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by Bob Brooke


"Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!" the crowd of a million strong packing the Zóalo in Mexico City shouts as the President proclaims Mexico's independence once more during the annual Independence Day celebration--Fiestas Patrias, Mexico's greatest fiesta, a time when all are one. A time when people put aside their petty differences to proclaim their love for their country.

Preparations begin weeks before in Mexico City, site of the largest, but by no means the only celebration. Gaily colored red, green, and white lights festoon the Paseo de Reforma all the way from Chapultepec Park to the Plaza de la Constitucion or Zócalo. The effect is more like Christmas than a patriotic event, as fountains along the boulevard spill red and green lighted water. Portraits of Benito Juarez, made of thousands of tiny lights, decorate the avenues like glittering jewels at twilight.

I can feel the patriotism in the air days before the celebration. Army cadets walk the city streets. Everyone, even the smallest storekeeper, seems to prepare themselves for the big day. Flag vendors set up on just about every street corner. Buildings wrapped in red, green, and white bunting stand dressed for the celebration. The Zócalo is abuzz with hundreds of workmen setting up elaborate stages, fake lighted fountains, audio equipment and six huge video screens.

At last the big day arrives--September 15, the day on which Father Hidalgo proudly declared Mexico's independence from Spain 178 years ago. Traditionally, activities at the Zócalo begin around 9:00 P.M., as people meander in and take part in singing and dancing.

Arriving at about 9:30, I find the square already filled with people. It's one thing to see this square, one of the largest in the world, when there's no one here, but it's quite another to see it jammed with people of all ages who are singing, dancing and waving Mexican flags. Lavender, pink, yellow-green, and orange confetti coats the ground like multi-colored snow. Balloon men amble about, their gaily-colored puffs of air sparkling from the light of hundreds of television lights.

The overall atmosphere here resembles Times Square on New Year's Eve. Besides the constant murmur of the crowd, several mariachi bands, all playing at once, burst forth their loud and brassy sound from two pyramid-like stages. A third stage features a modern jazz band.

Off to the far left the Cathedral glows in white light. I'm told this is one of the only nights when the entire building is lit up. At each of the corners large lighted banners display the portraits of revolutionary heros–Father Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, Father Jose Morelos, Benito Juarez.

A young couple, Maria and Jose, come over to me. She offers me some of her chiccarones, pork rinds, and asks, "Is this your first time at Fiestas Patrias?"

I nod my head yes and accept her gift of food.

"How does our independence celebration compare with your Fourth of July?"

"This is fantastic," I reply. "We don't have as much excitement and partying as you have here."

The action on the square centers on the Palacio Nacional, the National Palace. Its facade, bathed in bright white light, is banded by a string of armed soldiers. But the focus is on the flag-draped balcony in the center where the President will soon appear to recite the Grito de Dolores, the "Cry from Dolores," a repeat of the declaration made by Father Hidalgo on that fateful night in mid-September when the Mexican Revolution began. Above the balcony hangs the Bell of Hidalgo, brought to Mexico City for this occasion. A long, thick red and gold velvet rope hangs from it to the balcony.

At approximately 10:30 P.M. excitement passes through the crowd like a tidal wave. It seems the President has just arrived in a white limousine. Everyone around me is chattering excitedly.

Pedro, a boy of about twelve, asks me to join he and his family. He gives me a little Mexican flag to wave. Normally, I'd feel a bit apprehensive in such a large crowd, but tonight was special. Everyone around me feels like family.

"What are the large screens for?" I ask Pedro.

"Those are so we can all watch the President by closed-circuit television as he prepares to recite the Grito," he replies.

As we watch the screen just ahead of us, the President appears and walks majestically into the anteroom of the balcony. An honor guard marches in and goose-step turns. They hand a large Mexican flag to the President after he salutes. He carries the flag to the balcony and waves. Pedro gives me a nudge and a big smile. The crowd cheers.

The President pulls on the velvet cord and rings the bell three times. He waves the flag and shouts to the multitude asembled below, "Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! Viva Mexico! Viva la independencia!–Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! Long live Mexico! Long live independence!"

The multitude answers, "Viva la independencia!"

He shouts, "Viva la libertad! Viva Mexico!"

The crowd, in one tremendous roar, answers, "Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!" The words echo back and forth across the square.

He then yells the names of the revolutionary leaders, ending with "Viva Mexico!" Following this, he leads the crowd in singing the national anthem.

People all around me are singing. Some have tears streaming down their cheeks. It's an extremely emotional moment. The President turns and hands the flag to the color guard and goes back into the palace.

Now the fun begins. Almost immediately, the Ballet Folklorico, high above the crowd on the two pyramid stages, begins to play out the history of Mexico in music and dance with visuals on the large screens. A laser light show adds to the colorful festivities. At the same time, hundreds of fireworks are set off behind the Cathedral, exploding in graceful arcs above the square. People all around me are hugging and kissing.

After about forty-five minutes, the activity dies down and people begin to leave the square. I say my goodbyes to Pedro and his family. A swarm of little boys with brooms begins the massive task of sweeping up the tons of confetti littering the pavement. But this is only the beginning.

The next morning a four-hour long parade of soldiers, athletes, horsemen, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, makes its way up the Paseo de Reforma from the Zócalo to Chapultepec Park.

I make my way through the crowd to a vantage point on the monument to Cuahtemoc near the Zona Rosa. A older gentleman, named Antonio, helps me up onto the monument so that I can get a better view.

"It wasn't long ago that I was marching in that parade," he says. "We were all so proud. Everyone wore their best clothes. I can remember how my father made sure that my sombrero was on straight. I pretended that I was a wealthy haciendado riding my horse up the Reforma before there were automobiles. Is this your first parade?"

"Yes," I reply.

"Look over there," he says, as he points to a woman selling wooden boxes. "Do you see those boxes? People are renting them to stand on so that they can see the parade."

As Antonio points out the crates, I notice young men standing on the roof of a bus stop, a family of five is lying on blankets on the roof of their father's taxi, a young boy is sitting on his brother's shoulders.

I say goodbye to Antonio and move on up toward Chapultepec Park. The air hangs heavy with the pungent smell of oil and roasted corn. All sorts of vendors line the Reforma. Young Indian women sell food at make-shift stands–tortas, chicarrones, tostados. Older women sell egg shells filled with confetti. Boys sell games and toys. Men sell nuts of all kinds, and dates filled with nuts. Some give away little bags of peanuts to parade watchers.

A little girl of about six, her face all sticky with pink fuzz, looks out from behind the biggest ball of cotton candy she can find. Another, smiling from ear to ear, has just taken a big bite of a mango on a stick.

Everything is for sale–hot dogs, fresh fruit, mezcal, mounds and mounds of watermelon, tiny grilled tortillas, cucumbers. But the most unusual items are handwoven palm-frond hats that passersby purchase to protect them from the hundreds of rockets that constantly explode overhead.

Though the people, themselves, are quiet, there's a raucous cacophony of horns blowing. Bands play patriotic songs and marching groups sing along. I feel even more stirred inside than last night at the Zócalo. It's Mexican life multiplied one hundred fold. A rainbow of color, a sea of humanity as far as I can see in all directions.

As the parade makes its way to Chapultepec Park, the crowd meanders along, and I follow. This is possibly the biggest fiesta in Mexico. Families sit in circles on the grass munching on fruit and roasted corn. The niños play with the pinwheels on each other's heads. A young couple nestle in a loving embrace.

I stop to smile at a young boy having his picture taken. He sits astride a pony and wears a sombrero so big it makes his ears stick out at right angles to his head. For a moment, I remember when I was a kid, and the photographer with his pony used to come to my house to take my picture in my cowboy outfit.

Indian women sit on the grass patting tortillas, their babies sound asleep on blankets, oblivious to all the excitement around them.

Just as along the parade route, vendors offer a variety of items for sale. But unlike those along the Reforma, there are finely crafted pieces from all over the country. A young boy purchases a little bird in a basket. The man selling it has others in cages.

Independence Day is for children. Mimes entertain starry-eyed children. An organ grinder cranks out a tune on his ornate box as his monkey dances to the delight of laughing tots.

A young girl of fifteen, named Dolores, comes up to me and hands me a small gaily painted box. "This is for you," she says. "We are so glad that you've come to spend Independence Day with us. I want you to have this to remember it by."

Overwhelmed by the gift and the sentiment, I thank her. This would have never happened back home.

Exhilarated by the events of the day, I go over to the Hotel Camino Real across from the park to meet my friend and fellow writer Jim Barnes. He has been living in Mexico City for the past ten years and has developed quite a market for his work. Jim, a giant of a man with his blond hair streaked with gray, seems out of place among the Mexicans. In all this time, he still hasn't learned any more Spanish than I. It's been several years since I last saw him on a trip to L.A. Jim hasn't changed, although I think I have.

We meet in the stark dark pink and red lobby contemporary lobby of the hotel. "Why don't we go over to the Zona Rosa and get a bite to eat," he suggests. "I know this great Italian place, La Pergola, on Hamburgo Street. Their fettuccine alfredo is out of this world."

"That sounds great. It seems like all I've been eating lately is Mexican food," I reply. "I could stand a change."

"Another thing you ought to do is get your shoes shined. These Mexican kids do a great job. It's worth the dollar or so you pay them."

We decide to walk. The night is clear, the air slightly cool. It seems like everyone is out. The grassy knoll above the Chapultepec subway stop is packed with people. Kids run around in little gangs, playing their version of tag. We duck down through a pedestrian underpass. I notice a boy selling miniature wooden tops. I buy a half a dozen to hang as ornaments on my Christmas tree.

It takes about a half hour to walk over to the Zona Rosa. Most shops and restaurants are closed for the holiday. Denny's, of course, is open.

About a block from La Pergola, an older boy in his late teens, named Julio, stops us. "Do you have the time, señor?" he asks Jim.

"Eight o'clock," Jim replies.

"How about a shoe shine, señor?" he asks as he bends down to brush some polish on my shoe."

"No, thanks," says Jim.

"Oh, come on. Why not?" I reply. "You just got done telling me I ought to have my shoes shined."

Before another word can be spoken by either of us, Julio sits me down on the edge of a concrete planter and hurriedly wipes a liquid all over my shoes.

"I give you the best shine in Mexico," he says.

All the time he's doing this, I can't help noticing what little equipment he has. Most of the other boys I saw along the streets today had large wooden shoeshine boxes filled with a variety of brushes, rags, and polishes.

Before we know it, another boy comes out from around the corner and begins to put polish on Jim's shoes. Jim refuses a shine, but the more he refuses, the more the other boy insists.

"How much?" Jim asks.

"One hundred pesos," replies the boy.

"No way," says Jim, as he tries to get up to leave. "I'll give you ten."

Jim stands and argues with the boy.

By this time, I have already paid Julio one hundred and fifty pesos. Before we know what's happening, the other boy grabs my wallet, which I still have in my hand, and runs with it into the crowd. We both call for help. Because of the holiday, there are few policemen on duty. Try as we might, we find none. I look down at my shoes. The "polish" is already beginning to flake off.

"Let's go eat. I'm starved," says Jim.

"I'm not hungry anymore," I reply.

Jim lends me enough money to get back to my hotel. Luckily, I only brought along enough cash for dinner and taxi fare. The emotional high of the last two days tumbles to a crashing low.

I flag down a taxi. After driving a few minutes, the driver asks, "Can I get you some entertainment, señor? How about a pretty senorita?"

"No, thanks."

"Then how about a pretty boy, instead?"

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