On Mexican Independence Day of 2019 I went to a party at a friend’s house. There was food everywhere, and all the attendants had dressed up, if not in head-to-toe traditional Mexican garb, at least in the colors of the flag.
When it was time for “El Grito” (the Cry of Independence), we all piled into the bedroom of our hosts where the TV was to watch and participate. Afterwards, we watched the fireworks display here in Xalapa from their balcony.
We were all excited that evening. Most of us were still fairly hardcore fans of AMLO — President López Obrador, excited to see him doing something we were convinced should have first happened back in 2007 (actually, I’m personally still convinced that the 2006 election was stolen from him).
Though his first few months in office had gotten off to a shaky start, we were optimistic that the “fourth transformation” was well underway.
I’ve always been a sucker for pageantry and ceremonies. Take me to a graduation, a wedding, or even a parade, and the tears start flowing automatically. Usually it’s because I find the prospect of humans executing a precisely-planned choreography to accomplish something or infuse an event with meaning incredibly touching; sometimes I also find that kind of raw power that the coordination of sometimes thousands of people both touching and terrifying.
But if I have the chance to get a glimpse of pomp and circumstance in action, I’ll always position myself as close as I can get, wide-eyed with reverence and/or fear for the power of the meanings we humans give to things.
While I never actually attend the live state events (my goodness, it’s just so many people so close together!), I do usually watch a live streaming of the event in Mexico City. I’m downright enchanted by the unflinchingly serious demeanor of the military guard, the way they handle and move the flag, all quick and precise movements with somber faces that contrast so much to the fanfare outside. This is serious, they say. Our country and its symbols are sacred, and today is the day we pay due reverence.
The austere president and officials in the palace, juxtaposed with the wildly exuberant crowd, is what I think I find most thrilling. I love hearing thousands of people at once sing the national anthem. I love seeing the fireworks, and I love watching from afar one of the biggest parties I’ve ever witnessed.
It’s a rare time when it feels like we’ve got it together. Where maybe we’ll be all right after all.
This year, El Grito was a strange sight to behold indeed, but no less moving. Things inside the palace were the same. The military guard performed their rigid choreography to deliver the flag, the president stepped out onto the balcony to give the customary cry of independence.
But this time, he gave it to a plaza that was completely empty: populated with festive lights, but no people. It was so shocking that it was art. Talk about impactful.
Because this year, we’re in a pandemic. This year, we’re in the middle of an emergency that we didn’t admit was upon us until we could already see the whites of its eyes, and that we’re not sure will end anytime soon. This year, had we allowed the plaza to fill up, there would have been empty spaces that might have been filled by those we’ve lost so far, who instead of partying in the plaza are resting in their coffins and urns.
So this Independence Day season, as those of us who can still afford it gouge on chiles en nogada that have been delivered to our homes so that we can avoid contagion at restaurants, let’s reflect on that emptiness, and on those missing people, and think about the conditions we want to be in when we return.
Because it’s not just about the dead, though it’s a lot about the dead: the victims of Covid, and also victims of narco violence that’s scarcely let up, journalists who’ve disappeared and been killed because they published something that someone powerful didn’t like; women killed, sometimes on the street, but mostly in their homes by men who were supposedly devoted to them; those teachers in training who still haven’t turned up. All those children that have died, perhaps from their cancer, but certainly from the lack of chemotherapy drugs they had a legal right to receive.
We’ve got plenty of others we might also consider to be “missing,” too, though they’re still alive. Those who’ve lost their already precarious livelihoods with nary a rescue package in sight, the many who could already be considered left behind by a flippant economic model that assumes workers who lack power and agency can live happily and amply on 4,000 pesos a month or even less while their employers can’t imagine surviving on anything less than ten times that amount.
Covid-19 threw us a curve ball and shattered a vase that, for too many people, was barely being held together by a few strips of masking tape in the first place. And that’s not just a loss for them personally, it’s a loss for us as a society. When people are worrying about getting their basic needs met, they can’t be busy developing and sharing their particular gifts with the world to the degree that we all need them to.
There is zero doubt about the talent and drive that exist in so many people in this country. That’s true for every country and human, I know, but so many things about Mexico’s culture and society put us in a particularly advantageous position to really knock it out of the park.
So now’s our chance, people: let’s make something new now, perhaps out of a bit sturdier material this time. Next September, I want to see us back out there, doing one of the things we do best in this country: throwing one hell of a party.
Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.