“Any Excuse For A Party”?

The Importance of September’s Colorful Fiestas Patrias

Many marvel at the amount of festivals and public holidays held in Mexico. Two working days may miraculously disappear from what you would expect to be an ordinary week if one of the many días festivos happens to fall on a Tuesday or Thursday in which case, respectively, the Monday or Friday, also turns into a day off to make the famous puente (“bridge”) which ensures a long weekend.

A whole month of festivities is dedicated to honor Mexico’s independence from Spain. This secular and boisterous celebration of the Fiestas Patrias (“Patriotic Parties”) can often come as a surprise to foreigners who will probably feel like outsiders witnessing a strange maelstrom of pride and sentiment.

This nationalistic knees-up dominates all of September in which Mexico’s polychromatic splendor is focused on the three colors of the national flag: Green, which is supposed to represent hope (symbolized by the fertility of the soil); White for purity; and Red: For the blood shed during Independence.

Independence Day itself is on September 16th when the capital’s main arteries are sealed off from about 11am and military parades and other such fanfare fill Mexico City’s main square, best known simply as el Zócalo.

But preparations begin long before. Throughout August the Zócalo is gradually transformed by gaudy red, white and green decorative hangings, which for over a month will obscure the fine architecture of the square. Bells are a common leitmotif, for the bell Father Hidalgo rang to summon followers in Dolores, Hidalgo all those years ago. Other plazas in the capital echo this central effort, for example displaying mammoth flags composed of of dyed chrysanthemums, and sticking up red, white and green lights which flash the two main dates of Independence – 1810 and 1821.

Cities all around the country witness the same fevered build-up. Workmen may start hammering at extra platforms set up for musical bands in Oaxaca, village streets in the provinces will flutter with red, white and green papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs).

By September 1st, makeshift stalls selling flags, cloth Indian dolls bedecked in clothes and ribbons with the national colors and other trinkets of the same hues, make a cheerful splash in every plaza in the country. As the big date creeps nearer, taxi drivers stick small flags to the bonnets of their VWs or hang tiny sombreros with red, white and green ribbons from their rear -view mirrors.

The colors extend even to the aguas frescas, traditionally served with a comida corrida to refresh the palate. Huge pitchers of these cooling drinks are found at street stands all over Mexico, but in the fiestas patrias, they are most typically white – agua de horchata (made of ground melon seeds), red – agua de jamaica, or sometimes sandía (dried petals of the hibiscus flower, or watermelon) and agua de tomate verde (tomatillo).

Gelatinas (jello) for kids come in red, white and green, as does lightly sweetened rice paper sold in transparent plastic bags between traffic jams and by fountains for eager little hands. The theme takes over Mexican rice dishes, where true nationalists will hold festive dinners with a patriotic presentation of white rice sandwiched between tomato flavored red rice and delicious cilantro (fresh coriander leaf)-flavored green rice.

And, best of all, it is the inspiration for what is perhaps Mexico’s most prized and loved national dish, Chiles en Nogada: The dark green chile poblano (sometimes hot, sometimes not) stuffed with shredded pork and dried fruit, over which is poured a creamy walnut sauce, and the final blush tone provided by rosy pomegranate seeds which are sprinkled on at the end. Visitors will easily stumble across this deservedly famous dish widely available all through September and sometimes into the beginnings of October, but will have to hunt high and low to find it any other time of year.

So … what’s the fuss all about?

On Sunday September 16, 1810 – while Napoleon’s troops were occupying Spain – Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811) made a rousing speech, in the town of Dolores, Guanajuato state, in the country that was then called Nueva España, or New Spain. Re-enacted in modern-day Mexico with telling historical imprecision every year at 11pm on 15th September, this call to arms is now referred to as the Grito de Independencia or just el Grito.

Although current trends and tact emphasize the Viva! (“Long Live!”) part, the original Grito called for the death of the Gachupines (Spaniards born in Spain and living in Mexico) “who had been exploiting the wealth of the Mexican people with the greatest injustice for three hundred years.”

Hidalgo is Mexico’s “Father” of Independence and at the time was also a Father of the Roman Catholic Church as well as of a couple of illegitimate daughters, in unabashed contradiction of his holy vows. Excommunicated and executed the following year, this colorful, rebellious character is only one of many independence heroes (among them Ignacio de Allende, Jose Morelos, General Agustin de Iturbide) who fostered, manipulated and managed a truly popular movement, culminating in Mexico’s independence in 1821.

“Long Live the Heroes of the Nation!” “Long Live the Republic!”, President Zedillo will shout from the main balcony of the National Palace on Friday 15th, ringing for the last time the same bell rung by Hidalgo 190 years ago.

In Mexico: Biography of Power, historian Enrique Krause explains that the dates were switched in 1910 by the dictator Porfirio Díaz (whose birthday and saint’s day was September 15th) in a symbolic legitimization of his position as head of state.

The longstanding use of the nation’s colors by the PRI – the political party which has ruled Mexico for 71 years – was hotly debated in the run up to this year’s presidential elections. Such a forceful association between one party and nationhood was not seen to be fair and, opponents argued, ran counter to the spirit of democracy. Nevertheless, it did not hoodwink Mexicans this time round who, on July 2nd, chose another kind of independence, making the PRI’s last grito this month another poignant historical moment to mark a new future for this checkered nation.

Originally written for magazine Business Mexico, and published in Aug. / Sept. 2000