travelog 94

(No) Reason to Celebrate: Bicentenary

After 200 years of Independence and 100 years of Revolution, it's time for a celebration! And, since we're in Mexico, it has to be celebrated even more, although there's not much to celebrate with the current situation of drug wars, beheadings, murders, kidnappings, armed robberies, and more. These conflicts are reflected in the media along with reports about the preparations for the festivities. Some say that on the occasion of the bicentenary celebrations Mexicans think too much about the past and that this way an important opportunity to think about the future of the country is wasted with parties and fireworks. The prevailing tone is that it's very difficult to really enjoy the celebrations when reading in the newspapers or seeing daily on TV more terrible news about violence, insecurity and battles between drug gangs and the police.

Many municipalities cancelled the official celebrations because of security concerns. The famous "El Grito", the cry for Independence, will be transmitted on TV in many places. In Morelia, where 8 people were murdered and more than a hundred were hurt in a grenade attack on the national holiday in 2008, the official festivities were cancelled for the second time in a row. In Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico (and one of the top ten most dangerous cities of the world), the mayor will give the "Grito" in the government building. The ceremony will then be transmitted by TV. In other places, fireworks are taboo because the bangers could easily frighten the crowd and provoke panic.

The costs for the whole thing are the talk of the town too. The Mexicans will not know the exact figure for another 12 years, but then nobody will be interested anymore in it and enough dust will have settled on it. The total cost lies somewhere around 230 million dollars. Just 45 million dollars of the total will be spent for only 8 hours of celebrations on the national holiday. Many costly projects that are being built to be enjoyed by future generations will not be ready until the end of 2011. Some works of art have doubled in price from the estimate because they had to be made earthquake-safe, for example. A monument in Mexico City doubled in price to 50 million dollars. A statue in Guanajuato will cost 4 million dollars and looks like a copy of the Greek goddess of victory of Samothrace. The celebrations are seen by some as ways of the government to divert the peoples attention from the real problems of the country. The huge amount of money could have been spent more meaningfully for example for the damage of the natural disasters in Veracruz (flooding). Investments in schools, education, construction of homes, etc. would have been another possibility to use 230 million dollars more meaningfully.

On the other hand one could also say that 230 million dollars are "peanuts"; that the festivities help renewing Mexico's identity; that it's not just about remembering important dates, but about reviving the values and ideals that shaped this nation. It should not be forgotten that many people have died fighting for Mexico's Independence. The obligation of the Mexican people now is to restore a sense of unity. In this case a huge party and tons of patriotism would do no harm at all. To remember the common roots, the culture, history, and traditions is at the same time an opportunity to think about the future that the Mexicans want for their country, and to start shaping it. Hopefully the festivities give hope for a better future where everybody can celebrate to his heart's content once again.

The first mobile stands, where you can buy everything kitschy in the national colors green, white and red, are set up in cities and villages weeks before the official celebrations begin. Flags can be purchased in every size. The various holy Mexican virgins and of course Jesus are another favorite subject. Fat mariachi musicians, tequila and beer bottles, eagles and sombrero hats are sold as key chains. The print "Viva Mexico" is everywhere. Wind wheels, dream catchers with colored feathers, bottle openers, there's no end to the fantasy, with almost everything available in green-white-red.

The main plazas of the cities are also decorated in green-white-red. Flags swing from balconies, little flags and festoons dangle from the kiosks in the center of town. Large towns even have a digital watch on the plaza where the hours, minutes, and seconds to the "Grito" are counted back. Along almost every road in Mexico signs pop up with the inscription "Ruta 2010". Often, the kilometers to the next bigger town that played a role during the Independence of 1810 or the Revolution of 1910 are indicated. But after you have seen these same signs all over the country, no matter if there was a connection to the Independence or the Revolution or not, the uneasy feeling creeps up on you that someone earned himself a fortune with these road signs.

Well then, our festive occasion will not be the bicentenary but the birthdays of two friends. The two of them, according to their mothers and their birth certificates, were born shortly after 11PM on September 15. Those mothers went to the plaza to hear the "Grito" and then went straight home to let out their own personal cry. By the way, it's very interesting how many Mexicans have their birthdays on the 15th of September. We can count at least 10 people with this date of birth among our close friends. Salvador, a cheese maker, and Guillermo, a lawyer, will be celebrated on this September 15. Unanimously we decide that we all want to avoid large crowds of people this year. Our choice is Chava's place because it is a) the biggest house and b) he has helping hands who will clean up the mess the next day. The choice of menu is easy, too. Everything will be presented in the national colors green, white, and red.

With a friend from Guadalajara we start working a day before the big event. As soon as we have cleaned all the pots and pans, we have another mountain of dirty dishes ready. The fridges fill up. The smell of spices wafts through the house. Finally we have prepared our part of the festive meal. As a first course we have made a huitlacoche soup. Huitlacoche, or corn smut, is a disease of maize caused by a fungus. It usually replaces the normal kernels of the corn cob with distorted tumors that look a little like mushrooms. Huitlacoche is considered a delicacy in Mexico and it's not always easy to find it fresh. Because maize is harvested in September, this is a good month to find fresh huitlacoche on the market. Our soup is prepared with onions and garlic, fresh corn kernels, tomatoes and seasoned with fresh herbs such as cilantro and epazote (Dysphania [Chenopodium] ambrosioides). The garnishes are more onions and cilantro, fried corn tortilla slices and a toasted chile de árbol. The main course is "chiles en nogada", stuffed poblano chiles in nut sauce. This dish is extremely labor-intensive and only worth the trouble if you're preparing it for many people. We process a batch of 20 chiles. The presentation is again in the national colors: the green chile with its meat stuffing that is braised with many spices, nuts and fruits; the white nut sauce that is poured on top of it; and finally the decoration with red pomegranate kernels. We will be serving a three-colored rice with it. The green rice is prepared with a pure from celery, parsley, cilantro and green poblano chile. The white rice is seasoned with onions. The red rice is cooked in a tomato puree that we let soak with dried jamaica (hibiscus) flowers and slices of beet to make the red more intensive. The culmination is a parsley leaf in the center, representing the eagle in the Mexican flag. Of course a birthday party is nothing without a sweet dessert. Our choice is Mexican brownies baked with chipotle chile powder.

At night we all meet at Chava's place. The table is already set but soon we have to find more chairs because, as usual in Mexico, there are more people coming to the party than originally were invited. But this only makes a fiesta more interesting. Some of the guests have kept the motto of the national colors even with their clothes, others have incorporated a Mexican detail like a green-white-red band in their braided hair or an oversized sombrero. We have decorated the combined kitchen and living room with colorful little flags and silhouettes. Of course we're also listening to Mexican music! There's plenty of food on the table. The fruits that are served as an appetizer in Central Mexico are white jicama, red watermelon and green cucumber, sprinkled with salt, chile and lime juice. Chava made a "panela", a fresh goat cheese similar to a huge Swiss "formaggini", garnished with chopped fresh green herbs and red chile slices and sprinkled with olive oil. Other guests bring "Camarón al Aguachile", shrimp with onion rings and cucumber slices that is "cooked" in a mixture of fresh chile de árbol, water and lime juice. For our special event Chava has found a French champagne with a label especially made for the bicentenary. Wine and tequila flow freely. At 11PM the men climb up the stairs to an area overlooking the kitchen from where they give the "Grito", the cry for the Mexican Independence. Later, we watch the live transmission of the fireworks from Mexico City on TV. The program also changes to various Mexican capitals and we even see pictures of the celebrations in the US, Asia and in Europe.

The next day, on September 16, everybody continues to celebrate. There are processions with horses in villages and cities. School children recite from the history of Mexico, village presidents make speeches, and alcohol continues to flow freely. We visit a small village where we arrive just in time for the beginning of the official celebrations. Beautifully dressed riders gather in front of the church while the school children assemble on the small plaza. The loudspeaker system is tested. A wind ensemble marches around the plaza behind a standard. Children are dressed as Hidalgo, Pancho Villa and other heroes of Mexican history and rattle their speeches off from memory. Finally everybody marches through the dusty streets of the village. The procession is followed by the riders. From time to time gleaming cars squeeze between the horses. On their hood they carry for example the "Reyna 2000", the village beauty queen of the year 2000, who desperately tries not to slide down into the dirt. Of course many of these "Reynas" have reached middle age by now and many of them have gotten round and podgy, but nevertheless they have squeezed themselves into their sexiest dresses. Cheered on by the male village youth they throw sweets into the crowd.

After September 16th the celebrations are over. What stays are mountains of trash. And 230 million dollars in debt. Life goes on as before. The news from the front in the drug war, from kidnappings and brutal murders are again the main topic in the morning at the coffee shop on the corner and at night on TV.

If you're interested in one of the fantastic dishes we described above, you can find and try them out on our recipe page.

Direct links for the September 15 dishes:

Doa Tere's Camarón al Aguachile here

Fresh fruits served Jalisco style here

Huitlacoche Soup here

Chiles en Nogada here

Threecolored Rice here

Mexican Brownies here

September 2010

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen