In September 2010 my partner and I celebrated the bicentenary of Mexican independence at the embassy in Canberra alongside about 300 others, most of them Mexicans living temporarily or permanently in Australia. Rocío, who has a PhD in ecology from Mexico City and is studying in my hometown of Brisbane, was formally invited; I was just a gringo gate-crasher. We flew down from Queensland for the weekend, hitched a ride to the embassy district and soon found ourselves in a garden full of revellers in fancy dress. Mariachis and day-of-the-dead skeletons sipped tequila beneath a shady gum decorated with paper masks that would have been familiar to any Mexican schoolboy, but were unknown to me: heroes of the nineteenth-century War of Independence. A blue, star-shaped piñata dangled from the branches, foil covering twinkling in the late-afternoon sun, while children scampered on the lawn below. A generously stocked bar and the promise of a slap-up meal kept the interstate guests happy and gradually set them mingling with embassy staff and their families. By the time black beans and tortillas were served on paper plates, a crowd had gathered beneath the gazebo. Still eating, the guests clustered eagerly around the lectern and temporary stage where the show was to take place.
The performance that followed presented a potted history of Mexico through folk dance. First, a troupe of bare-chested Aztec warriors in headdresses flailed their limbs to the beat of drums. A sequence of sentimental pieces for couples in Spanish colonial dress followed: women with flowers in their hair in the style of Andalusian peasants flirted with handkerchiefs, evading their partners’ advances with clever footwork. Finally there came a military sequence in which dancing Adelitas, female revolutionaries wearing ammunition belts, whirled in circles. These final dancers belonged rightly to the iconography of the 1910 revolution rather than to the War of Independence that had begun 100 years earlier, but nobody saw any problem with conflating the two. Indeed, this slippage was characteristic of the 2010 celebrations, which were bicentenary and centenary at once. Two months later, outside military headquarters in Mexico City, I would observe a billboard that took this tendency to its logical extreme. A triptych of army images from 1810, 1910 and 2010 sought to connect legendary conflicts of the past with the present military struggle against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels. But nobody wanted to talk about that at the party.
After the dancing, the crowd grew more vocal. Miniature flags were distributed and the ambassador came to the podium to perform el grito, the independence cry that traditionally ends the ceremony. According to legend, it was the priest and revolutionary Miguel Hidalgo who gave the first grito and who launched the struggle against the Spanish. Ringing the cathedral bells in the town of Dolores, he gathered his supporters together and inspired them to rise against the colonial regime with a fiery speech. His precise words are disputed but the sentiment sounds clearly across the intervening years: ‘Long live the independence of the fatherland! Down with foreign kings! Long live Mexico!’
The ritual hasn’t changed a great deal since then, although the early twentieth-century dictator Porfirio Díaz decided it should be shifted a day earlier to coincide with his birthday. Now, every 15 September in the evening, the Mexican president rings Hidalgo’s bell on the balcony of the National Palace, imitating the priest’s famous gesture. He recites a modified version of el grito, and the masses gathered in the square roar it back to him.
The sound reached Canberra in September 2010, thousands of kilometres from Mexico City’s iconic central plaza, the Zocalo. This time, though, the protagonist was the ambassador to Australia, the extravagantly named María Luisa Beatriz López Gargallo. Resplendent in a crimson jacket, she led the guests through a fire-and-brimstone version of the himno nacional:
Mexicans give the war cry
Prepare steel and horses;
Let the earth shake
To the sonorous roar of cannons.
A handful of out-of-place Anglo in-laws and I were the only ones not singing. We stared at our shoes while the rest bellowed with hands on hearts. In marched a pair of young army officers bearing the flag, their boots cracking smartly against the parquet dance floor. The emblem on the Mexican flag shows an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake, the prophetic symbol that led the Aztecs to found their capital on the site of modern-day Mexico City. Every element of the design carries some allegorical significance, right down to the segments of the cactus, which are said to stand for the five phases of Mexican history. In Canberra, naturally, nobody but me was concerned with decoding the emblem’s thorny semiotics. The crowd cheered Ambassador López, a tiny woman who initially struggled to support the weight of the oversize flag. They applauded wildly when she eventually succeeded in heaving it back and forth over the lectern. El grito soon began in earnest, opening with a long list of independence heroes.
‘Viva Hidalgo!’ came the cry and its echo from the crowd.
‘Viva Morelos! Viva Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez!’
The ambassador’s voice grew hoarse and distorted as the recitation went on, her vocal chords and the cheap speaker system both struggling to cope with the increasing volume. ‘Viva the bicentenary of independence!’ This was a mouthful but she made a good effort. ‘Viva one hundred years of the revolution!’
She was shouting now, along with everybody else, their voices cracking at the climatic cry. Three times it was repeated for emphasis and symmetry, a warlike, uninhibited, upward-inflected sob that brought a lump to my throat: ‘Viva México! Viva México! Viva México!’
Family members in the crowd embraced, couples kissed and, as the flag was carried away, I found myself uncharacteristically moved. No longer looking at my shoe laces, I flailed my miniature Mexican flag and grinned.
Only afterwards did I become aware of the sadness of the occasion, when I felt a tightness in the chest that I was left trying to understand for days. It was partly the pathos of knowing that most of those who had made such an extravagant show of their love for Mexico now lived in exile, forced to look abroad for a better life. Perhaps even more stirring than el grito itself was the moment when the crowd sung the mariachi, ‘México Lindo y Querido’ (Beautiful, much loved Mexico), a lyric with particular resonance for those abroad:
Beautiful, much loved Mexico
If I should die far from you
Let them say I’m only dreaming
And carry me here.
But the sadness was personal too: like an orphan invited to someone else’s family gathering, I was suddenly aware of something missing from my own life. The reason the ceremony made such an impact on me, I think, was that I have never experienced a similar outpouring from Australians. Indeed, it had never occurred to me that something, some energising fire, might be missing from our national life. Since we have no War of Independence or revolution to celebrate, perhaps it’s natural that our patriotic occasions tend to be less exuberant affairs. Who could sing ‘Our land abounds in nature’s gifts’ with the same gusto as ‘Let the earth shake to the sonorous roar of cannons’? Perhaps it’s natural that Australians express love of country with less pomp and ceremony than others; perhaps, as Don Watson has suggested, it’s even a good thing, a bulwark against fanaticism and a vital element of our stable political culture. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling, there in Canberra in a crowd of homesick and emotional Mexicans, that we were missing something special.
The Mexicans’ expressiveness seemed to emphasise our lack of it, the self-conscious quality of most of our patriotic occasions. It also set me thinking about how similar ceremonies here tend to avoid the question of national origins; we much prefer to celebrate the present—material well-being, fresh air, freedom, and cricket. Shortly after the party at the embassy I travelled to Mexico and found that national celebrations there work in the opposite direction, focusing on glories past to the exclusion of the troubled present. Many of the Mexicans I spoke to, viewed the noisy and expensive bicentenary celebrations staged by President Felipe Calderon’s government in 2010 as little more than an attempt to distract them from the here-and-now, the profound security crisis affecting their country.
Two months on from the Canberra party, Rocío took me to a less festive but no less absorbing celebration of Mexicanidad (Mexicanness) at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City: an exhibition of relics from the War of Independence and the Revolution. Upstairs, we were able to visit the balcony where President Calderon had performed el grito three months earlier. From our vantage point, we had a view over the Zocalo, Mexico’s answer to Red Square. To the north is the colonial-era cathedral. The stone, blackened by four centuries of grime and air pollution, and the crooked towers tilted by years of earthquakes, lend the building a magical, slightly warped aspect that feels very Mexican—Europe rebuilt on unsound foundations, sinking into American soil. Next door is the Templo Mayor, the ruins of a pre-Hispanic holy site that the Aztecs held to be the centre of the world.
In 2010 the Zocalo was again the centre of Mexican civilisation, at least the state-sanctioned interpretation of it staged for the bicentenary festivities. Rocío and I had watched the show online from Brisbane: the angel of independence was projected onto the cathedral while a spectacular fireworks display by Ignatius Jones, the Australian maestro responsible for the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, burst overhead in the Mexican tri-colour. Despite the surrounding spectacle, el grito itself was a muted affair that couldn’t match the intensity of its smaller cousin in Canberra. The Mexicans who had chosen to leave the country, paradoxically, made a greater show of their love for it than those who’d stayed home. In beautiful, much loved Mexico the unpopular Calderon, whose security policies are widely blamed for inflaming drug-related violence in the country, could only incite polite applause. Three months on when we visited, a group of technicians were busily installing an ice-rink for the festive season.
Nothing remained of the bicentenary spectacular but a macabre public exhibition in the palace. The bones of heroes from the 1910 revolution were on display. Here, in the same building where Calderon had cried viva Mexico for the cameras, school groups, families, couples and grandparents filed past the mortal remains of Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata and other revolutionary heroes, displayed in glass cases. Disinterred especially for the 2010 celebrations and brought from many different sites around the republic, the loose bones were placed in black chests and were illuminated brightly by footlights so that they shone, ghoulish white, in the darkened palace chamber. I was struck by the smallness of these containers filled with the bones of great men, scarcely larger than a shoe box. Here was Mexico’s other face, death-obsessed: the same culture that shouts in praise of the heroes of the revolution puts their bones on show. At the Australian bicentenary in 1988, no bones were displayed and no independence cry was uttered—it’s hard to imagine Bob Hawke digging up remnants of our early colonial governors or legendary outlaws for exhibition. But we too celebrated with a massive public spectacle that was ambivalently received. In Australia, as in other new-world immigrant nations, commemorative occasions meant to foster social cohesion often only highlight ongoing patterns of exclusion that privilege the settler population over indigenous peoples and ‘newer’ immigrant communities. Organisers of the Australian bicentenary ceremony struggled to reconcile the point of view held by indigenous groups and their supporters—who saw the occasion as a celebration of colonial conquest—with those of Anglo-Celtic traditionalists. The 1988 re-enactment of the First Fleet sailing into Sydney Harbour on 26 January was memorably overshadowed by protests calling for a formal treaty with indigenous Australians.
If our bicentenary has any legacy at all, then, it is the invasion-or-settlement debate rehearsed every Australia Day. At the risk of repeating a familiar argument, 26 January is, by its nature, incapable of producing a sense of national togetherness. It can never have the dynamism of independence celebrations in Mexico (or elsewhere) because it marks the arrival of a colonising power rather than its expulsion. It’s interesting to contrast Australia’s divisive myth of origins with the way Mexicans now regard their colonial experience. In Mesoamerica, because the land was populated more densely, and because most indigenous groups, including the dominant Aztec and Maya civilisations, lived in urban centres and practised settled agriculture, there could be no fraudulent narrative of peaceful colonial settlement. This was openly a military conquest, the clash of swords and the boom of artillery a prelude to ‘the sonorous roar of cannons’ in the later War of Independence.
The difference between Spanish and British attitudes on the question of sex between coloniser and colonised is reflected in the national celebrations of their former colonies. In Mexico, where military conquest reduced the indigenous population to 5 per cent of what it was before the Spanish, sexual conquest produced a mestizo society. To this day the majority of Mexicans are of mixed European and indigenous descent. The narrative of decolonisation, then, is one of an anti-colonial Mexican ‘us’ overthrowing a Spanish colonial ‘them’. How different the play of pronouns commonly encountered in Australia, where a relatively small percentage of the population identify as indigenous. Here, even an expression of regret for colonial excesses such as Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern speech—‘It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands’—refers to a colonising European ‘us’ and a colonised non-European ‘them’. In Mexico and in Australia, commemorative days and national celebrations nearly always reflect the needs of the government footing the bill. The tendency is to emphasise shared qualities and downplay conflict. But conflict, whether in the form of the protests coinciding with the re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour or the half-hearted response to Calderon in the Zocalo in 2010, refuses to remain concealed.
At the Palacio Nacional in Mexico watching the public pay homage to the bones of the glorious dead, I couldn’t help wondering whether any of them thought of the other dead—those dying today. For even as Calderon orchestrated the massive bicentenary celebrations in 2010, he was also directing a virtual civil war against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels. Rocío and I had taken advantage of a ceasefire over the Christmas and New Year period to stroll along Acapulco’s famous beaches. Only days after we left, fifteen decapitated heads were found piled in a shopping centre in the tourist zone—the first drug war deaths of 2011. Shaken, we cancelled a trip to the hometown of Rocío’s father, Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacán. There, narco gangs were imposing a self-described ‘reign of terror’, blockading highways and threatening to assassinate President Calderon.
Despite this, Calderon denies that a war is taking place in Mexico. He claims that he has always used the word lucha (struggle) rather than its stronger alternative, which has undesirable resonance with the detested Bush regime’s ‘war on drugs’. Whatever the term used, an armed conflict of extraordinary ferocity is taking place. In January 2011 official figures recognised 34,000 drug-war deaths since Calderon came to power four years ago. Nearly 90 per cent of these were classed as ‘executions,’ murders perpetrated by members of one gang against members of rival organisations; the remaining 10 per cent were the result of clashes between armed forces and organised crime. Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox, also a member of the right-of-centre PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), sent small numbers of troops to the worst-affected border areas, but the militarisation of a large part of national territory has come under the present regime.
Under Calderon, the government has deployed nearly a quarter of the Mexican military, some 45,000 soldiers, to combat drug gangs. The results have been mixed at best: an increase in drug seizures and arrests of high-profile criminals, marred by a massive spike in the number of deaths. In 2010 Mexico registered its highest annual body count yet: 15,273 deaths linked the drug war. Large tracts of the country are now more or less controlled by organised crime, with many local governments intimidated into collaboration or acquiescence. Twelve Mexican mayors were murdered in the nation’s bicentenary year; not surprisingly, it has become difficult to find willing candidates. Corruption too is a major headache for the Calderon government; it has been uncovered at the highest levels of the security forces. In 2008 the chief of the Federal Police, Victor Gerardo Garay Cadena, was deposed and prosecuted for his links with narcotics-trafficking gangs.
Under these circumstances, who would want to be in the Mexican security forces? During the current administration, more than 30,000 army officers have deserted. The figure makes a mockery of the billboard outside military headquarters in Mexico City. Today’s troops are by no means the successors to Hidalgo’s independence fighters: they are frightened young men enforcing a policy that many argue is only in the interest of the United States. President Obama’s May 2010 ‘New National Strategy on the Control of Drugs’ looked a lot like Bush’s ‘war on drugs’ by another name. The Americans still favour targeting the supply side of the industry through policing, and still refuse to countenance decriminalisation; Calderon sends still more troops; illegal arms sold over the northern border still take lives south of the Rio Grande. What has become of Mexican independence two hundred years on?
Without a radical shift in paradigm on drugs, the security situation in Mexico looks unlikely to improve until the end of Calderon’s term in 2012 (Mexican presidents are not permitted to run for re-election under the constitution installed after the revolution). His party, the PAN, is widely tipped to lose office at the next election, but its fortunes could change if it is able to find an outstanding candidate. In December 2010, as the year’s commemorative fever subsided, just such a figure emerged.
The link between narco-violence and electoral politics was a topic of conversation at dinner as we celebrated Australia Day 2011 with friends in Mexico City. Veronica and Dave, another young, Mexican-Australian couple, had invited us to a barbecue at the Sedano family home. The last time we had encountered Veronica’s father he was recovering from a massive heart attack that struck while he was visiting his daughter in Brisbane. Six months on, a slimmer Dr Sedano greeted us, looking relaxed in shorts and long socks. He was a convivial host, pleased to have at least one of his three daughters temporarily at home in Mexico (all three live abroad), and eager to celebrate in style the national day of his daughter’s adopted country. He served us mezcal from a bottle in the shape of a giant glass worm, speaking mainly English for the benefit of his Australian son-in-law. The floods in Queensland were discussed first; they had menaced his daughter’s apartment in the riverside Brisbane suburb of West End, but had now receded. After a couple of glasses of mezcal, though, the conversation turned to Mexican politics. It’s a topic that is usually introduced in sophisticated company with a long, melancholy sigh. After introducing his theme in the appropriate fashion, Dr Sedano filled us in on the latest conspiracy theory.
‘Did you see the Christmas spectacular?’ he asked. ‘What a piece of theatre!’
Once a strapping figure of a man, he now barely filled his T-shirt; his shoulders were caved in, his beard white, and his movements slow as if he was conscious of conserving energy. Veronica had told us that, in addition to his clinic, Dr Sedano worked long hours as a consultant on health policy to the federal government. Despite his own poor health, he spoke with the authority of a man used to being heard.
‘This Fernández de Cevallos story, it’s all a soap opera, you realise? It’s a set up.’ He was referring to a massive news story that had broken in late December. Just days before Christmas, Diego Fernández de Cevallos, a former PAN senator and one-time presidential candidate who had been kidnapped and held for seven months by a mysterious criminal gang, was released alive. In May, a group calling themselves the misteriosos desaparecedores, had seized the high-profile politician at his ranch. They posted photos online of a blindfolded Fernández de Cevallos naked from the waist up, and threatened to take his life if their demands were not met. Rumour ran that the politician’s family had paid a US $20 million ransom for the release of the man known as Diego the boss. His first media appearance as a free man made front pages worldwide. A thickly beared Fernández de Cevallos appeared outside his home and publicly offered forgiveness to his captors: ‘Thanks to God I’m strong and my life will go on as before. As a man of faith I have already forgiven the kidnappers; as a citizen I believe the authorities have a job to do but without abuse, without violence.’
After uttering these statesman-like words, the 69-year old, a senior figure in the conservative PAN since the 1970s, then rushed inside to present his attractive young girlfriend a bouquet of flowers.
‘They’re setting him up to become president,’ said Dr Sedano authoritatively. ‘I’m sure of it.’ His theory makes sense. Who better to continue Calderon and the PAN’s offensive against organised crime than Fernández de Cevallos, an experienced political operator seen to have suffered personally at their hands?
‘Did you see him when he came out?’ said our host. ‘He looked like he’d been on holiday. Kidnapped? It’s all a production. A show.’
The conversation had followed the pattern of many discussions of contemporary politics in Mexico, moving in a flash from melancholy resignation to paranoia. It was hardly the ideal topic for an Australia Day barbecue. Luckily, Dave and I had a secret weapon, a sure-fire way of lightening the mood. We wanted no flag-waving, no folk-dancing, and certainly no formal recitation to rival el grito. Rather, we produced a cheap, plastic cricket set lugged across the Pacific in a suitcase and insisted that everyone take part in a vigorous back-yard game. In a blow for the classless society, Dave even dragged the Sedano’s live-in housekeeper outside to bowl a plastic ball at her employer. Initially reluctant, she soon embraced our strange, antipodean overturning of social hierarchies and sent her boss’s off-stump tumbling.
This was our answer, a very Australian answer, to the outpouring of sentiment by the Mexicans in Canberra: zero reflection on our country’s history and very little by way of real emotion, just a funny old British game, a colonial inheritance incorporated into our performance of Aussie blokehood. Although attuned to laconic Australian tastes, our game of back-yard cricket was every bit as much of a performance as the Mexican grito. ‘Australians are self-conscious if they have to take part in a ritual,’ wrote Donald Horne in The Lucky Country. And so we were. Playing up to our Mexican audience’s expectations, we drank beer, ate hamburgers with beetroot for the main, Tim Tams for dessert, and spoke in an exaggeratedly ‘Australian’ way natural to neither of us.
In what is perhaps the Mexican equivalent to Horne’s classic study of Australian identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz characterises his people in a way almost diametrically opposed to Horne’s description of Australians. ‘We are a ritual people,’ he writes. ‘How could a poor Mexican live without the two or three annual fiestas that compensate for the narrowness and misery of his life? Fiestas are our only luxury.’ In Australia, where luxury is not so hard to come by, most of us have less need for such compensation, less of a taste for elaborate patriotic and religious ceremonies. But we are not without our own distractions and our own peculiar narrowness of intellectual horizons. Can drink, cricket and a vague belief in the universal right to a comfortable life really substitute for the powerful tradition of national emancipation celebrated by the Mexicans every September?
For me, taking part in these different but parallel celebrations a few months apart—two national days staged far from home—seemed to underline the differences between the two cultures. The warlike mood of el grito could scarcely have differed more from our low-key game of back-yard cricket. But perhaps the differences are less significant and less interesting than the similarities. Mexico’s and Australia’s national celebrations might be seen to illustrate two tentative and incomplete solutions to the quintessential new-world problem, that of forging a mature culture after colonisation: to celebrate dead war heroes while denying the present war exists; to celebrate the present rather than confront a tarnished colonial past. Are these not equal and opposite reactions to the same challenge?
© James Halford