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LA La Land: Independence Day in Mexico

Independence Day in Mexico: music, royalty,stick ponies, hot air balloons and rebozos.

Independence Day, September 16, in Mexico is actually about a week long.  It celebrates the beginning of the war for independence from Spain in 1810 when a Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, launched the Mexican War of Independence by issuing his Grito de Dolores, or “Cry of Delores’, essentially a call to arms. The war took 11 years and creating a democracy took 2 more years. Given its complicated history, it is understandable that Independence celebration occupies a week,  And it’s fun.

Each town has its own customs and events, but many are common across the country.  Here in Ajijic, my Independence week began Friday, Sept. 6 with a sold-out traditional Mexican celebration at the Lakeside Community Center.  The Mexican and gringo audience packed every chair and table for mariachi music, children’s folklórico dancing, a children’s stick pony drill team, rope tricks, presentation of the candidates for the Queen and Princesses of Ajijic, and dancing horses. And tacos and drinks, of course.

Saturday night the town Plaza was packed for the crowning of the Queen and the Princesses on a huge concert stage and runway.  The crowning was preceded by music by Mariachi Los Cardenales and dancing by the Ballet Folklórico Infantil Axixic. The candidates strode the runway in various gowns, including ones they made themselves out of recycled materials to promote the town’s new recycling campaign. Each candidate brought her own cheering section with signs, banners, songs, glitter guns, and synchronized chants.  Joyful pandemonium reigned as the Queen and Princesses were crowned.

Sunday night was the Regatta de Rebozos in the Ajijic town Plaza. Rebozos are the shawls that Latina (and Spanish and Indian and Pakistani) women wear on their heads, around the shoulders, or use the carry things and babies in.  They are a revered art form in Mexico and, many towns have parades and awards for rebozos. The Ajijijc Regatta de Rebozo featured 12 women in 4 classes ranging from about 4 years old to grandmothers. Each mounted the stage, described her rebozo and walked down the runway to the show the overflow crowd her work of art. Before and during the rebozo program, renowned Mexican ballad and opera singer, Lola LaTequilera, took the stage and filled the Plaza and the surrounding neighborhoods with the soaring melodies.  After each rebozo was presented and prizes given out, all the woman paraded around the Plaza while Lola LaTequilera sang.  And of course the party continued until the wee hours of the morning with tacos,beer, tequila and dancing.

The next day saw the Regatta de Globos – the paper balloon race.  Held annually at the town soccer stadium, the Regatta attracts a least a thousand people to watch hundreds of paper balloons, many up to 40 feet long with multiple layers and complex designs, launch into the air, propelled by burning wicks.  About half the balloons burst into flames before they get off the ground or into the air over the stadium. Many floated up the mountainside where they disintegrate in flames (residents have their garden hoses ready) and some get tangled in trees or cellphone antennas, where they burn as they crowd groans.  

The Regatta  started around 3 pm and went until dark when the largest and most complex balloons sailed into the night sky like glowing wraiths. Ten teams of pilotos de globos congregated on one side of the huge field while the stands overflowed and over a thousand people plopped folding chairs and blankets on the grass where ever they could.  The team captains timed how long their balloons stayed aloft, but as far as I could tell, there was no real competition. The balloons themselves were made up heavy paper over wire frames and took teams a month or more to build with some teams bringing 20 balloons.

Launching a balloon, especially the very large ones, required a team member to put his or her head in the bottom of the balloon, set the wicks (which resembled rolled up towels), and light them on fire with a propane- powered miniature flame thrower while the rest of the team tries to hold it up.   Some caught fire and everyone jumped out of the way to let them burn (I saw no fire extinguishers, but no injuries either). All in all, great fun for the people and friendly rivalry for the teams.

The actual Independence Day celebration took place the next day, September 15.  Called the “Grito” after the call to arms, it was held in the town Plaza. Things got going early in the afternoon with children’s events and awards, mariachi music, folk dancing, and speeches. 

The Plaza was ringed with vendors selling tacos, bacon-wrapped hot dogs (a favorite in Mexico), drinks, cotton candy, churros, toys, and beer. By sundown, the Plaza was standing room only as the Queen and Princesses of Ajijic made their appearance. 

Then, from off in the distance a marching band started moving into the Plaza and the crowd made way for it to work its way up to the grandstand, beating martial drums and waving huge gold-tasseled Mexican flags. By that time, the entire Plaza was awash in flags and so crowded that only the tops of the band’s flags were visible- the crowd had swallowed the musicians.  The national anthem was sung and the MC read the original “Grito” and there were shouts of “Viva Mexico” . The crowd thinned a little as sleepy children were taken home and music and dancing began and went on until well past midnight.

But there’s more!  The next morning was actual Independence Day – and hangovers or not – the town turned out for the actual Independence Day Parade, which came down the street directly in front of our studio. We put chairs out on the sidewalk and drank coffee while platoons of school kids in uniform, many, many horses, marching bands and flatbed trucks with gaily dressed children passed by.  Later on, the parade picked up the stick-horse team, added more horses and children and headed for the Plaza for the final ceremonies and lunch. All in all a great way to celebrate National Independence Day for a week.

Patrick O’Heffernan

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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