Most people I talk to in the United States believe that May 5th is Mexican Independence day. In fact, it's not even a national holiday. It’s regional, observed in Puebla, in honor of the battle against the French that took place in that city in 1865, when Mexicans defeated a powerful, much more numerous, better equipped French army who had not lost in nearly half a century.
From a military perspective, winning did not mean very much for us. We lost another battle with this same army the very next day, and the French were not stopped as a result. However, the news of this brief, short-lived victory filled a poor, demoralized Mexico with a sense of place, enthusiasm and hope. The French intervention resulted in other countries across the American continent to sympathize with our cause, and the Spanish, English and even (select) French media declared that retreating would be the right thing for the French to do.
This battle played a philosophical role in strengthening Mexican’s love for our country and solidifying our national identity. The experience of being invaded by the French contributed to determining many of the basic principles that to this day define a foreign policy I am proud of: respect for sovereignty and territory integrity, no-aggression, no interference in matters pertaining to other countries; conciliating differences through negotiation and not through force, and peaceful coexistence. Maybe this is why this day has become a celebration of Mexican heritage outside of Mexico. (Or, more likely, because it's a perfectly legitimate excuse to drink Coronas and hang out with friends.)
Our Independence Day is September 16, and it is of legendary proportions. I have never met a Mexican who does not observe it. We call it the day of the “grito”, our “cry for independence”. Every year, on the eve of September 16th (the night of September 15th) the President of Mexico rings the bells of the National Palace in the Zocalo, the historic center of Mexico City (one of the largest in the world, so it fits quite a crowd). He then repeats the “Grito de Dolores” from the balcony of the palace to the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people assembled below. It goes something like this:
(Imagine the simultaneous shuffling to attention of at least half a million people.)
“Viva Mexico!" (to which everyone roars back in unison “Viva Mexico!”)
Que vivan los heroes que nos Dieron patria! (Long live the heroes who gave us our fatherland!)
Que vivan los heroes que nos dieron libertad! (Long live the heroes who gave us liberty!)
Viva Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla! Viva Guadalupe Victoria! Viva Ignacio Allende! Viva José María Morelos y Pavón! Via Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez!
Que viva México! Que viva México! Que viva México!
Attending one of these events should be on the list of things everyone must do before they die. You don’t have to go to the one in the Zocalo: on that day, similar celebrations occur in cities and towns and districts and homes across the country, and in Mexican embassies all over the world. The following day is a national holiday. Perplexingly, it goes by practically unnoticed north of the border. (Another perfectly legitimate excuse to drink Coronas and hang out with friends, wasted.)
Mexican Independence Day is, hands down, my favorite holiday of the year. You can keep Christmas and all the gift giving and New Year’s with its long gowns and champagne and all the chocolates and red roses typical of Valentine’s day. Take the bowl of guacamole and the tequila you drink on May 5th and leave me, in the company of my family, under any available balcony, calling out “Que Vivan Los Heroes Que Nos Dieron Patria! Que vivan!” any day.