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- 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.”

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. 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 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. 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, 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. 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, 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 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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Silent Baba from Pete McBride on Vimeo.

September 17-28, 2013

Just before sunset, the snow starts to fall. The flakes are wet and heavy. Jake looks up and says as much to the sky as to us, his climbing partners, “This feels like one of those monsoon storms that stick around.”

Dave and I listen to Jake’s words, but there is nothing to do except button up. We are high in the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya, standing at 17,500 feet atop the giant Gangotri glacier, surrounded by 23,000-foot peaks, many unclimbed. It is said to be the birthplace of India’s sacred river, the Ganges. It has taken us nearly ten days to get here—six of them by foot walking through treacherous, glacial moraine. We are miles from any whisper of civilization. But due to our proximity to India’s northwestern border with Pakistan, Indian law prohibits satellite phones. International tensions with Pakistan are hotter than normal, boiling even. We are highly aware that any rescue requiring support (helicopters), is out of the question.

1-140804-mcbride-ganges-01At 16,700 feet at minus 20ºF, Jake Norton (right) and Dave Morton eat a quick dinner under moonlight as they prepare to climb the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV looming behind them.

We came to this remoteness to claw our way up the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV, a 22,487-foot, glacial-clad granite monster standing like a sentinel protecting the Gangotri glacier at its feet. Avalanche conditions are ripe, so we have targeted another 22,200-foot peak just west. It too has never been climbed, or even named. We are poised to move upward tomorrow. Ropes, helmets, crampons, and ice axes sit ready, waiting outside our tents.

2-140804-mcbride-ganges-02The team retreats from Camp I at 17,300 feet, down the Gangotri Glacier after an unexpected, late monsoon storm dumped over three feet of snow in 12 hours. They counted 36 avalanches throughout the night before they concluded it wasn’t safe to keep climbing.

A stubborn monsoon season might say otherwise though. As darkness seeps over us, the wet, heavy flakes change. The soft sound of falling snow has morphed to a frozen, small hail. Miniature tap dancers performing on our nylon roof, I think. We lie in our sleeping bags cracking jokes about our situation. Who packed skis? All of us are intently focused on the sound of the storm. I try to keep worry to a slow percolate.

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As the damp night lists, we continually shake accumulating snow from our tents. We take turns shoveling every two hours to keep the ventilation from sealing. The thought of quiet suffocation keeps me awake.

The steady creaks and moans of the glacier that kept me awake previous nights have subsided. And the steady roar of water pouring down the glacier has also gone mute. Just the icy snow dance on our tent. I wonder if the haunting loon-like call of the male Himalayan snowcock will wake us in the morning like it has before.

4-140804-mcbride-ganges-03Silent Baba is a sadhu who has chosen not to speak for seven years. He lives in a humble stone ashram above Tapovan Creek, at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi mountains behind. Like many Hindu, he believes the Ganges is more sacred at its headwaters.

Sometime around midnight a new sound jolts Jake and me upright in our bags. A low rumble … no, distant thunder … no, echoing giant thunder. Avalanche. At first we hear it from afar—high up on Chaukhamba, I presume. But steadily the rumble grows louder, stereo even. Jake and I look at each other. “How far are we from the mountain?” I ask, starting to eye my boots. Jake assures me we are fine. Ten minutes later another roar, even louder. Jake eyes his boots.

For the next five hours, the avalanches continue. Their sounds vary between that of distant thunderstorms and the crack of artillery fire—building-size blocks tumbling from above. Some avalanches rumble over a minute. Throughout the night, I count 36.

At 5:30 a.m., we come to the conclusion that our climbing mission is over. If we don’t move, the monsoon won’t let us. It is time to pack up and fight/flee our way down. As I mine for buried tent stakes, I measure over three feet of snow. It is still snowing, hard. The soupy light is so flat, I get disoriented when I stand. The call of the snowcock is absent. Everything is absent except snow.

5-140804-mcbride-ganges-04A wild ibex soars across Tapovan Creek, one of many small tributaries that form the headwaters of the Ganges River.

Having grown up in the Rocky Mountains and spent the majority of my life in snowy environs, I’m dumbfounded. I’ve never seen such a surge of frozen moisture before, ever.

Over the next six hours we posthole through thigh-deep, concrete-like snow, straining under oversize loads. Our climbing ropes remain behind—too heavy for a single load. We mark their location with GPS coordinates, optimistically hoping someone can find them later. In ten hours, we make just three miles to Advance Base Camp. Our third tent is completely buried, hidden. Dave, who has guided all seven summits and stood atop Everest six times, says it is the “most worked he has been in a long time.” I can barely smile at the comment. I’m shattered.

We reach Base Camp the following night. I’m so tired I can barely eat. And two days later we reach the rustic ashram of Silent Baba, a sadhu who hasn’t spoken in seven years—his form of reverence to Ma Ganga. His tiny structure sits at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi, Meru, and Shivling, some of the most stunning peaks I’ve witnessed. Wild ibex linger in the meadows beyond his stone sanctuary. Baba serves us homemade chai and we sit in silence, watching the mountains, grateful we aren’t stranded.

6-140804-mcbride-ganges-05The Tehri Dam and reservoir, which halted the sacred Ganges, is one of the largest dams in Asia and highly controversial in India. Drowning 40 villages and displacing 100,000 people, it has ongoing legal battles. The hydroelectric facility is said to produce 2,400 MW of electricity.

Slightly defeated by our abandoned climb, we push downstream past Gaumukh, “the cow’s mouth,” where the Ganges pours out beneath the collapsing foot of the Gangotri Glacier. This transition of ice to river is spiritually powerful and many Hindu pilgrimage here. The exact location, however, is moving upstream at roughly 60 feet a year—the hand of climate change at work.

7-140804-mcbride-ganges-06Aerial perspective of the confluence of the Alaknanda (right) and Bhagirathi Rivers. Known as Devaprayag, this location is considered religiously important among Hindus because the divine Ganges River takes its official name and form here.

Then, suddenly, after weeks on foot, we return to the wheeled travel of 4x4s and move downstream through the scoured canyons of a gravity-fueled river. The roads that were washed out when we came in are now repaired, barely. “It feels like we are driving on a sandcastle,” says Dave.

When we enter the lower foothills, the power of the Ganges visibly stops. Stretched before us is the Tehri Dam and reservoir, one of the largest and most controversial hydroelectric projects in the world. To quench a growing thirst for electricity, the Tehri project submerged 40 villages and physically stopped Lord Shiva’s flow.

The sacred headwaters are clearly behind us. Time to start looking downstream.

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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Chasing the Sacred: Down the Ganges From Snow to Sea

February 17, 2015

Chasing the Sacred: Snow to Sea down India's Ganges River from Pete McBride on Vimeo. In northern India, there is a river with over a hundred names. It starts in the Garhwal Himalaya and drops over 14,000 feet from the terminus of the Gangotri Glacier before marching some 1,550 miles to the Bay of Bengal. […]

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Chasing the Sacred – Source to Sea down the Ganges

September 9, 2013

If I reach my arm out the window, I could casually shake hands with the man next to me — the driver of a truck going some 50 m.p.h. just inches from the car in which I am riding. I look at him and he smiles subtly, then lightly wobbles his head. Such vehicle proximity […]

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Connected by the Most Endangered River in America

July 17, 2013

Their logo says “Rivers Connect Us”. It is a catchy phrase but how do these slivers of life do it? Is it simply their waters that run through so many of our plumbing systems? Or is it their ancient, weathered beauty that lures us to their banks to listen and watch? Maybe its their splashy […]

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The Water Tower

November 9, 2012

In central Kenya, northeast of the Rift Valley, there is a tower. It is a monumental, granite swell with a crumbling pinnacle that stretches 17,058 feet into the sky. Many people throughout this region of East Africa believe their God, Ngai, lives on top. While this second tallest African peak named Mt. Kenya, may be […]

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The ol’ Blog Bulletin Board — and the toe grab.

September 4, 2012

Fear not. I am not a blogger nor intend to be one. As I see it, the world needs more physical doing, less blogging. But, like many, I have collected an eclectic assortment of tales. So consider this a bulletin board of stories, video clips, a few photography tips, snapshots and a some magic moments […]

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