People are in the mood to party, houses are hung green, red and white, ‘¡descuentos patrias!’ signs are in the shop windows, streets are flooded in patriotic lights and you can’t go anywhere without seeing a stall selling flags, hairbands, face paint and hats, all emblazoned with the Mexican flag.
This is Dia de la Independencia in Mexico.
Celebrated on September 16th, it is one of Mexico’s most important holidays. On the night of the 15th people gather in plazas all over the country to hear the bells ring and local mayors and politicians re-enact the famous Grito de Dolores; the famous call to arms originally delivered by Hidalgo in 1810. On the 16th, every city and town all over Mexico celebrates with parades, dances and other civic festivals.
But what’s the history behind the date of September 16th?
Well, by 1810, Mexicans had grown weary under Spanish rule and the creoles finally decided the time had come to fight for independence. There were several conspiracies during those years but in Querétaro an organized conspiracy including several prominent citizens was preparing to make its move at the end of 1810. The leaders included parish priest Father Miguel Hidalgo and army officer Ignacio Allende.
Their plot, however, began to unravel and one by one the conspirators were being rounded up by colonial officials. On the morning of the 16th, fearing his own imprisonment, Hidalgo took to the pulpit in the town of Dolores to urge the people to revolt alongside him. He managed to rouse an army and forge the path to independence.
This famous speech became known as “El Grito de Dolores,” and is what is now shouted from balconies all over Mexico on the night of the 15th:
¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Viva Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez!
¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la Independencia Nacional!
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!
Hidalgo and his angry mob marched to Mexico City, laying siege to many towns along the way, but they were eventually stopped by a much better-equipped Spanish army in 1811. Hidalgo and Allende were put to death and all seemed lost.
But such was not the case. Various heroic figures took up the flag of independence and continued fighting for six more years until 1821, when they reached an agreement which allowed for Mexico’s definitive liberation in September of 1821.
Now, in 2015, with Mexico celebrating 205 years of independence, I was able to join in the party.
After weeks of seeing the flags go up and the city prepare itself, on the night of the 15th we arrived early into the centre – but not early enough. By the time we got there the main square of Merida was completely packed. From outside the cathedral, across the whole park and stretching round the sides, people carried flags, wore patriotic colours and stood on tip toes to get a view of the balcony of the Palacio Municipal. The mood was bright and the music loud.
After a couple of festive beers we joined the crowds and waited until 11 o’clock to hear El Grito. The crowd faithfully returned their ‘Vivas!’, roaring in unison after each line of the chant (especially after the ‘Viva Yucatan!”) and then erupting into applause and shouting at the end.
El Grito was followed by a stunning fireworks display above the square, accompanied by a voiceover about independence. All fireworks in red, green and white, of course.
Afterwards the people of Merida were treated to a free concert in the square by Espinosa Paz, an extremely popular singer and ladies man. Imagine if One Direction came to your town to give a free concert. Imagine the amount of people trying to cram in and the amount of screaming. Multiple this by 4 and you’re somewhere close to imagining Merida on the night of the 15th. Paz started the concert by asking which lovely lady would take him home that night. The screaming still haunts me.
After El Grito and all the fun around the plaza, people dispersed off to continue the party in bars or with family at home.
I loved experiencing Mexico’s Independence Day. I might not be Mexican but this country and its people have a huge slice of my heart.
Just a note – it might have all seemed rosy and wonderful and as it was my first year here for the 16th I’m not in any position to make comparisons, but the general consensus amongst my Mexican friends and students was that this year there wasn’t much to celebrate. With the violence, censorship and murder of the press and the current state of politics in Mexico (the hatred of Peña Nieto is palpable everywhere) for many Mexicans this was not a happy day but one for reflection and protest.