Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fiestas patrias

September 15th, 2010 was a big day for Mexico: the bicentennial anniversary of Mexican independence, the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. Every year on the night of September 15th, Mexican government functionaries all over the country re-enact "El Grito" (the scream) of Miguel Hidalgo, the pastor/revolutionary who was declaring the country's independence from Spain. (Actually, "El Grito" took place on September 16th, 1810, but the celebration has taken place the night of the 15th ever since the dictator Porfirio Díaz decided to move it a day earlier in honor of his birthday. More on Porfirio later.)

Oaxaca did not host the biggest party in Mexico, but I decided to stay put to avoid the ginormous crowds that would without a doubt be present in the capital and the region north of there, where the war for independence was fomented. In the days leading up to the bicentennial, the zócalo in Oaxaca was decorated with hanging lights, a couple extra bandstands, dozens of vendors selling giant hot-dog shaped balloons decorated with the message "Viva Mexico!", and a giant display featuring pictures of Hidalgo and the other main players in the independence movement, with the Mexican anthem written in a different indigenous language on the back of each photo.

Then came the big night of "El Grito". I headed to the zócalo with some friends at around 8 PM and enjoyed a musical performance by a band that played everything from cumbia to such classics as the "YMCA" (I was the only one in the crowd doing the motions--I'm sorry, it was instinctual!). The night was filled with the classic foam spray fights and in an interesting twist, egg shells filled with confetti. The crowd in the zócalo grew larger as the night went on. At around 11 there was a very unimpressive "parade" consisting of a bunch of policemen and some random people following them. The parade was followed by El Grito, which goes something like this:
Governor: "Viva Hidalgo!"
Crowd: "Viva!"
Governor: "Viva la Revolución!"
Crowd: "Viva!"
Governor: "Viva Mexico!"
Crowd: "Viiiiiivvvaaaaaa!"
There were several other "viva"s in there, but I can't remember all of them. You get the gist. After the parade was the most exciting part of the night: fireworks! By this time the zócalo was jam-packed, and after the fireworks suddenly everyone started panicking and pushing their way out of the zócalo. Somehow I managed to stick with the group of people I was with-- but not without a fight.

I could go on about the rest of the night, but instead of talking about mezcal, dancing and general raucousness I've decided to launch into a discussion of Mexican (and particularly Oaxacan) history, mostly based on what I have gleaned from a very condensed but entertaining book I just finished reading on the subject. Here goes:

So what is Oaxaca celebrating, and what is Mexico celebrating?

Interestingly enough, perhaps the two most influential presidents in all of Mexican history both hailed from Oaxaca: Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz. Benito Juarez was a poor Zapotec Indian who was orphaned at the age of three. He amazingly went to school, learned Spanish, studied law, and became a major force in the country toward the end of the independence movement. He served as president for several years, and is remembered for drafting the modern Mexican constitution, enacting reforms that undermined the power of the Catholic church and broke up haciendas, and overthrowing the short-lived French occupation of Mexico. And all this with a towering adult height of 4'7". I kid you not. (Also worth noting: if you ever wondered who the Italian Benito Mussolini was named after, here you have it. Mussolini's parents were involved in a fight to overthrow Austrian invaders in northern Italy, and admired Juarez for overthrewing the Austrian emperor Maximilian, who was sent by the Napoleon III to rule Mexico.)

Porfirio Díaz was also from a poor Oaxacan family, but comparisons between he and Juarez pretty much end there. A more conservative, military force, he attempted to overthrow Juarez's government several times, and finally came to power when Juarez died. He served as president (dictator) of Mexico from 1876-1910, and is remembered mostly for his violent repression and for sending political dissidents and indigenous people to work camps in the Valley of Oaxaca to die. However, he also built the first Mexican railroads and successfully "modernized" the country (by allowing foreigners to take control of most of Mexico's resources and industries). Strangely, he was supported (among others) by none other than Karl Marx, who saw his industrialization of Mexico as a necessary step toward communist revolution (although I'm quite sure that Mexican Marxists saw it differently).

So it was Juarez who set the stage ideologically for the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and Porfirio Díaz's opressive rule that precipitated it. Though Juarez and Díaz are seemingly opposing figures, generally Oaxacans are proud that their state is the birthplace of both. Granted, while Juarez is literally worshipped and has the city of Oaxaca de Juarez named after him, Porfirio Díaz does not have the same godly stature but is also acknowledged as someone who had an equally important role in shaping modern Mexico. A mural in Oaxaca's Palacio del Gobierno, now a museum, portrays the colossal heads of both, though Juarez and his wife take center stage.

To jump back temporarily to the present, I was shocked to hear yesterday that Gabino, the new governor of Oaxaca who was supposedly the opposition candidate to the PRI, was actually a member of the PRI himself. To put an incredibly complicated political mess simply, it seems he decided to run for governor as something other than PRI (he didn't even really have a party) in order to be the opposition candidate to the PRI. So basically, the PRI found a sneaky way to stay in power. Voters in the election got to choose between the repressive PRI and a PRI member posing as not PRI.

The PRI is a somewhat baffling entity to begin with. The acronym stands for the "Institutional Revolutionary Party", which sounds like a complete contradiction in terms, but was formed after the Mexican Revolution supposedly as a mechanism to institutionalize the populist, leftist values of the revolution. But it is hard to tell what the PRI's politics actually are, since it was the only political party in Mexico after the revolution and its main priority has always been to stay in power-- upholding the values of the revolution being only of secondary concern. For this reason the PRI has historically been more than a little schizophrenic in its policies. Somehow Mexico managed to maintain good relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Mexico was a haven to political exiles such as Trotsky (and many others), while simultaneously copying the U.S. in hunting down and persecuting "commies". Lázaro Cárdenas, a self-proclaimed Marxist who nationalized Mexican industries and gave traditional communal land back to peasants, was a member of the PRI. But so was the neo-liberal Carlos Salinas, who 50 years or so later re-privatized those industries and broke up the communal lands. So I don't think I'm the only one wondering what the PRI actually stands for.

The PRI is still the most powerful political "party" in Mexico, although they have not held the presidency since 2000. But the PAN, the new ruling party, may not be a much better alternative. The PAN was formed in 1940 as the first PRI opposition party, in reaction to Lázaro Cárdenas' radical socialist reforms. The PAN was originally made up of wealthy businessmen, supporters of the old Catholic church, and supporters of Spanish fascism. The party is still pro-Catholic, elitist, neo-liberal, and pro-United States (no comment). There is also an opposing leftist party, the PRD, but unfortunately the PRD currently has too many warring factions in its ranks to be able to get its shit together. In 2006 the PRD candidate, López Obrador, lost the national election by a very narrow margin. But then he lost all credibility in the eyes of most Mexicans by proclaiming himself the "legitimate" leader of Mexico, insisting that the elections were fraudulent (it's possible, but not proveable), and refusing to get over it and move on with his career.

All in all, if you like revolutionaries and social reforms, Mexico is not in a particularly good place right now, at least in terms of its central leadership. Will the political left get its act together? Is another revolution in the books?

Oh! What a cliff-hanger.

1 comment:

  1. i like that you censor parts of your time here!! :-)

    and for day of the dead the eggshells will be filled with fire-crackers! And you get the painting in the palacio nacional redone in sand on the main floor