Letter from Mexico: In no mood for a fiesta

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 3:18 AM

IN MEXICO CITY The government is promising "the most spectacular celebration in history" and throwing more than $40 million on the table for parades and fireworks to commemorate the country's 200th anniversary this week. But on the eve of their bicentennial, many Mexicans confess they're in no mood for a party.

As the country prepares to follow President Felipe Calderon in the traditional "grito," or shout-out of "Viva Mexico!" on Wednesday night, the country's historians, politicians and artists agree that the country is in a deep funk.

"It feels like Mexico is out of gas," said Hector Reyes, a car dealer who with his wife and kids watched workers erect TV camera scaffolds in the capital's central plaza to broadcast the events.

These days the news feels like an endless rerun of the same cop show as one midlevel drug capo after another is arrested or killed. Last month it was El Nacho. Then it was La Barbie. This week, El Grande. All of them - beefy thugs with fashionable sports shirts, living in nice big houses, with lots of guns and grenades - are quickly replaced.

"Because when one is captured, the next in line steps up," said Jorge Romero, a representative in the National Congress.

A popular movie in theaters here to commemorate the bicentennial is called simply "Hell." Billboards touting the film are a tragicomical tableau of the state of the state: the grinning narco in his cowboy hat and white suit standing alongside a fictional version of the real-life "El Pozolero," the infamous Stewmaker, who disposed of corpses in a 50-gallon drum of lye.

The movie is gruesome but funny, and audiences laugh and gasp, as corrupt cops, mayors, dopers and even a priest are mowed down by AK-47s and dispatched with the newest symbol of Mexican macho - the chain saw.

"I hate to speak ill of Mexico, especially with those from abroad, but to be honest, Mexico has a number of problems that have become endemic, which have become part of our culture, our idiosyncrasies, and those problems are things such as corruption and impunity and social inequalities," said Luis Estrada, the film's director. "It is a sad conclusion, but as a society and country, we have very little to celebrate."

In a poll published last week in the newspaper Reforma, 67 percent of Mexico City residents said they felt little or no excitement about the bicentennial. Nearly 6 in 10 said the money spent was not worth it.

"Mexicans are stoic, but we know how to rejoice in little things. We are very good at making fiestas, but the mood is very sour now - you could say it is almost sad," said Enrique Krauze, author of some of the most popular histories of Mexico.

Even the church appears to be experiencing a moment of doubt. "We are a generous and hospitable people, but we are realizing with surprise and shame that we have become a people corrupt and murderous," the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico concluded in a recent editorial.

The church was attacking the criminal gangs engaged in human smuggling and the many Mexican officials uninterested in protecting the rights of passers-through. Many here were shocked by the massacre of 72 illegal migrants from Central and South America, including women and teens, whose bodies were found in an abandoned barn in northern Mexico last month. The killings prompted Mexico's top immigration official to resign Tuesday.

Though many north of the border might assume that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Fourth of July, it is actually the anniversary of the Mexican military's upset victory over French troops at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 - an event not much remembered here in Mexico, though Mexico's Jose Cuervo tequila empire certainly benefits from its sales in the United States on that day.

On Monday, Calderon attended an annual reenactment by hundreds of Mexican troops - dressed in costume - of the glories of Mexico past, the kind of mingling of myth and airbrushed history that every country rolls out to celebrate its anniversaries. Mexico's bicentennial honors two revolutions, two wars for independence.

The first from Spain, which was sparked by an uprising of peasant farmers in 1810. Led by a priest with big ideas, Miguel Hidalgo, the insurrection was quickly crushed and Hidalgo executed.

The second Mexican revolution began in 1910 and saw Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata wage war against the federal forces of velvet-gloved dictator Porfirio Diaz, who decamped to his beloved Paris in 1911 after stealing his last election. But the fighting dragged on for seven more years. Hundreds of thousands died violent deaths or succumbed to plagues of malaria, influenza and typhus.

"This is a moment where we don't know where we are and we don't know where we are going," said historian Lorenzo Meyer, who hosts a popular evening roundtable on television.

Meyer said the holiday has its enthusiasts, "but it's a bureaucratic enthusiasm, a staged and not very sincere enthusiasm."

For weeks, anonymous e-mails have encouraged citizens not to participate in the government-sponsored celebrations. And the presidential candidate who lost to Calderon in a contested election in 2006, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is hosting an alternative celebration a few blocks away from Calderon's.

Public events in besieged cities such as Ciudad Juarez on the border have been canceled, others have been scaled back, as extreme security precautions are implemented to confront feared acts of narcoterrorism.

To make matters better - or worse? - alcohol sales ended Tuesday at midnight.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company