A gleaming 440-pound bronze and copper bell symbolizing freedom and unity recently finished its long journey from the hands of artisans in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to the City of San Fernando, where local leaders and community members accepted the bell as a gift from a delegation of Mexican dignitaries during a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day.
Enthusiastic cries of “Que viva Mexico!,” “Que viva San Fernando!” and “Que vivan migrantes!” were heard on the grounds of the Casa de Lopez Adobe in San Fernando on Sept. 16, when the commemorative replica of the Mexican liberty bell was unveiled and repeatedly rung, reenacting the historic moment in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the church bell to launch Mexico’s revolution against Spain.
The community celebration was nearly three years in the making – from concept to the grand public unveiling. The new bell is emblazoned with the city seal of San Fernando, the names of the Mexican foundations that donated it, and the name Pedro Garcia Aguilar, the late Mexican journalist who came up with the idea to donate replicas of the Campana de Libertad as gifts to American cities with significant Latino populations as an act of unity between the countries.
“We want to unite people in a single voice, like the voice of the bell,” said Aguilar’s widow, Gabriela Castillo, who traveled from Mexico to officially donate bells to the City of San Fernando and a week earlier in Las Vegas. She told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol that her husband wanted to connect with Latino residents in the U.S. – especially those of Mexican descent – to help them maintain ties with their heritage.
“It’s a very big project, to support harmony and freedom for our respective countries, and to learn about each other and our own roots,” said Castillo. “We are going to give out 52 bells across the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, over the next five years if possible.”
So far, Campanas de Libertad have been donated and dedicated in: Nampa, Idaho; Phoenix, Arizona; Tucson, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada; North Las Vegas, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; Baltimore, Maryland; Pico Rivera, California; and now in the City of San Fernando.
Journey to San Fernando
The journey to San Fernando began in early 2020. Aguilar, who passed away in 2022, had launched the Mexican liberty bell campaign as director of Consejo de Comunidades Hispanas en los Estados Unidos in partnership with Fundacion Honoris Causa en Los Estados Unidos.
Before the pandemic, Aguilar and Juan Moreno of Federacion de Clubes Jaliscienses in Los Angeles reached out to David Herrera of the program Mexico de Mis Amores for help identifying local cities for the bell project. Herrera suggested San Fernando, which is 93 percent Latino and predominantly Mexican American, and put them in touch with Javier Verdin, co-director of Ballet Folklorico Ollin and president of KROJ 101.5 FM, and the project was soon underway.
Although members of the San Fernando City Council immediately supported the effort and a local Campana de Libertad committee was formed, the impact of the pandemic – including the death of Aguilar in 2022 from COVID-related complications – delayed the presentation.
Verdin said he believes Aguilar would be very happy that the bell is finally in San Fernando.
“Mr. Pedro wanted to give this community something to be proud of,” he recalled.
Castillo said she is continuing her late husband’s vision for the Mexican liberty bell project as president of Consejo de Comunidades Hispanas, A.C., and Fundacion Honoris Causa USA.
“Now it’s up to me to continue moving forward with this work,” she said. “I’m in charge of overseeing that this project does not suffer and that we stay on target to reach our goals.”
Each bell is crafted in Chiapas, Mexico, then transported to the state of Hidalgo for polishing, and “from there it goes to the border to be picked up by the committee of the city where it will be presented,” explained Castillo. The effort is supported by sponsors. In this first round of bell construction, business owner Enrique Michel Velasco contributed major funding for the cost.
Velasco, owner of the widely-known Mexican-based candy company Dulces De La Rosa – originator of the famous De La Rosa Mazapan – was instrumental in helping Aguilar launch the Campanas de Libertad project. While serving as president of the international arm of Fundacion Honoris Causa, Velasco donated the first seven of the nine replicas of the Mexican liberty bell that have been gifted so far across six U.S. states, and remains a key donor for the project.
“Don Pedro was a very well known journalist, but he was also a fighter for social justice and he fought to help unify all people as much as possible,” said Velasco, who was part of the Mexican delegation in attendance at the recent bell dedication in San Fernando. “He was a very focused man, a very calm man. I really admired him a lot. It was a privilege to know him.”
According to Velasco, Aguilar’s passion for helping people is at the core of the bell campaign.
“We want to support our brothers and sisters here in the U.S. and remind them of their ancestry,” Velasco told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol, adding that he has witnessed people become very emotional during the dedication ceremonies. “In Las Vegas, I saw people actually crying.”
Another purpose of the bell project is to express appreciation for the generous financial support that “compatriots in the U.S.” consistently provide for their loved ones in Mexico, he said.
“You send remittances to your parents, to your family members all over Mexico, and last year almost $60 billion was sent to Mexico,” said Velasco. In fact, Mexico’s central bank reported that remittances from the U.S. to Mexico grew 13.4 percent in 2022, totaling $58.5 billion.
“I believe that has helped Mexico have some political stability,” added Velasco.
Fittingly Presented on Mexican Independence Day
The presentation was especially meaningful to take place on the actual 16th of September holiday. Velasco described the afternoon program and the performers as the most impressive of all the bell dedications he has attended so far.
More than 150 people attended the San Fernando event. Nearly all had never seen what the historic bell looked like up close and many took turns taking photos standing next to the replica. The original bell stands above the central balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City, where thousands of people gather each year to hear it ring for their independence day.
Those from Mexico who gifted the bell to San Fernando were in turn welcomed with a full program of local talent from Ballet Folklorico Ollin and Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando, that demonstrated that Mexico’s art and cultural traditions are highly revered in this small town.
“The people here seem very united,” said Velasco. “The people are very happy and that makes me very happy. I’m very glad that we brought the bell here, to give the community a reason to be even more united, to be happy to always carry in their hearts a strong love for Mexico.”
Martha Jauregui, a native of San Fernando and current student at CSUN who performed with Ballet Folklorico Ollin, said she felt immensely fortunate to be present and share her dancing talents on such a special occasion.
“I felt so happy to represent the country my parents are from; it was super emotional for me,” said Jauregui, who has been a folklorico dancer since she was 8. “Even though we’re not in Mexico, it’s like part of Mexico is here. It’s like it’s part of you and you feel it in your heart.”
Jauregui’s mother, Martha Estrada, said she feels extremely proud of Jauregui and her other children as well, “who are American, but carry Mexican blood and represent it very well.”
“For me, celebrating [Mexican Independence Day] is very important because it cultivates our Hispanic heritage,” said Estrada. “I love this bell; it is really beautiful. It’s commemorative and it represents freedom, being Mexican in the United States and now the City of San Fernando.”
Addressing the large crowd of community members, performers and special guests at the Sept. 16 bell unveiling event, San Fernando Mayor Celeste Rodriguez expressed her appreciation for the gift of the Campana de Libertad alongside Vice Mayor Mary Mendoza, San Fernando councilmembers and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Imelda Padilla (Council District 6).
“I know it’s been a long road to get here, and I hope you all are very proud that it’s finally here as we celebrate the history of Mexico,” she said. “It is also a celebration of not only Mexican independence, but also how far we’ve progressed as a community here in San Fernando.”
The City currently has about 24,000 residents and the population is mostly Mexican American, blue-collar families – but “it wasn’t always like this,” said Rodriguez.
“In the past, a young female Mexican mayor, daughter of an immigrant from Jalisco, would not have been imaginable,” she said referring to her father, Ruben Rodriguez, the executive director of Pueblo y Salud.
Mayor Rodriguez said her grandmother-in-law recalls when San Fernando was a “sundown city – a place where non-white families could not go out at night.”
“Now look at us today,” she said. “Our community is predominantly Latino and thriving.”
During the event, three individuals were recognized for their notable contributions to the local community: Rudy Vazquez, retired music teacher at San Fernando Middle School; Virginia Diediker, general director of Ballet Folklorico Ollin and retired cultural arts supervisor for the City of San Fernando; and Diana Martinez, current and long-time award-winning editor of the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol newspaper.
After the celebration, the bell was relocated to a private home, where it will remain until the Compana de Libertad City Council Ad Hoc Committee identifies a permanent location to recommend to the City Council, according to City Manager Nick Kimball. He said the goal is to find a location that balances public accessibility with any safety or security concerns.
Once the bell is installed in its permanent home, Kimball said he envisions it will be used for future celebrations and “as an educational and cultural learning tool for future generations.”