Independence

 Tonight is friday, 17 september 2004.

Yesterday was thursday and was el día de independencia.  Mexico dates its independence from Spain from this day, 16 september, in 1810.

The celebration of independence day in Mexico begins with the ceremony of the grito [cry, shout] at eleven o’clock in the previous night.  The president of the republic, governors, and local municipal presidents all enact the same ceremony.

People here began arriving at the plaza as early as eight.  Now you remember that on one side of the plaza there is the salón de actos [city auditorium].  The front of this building is built two storeys high.  Over three grand arches forming the entry on the ground floor there is a chamber above, with three arched doors giving onto a balcony facing street and plaza.  For the ceremony, a large bell was hung from the lintel of the center door.  A stage was set up in front of the salón de actos and a band, a singer, a couple of folk dance ensembles, took turns entertaining people until time for the ceremony.  The arriving people filled bleachers set up across the street from the salón, and began to fill the plaza too.  Shortly before the ceremony was to begin the police closed the street and additional chairs were set up in the street to accommodate the crowd.

I have seen independence day celebrations in the States, but never one so intense as this one, nor, as best I remember, so short.

About a quarter to eleven the ayuntamiento [municipal council] arrived.  All the people stood up as these members moved to the front row seats reserved for them.  At the same time a drum and bugle corps, from a nearby army post, took up position at one side of the salón.  A bugler signaled attention.  A short bugle fanfare was played.  The leader of the corps did not play, but rather directed the music—with his bugle.  He held it in the right hand only and thrust it up, down, out, twirled it like a baton, never touching it with the left hand.  The fanfare over, the drums rattled and rolled as a color guard brought the flag into the street, stopping in front of the municipal president.  The municipal sergeant at arms then cried, ­–¡Sa-lu-daarrrr ... YA!  [Salute ... NOW], as every person present snapped his hand into the salute position: right hand over the heart, but with the elbow extended so the forearm is level, and with the palm of the hand also level, not flat on he chest.  The sergeant, –¡Des-can-saarrr ... YA! [Hand at rest ... NOW], and every hand snapped down.  The color bearer then handed the flag to the municipal president.

The president, in turn, followed by the ayuntamiento, carried the flag into the salón and up to the balcony.  Standing in front of the center door, he was joined by the new president elect, who will take office next month, and who read passages from the declaration of independence.  And then came the cry!  The tradition derives from the word of mouth cry that went around the country when it was judged opportune to begin the critical battle that would lead to independence from Spain.  The president, a short, stocky man with a barrel chest and voice to match, cried, –¡Viva Ortiz! [a hero of the revolution], and the people cried back, –¡VIVA!

 –¡Viva Hidalgo!  –¡VIVA! 

¡Viva Morelos!  –¡VIVA! 

¡Viva la revolución!  –¡VIVA!

 –¡Viva México!  –¡VIVA! 

¡Viva México!   –¡VIVA! 

–¡Viva México!  –¡VIVA!

The president then began to wave the flag and ring the bell, and all the people sang Mexico’s glorious and moving himno nacional [national anthem] ... and suddenly the sky was filled with fireworks.  Not off at a distance, but directly over our heads!, being fired from positions on every side.  The bell, the hymn, the thunderous explosions, and cinders and cardboard falling around us—it was one of the most emotionally intense moments I have ever experienced.

The exercises concluded with the return of the flag to the color guard, another salute, and the retirement of the colors.  And the band struck up again and played a couple of hours for those who wished to dance in the street.  For my part I was glad to go home and to bed.

*     *     *

 Independence day itself had as its main feature a parade, which included all the local school children, from kindergarten to high school.  Many of the classes were headed up by their own color guards, dressed in impressive uniforms.  The other students wore the uniforms they wear to school every day.  There were boys’ classes and girls’, the sexes not being mixed except at very early levels.  And from oldest to youngest, all knew how to march—even the kids from kindergarten did pretty well at keeping their feet synchronized with the count.

The rear of the parade was brought up by a cavalry unit, of all things.  The men, though in uniform, were too old to be active soldiers.  I presume the cavalry must have been a ceremonial squad or some sort of veterans’ club.  I asked a number of people who these cavalrymen were, but no one knew; they had not been seen in any parade here before.

*     *     *

 You remember Enrique, and his stepson David, who so obliged me by finding me my first apartment in Mexico.  I mentioned that Henry had served as municipal president two times, from 1971 to 1974 and from 1980 to 1983, as best I recall.  He was born 17 june 1940.  His full name was Enrique Rubén Valles Terrazas.

Henry suffered a severe stroke on tuesday, three days ago.

Yesterday, in the afternoon of independence day, I went to visit him in hospital.  He was either unconscious or sleeping deeply, and I made no attempt to rouse him.  The left side of his face was fallen.

Last night Henry was transported to a major hospital in Ciudad Juárez, the large city just this side of El Paso.  He passed away about an hour after he arrived there.

Casas Grandes has no funeral home.  When a death occurs in a family, if they have a large enough house they usually have the body lie in state at the house and receive visitors there, and keep watch over the body all night.  For those who lack such facilities, the municipio maintains a velatorio [visiting chapel; literally, place of the watcher].

It was to the velatorio that we went at nine o’clock tonight to await the arrival of Henry’s body.  Others were there as well.  But the majority of the people went out to the bridge over the Rio Casas Grandes, the municipal boundary, there to await the arrival of the remains of their friend and former president.  At that point the carroza fúnebre [hearse] was met by a police escort.  With lights flashing in the darkness, like tears falling in silence, slowly they conducted it to the velatorio.  The body was brought in and placed up front.  The municipal president and the president elect met the family as their cars arrived and escorted them to their places on the front pew.

After viewing the body I embraced Ramona, the widow.  David, her eldest son and Henry’s stepson, was seated near her with bowed head.  I placed my hand on his shoulder.  Slowly he lifted his head and showed me his face, his magnificent face, craggy, fierce, bronze, laden with a gravity I had never seen there, so that for a moment I feared I had the wrong man.  But he rose to his feet and placed his arms around me, and I mine around him, and we held tightly to each other and wept, in this mexican night of sorrow.

David, my magnificent David, who, on the first night I ever spent in Mexico, came to my lodging late at night to greet me with a six pack, and rolled me out of bed to drink with him.  David, whom I rarely see, but who loved me the day I arrived, and I him.  David, with whom, I resolve, I will spend more time and drink more beer.  Before one of us, like Henry, is called away.

 

© 2004 Joseph Mansfield

 

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