The mood is festive, buoyant. Tens of thousands of Mexicans jam the Zócalo, the sprawling public square in front of Mexico’s National Palace. They don oversized sombreros and mustaches in a raucous nod to the revolutionaries who founded Mexico, starting with the call from priest Miguel Hidalgo in Dolores to rise up against colonial Spain on the morning of Sept. 16, 1810.
“Viva México! Viva México! Viva México!” thunders the country’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, from a dais at the National Palace.
“Viva!” returns the crowd in a sonorous, synchronized chant.
The heroes of Mexican independence celebrations – which kick off with El Grito, or the cry of Dolores, each Sept. 15 – are always clear. But they are never as absolute as the rituals might suggest – and that’s never been truer than this year, 500 years after Hernán Cortés arrived at the coast of Veracruz and waged the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire.
“Viva México,” the cry of independence that marks Mexico’s struggle against imperial Spain, has always implied a search for identity in a country that defines itself as mestizo, or mixed blood, but hasn’t always been at ease with that reality.
Octavio Paz, the late Mexican poet and Nobel Prize winner, wrote in “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” an essay on Mexican identity, that the cry, when used in the context of an expletive, carries with it the subtext of a ravaged nation that is both a challenge and an affirmation. “When we shout this cry on the 15th of September, the anniversary of our independence, we affirm ourselves in front, against, and in spite of the ‘others.’”
Today the country’s struggle is no longer in opposition to European conquerors. The new foes are globalization, neoliberalism, and the United States under President Donald Trump – who many Mexicans believe has humiliated their country, sparking a renewed sense of patriotism and nationalism. It comes as Mexico, not coincidentally, has elected its most nationalist, populist leader in decades.
Indeed, for many in the square here, the “Viva México” exhortations are a battle cry for a new Mexican nation, or the Fourth Transformation, that AMLO has promised will mark his presidency. The 4T, as it’s called, would follow independence in 1821, the reform movement of the 1850s, and finally the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920.
Alejandro Moreno, who conducts public opinion polls, says enthusiasm for AMLO’s government comes with a surge in what it means to be Mexican. In polling around Independence Day for the newspaper El Financiero, national pride stood at an average of 91% for all 32 Mexican states.
On the edge of the main square here, Edgar Tena, an accountant and lawyer, is dressed in a velvet hat with red, white, and green stripes, the colors of the Mexican flag. His wife and college-age sons are wearing equally over-the-top headgear. This he calls their patriotism – and it’s the first time they’ve opted to display it at an independence celebration since his sons were born. But he says his nationalism runs much deeper, and he strikes a more somber note.
“We cannot accept it, so many things have built up, and this is why we shout,” he says. “We want to be free. This is a call of hope, and the hope that the 4T represents. Viva México!”