Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mexico’s multifaceted independence

Festooned in green, white and red, Mexico is well into the “mes de la patria” — the month of the nation. It takes a short history lesson to understand what all the shouting (“gritos”) is about. Mexico’s independence from Spain, its border conflicts with the U.S., and its own constitution play a role in the commemorations. The Irish even get in on the act.

The month began on the first with the national report delivered to congress followed by the president’s State of the Nation address on the second. This address is mandated in the constitution and used to be a holiday on which the president delivered a multi-hour speech to both houses of congress, the Supreme Court and hundreds of guests. This year the secretary of the interior turned over the president’s written report to congressional representatives in hardcopy and on a computer hard drive. It was a twenty-minute ceremony.

President Peña Nieto did give a speech that day. But he presented it in the National Palace, the headquarters of the executive branch of government, rather than in the Legislative Palace.
Two events this week will commemorate what the U.S. calls the Mexican-American War and what Mexico calls the Unjust North American Invasion. They probably should be observed on the same day, but then one would overshadow the other.

On Saturday, September 13th, Mexico celebrates the Niños Héroes de Chapultepec (heroic children of Chapultepec). President Peña Nieto will lay wreaths at the base of Chapultepec Hill in Chapultepec Park honoring six cadets who defended Mexico’s military academy in 1847 during the U.S. invasion.
When they learned that their academy was going to be attacked, six cadets ranging in age from 15 to 21 made a solemn promise to die fighting in defense of their institution. After 5 had been killed in battle, the sixth, Juan Escutia, lowered the Mexican flag, wrapped himself in it, and jumped off the cliff.

The six are honored at the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Nation) at the base of Chapultepec Hill – each one represented by a soaring marble column topped with an eagle with outstretched wings.
On September 13, 1847, as the U.S. flag was being raised over the Chapultepec Castle, thirty members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were executed at the base of Chapultepec Hill under orders of General Winfield Scott.

The Saint Patrick’s Battalion had entered Mexico as part of the U.S. Army. Upon crossing the border from Texas, the mostly Irish troops came face-to-face with the enemy — Catholics like themselves. Some Mexican forces carried the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle along with a flag that was similar to the Irish flag. Pondering what they were fighting for, Captain John O’Reilly and his men soon came to the conclusion that they were on the wrong side. They switched and fought heroically on behalf of Mexico — infuriating General Winfield Scott.

On Friday, September 12, the Federal District’s Delegación (borough) Alvaro Obregón will sponsor a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument honoring St. Patrick’s Battalion in San Jacinto Park in San Ángel. Readers with Irish ancestry will be particularly welcome.

Next Monday, September 15, Mexico will celebrate its independence from Spain. Two places in Mexico City are particularly iconic for this event: the Monument to Independence on Paseo de la Reforma and the Zocalo.

Somehow the Monument to Independence continues standing straight even as the city sinks and tilts around it. Patterned after a similar column in Berlin, the monument is crowned with a golden winged Victory. I keep telling myself that next time I visit that monument I’ll take a Greek mythology book with me to understand all the mythological characters portrayed in relief and sculpture on and around the magnificent monument.

On Monday night at 10:30 President Peña Nieto will reenact the Shout of Independence from the central balcony of the National Palace overlooking the Zocalo. The original “grito” happened on September 16, 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed independence from Spain in front of his church in Dolores, Guanajuato. At the end of the “grito” the president will ring the same bell that Father Hidalgo rang and then the fireworks show will begin. You can be in the crowd or watch from one of the three hotels facing the National Palace — they all have rooftop restaurants.

The two weeks of nationalistic fervor will be brought to a close next Tuesday with a grand military parade that passes in front of the National Palace. They’ll close the Mexico City airport so that air force jets can fly over. The parade doesn’t change much from year to year. What changes is the spin given to it by the army’s commentator. In the previous administration’s parades we learned the armed forces were here to fight the enemy. This administration’s commentator tells us they are here to help the citizenry. Subtle but important change in style.

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