I did a foolish thing. Supposing that I knew what experiencing a significant event in another culture would be like, I pulled the future forward and with plenty of prognosticative chutzpah asserted how I would act when Mexico’s Independence Day arrived: "September 15 (the anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain) means nothing to me other than another semi-monthly payday. I will spend the night observing the festivities with lightness, I will join in with el grito (literally "shout", the late-night country-wide commemorative yell), and I will wish this place and its people the best, but I will miss the fullness of the experience that only personal history can provide."
Again, quaint was the operative word here. In a cantina down the street from my house, maybe in La Condesa if I was feeling adventurous, I saw myself joining in the festivities, expending a few decibels in the grito out of the same self-aware half obligation I adopt when I pass the peace in church on Sunday morning (a convicting analogy). It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that in those moments I have to, and my ears prick up with the awareness that I’m offering what I have and it’s vaguely insufficient.
Presumption, all of it. By the time I head back from la noche del grito, every inch of my clothing and skin slick with late-summer shower, quaintness and sheepishness had long ceded their place to deep-bellied laughter and shivering joy as my cadre of friends and I danced to Rihanna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” while waiting for the Train at (where else?) Balderas Plaza. “Yes”, I thought, feet aching as I stepped in rhythm to the reverberations off the subway platform’s tiled walls. “I did a foolish thing.” Though I can't see this day from a native's eye, I can assert that I did more than stare at my Jell-O while those that "really" understood did their thing. I rode the grito's taproot to the mushy earth of celebration and pride, and though it wasn't my tradition, I was invited into the family and hugged far too tightly to ever feel completely foreign again.
A coworker informed me that there are two types of earthquakes, though until now I’ve only used one word in English to refer to any event in which terra firma becomes, well, not. A terremoto (and it’s delicious to let your tongue flip a few extra Rs for emphasis as people are want to do here) is your typical fault-meets-fault snafu, but asismo is more subtle yet just as powerful, moving parallel to the earth’s surface with titanic concentric force, like a merry-go-round that’s gone off kilter. Saturday was seismic (now I know where we get the word) in a quiet but formational sense. Normally, I would relish the opportunity to writhe around in blankets until the sun woke me up, strum on my guitar in 15-minute jam sessions, catch up on all my Internet memes, and dive into my Bonhoeffer biography for the first time in weeks with nothing but the possibility of an evening with friends on the horizon. Instead, I was restless. I felt as though I should be doing something more important, but there was a jarring smallness to the realization that I had no something to do, and in that mental exchange, I felt lonely. In my circle of friends back home, we talk about “sucking the marrow out of life”, which is a trendy (albeit gruesome) endorsement for carpe diem. But my bones needed time to churn out their spongey fluid, and in my need for rest I felt defeated. Plus, plans for el grito had not coalesced, and most of our group seemed to want to mark the occasion in a meaningful way without knowing how.
As I was about to head out to discover what the city might have in store for me, I received a text from a friend: come to the zócalo for the big celebration? The zócalo is Mexico’s most sweeping tribute to its colonial roots, a huge Plaza Mayor-style square that manages to be both tourist and authentic. Because it’s so large, you can walk with plenty of elbow room and imagine the señores of yester-epoch making their evening paseo to socialize, an activity we have lost in the anonymity of our 3-inch moonboxes.
I was drawn to the idea but held reservations: I had been advised to stay away from the epicenter of festivity of Mexico’s big weekend. Petty theft, riots, claustrophobia and confusion were sure to be present, and a heralding far from the madding crowd would be more appropriate, the proverbial they counseled. But I felt the marrow sloshing, so I donned a rain jacket and made my way to Bellas Artes, lily-padding my way from police offer to pedestrian to guide me to the designated meet-up with friends.
There were protests, I kept all my money in my underwear, and I was beyond confused for an hour. But I slowly found my bearings, started moving a bit to the undulations of the people that surrounded our huddle of four, and bought a sucker for five pesos. A slight sprinkling brought a Wuthering Heights ambiance to the square, and I felt comfortable and dry in my army-issue slicker. I was succeeding in this quest and mentally shunned the naysayers with each dramatic pause and fireworks-and-belted-high-note cap-off from Ms.Jenni Rivera. It wasn’t Balderas-Plaza thin, but the communal festivity held a certain holiness that I was glad to warm my hands to.
Two hours in, the rain picked up. My friends, who had looked foolish in their trash-bag capes, now seemed wise, and I the fool; my hood began to leak tepid water down my spine. I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, and the square had condensed in size. Everyone was touching me, and I began to take offense to the attempts of my plazamates to either gain a vantage point or cede to the skywater by bracing their shoulders through the puddles and warmth. I stood still to avoid feeling the cool dampness that made new advances into my cotton button-down with each sway or shove. What had possessed me to venture out into this volatile cluster? I thought of all the Internet memes I could've watched as I prayed for an ending.
At 10:30, the emcees left the crowd in a buzz of anticipation that reached its zenith of chanting and circulation in 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the President wouldn’t promenade to his royal balcony for another 20 after that, which left me peaking through my hood to see pixelated aerial shots of more people than I had ever seen in one congregation (this estimate puts the total at 350,000). CGI crowds in historical epic movies had a new hollowness to them, because everyone in this crowd had their own story, their own twitch in the hive. I was having moderate success in accessing my happy place when a noise rose from the throat of the throng. Eleven, finally. I expected President Calderón to be stately and stale, thanking the people for having their personal space completely violated to see him walk too slowly to his spacious royal balcony and God Bless Mexico ad infinitum.
The next minute was a freeze-blur, a moment that downloads itself as a packet into the deepest part of your being and that your heart promises to keep free of corruption each time you recall it to your tongue. I remember everything and nothing except for losing all discomfort at being soaked and becoming only my voice, my addition to the infinite chorus. Calderon began with urgency, leaving no room for pleasantries, invoking a call-and-response of “Viva!” with each hero or martyr of Mexico’s interminable, bloody fight for independence. In that moment, there was neither chilango nor gringo, only a voice to call to the grave and the sky: because of you, we’re here. Calderon’s slight frame grasped the flag and waved it with frenzy and furor out from the balcony; gratitude, transcendence and awe pulsed in rhythm through my temples.
And then it was over. Huddled under a broken umbrella, my friends and I came back to one another, laughing and complaining together but in an undercurrent comparing and confirming the moment in our hearts, knowing that we had literally been shoved into a shared moment and in some way had been altered and fused. The zócalo had four inches of standing water from the rains, and we sloshed toward the tube in the pourdown like post-apocalyptic survivors. Mexico’s energy had gone out from the water and the shout, and the metro line was cramped but calm. Save for an unfortunate ride next to the air conditioner, we danced and jogged our way home to ponder and savor.
For me, it was the masses that made it, the glob of movement and heartbeats that could’ve turned violent at any moment during the evening. Instead, we amplified the fragments of honor and dignity hidden in our individual attachments to this place, whether through surnames or visas, to declare before God and man that where we stood mattered, that profane and sacred could be braided through the collective christening of our voices joining with thunder to make the circle whole.
“And is this not a shadow?” The question stood still as I stared at the yellow light pouring in through my window after finally retiring for the night. As much as my view had been expanded in the night’s fervor and unity, the question and its answer lingered:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Paul's letter to the Ephesians, verses 3:20-21)
Mexico has deepened my imagination and subsequently my anticipation of that day when the circle truly closes, when the throng of ages gathers to shout “Viva!” in its truest sense. Because if the Gospel isn’t the church triumphant and unity victorious, if it isn’t the ultimate grito, and if that story and longing for transcendence isn’t breathed into our spirit by our Hero, then why do 350,000 sojourners each year shove and squirm all evening for one minute, one cry, one chance to lose self in the mass of joy and remembrance?
Slowly, parts of this city are connecting themselves to me in arcs of transcendence, tethered by memories that I recall with my entire self. Ironically, this bonding is likely so strong because I perceive my time here to be so tangibly precious and limited. But wasn’t it before? And isn’t now? And won’t it be then? Sometimes, it takes 350,000 gritos to make those questions ring true.