By Juan Francisco Carrasco
This year Ecuador will celebrate the 213th anniversary of the “First Cry for Independence,” which took place on August 10th, 1809, in the city of Quito.This was the first of many revolutionary events that allowed for the liberation of Ecuador from the Kingdom of Spain. This historical event made Ecuador the first independent country in South America and inspired many other countries such as Chile, Colombia, and Peru to do the same.
In general, history states that a group of patriots took over the Real Palace to inform Count Ruiz de Castilla, who was the President of the Real Audience of Quito, that he was no longer a governing authority and would be removed from office. Nevertheless, history often forgets the group of people that first birthed these ideas of independence, freedom, and equality. One of these was Francisco Javier Eugenio de Santa Cruz y Espejo, better known as Eugenio Espejo.
Eugenio Espejo was born on February 21, 1747. Originally with the surname “Chuzig,” that in Quechua means “owl”, he was baptized as “de Santa Cruz y Espejo” because like many other indigenous descendants that lived in the colonies he was evangelized and given a christian name. His father was a Cajamarca Indigenous Quechua named Luis Chuzig and his mother was María Catalina Aldás, a mulatto from Quito. Eugenio was raised in a humble family with his younger brothers Juan Pablo and Maria Manuela.
Despite the economic limitations of his family, Eugenio Espejo had the opportunity to study at a public school in Quito where he stood out as a good student and leader. His great intellect allowed him to study medicine at the Hospital de la Misericordia and in 1767 he managed to obtain his medical degree. As a doctor he was well known and noted for his criticism of the city's health and sanitation system. He is also remembered for a piece he wrote about smallpox that transcended throughout history.
Additionally, Espejo studied civil and canon law, graduating in 1770. Historical references indicate that Espejo had ideas much ahead of his time from a very young age. Due to the fact that he was literate he was able to understand French libertarian ideas and became a critic of the system imposed by the Spanish crown.
Later in 1790, Espejo, along with many other intellectuals, created la Escuela de la Concordia, later named the “Sociedad Patriótica de Amigos del País de Quito” (Patriotic Society of Friends of Quito). The goal of this society was to improve life in Quito. This same society created the first newspaper in Quito named Primicias de la Cultura de Quito (Novelties of the Culture of Quito) and Espejo became the editor. Therefore, he is known in the country as the father of journalism. The newspaper only released seven editions before it was stopped. The liberal ideas because both the newspaper and the society were a threat to the Spanish crown. The king of Spain, Carlos IV, knew this and dismissed the society in 1793 before it gained even more power.
Throughout his life, Espejo continued to write about his libertarian and revolutionary ideas and his texts referred to the importance of education. Espejo knew that educating the population would allow the development of society, but the Crown only wanted to educate the children of the Spanish, and only allowed a few mestizos to access schools. This seemed very unfair to him and because of this education was one of his pillars of struggle. As part of his legacy today there is a well-known school in Quito that bears his name and still imparts his teachings.
As part of his libertarian ideas, Espejo promulgated the importance of equality, since in his opinion there should be no different treatment between Spaniards, mestizos, or indigenous people. He believed that equal opportunities were essential, and that it was necessary to end the rule of the Spanish yoke. He thought this because the Spanish crown was not interested in improving the conditions or the quality of life of the indigenous and mestizo population. The crown preferred keeping the people ignorant by giving them heavy labor and service jobs instead of educating them. Espejo had also many ideas regarding gender equality, however, these ideas were not fully developed due to the form of thinking that people had in that period of time.
Most people did not understand the texts of Eugenio Espejo, however his texts planted the ideas of equality and freedom in the minds of many young people. Through his writings Espejo became a great activist and over time he gained more and more followers. His name gained prestige and the scope of his ideas increased until he reached Spain. The king ordered that he should be silenced and because the authorities considered him an enormous threat they imprisoned him under the accusation of conspiracy.
Many of Espejo's friends and companions from the group of intellectuals continued working to achieve freedom for the Country, even after his death. Morales, Quiroga, Salinas and Pio Montufar stand out from the other intellectuals because they were also part of the First Cry of Independence. In particular, Juan Pio Montufar was an important character since he was the first president of the Real Audience of Quito that didn’t respond to the Spanish crown.
Eugenio Espejo never saw his dream of a free Ecuador come true, yet he was still a man ahead of his time, a precursor that spread his ideas and dreams of independence to the people, a man that inspired the heroes of Ecuadorian independence with his words, and started a revolution with his ideas.