Regarding Mexican Independence…

Today is the day on which Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain. It’s an exciting season, during which gigantic flags, colored hats, and false moustaches (many of the heroes of Mexican history chose to wear ample and luxuriant “bigotes”) are available for purchase at most major intersections. 

The climax of the celebration is at 11 PM on the night before the big day when the President himself steps out on a balcony in front of a large crowd, gives the “grito” (shout) of freedom (which goes something like “VIVA HIDALGO, VIVA MORELOS, VIVA MEXICO, VIVA MEXICO, VIVA MEXICO!”), and then rings a large bell which signals the beginning of a fireworks display. 

This ceremony is conducted at a smaller scale by mayors and governors all over the country. Here’s a picture I took of the bell at they used to use at the old city hall here in Juárez:

This annual ritual goes back to a priest named Hidalgo, who in 1810 started the independence movement by giving an impassioned sermon, ringing a bell, and then raising an army to boot out the Spaniards. Hidalgo’s campaign didn’t last long (he was executed a few months later by the Spanish), but his cause was taken up by others. José Maria Morelos y Pavón, another priest, took up the cause in the South, winning lots of battles and convening one of the first legislative assemblies in Mexican history. He was eventually caught and executed as well, but his memory lives on in the name of the city I recently visited (Morelia, named for Morelos). The war lasted until 1821.

Painting of Morelos and Hidalgo…the priests who led their country to freedom.

I recently got a fantastic view of the “Angel of Independence” monument from my hotel in Mexico City. Morelos and Hidalgo, along with other heroes of the independence war, are buried underneath it.

During my trip I spent some time sitting in the cathedral in Morelia (built in the 1660s) and thinking about all the history that had passed through this spectacular building.

Some of the early Jesuit missionaries would have worshipped here, learning the indian languages even as the indians were given Spanish. Morelos himself may have sat in these pews as a young boy, suspecting or not suspecting that he would one day be a priest. The square outside would have played host to the foment of the independence movement and the turmoil of the revolution 100 years later, just as it now hosts student protesters demanding reforms from their government. This building and neighborhood have been host to big events since long before the first European set foot on what is now U.S. soil. The length of this story boggles my mind.

I’ve been studying Mexican history on and off since we were assigned here. It’s a fascinating topic, as the narratives don’t fit neat a linear pattern. The story is complex. Independence did not result in a government that has lasted until today. Rather, it kicked off a century of intermittent conflict featuring several dictators and one Austrian Habsburg archduke who attempted to name himself emperor of Mexico (you can’t make this stuff up). It all led to the great revolution of the early 20th century, which turned the country upside down and resulted in more or less the organization of the country as we see it today. Many Mexicans will tell you that the revolution is ongoing, continuing to this day.

It’s a big story that is hard to follow at times. Heroes like Santa Ana, Porfirio Diaz and Pancho Villa live long enough to become villains in subsequent chapters. Historical and cultural forces that appear to be dormant make dramatic comebacks as the animating force behind so many popular movements.

It’s not easy to get my head around. I struggle to see how a hero today can be a villain tomorrow. How can a revolution be ongoing for more than a hundred years? How can events that took place hundreds of years ago continue to have unforeseen consequences in the present?

I think that we in the U.S. like to view history, especially our own, as a single narrative. George Washington freed us from the British, we wrote a constitution, fought a civil war to free the slaves, made the world safe for democracy, went to the moon and beat the Russians in the cold war. It’s been an upward trajectory of and toward more and more freedom and greatness. Linear. The past matters little, as we continuously reinvent ourselves. But maybe the truth is more complex. Maybe our own story is more tangled and winding and complicated than we like to admit. Maybe actions carried out in the past will continue to reverberate in the future. Maybe the reality of U.S. history is as complicated as Mexican history, and maybe I should be struggling more to get my head around it and learn the lessons that it offers.

But today we shall proclaim “Viva Mexico!” with millions of others in this wonderful country, celebrating great food, amazing music, beautiful cities, transcendent architecture, breathtaking nature, and so much more. Most of all we celebrate the Mexican people; these creative, good humored, hard working people, many of whom call us friends. Thank you for welcoming us to your beautiful country, even for a short time. It has a special place in our hearts. Viva Mexico!

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In which I go on an Outreach Trip…

I’m sitting in the Mexico City airport as I write this, on my way back to Ciudad Juarez after a quick yet successful trip to a part of the country that is not often visited by diplomats. 

Michoacan is a state in the middle of Mexico, famous for being a producer of delicious sweets and the winter home to much of the world’s monarch butterfly population. The purpose of this trip was neither gastronomical (though I am bringing home lots of sweets) nor entymological (I’ll have to come back with K and J to see the butterflies). This was a work trip, to teach Michoacanos about the Immigrant Visa process. While no one knows the exact numbers, it is estimated that several million people with roots in Michoacan are now living in the United States as citizens and green card holders. Because many of their relatives are still here, and because our immigratiom system is primarily family based, it means that there are an awful lot of Michoacanos who are eligible for visas, or who are already applying. 

Morelia sweet shop

Unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions about the visa process. Applicants get confused about what they need to file when, and sadly many get taken advantage of by con-artists who charge an arm and a leg for unnecessary “services” that just make life more difficult for everyone involved. We do outreach trips to help the Mexican public understand how the system works so that they can navigate it more easily and avoid falling victim to fraud. We travel to different parts of the country, give presentations, go on TV, radio, social media, etc. all with the objective of clarifying the process.
Now as I mentioned earlier, Michoacan (and its capital Morelia) is not often visited by diplomats. This is because it’s a four hour drive from the nearest post, and because there are security concerns. Drug cartels are active in the region, using the good agricultural conditions to produce their illicit goods. There is frequent violence in zones that the locals call “tierra caliente” (“hot land”). The day before we left on our trip a helicopter was shot down in a different part of the state. 

We recognized, though, the importance of visiting this part of the country with our message given the size of the audience. We worked out a plan in which our team from Juarez would travel with a team from the Embassy in Mexico City and spend a day in the city of Morelia, which remains quite safe. 

Angel sleeps as we drive past the Michoacan landscape.

It was a lot of travel, but well worth it. My locally employed colleague Angel and I flew to Mexico City and then drove the four hours up to Morelia with our colleagues from the Embassy. On the first evening there we conducted a townhall meeting organized by the state government. We didn’t know quite what to expect, as when we’ve done these in other places we’ve had as few as a dozen attendees or as many as a few hundred. As it happened there was standing room only, and we were told that there were nearly 500 people in the room. Many had traveled a long way to hear our talk. Most did not appear wealthy. So many of them had questions. We stayed until hours after we were scheduled to leave, trying to answer every question. 

The audience at our Townhall meeting

The next day we did some TV and radio interviews, trying to reach over the airwaves all the people who wouldn’t fit in the room the night before. The next morning we hit the road, and now here I sit, waiting to fly home.
The part of this trip that left the biggest impression on me is the strength of the reactions we got from audiences. One woman started crying when I told her that she, as the parent of a U.S. Citizen, might be eligible for a visa. Another woman hugged me when I gave her a brochure containing a web link that would guide her to more information. An elderly man offered me a near toothless smile and lifted his hand in a salute of thanks after I told him that he would likely have to wait fifteen more years for an interview. Our message was nothing fancy that you can’t find on google, but we were received as though it was a brand new revelation.

It struck me that this is what diplomacy is, and should be. You take the message to your audience, entering their world, speaking their language, using media that they will understand. Most of our audience will likely never visit our website or facebook page. Many are illiterate, living in communities with poor internet access. But maybe, just maybe, hearing a tall bespectacled American talk  directly to them about visas (albeit in Dominican accented Spanish) made enough of an impression to make their process easier.

What also came home to me is the vast importance of our work to so many people. We’re not issuing visas to visit Disneyworld. This is about families being reunited permanently, some after having been separated for decades. These people have so much riding on this process. It feels good to be able to do something that makes the road a bit smoother.