In Mexico City, there is a famous mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Castle of Chapultepec where the painter depicts the transformative power of the people released by the Mexican Revolution. In the center of the mural, Karl Marx appears to lead the socio-political waves that are about to wash away the degenerate Porfiriato, the long Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. To the left of Marx two men fight over the Mexican flag, obviously portraying the peoples’ struggle to wrest the nation from the Dictator and the foreign capitalists that supported his government.
Since 2006, this mural has come to mind every time we approach the celebration of Mexico’s so-called Independence Day. It was in that year that Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) lost a close presidential election to Felipe Calderón. Since that time, AMLO has waged a battle for the soul of the people, first against Calderón and, since 2012, against Enrique Peña Nieto. This battle is most prominent when it’s time for the traditional “Grito de la Independencia,” on the night of September 15 (though the actual event in 1810 took place on the early morning of September 16, but that’s another story).
Most Mexicans are familiar with the image of the Presidente emerging on the balcony of the National Palace in the center of Mexico City to give the shout (the “Grito”): “¡Viva México!” He usually repeats the words three times while hundreds of thousands of people below in the Zócalo fill up with the old elixir of Mexican nationalism invented by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and which used to unify the masses of people under one imaginary nation. But after losing the 2006 presidential election and claiming it had been stolen from him, AMLO threw a political tantrum and a monkey wrench in this machine of nationalism. He and his supporters took over Reforma Avenue and the Zócalo for a few months, thus impeding the traditional yell, which forced Fox to move the event to Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Guanajuato, “la cuna de la Independencia,” where El Cura Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla started the whole independence shebang.
It is quite comical to watch AMLO and the President fighting over who represents the legacy of the independence movement. This year AMLO gave the “Grito” in Guanajuato and made sure to repeat the phrase that Hidalgo supposedly proclaimed on that famous morning of September 16: “abajo el mal gobierno”, hoping this will infuse his followers with the national spirit and vote for him in the upcoming presidential elections of 2018, and help bring down the bad government of the PRI. AMLO also added a nice twist to Hidalgo’s words when he shouted, “Arriba los de abajo.” In this way, he linked the words of the Father of Independence to Mariano Azuela’s, Los de abajo, the most famous novel of the Mexican Revolution. It’s a nice touch because the masses that rose up with Hidalgo were from the same class that fought the revolution, that is, the downtrodden, lower class: los de abajo, which AMLO claims to represent and from which he draws most of his support.
But the fact is that Hidalgo’s actions didn’t bring down any bad government, he didn’t even come close to gaining independence for México, nor is it clear that that is what he hoped to achieve. Azuela, moreover, does not paint a positive image of the popular classes in his novel; he is a harsh critic of the Mexican Revolution, representing it as an orgy of violence and destruction. So, it’s somewhat unclear how AMLO hopes this association will be beneficial to him.
Fox, Calderón, and Peña Nieto, in turn, have tried to counter AMLO’s alternative “Grito” by appealing to good old-fashion nationalism, but with each passing year, they have lost ground to their rival. The videos of the Peña Nieto’s “Grito” last weekend, circulating on the Internet, demonstrate the extent of this loss. Peña Nieto’s “Grito” sounds like a meow of a little kitten lost in the muchedumbre of the Zócalo. It’s a pathetic attempt to infuse the gathered crowd with the rancid nationalism that hardly elicits a response from the masses of people (mostly government workers forced to attend). It could be that they didn’t get their free torta and soft drink, so the people had little energy. I would argue, however, that there is another explanation for the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm: the people are tired of the elixir, the snake oil, the fraud that is Mexican nationalism. They have ceased to believe in the mythology of Independence Day and the Revolution. You can bring them in by the truckload just like in the good old days, fill up the Zócalo to the brim, hand out the free food, t-shirts, caps, and little Mexican flags made in China that they all must wave, but the sheep will just sit there in a catatonic state, refusing to say bah, bah, on cue.
Then, there are the other Mexican independence celebrations that took place across the United States. Here the “mexicanos de fuera” showed the old fervor that is lacking in Mexico. They gathered in parks and city centers, to eat, drink, and be merry, celebrating not a political but a cultural event, where culture means nothing more than food, music, and dance. Americans have accepted and promoted gladly these festivities mainly because of the economic windfall that they bring. Yes, these are also big manifestations of Mexican cultural and ethnic pride. It’s easy to yell: “¡Viva Mexico!” (“Long Live Mexico!”) as long as you don’t actually have to live in Mexico, but far away in another country from where you can safely observe the nation you celebrate being torn apart. It’s better to live in the past, and have pride in a country, a nation that never existed other than in some popular films of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, which many in the USA confuse with reality.
I also find it peculiar that while AMLO and the latest Presidential clown fight over the legacy of Hidalgo and the soul of the people of Mexico, in the USA there are millions of Mexican citizens who are seeking independence from Mexico. The undocumented, especially, are doing everything possible to avoid a forced return to their country. More telling are the Dreamers who have lately garnered the attention of Americans because they have become a political football. Everyone discusses endlessly the reasons why they should be allowed to stay or why they should be deported back to the Latin American countries from where they were brought illegally by their parents. Mexican políticos, of course, are defending the right of their citizens to stay in the USA. It’s the moral thing to do, they’ll say. What they fail to mention is the fact that these Mexican citizens don’t dream of living in Mexico, instead, they are dreaming of becoming independent from Mexico. They’re desperately trying to be accepted in the USA because that’s where they see the promise of a better future, which sadly Mexico can’t provide. But if these Dreamers’ dream is to be part of “America,” to become American citizens, it also means that their nightmare is to be forced to return to Mexico, their country of birth, where they’ll live in a web of corruption, drug wars, endless political turmoil, and unemployment.