato state sometime around the year 1790. The unfortunate child was born with hideous deformities which gave him a peculiar walk and ensured he was picked on by others in the community. His name was Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez Amaro, but he was universally known as ‘El Pipila’, meaning turkey, a cruel reference to his awkward gait. With little work available to one so deformed, Juan Jose went to labor in the famous silver mine of San Luis Potosi, for although deformed he was strong and reliable. He was mocked and ostracized by the other miners until a strange act of bravery turned him into an enduring folk hero.
When Padre Miguel Hidalgo declared Mexican Independence from Spain in 1810, many of the miners, Juan Jose among them, rallied to his cause. Hidalgo’s men marched on the city of Guanajuato, where the Spanish garrison, outnumbered and weary, barricaded themselves into a fortified stone granary, the Alhondiga de Granaditas.
Hidalgo knew that the only way they could defeat the Spaniards was to break in through the heavy wooden doors. The problem was that anyone who tried to reach the doors was sure to be killed by a hail of Spanish musket fire. The brave El Pipila stepped forward with a bold plan.
A broken gravestone was brought from a nearby cemetery. El Pipila tied the stone to his back and carrying a pitcher of tar and a flaming torch, began to crawl towards the wooden doors of the granary. Musketballs rained down from the walls above but the broken gravestone shielded El Pipila and he reached the doors safely. He poured the tar over the doors and set them alight. Hidalgo’s men cheered, and the deformed miner who had been the butt of their jokes was now a hero of Mexico.
El Pipila began to crawl back back to the Mexican lines but tragedy struck. When he was halfway back a musketball struck him in the temple and he was killed instantly. When the doors were burned down Hidalgo’s men rushed forward and stormed the Alhondiga, massacring in cold blood everyone inside.
The sacrifice of El Pipila has never been forgotten by Mexicans and today a huge statue of the deformed miner stands in Guanajuato. The Alhondiga de Granaditas also still stands and both are today popular tourist attractions on Mexico’s own Freedom Trail.
By Adriana Aguirre-Santos