15th September, 11.45pm
The crush of bodies squeezes the breath out of me. The crowd surges forwards and backwards and sideways, going nowhere. ‘Viva Mexico and then we all die!’ I mutter to my friend crammed in beside me, her skull being crushed between the back of the woman in front of her and the enormous belly of the man behind. ‘Christ’ she gasps, ‘if we can’t even sort out getting on and off the metrobus, what the hell do you expect?’
She has a point. I origami my upper body to look half an inch behind me, enough to see my cariño standing several bodies back; unable to move any of his limbs, he winks at me reassuringly. For a moment, I feel it’s all going to be ok.
And then there’s a sudden lull, a collective freeze of body motion as we all sense something is about to happen. Like twitchy, nervous animals we stare as it explodes, right there in the middle of no space at all – a fight. Several young men start throwing punches, snarling, grabbing each other’s shirts, collars and ears, teeth bared and territory being marked. Ripples of anxiety gather at our feet and begin to swell to a tsunami. I see babies crying in their crouched mothers’ arms, elderly people swallowed alive by the crowd. I feel my torso propelled forward even as my feet remain intertwined with all the other feet and we lunge and trip in crazy spirals together, drunk on panic, praying we don’t fall.
Now the ritual and fanfare are over, this is what we’re left with. Pressed against and within each other, depending on each other to move but each pulling our own way, wanting nothing else than to be free and to breathe, but not knowing how.
The build up is joyful, showcasing the best of Mexico’s entertainment and digestive systems: as the creaky neon rides flash and people trot past us wearing giant fake eyelashes and red, white and green wigs, the three of us gorge on pozole, enchiladas and giant-kerneled elote. Beside the cathedral, entire planets of people close in to watch the 90s Latin pop group OV7 play. We manage to grab a spot near the front of the town hall. At 11pm there is a solemn hush for the grito, the ‘shout’ of national Independence. We see the flag being passed, official hands placed on official chests, and hear a voice ringing out the cries echoed by the crowd: ‘Viva México!’ ‘Viva Hidalgo!’ ‘Viva Morelos!’
Viva indeed. The aliveness I don’t dispute. I feel tingles run through my body as the crowd shouts this word. ‘Viva!’ The strength and integrity of voice around me underpin a truth, a vibrancy that is as real as any love I’ve ever felt. It reminds me of the drink-clinks of ‘živeli!’ in Serbian, my mother tongue, meaning, literally: ‘que vivamos!’ – let us live. And this city does – it lets us live to the full, connected and ever, ever pressing against one another, searching for closeness and unity and health and laughter. There is no greater aliveness.
Unfortunately, it’s not actually our aliveness that’s formally being celebrated here. Neither is it independence or integrity of self. It’s something else – something far more prosaic we’ve come to internalise to be as much a part of us as our livers or little toe. Whereas, in fact, it may be better seen as our achilles heel.
What we are celebrating – what we are being sold – is fantasy. The fantasy of artificial lines that are Mexico’s borders, and the lies that accompany them. The lines that are the promise of education, health and security. The promise of glory and identity and decently remunerated work. And the lie that the promises have been fulfilled for all those complicit with the lines.
Overhead, the fireworks begin to crack and the Catherine Wheels to spin, covering us all with soot as they’re about five centimetres away – Viva Mexican health and safety standards! And the cry echoes in my head – the cry stating the artificial separateness of this space from others, masking deep fears it will someday be crushed and dominated again, with new lines re-drawn in the sand and a new geographer’s pen demanding new treaties and new surrenders. The lines are Tijuana’s wall of tears and recent blood spilled between the indigenous people and nation makers in Brazil. The lines are Yugoslavia dissolving in its own story and the exiting of Britain from its continental community. In so many cases in our world today, the lines we call country borders are no longer demarcations of sovereignty and the freedom that allegedly comes with them; rather, they have become demarcations of cleverly (or poorly) masked subjugation, fear-based thinking and forced identity-making that do not resonate with true independence of body and mind.
As the national anthem begins to swell all around me, I think of Miguel Hidalgo giving the first ever grito in Dolores Hidalgo to the local campesinos, who had just wrested their lands from the imperial forces. Who were beginning, like precious seedlings, to foment the sense of a nation that would honour their right to live and work without prejudice or exploitation. In this context, the original grito had nothing to do with nationalism and everything to do with justice and the freedom to live in peace with one’s labour and creative endeavour. Even though it wasn’t he who officially won and declared Mexico’s independence from Spain, Hidalgo is today held up as the ‘father’ of Mexico – man made myth, in whose image grandiose concepts are paraded around the country once a year, poorly concealing the complete vacuum of his original ideals and much less their practice; reinforcing, if anything, Mexico’s lack of authentic independence at any level.
But what exactly is ‘independence’? It has been defined as: “freedom from dependence; exemption from reliance on, or control by, others; self-subsistence or maintenance; direction of one’s own affairs without interference.” As I look around the crowd, I wonder how much that applies to the average child, woman or man standing here today. Are the campesinos Hidalgo so passionately advocated for any less controlled by external forced today? Are the hard working people in the economically and culturally impoverished areas of Mexico’s cities any more able to direct their own lives with full recourse to the resources promised them by the ‘independent’ line? Are the children and elderly people selling sweets on the streets any less dependent on the charity of others than they were 300 years ago?
It stands to reason that national and individual ‘independence’ can be two different things, which would be perfectly fine if they weren’t increasingly in conflict. It’s one thing to give your voluntary, informed consent to a line proclaiming an independent nation which, while curtailing some of your desires in the name of the common good, actually provides you with that good, fair and square. It’s quite another when that line invades your free will and emotionally incests you, demanding it become one with your sense of self until you forget who you are without it and allow it to feed off you, draining you and giving you nothing in return but an artificially constructed identity and a stiff party once a year.
I watch the myth-carriers in the delegacion separated by a wall from the people they are adjudicating – the street vendors and the cleaners and the doctors and the builders and the teachers. And I recall another definition, from the field of botany, stating ‘independence’ to be ‘the abnormal separation of organs or parts which are usually united.’ Now that, for me, resonates a whole lot more with the honest truth of Mexico today than the glaring, sooty rituals would have us believe. Because, in the process of nation-creation following what was originally an impassioned plea for the right to be treated fairly in a shared, humane context, independence has become something abnormal, untrue to itself. Like Monsanto’s suicide seeds, the current government’s constructions of an ‘independent Mexico’ have done nothing but sabotage the sustainability of the very condition it professes to support, by dis-uniting the human roles and groupings essential to the maintenance of any line.
‘Death to bad government!’ went Hidalgo’s original cry. Why is that no longer pronounced at 11pm on 15th September? I turn to ask my cariño this same question, feeling his abdomen roll behind me as he belts out the anthem. He stops and smiles at me. ‘Yeah, I know, I learned the original words in school. But I don’t think those are widely taught anymore.’ Then he throws his head up and continues to sing. I look past him, into the night, where a red and green-lit drone is hovering overhead, taking pictures of all the happy, presumably independent patriots below.
I feel sad and left out. Not because I’m a ‘foreigner’ as the line would define me but because, as someone who has seen pretty much every single line in every single space I’ve lived in be subject to question, blood, or change, I feel weakened by the lie. I’m angry at its insidiousness – selling itself as shared aliveness when, in fact, it’s nothing but a ploy to control and to herd. And not very efficiently, either, as the eyeball popping 11.30pm crush would shortly demonstrate.
Ultimately, the question here isn’t even about the lies that have been sold on the basis of ‘independence’, but a far bigger one about the paradigm of the lines and the concept of the ‘nation’ itself. The question is, how far should we let this concept seep under our skin and define us? How far should we let is speak for us and tell us how independent we are when, deep down in that place where our first instincts emerge, we know that national identity is something constructed, not inborn? To date, scientists have not discovered a chile-shaped ‘Mexican’ chromosome. No – national identity is a story we’re told, for love, control, order, power. Be the reason what it will, the danger remains: that of conflating the national with the self.
In his time, Hidalgo needed the line. He fought for a Spain-free Mexico because it was the most effective tool available to delineate freedom and rights. And that’s what the lines are in their purest form – useful tools that can help us distribute our resources, form an orderly queue so we don’t get crushed moving around, and ensure we have a bit of land on which to create by day and lay our heads on by night. The lines only become problematic when we internalise what they’re trying to stand for; observe them neutrally and they lose their power to dominate us. For example, we can observe that once the lines marking out a particular country change, the story making engines go into overdrive to construct a new (or renewed) story of national identity that the ‘masses’ are then expected to ascribe too. And, let’s face it, the lines change quite a lot – you’d find more consistency and logic in the plot of the latest telenovela. While we may enjoy a good story and appreciate the usefulness of the lines constructed on their basis, let’s not confuse usefulness with being; let’s not confuse the tool we wield with our own hands.
I turn to my cariño again and shout above the singing: ‘if Mexico as a line, a nation, were wiped off the map tomorrow or renamed, would you be any less? Would you lose your ability to compose a piece of music or water your plants or love your family?’ He looks at me earnestly. ‘Of course not. But it’s not that simple. How can any of us disentangle our Mexicanness from the rest of ourselves when we’ve never been taught to do so? When we’re not even aware it’s an option?’
He has a point. Governments worldwide have made it their educational project to dis-able us from understanding that our constituent parts do not change, grow or wither away with any external lines. National identity making is an extremely powerful force… but, being a story, it is never more powerful than you. It is never more powerful than the realities of every person you’ve ever loved, every clear sky you’ve travelled under and every new something you’ve created, be it a brick roof, an abarrote or a piano concerto.
As ever, the aliveness wins. People begin to shout directions, volunteer to part the sea of bodies, step back so the mothers can pass. The shouting is loud but calm, the words are steady and reassuring, and the swell of panic dies down. We breathe in and press on until we’re out of the crush and everyone is smiling with relief. The three of us inhale a giant, greasy churro each from a street stand to calm our nerves. As I wipe cajeta off my chin, I look onto the lights reflected on each face, freed from the herd, able to move and dance and wave, and I think – yes! Give me this Mexico. This Mexico with its fierce gentleness and diversity. These people who are much, much more than any flag wrapped around them that whispers it will keep them safe at night and give them their bread or a nice car. I want to shout to them: you are wilder, freer and bigger than any line and the lie it tries to sell you.
Because the lines are not delimitations of our souls, our aliveness, our shared human-ness. The problems and sadness arise when we convince ourselves they are. Administrative lines may be helpful as long as they never, ever try to tell you who you are or what you’re worth. Only you get to do that. You get to choose if you’ll join the circus and balance precariously on a man-made tightrope, with thousands of others dangerously teetering alongside you (many falling, screaming to their deaths), or if you’ll calmly, mentally walk away from the dominant story-making force which, without our complicity, will come to feel like a handful of angry feathers trying to bulldoze a rock.
The answer to the lie of the line isn’t, I believe, to heave our way through another revolution that ultimately reproduces the same power structures (and draws new lines over the old). Instead, it is to start small, at home (or in a field or on the bus or in the bathroom at work), in moments of quiet when there is no-one to police us or tell us who to be. When with our eyes or hands or breath we can explore our faces and our feelings just as they are, unfettered by any markers of identity or performance other than our own true selves. Two minutes every day of feeling our own presence and knowing that is all we need in this world to define us.
Then we teach our children these two minutes, too – let’s not dishonour them by telling them they’re anything less. And at school, in Mexico and beyond, we can teach them to honour the real roots of the national grito; to distinguish, critically and clearly, between its origins and what is spoken today and by whom. Teach them distinguish between their selves and the stories simultaneously sold by, and creating, the line. If the school our children go to doesn’t do this, we can teach them ourselves.
Finally, on the streets, we can celebrate what’s true and authentically unifying within the liable lines: our shared aliveness. Our real, inherent identities. The reality of our creative, innovative, and connective power. Like during the Mexico City Marathon that happened just three weeks before Independence Day. This event, too, evoked a sense of unity and solidarity, but on an entirely different, more organic basis – no rituals, herding or propaganda needed. All along the route, especially the last 10km stretch, and often individually, independently organised, people handed out whole crates of fruits and chocolates and drinks to the runners. They opened up their houses to let motivating music boom all around, clapping the runners on in spontaneous connection, celebrating human strength, endurance and a host of other, intrinsic-to-all-of-us qualities.
Why can’t such a day be a national holiday in itself? Or a day celebrating the everyday kindness and compassion so common here – of people who pay for your metro ticket when you’re running around like a headless chicken and don’t have any change, or those who speak up for the boy or girl who has been abused in their community and try to heal the abusers too. Or a day celebrating entrepreneurs across the land who are innovating the use and distribution of our natural resources – from the plant seller seeking to raise funds to build a ‘green wall’ for the youth of concrete Iztapalapa to the Cancun poverty developer determined to build a new, locally affordable resort made entirely of bamboo with its own solar power and recycled water. Or a day in which, ironically, Mexico comes alive like at no other moment – the iconic Day of the Dead – which speaks to our deepest, most mystical and yet simple connection with love. This is, so far, the only national holiday in Mexico celebrating something real inside us. But there are so, so many more authentic stories we can tell about ourselves at a collective level which, in place of intangible promises, bear fruit that we can touch and smell and taste in our everyday, independent lives. We can instigate land-wide holidays to celebrate each one of these, not seeking to obliterate the existing stories but ensuring they carry the same weight as them, offering people the choice as to which ones to resonate with.
And then, bit by bit, as the cumulative effects of our small private and larger public acts begin to flow into a stream, as we establish these identity-reflecting (not identity-imposing) rituals which signal the authentic presence of freedom to define who we are and live by that – maybe then we can truly cry, united, ‘Viva Mexico Independiente y Fuerte!’
When we get home that night, I put the radio on to soothe the sounds of forced revelry still whizzing around my head. A song comes on, so poignant that I leave you with it now. It was given to us by a woman who consistently used her creativity to show us how much we hold within, and how much more sacred this is than any external marker of identity, no matter how powerful it may seem.
She sings: ‘I ain’t got no country… but what have I got?’
I’ve got my brains.
I’ve got my soul.
I’ve got Life.