Today is a major national holiday in Argentina known as 25 de Mayo* marking the removal of the Spanish colonial viceroy, Baltasar Hidalgo Cisneros, on May 25, 1810, and his replacement by the Primera Junta (First Government), thus initiating the Argentine War of Independence. The revolution began in Buenos Aires which was at the time the capital of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, which included not only present day Argentina, but also (roughly) modern Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The viceroy was the ruler of the viceroyalty as agent of the Spanish crown. There is not a single town I know of in Argentina that does not have an avenida or calle 25 de Mayo, and, in addition, Buenos Aires has avenida de Mayo, and plaza de Mayo where the main events took place (it was plaza Victoria at the time). Plaza de Mayo is to this day the epicenter of public displays of political support or dissent. 25 de Mayo is a BIG DEAL.
*[For today only my Spanish-speaking amigos you must pronounce it MA-zho as Argentinos do.]
The so-called May Revolution was precipitated by a number of events, chief of which was Napoleon’s replacement of king Ferdinand VII of Spain with his brother Joseph Bonaparte in 1808. Spain had been an ally of France in the Napoleonic Wars, but a series of disputes, especially concerning the control of Portugal, turned Napoleon against Spain. Viceroy Cisneros tried to keep the news secret and tried to maintain the status quo. But news leaked out and a group of criollo lawyers and military leaders met and called an open cabildo to decide the future of the viceroyalty since Cisneros technically no longer had legal authority because he derived it from the now deposed king, Ferdinand. The criollos were people of Spanish descent born in South America. There were two forms of cabildo (council) in colonial Latin America. One was a standing body of officials, appointed by the viceroy, who governed cities throughout the viceroyalty and known simply as el cabildo. The other was the open cabildo which was a meeting of all the vecinos in the city. Vecino literally means “neighbor,” but in this context it means a city notable. The vecinos were not aristocrats, but freemen with substantial property holdings within the city. An open cabildo of vecinos could be called in times of emergency.
This open cabildo met on May 22 (pictured). It convened from morning to midnight to debate the question of whether in the absence of king Ferdinand the power of the viceroy devolved to the people. The group was roughly equally split between those who wanted to maintain the status quo, and those who favored the installation of a junta, a governing council of the people, to replace the viceroy. After midnight (that is, May 23), a vote was taken to either keep Cisneros in office or replace him with a junta. Voting was open and public. The final tally was 155 votes to 69 in favor of a junta. At dawn on May 23, the cabildo informed the population that the viceroy would end his mandate. The highest authority would be transferred temporarily to the cabildo until the appointment of a governing junta. Then things turned ugly.
On May 24 debate turned to the composition of the junta, and the procurator of the cabildo, Julián de Leiva, suggested that Cisneros be its president. It’s not entirely clear what were his motives in suggesting that the viceroy remain as head of government, but the suggestion had a very mixed reception. Meanwhile crowds of revolutionaries and soldiers were gathered in the plaza outside the cabildo building (pictured – on the right with a central tower – in a photograph from 1856, but substantially as it was in 1810). Leiva drew up a constitutional code for the establishment of the junta with Cisneros as the president. Several prominent members of the cabildo resigned, and there was growing unrest in the plaza. The military openly refused to accept Cisnernos as leader, knowing this would mean they would have to defend him against revolutionaries, and therefore fire on their own people. By the afternoon of May 24 the new junta was sworn in with Cisneros at its head.
There was heavy rain on the morning of May 25 but even so a large crowd gathered in the plaza. They demanded that the junta be dissolved and that Cisneros be forced to resign. The cabildo met at 9 am and refused to accept Cisneros’ resignation. Instead they summoned the military commanders with the intent of using force if necessary to suppress the mob in the plaza. Almost all of the commanders refused the summons. The few who did appear flatly refused to accept the cabildo’s orders saying there would be full scale mutiny if they ordered them to fire on the people. At this point the crowd in the plaza stormed the cabildo house, although they did not get as far as the hall of deliberations. Leiva invited representatives of the crowd and military commanders into the hall of deliberations, but the cabildo was still inclined to stand firm until the combination of the declaration of the military that they would fight with the revolutionaries against the new junta, and the noise of the crowd in the building changed their minds. They agreed to form a new junta without Cisneros and the crowd returned to the plaza.
Eventually the open cabildo drew up a new document in accord with the wishes of the revolutionaries and was signed by 411 members then submitted to the cabildo for ratification. But everything was taking too long for the crowd in the plaza, so they stormed the building again, this time reaching the hall of deliberations. Antonio Beruti, militia leader, spoke on behalf of the people demanding that the junta be elected by the people, and if they were denied, the military and the revolutionaries would take arms against the cabildo. The cabildo agreed. At that point the rain stopped and the sun burst out – seen as an omen by the people. The so called Sun of May became a national symbol and is centered on the Argentine national flag. Late in the evening of May 25 the cabildo moved to the balcony to read the new document to the people for voice ratification. Thus the Primera Junta was formed, and the revolution had begun.
These facts are branded on the hearts and souls of every schoolchild in Argentina. The leaders of the revolution and the subsequent wars against Spain are household words. Streets, plazas, buildings, and railway stations are named for them. They permeate the lifeblood of all Argentinos, myself included. Power to the people!!!!!
25 de Mayo is a great day for festive food and partying. It is usual to eat locro today – a stew with a base of white beans, white hominy, mixed meats, and mixed root vegetables. There are as many versions as there are cooks in Argentina. I make mine with tripe, pig’s feet, zapallito redondo (like zucchini), sweet potato, corn, and potatoes with a sofrito of crushed tomatoes, paprika, oregano, cumin, and chiles. I use my own recipe of course, but it is based on one given to me by an abuelita in the provinces. For you I give a recipe for pastelitos de 25 de Mayo, fried pastries filled with quince preserves or dulce de membrillo (a thick paste of quince and sugar). I was half inclined to give the recipe in Spanish, but decided instead to take pity on the Spanish challenged. However, I am going to give the measurements in metric as a compromise. The sugar syrup is a simple syrup made of equal parts sugar and water brought to a low boil and simmered about 15 minutes, or until thick.
400g of lard
pinch of salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 jar of quince preserve or block of dulce de membrillo
sugar syrup to coat the pastelitos
oil for frying
Mix together the flour, lard, eggs, salt, and baking powder.
Add the water slowly a little at a time until the dough comes together but is not sticky. Use only enough water to bind the dough.
Knead the dough for 5 minutes.
Let the dough rest, covered, for 30 minutes.
Roll the dough to about .5 cm thick. Cut the dough into 5 x 5 cm squares.
Lay half the squares out and place a teaspoon of quince paste or preserve in the center of each. Place another square of dough on top at a diagonal to the first so that the pastelito has eight points. Press the dough around the filling to form a tight seal. Take the four corners of the bottom square, pinch each one together and fold upwards to form a square package (see photos). The corners of the top square will fold up as well.
Deep fry the pastelitos a few at a time until they are golden brown, turning once to brown both sides.
Drain on a rack with a pan below it.
Drizzle the pastelitos with sugar syrup and decorate with sprinkles.
Yield: up to 30 or more depending on how thin the dough is rolled.
These are best eaten warm but will keep for a day, if there are any left!