¡Viva México!

September 16 is the day Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain. However, the festivities begin on the night of the 15th. We spent the night in Mexico City’s zócalo (center) as a concert blasted over hundreds of speakers and the president appeared on the balcony of the National Palace to ring in the holiday. To understand the scale of this event, one needs a grasp of the zócalo in Mexico City.

This city is one of the largest in the world with a population of over 22 million people. It also boasts one of the largest subway systems in North America, second only to NYC. Needless to say, it’s a sprawling city with an impressive historical center. When I first came out from the subway, I was greeted by this view:

Mexico City Main Plaza
Main Plaza, National Palace (left)
Catedral Metro (left), National Palace (right)

The cathedral was to my right with the enormous plaza, a worthy rival to China’s Tiananmen Square, encased by colonial buildings and the National Palace to my left.

It was Sunday which meant most businesses were closed. Even so, many people were out. On one of the first streets we were waiting to cross, a pedestrian slammed on the hood of a car and screamed at the driver to wait, although the light was green for the car. Welcome to the big city.

Off to the side stood the ruins of Templo Mayor, the former city center of Tenochtitlan.

A model of Tenochtitlan’s former center
What’s left of Tenochtitlan’s center now

The reason why the Templo Mayor is preserved is due to what it represents. The wandering tribe of Mexica people were told to look for a sign before they built their city. The sign was an eagle standing on top of a cactus (the image that is now on the Mexican flag). This sign finally appeared to them from an island on Lake Texcoco. Thus, Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of a lake and Mexico City was built over Tenochtitlan, which means Mexico City is on top of a lake. The existing drainage canals and dams in place were destroyed by the Spaniards leading to flooding problems until the city finally put in a proper drainage system in the 1960’s. The city is sinking by several centimeters every year as evidenced by the lopsided, leaning, and splitting buildings and statues all over the city. It also reeks of sewage no matter where you go.

A short way from the center was a local’s market. It was located in the same space as Tenochtitlan’s former market. They used to pitch leather tents and the currency was bartering.

Model of Tenochtitlan market
Model of Tenochtitlan market
Current day local's market
Current-day local’s market

Now it consists of miles of shop rows, some where traffic cuts through, selling clothing, electrical chargers, shoes, and bags. In the center were vegetable and fruit stands that all sold the same items. I’m not sure how the stands in the center competed with the outer stands. This fruit/vegetable market was remarkably massive. People sorted through bushels, separating out the bruised. The onions were all peeled to appear shiny and clean. Farther along, the meat market’s floor was slippery, constantly being sprayed and mopped. Rancid puddles of grey water were everywhere. It was my misfortune to repeatedly kick this water from my shoes onto the backs of my legs.

Back in the center plaza, we paid to tour the top of the Metro Cathedral, the largest church in the Western hemisphere.

Catedral Metro
Inside, a massive organ in the center
A set of stairs leading to the bell tower
Spiral staircase leading to the bell tower
The bell tower
These stairs led to the highest belfry; imagine the number of times they had to be stepped on to become molded as such
View from the tower


The tour included a walk on the roof and visits to the bell towers on both sides of the church. It offered a spectacular view of the plaza and the city beyond the center.

We also ate at a restaurant on the top floor of a colonial building with a view overlooking the plaza. Dishes cost between $4 and $9.

In the plaza, carts had been selling Mexican pride items in preparation for Independence Day all month long. The night of the 15th meant bigger and more flamboyant carts.

Independence Day cart

The streets were filled with people out with their families to celebrate. Interestingly enough, there were few vendors. Some indigenous women came out to sell their fabrics that weren’t normally present and everyone else became a holiday participant.

Indigenous woman selling fabrics

Entering the plaza was a slightly stressful ordeal. The police were out in full force, dressed in complete riot gear. The lines to get into the plaza were long and they separated men from women. At the front of the line people were being frisked. Once past the first check point, people were funneled through metal detectors and frisked again. The first time we made it through, we were turned away because of The Guy’s e-cig. The second time was successful and we laid claim to prime real estate between the balcony of the National Palace and the performance stage in the center of the plaza.

Balcony of National Palace
Main stage
Building Decorations
Screen displaying historical figures all night

The stage was 4-sided. Performers would rotate stages all night to give the audience equal views. All the buildings were decorated in vibrant greens and reds representing Mexico. Children played with long balloons that bounced off the ground as the adults watched the musical performance on stage. At one point, big white beachballs were thrown into the crowd bouncing all around for additional stimulation. Once again there were no vendors inside the plaza selling waters or otherwise, which struck me as very bizarre. It seemed as though the entire city was out to enjoy themselves.

At 10:45, the performers on stage thanked the audience and everyone turned toward the National Palace, awaiting the president. A band played the presidential march about 4 times and then stopped. The crowd grew impatient and began lightly whistling. A younger guy right in front of me yelled out something derogatory and the crowd started chanting it. People laughed and giggled as they said it.

At exactly 11:00, the president rang the bell and gave the same speech Hidalgo gave the night he declared Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain. He’d name off famous historical figures and the crowd would respond, “Viva!” However, their viva’s seemed half-hearted and there was no sense of admiration from laying eyes on their president, which would explain his 70% disapproval rating. After his speech, he stood in the balcony without moving. The crowd started to leave when suddenly, a loud BOOM went off as fireworks flew from the cathedral into the night sky.

I’ve seen fireworks in multiple states and countries, but never against the backdrop of a 16th century cathedral. It was absolutely brilliant. The smoke grew so thick the entire sky turned grey above us.

¡Viva Mexico fireworks!

When the fireworks finished, everyone headed for the exits which were fenced off. The police stood staring at the crowd with no explanation or reasoning for having the exits closed off. People started whistling lightly before the crowd chanted the same thing they’d chanted at the president. They began laughing and counting down from 10. At 1, the crowd surged forward in an attempt to knock over the gates. The police began waving their arms for everyone to stop, which they luckily did. I imagined tear gas and people getting trampled. Eventually, they opened the gates and funnelled everyone out of the center. It was like a mass exodus.

At our subway stop 6 people, including us, turned onto the main street and walked closely together until someone had to turn. We’re staying in the prostitution (how does this keep happening to us?) district and this was our first and only night out in Mexico City. It looked like even the prostitutes took the night off.

The next morning (today), we went back to the zócalo.

A million people in the center enjoying Independence Day
Indigenous woman and her family selling jewelry
A man and his organ grinder (front), woman performs a healing ritual (back)

Again, it didn’t seem like anything extra was occurring (i.e. vendors, parades, etc). If anything, less was occurring but people were out in droves just walking through the streets.

We walked into the Bellas Artes neighborhood where children were playing in all the fountains. Young people were break dancing in the square and large crowds formed around a rap battle and a clown performance.

Children playing in the fountains
Palacio de Bellas Artes

The sheer number of people out enjoying the day was truly a sight to see. The number of people in a city this large who collectively took the day off was something to marvel at. We could all really take a page out of that book. Happy Independence Day, Mexico. ¡Viva!

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