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.
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!