At the end of the second week in September, after several days in a row of not getting to my planned destination (punctures, and feeling weaker after several days of upset stomach, credit card hassle) I was in need of a bit of cheering up.
I knew that Mexican Independence day was comming up, and was hoping to catch some of the celebration. Independence day is the 16th of September, and is a public holiday marking independence from Spain in 1810. But a bit like Hogmanay, the main celebration is on the evening before. I was looking for a town big enough to put on a good show, but small enough to avoid endless crowds.
On the 15th, after cycling 50 miles from the tiny village of La Sauceda, I reached the town of San Jose Iturbide. I set about looking for somewhere to stay – there were no campsites or motels, and the first couple of hotels I saw were way too expensive. The third one, while at the top of my Mexico hotel budget (500 pesos – about £20) was perfect. It was right on the town square where preparations were being made for the celebrations that evening. Food stalls were already up and running, and everything Mexican from flags to sombreros, in sizes from “slightly Mexican” up to “hugely passionately Mexican” were on sale.
In the middle of the square is an attractive park with plenty of trees and grass. The square was closed to traffic, as were two of the side streets that were lined on both sides with food stalls. In the square, there was a stage by the town hall, more food stalls, and a 3 storey high frame being setup with fireworks.
This looked like exactly the sort of place I was hoping to be – and I had found somewhere to stay that was right in the heart of it!
As the sun went down, a church next to the hotel was lit up in red white and green.
The show started on the stage with traditional Inca drumming and dancing. The drumming was impressive and the costumes colourful.
A crowd of around 1000 people had gathered to watch. Next up were some slightly camp looking cowboys in tight trousers and pastel coloured shirts, along with their partners in big vibrant coloured dresses being worn under what I can only describe as an apron.
But the crowd loved it:
I went to grab some food – big crisps with a chili sauce drizzled over them. Bit on the hot side for me, so some lemon sorbet next to cool down. Then a corn on the cob on a stick – smothered in butter, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with chilli powder. This was great – and the corn the most tender I’ve ever had. Then a piece of what I can only describe as caremelised melon. Then a thick tortilla, fried, sliced in half like a pita bread, and filled with chicken and red pepper with a green sauce. Very tasty. Then a thinner tortilla folded in half, with a tuna filling, heated and sauce added. Even better than the chicken one. A hot cake (bit like a drop scone / pancake), milk shake, some more icecream, then some warm mulled apple punch. I was glad that my stomach had just got back to normal. I had no idea what all this was going to do to it, but it tasted great.
Every so often I went back to the stage – after the smartly dressed Cowboys and Housewifes, were Mexican flamenco dancers – the men with quick footwork and their arms behind their back – not to dissimilar to the irish “riverdance” dancing. The ladies were the opposite – the action with their arms waving around their flamboyant dresses.
Then it was the turn of the Mariachi band – smartly dressed (more tight trousers!) but playing in a relaxed style with the occassional bit of joking.
Firstly they were playing and singing on their own, then they were joined buy female singer with an almost operactic voice. After that, the mariachi band were joined by a man who was acting like a cheesey latino Tom Jones – all hammed up with obviously died black hair, sunglasses and pure white teeth that were obviously false. Despite all this (especially the teeth) he was a good singer. He was very skilled at making jokes at his own expense and changing guises mid song at the same time as obviously being a very good singer.
By this point the crowd watching all this had grown to 5000, if not more.
There were all ages in the crowd, families, couples, groups of kids, teenagers and adults. There was a great atmosphere, everyone seemed to be relaxed and good natured, enjoying the occasion. Beside me there were a couple of guys in their mid teens, drinking something out of plastic tumblers. Something that was obviously alchoholic. One of them knelt down to refil from a bottle in a bag, using the crowd as cover. When he reappeared, i caught his eye and gave him a knowing smile. He seemed genuinely shocked that he’d been rumbled! Later one of them knocked the bag over with the distinctive clank of glass bottle against glass bottle and concrete. While his mate was barating him, a middle aged man infront of me, who did not appear to know the teenagers, heard this, turned and cuffed the one who’d knocked the bag over on the back of the head. But not in a “your too young to drink” sort of way, more in a “you prat” sort of way.
It was now time for the formalities of the evening to begin. The mariachi band left the stage and were replaced by the mayor, his wife, a dozen local dignitaries and the beauty queen. A bell was run, a flame lit, the mayor read out a proclamation. There were a couple of speaches – all serious, nationalistic stuff. Off stage a Mexican flag was being unfurled, and everyone saluted in the direction of the flag. The salute was with the lower arm horizontal across the chest, with hand flat, palm facing the ground. When I say everyone, it was everyone I could see – the dignitaries on the stage, adults around me, the two teenagers beside me – everyone. But even here there was a light moment. Not far from me there was a very young child sitting on the shoulders of, what I assume to be, her father. Another adult standing near them, gently took the child’s arm and folded it into a salute across her chest. This was much to the amusement of the father and those standing nearby. The child looked a bit bemused, but held the salute. What made it remarkable to me (in a good way) was that the man and the father did not appear to know each other – and that they and no-one else appeared to be bothered by this. It wasn’t like a crowd where everyone knew everyone else – but rather a crowd without any strangers.
Formalities concluded with the mayor passionately shouting out “Viva (country / town / people / etc)” with the crowd shouting back “VIVA” each time. All very rousing. Then fireworks, mariachi band back on stage, and another cup of mulled apple punch – this time with a shot of tequila to round the evening off.
The music continued to about 1:30, and I got to bed at about 3 after editing and uploading the video clips, and going through the evening’s photos. So it wasn’t until about 9 by the time I got up. I was thinking that, after the party the night before, it was going to be a quiet morning. This notion was quickly dispelled when the silence was shattered by the sound of drums and trumpets echoing through the hotel from the square. I hastely finished getting dressed and shot outside to see the square lined with people on two sides – and the start of a parade!
The parade ran along one of the streets that had the food stalls the night before, past the hotel, then a left turn past the town hall. There were not as many people as at the hight of the celebrations the night before, but there were crowds lining both sides of the route up to 4 deep.
I managed to cross the road to the square and across the square to where the band was now. I was surprised to see that it was a school band – probably a primary school at that. But a tremendous sound – echoing off the buildings that lined the square.
Next was a group of chirdren of various ages with some form of disability, then to the opposite end of the age range to a group of ladies and a few men, the youngest of which looked at least 80. They stopped by the town hall, infront of the stage with local dignitaries seated at a long table. Then they started singing what I assumed to be the Mexican national anthem. Many voices were a bit frail, and there were a few, who, how can I put it, were possibly a bit deaf. But the crowd politely listened (i did see a few amused smiles) as the singing warbled across the square.
Then it was the turn of the Municipal Police, who made an almost Soviet May Day Parade show of force. They might not have the resources of the State Police, or the national Federal Police, but that wasn’t going to stop them from saying “don’t mess with us!”. After the 4 dogs and handlers – complete with live demonstartion:
(You don’t get that sort of thing at Jersey’s Liberation Day celebrations!)
There was the march past with assault rifles:
Customised pickup trucks with motorcycle outriders brought this part of the parade to an end
Then came an almost endless procession of childern from what appeared to be all the local schools. Large groups
With traditional uniforms and dress:
And a big flag
And more bands. Lots more bands. The drum beats helping everyone march in time with not so much a left-right stride, but more of a defiant stamp! This shot showing the parade passing the hotel and streaching back as far as the eye can see.
Finaly, after about an hour the parade was finished off by some well dressed cowboys on horseback
Mexicans are a very proud people, and I had read that their Independence day is held in high regard. So I was hoping for a good celebration, but this was far more than I was expecting in many respects. Definitely one of the trip highlights, and more than made up for the week’s earlier frustrations.