Mexico celebrated its Bicentennial Independence Day last week by honoring the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores)—Miguel Hidalgo’s call for the people to join him in arms that is re-created across the country every Independence Day.
On the morning of September 16, 1810, Hidalgo rang out the Dolores bell and after a motivating speech yelled, “¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! ¡Abajo el mal gobierno, ¡Viva Fernando VII!” (Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! Down with bad government! Long live Fernando VII!). This act, referred to as el grito, is recognized as the beginning of the struggle for autonomy and independence in Mexico.
In present day, the tradition is that at 11:00 pm the President, governors and city mayors each step out to a balcony in a public square, ring out a replica bell and honor the heroes of our independence through a modification of the Cry of Dolores. Each chant for every hero mentioned is followed by a loud retort from the amassed people in the squares, yelling “Viva!” In the major cities, these festivities are accompanied by popular concerts, pyrotechnic shows and gatherings of up to millions of people.
El grito is a manifestation of freedom and joy, and the Bicentennial was geared up to be a huge celebration nationwide. Though security measures were heightened in access points to public squares and during the ceremonies, most of the country was able to honor this important occasion regally. However, nine cities in the border state of Chihuahua fell hostage to fear from organized crime and drug cartels and were forced to cancel their celebrations. The harshest case was Ciudad Juárez, a city in which rule of law has become as plausible as the tooth fairy.
Known as the most violent city in Mexico, Ciudad Juárez (estimated population 1.4 million) became a ghost town as citizens refrained from public parties and gatherings, too afraid to go out late at night. In past years ¡Viva Mexico! chants had been yelled in unison by as many as 35,000 congregated in the town square. Yet escalated violence, peaking with a car bomb two months ago, murders and decapitations, and the appearance of narcomantas (threats presumably from drug cartels, printed in signs and placed in different places in the city) just days before the celebration, were enough reasons for a whole city to decide to stay at home.
Mayor José Reyes Ferriz, who has repeatedly been a target of public threats from the drug cartels, caved in a couple of days before Independence Day and declared that he would cancel the ceremonial gathering. Instead, he invited citizens to view the grito through their television sets at home.
It was a sad scene as Reyes, notably nervous and fearing for his own life, stepped out to a balcony hovering over an empty square. Sweat pouring down his face and trying to control his trembling, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez whimpered his Vivas without any response other than utter silence. The only ones present at the 200th anniversary of our independence in Juárez were a dozen soldiers (called in for security purposes) and about 15 neighbors who stepped out to witness the heartbreaking scene. Fireworks were banned in Ciudad Juárez, under the assumption that people would confuse them with gunshots and bomb explosions. This was the silent cry of Dolores.
Ironically, just a couple of miles across the border in El Paso, Texas, 7,000 migrants felt safe enough to hold El Grito as Mexican Consul Roberto Rodríguez led them through each of the Vivas.
I asked a person from Juárez (who requested to remain anonymous) how she felt about the way her city had celebrated 200 years of independence. She said “I love Mexico, but I don’t love it enough to risk my life in order to attend its party.” She consoled herself by saying, “At least we were able to see the fireworks from across the border.”
Mexicans hiding or having to go to a neighboring country to commemorate their own independence because they fear for their lives in their homeland… is that what we are celebrating?
*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.