The more colorful aspects of Mexico’s history

There’s an extra reason Father Miguel Hidalgo is considered the Father of the Nation.

The priest fathered numerous children with a string of “wives” he canoodled with even as he fought for the independence of Mexico.

The peccadilloes of Hidalgo and others in Mexico’s pantheon of national heroes are getting a fresh hearing these days as the country marks the 200th anniversary of its independence and the 100th anniversary of its revolution.

Dozens of new movies, books and television programs have popped up, reexamining the history of Mexico’s struggles for liberation and the men — and, yes, the women — who waged them. The idea is to debunk the myths that successive governments have perpetuated and salvage a history that is less romanticized and more realistic. And perhaps in the process drum up a bit of excitement among a blase public.

“We are accustomed to our heroes as bronze statues, seen from afar,” said Celia del Palacio, author of a new book on the little-known heroics of a female freedom fighter from Mexico’s War of Independence. “If you don’t consider the human side, it’s easy to think that heroism is not attainable by the average person. These were people with fears, doubts, who made mistakes and chose to make sacrifices.”

And who had active sex lives. David Barrios, a “sexologist,” has conducted an irreverent analysis of the sexual escapades and dysfunctions of the national heroes. He admits he took “literary license” with his assessments but says he used historical documents to reach these conclusions:

Hidalgo, it seems, was quite the randy rebel.

Maria Ignacia Rodriguez, who purportedly helped unify independence forces, was so talented in the art of erotic pleasure that she became the lover of none other than Simon Bolivar.

Revolutionary icon Pancho Villa probably was impotent, while his cohort Emiliano Zapata just might have been bisexual.

That last one is probably a bit more than the average Mexican can handle.

“There were a few calls from people who said I was trying to stain and humiliate the heroes,” Barrios said after his “study” was published. “But my intention was the opposite. The more you humanize them, the more you can admire them as real people of flesh and bone. It is a homage, not an attack.”

Hidalgo, in contrast to the white-haired beatific casting of him in most official portraits, had at least four children by two women, fancied dancing and was a gambler, Barrios and several historians said.

(Hidalgo is also the subject of a soon-to-be-released movie, “Hidalgo: The Untold Story.” Billboards show the priest with lover Josefa Quintana, played by one of Mexico’s hottest actresses, the beautiful Ana de la Reguera. In the ads, she is clad in a tight, flame-red bodice. In steamy scenes from the movie trailer, that bodice is long gone.)

Barrios also deduces that Hidalgo’s diet would have made him, eh, robust, and Villa’s problems with weight and stress would have made him less so.

Another of the myths being shattered concerns the role of women. History books have traditionally made the War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution seem like mostly male affairs, when in fact women commanded insurgent troops, tended the wounded, financed battle campaigns and turned their homes over for conspiratorial planning sessions, Del Palacio said.

Her book, “Leona,” describes the crusade of Leona Vicario, a wealthy woman who lost home and fortune in support of the independence cause and ended up giving birth in a cave while fleeing the Spanish.

Women also figure in the lavish television series “Cries of Death and Liberty” that recounts the 1810-21 fight for independence and is being broadcast on Mexico’s Televisa network.

“This is the first time you will see these women as what they really represented and what they really did for Mexican independence,” said producer Mafer Suarez, who also directed several episodes. “There is a lot of knowledge that needs to be rescued, and for me this was a way to do justice to the women.”

More than anything else, though, several of these new thinkers said they wanted to spice things up because the mood around the bicentennial and centennial festivities has been decidedly unfestive.

Mexico marks 200 years of independence from colonial Spain on Sept. 16, and the 100th anniversary of the revolution to overthrow feudal dictatorship will be observed Nov. 20. With the country awash in drug war violence and staggering under a moribund economy and high unemployment, however, many Mexicans feel like there isn’t much to celebrate.

In an online chat forum at El Universal newspaper, readers were cynical about the bicentennial celebration of Independence Day, which is often called El Grito, or the cry. A reference to Hidalgo’s shout to rally followers to the fight for freedom, the cry is routinely reenacted in town plazas across the country at midnight Sept. 15.

“What cry?” wrote one reader. “The cry of ‘Help me!!!’? The cry of ‘Don’t shoot!’?”

The government has largely bungled the preparations. Like a hot potato, oversight was tossed from one government entity to another until landing just a few weeks ago in the lap of the Education Ministry — where department chief Alonso Lujambio pronounced the whole thing “a mess.”

One of the more macabre events in the run-up was a highly orchestrated, regal parade of the skulls and bones of the national heroes. The remains of the proceres, as the founders are known, were placed in glass cases, skulls visible, and carried by military color guard from a crypt underneath the gilded Angel of Independence landmark, up the hill to the Chapultepec Castle and ultimately to the National Palace downtown. (A forensic study by scientists to positively identify the remains discovered there were 14 bodies of heroes, instead of the dozen thought all this time to have been in the crypt.)

And despite the spending or allocating of tens of millions of dollars, the commemoration’s centerpiece, a sparkling 341-foot monument being erected to tower over Mexico City’s signature Reforma Boulevard, won’t, it turns out, be finished until 2011. Its ambitious design shows a translucent, quartz-sided pillar engraved with messages in Spanish and the 62 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico.

If such mistakes and public malaise translate into little enthusiasm for celebration, it doesn’t mean there isn’t thirst for knowledge, says Paco Ignacio Taibo II, one of Mexico’s foremost writers, whose popular detective novels have been translated into dozens of languages.

Taibo has been especially critical of efforts by the government to manipulate commemoration events — Disneyland with historical amnesia, as he puts it. Many Mexicans are eager to learn a history that goes beyond superficial pomp and pageantry, beyond the bronze statues and period furniture, he said.

Taibo has been making the rounds at low-income cafeterias, public plazas and teacher-union halls to deliver free lectures on the national heroes and, with a group of like-minded intellectuals, he is publishing inexpensive (or free) pamphlets on Mexican history.

People are transfixed by the contradictions in the legendary figures, he said; they’re fascinated to learn about how Hidalgo not only spoke French and translated Voltaire but also knew several indigenous languages.

“There is an intense search for identity,” Taibo said. “In times of crisis … the most lucid and popular sectors of the population look to the past for reinforcement.... They look to the heroes and want to know, they really want to know … a history that is not sterile.”

But does hearing some of the less conventional stuff, like the love life of Father Hidalgo, upset Mexican patriots?

Taibo laughed at the question. “You are in Mexico,” he said. “People love it.”