We arrive at the zócalo around 10:30 pm. Security is intense around the main square, and we have to walk through an airport-style metal detector to enter.
Our hopes for snagging a table at one of the cafes lining the plaza are bashed – those who occupy them now got here much earlier than us, and they aren’t going anywhere. We make our way to the edge of the sidewalk lining the plaza, where a crowd has gathered on both sides.
A stern-faced policewoman paces up and down the passageway, yelling into a walkie-talkie while making wild, swinging arm movements towards the crowd in a vain attempt to get them to back up. Minutes later, she is followed by the military band and flag-holding officers marching through to their spot on the stage facing the municipal building.
A ton of random people join the parade, including elegant families, campesinos, and a cluster of backpackers. We quickly realize it’s a free for all and join the mass of people swarming to get to the front of the square for a better view of the governor.
The situation turns claustrophobic quickly. Video camera in one hand, I’m not sure if I should keep the free one covering my purse like I normally would in a crowd or covering my butt to protect it from any opportunistic violations.
I look up at the other balconies framing the plaza on the second floor. Supremely dressed families perch on them, most unsmiling, look at those below as if they are lords and ladies presiding over the peasants.
The haughtiness radiating from above is amusing, but my attention quickly turned to those on my level. An adorable little girl of about 3 years old, with red, white, and green ribbons in her hair, sat on top of her dad’s shoulders, waving a mini-sized Mexican flag around for a videographer set on the corner. Perhaps her future soulmate, a little boy near her sat on his dad’s shoulders, sporting a red, white and green mohawk, mouth gaping open in awe at the sensory overload. An old woman standing behind me turned around frequently to talk to her family, jabbing me in the side with her elbow with each turn.
At 11 p.m., after several songs by the military band, the party kicks off. Gabino Cué Monteagudo, the governor of the state of Oaxaca, waves to the citizens standing below him with a perma-grin fit for a Colgate commercial. He pulls the rope attached to a large, church-style bell to get the crowd’s attention.
He addresses his fellow Oaxacans and offers a short recognition of the important Mexican heroes that aided in the liberation of the nation from the Spanish conquerors. The crowd answers each cry with their own proud “Viva!”
At the end, he gives three cheers: VIVA MEXICO! VIVA MEXICO! VIVA MEXICO! A ripple of confetti falls gracefully from the top of the building as he caps off the speech with a dramatic waving of the flag.
Then BOOM! The corners of the square explode in light and fire, flinging sparks all over anyone within a 50-meter radius. Huge structures of spinning fireworks transition from an image of a bull to that of a woman while traditional fireworks boom overhead out of sight due to the thicket of trees scattered throughout the park.
The hordes disperse soon after. We mill around the edges of the plaza, where I video a group of Mexican teens who are graciously willing to yell in the camera for me. A man lurking around them begins to strike up a conversation with me in not Spanish, nor English, nor even Spanglish, but Franglish – (French, Spanish, and English). My lack of French and his drunken tongue which has got him cramming long sentences into two-syllable grunts make communication impossible. I do the smile, nod, and slowly back up move granted to those of the drunk and/or crazy variety, mainly to escape his stank, beer-flavored breath.
Intoxicated Francophones aside, the celebration is a poetic show of pride and unification. Families and groups of friends walk back to their cars, decked out in national colors and props. Many reflect a similar expression on their faces – one of pride and satisfaction.
I’m sorry to disappoint my American readers, but 5 de Mayo is actually not Mexico’s Independence Day. For some reason, Americans celebrate the 5th day of May as if it were, the custom being that everyone crams their face with Mexican food and tequilla.
But if you want to keep eating tacos and wearing an oversized sombrero on this day, I won’t judge you.