Revolution Holiday-El Zócalo! (99,998 Mexicans & 2 gringos)
A revolution sometimes requires the blood of martyrs, but sometimes all it requires is democracy, one vote at a time. In July of 2000, Mexican voters put an end to 71 years of corrupt rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI.) Suddenly, the world's oldest one party state was no more.
In December of 2000, Mexico celebrated what was perhaps the most passionately attended inauguration in history - and purely by accident I was there. Sometimes incidence and coincidence converge to guide you to the most amazing places. Depressed by the fruitless chaos of US elections the previous month and looking for a few days away, my husband Claus and I made a spontaneous sojourn to Mexico City. Having been fully engulfed in our own political mess in the U.S., I was oblivious to the imminent inauguration or it's importance to the people of Mexico.
Exiting the airport, Claus and I hailed one of the many bright green VW Beetles that serve as Mexico City's taxi fleet. Mentally sorting through my limited Spanish vocabulary in preparation for the days ahead, I gave our taxi driver the name of the hotel we wanted to stay at; one that was in close proximity to El Zócalo, the famous city plaza off the National Palace. The geographical political axis of all of Mexico.
To say that the streets were packed would be an understatement. Some roads were closed and the remaining ones seemed gridlocked. Our talented, if somewhat overenthusiastic driver was somehow able to skirt the worst of the traffic and point us in the general direction of the hotel. With a halting exchange of words as we drove, I was finally able to determin the why of the chaos; we had arrived just a few days before the monumentally anticipated inauguration of president-elect Vicente Fox. Everyone in Mexico had the day off, and most, it seemed, were converging on the city from all points north, south, east, and west.
Timing is everything, even when it's purely accidental. We were intrigued, excited - and seriously wondering if we would be sleeping on the street because we had no hotel reservations. As the city slowly rolled by our windows I looked around in consternation at the streets overflowing with people - and every form of locomotion imaginable. We had come at an extraordinary time in Mexican history.
Discussing with the driver that the hotel was near the cathedral (a proxima a cathedral! he says), I laughed at myself and the taxi driver laughed at me. I just couldn't wrap my tongue around the proper pronunciation of "cathederal".
We found the hotel. No vacancy. Claus and I looked at each other with an "uh oh" look. We drove around to explore other possibilities. And around. Our first couple of stops were a wash, but then somebody in one of the hotels talked to somebody who talked to somebody who had and uncle or a cousin or a friend, and soon we pulled up in front of another hotel just a few blocks from El Zocalo that had available rooms.
After a short discussion and tour, we quickly discovered WHY they had rooms. (No one spoke any English at all and I was amazed that my incredibly rustic Spanish was enough, but it was. The staff was friendly and courteous and gracefully tolerated my talent for mangling their language.) Their entire central enclosed courtyard was undergoing major renovation. One glance told me there would be construction noise, but we weren't planning to be in the hotel during the day, and look! We had a built in "bang bang BANG!"early morning alarm clock .
After unpacking we took to the streets and wandered throughout the city, fascinated. (Note; This is not something that I would actually recommend. Gringo tourists are prime targets for getting kidnapped and/or robbed and beaten in the sometimes not so fair Ciudad de Mexico)
At about 8 AM on the day of the inauguration, there was an earthquake that apparently was rather noticeable to everyone else in Mexico City but us and the other guests in our under-construction hotel.
During a long walk later that day we happened upon the government building where the official inauguration ceremony was taking place. Completely by accident. Again. Outside was a giant video screen, prominently displaying Vicente Fox in an impassioned speech. The streets were packed with onlookers, faces jubuliant and hopeful. I had chills standing there taking it all in. We were tripping over history in the making with nearly every step. You couldn't possibly plan something like this.
That evening there was to be a huge celebration in El Zócalo. The huge, flat plaza reportedly holds 100,000 people and it was sure to be overflowing . Nothing could have kept us from that place on that night in that city to see Fox speak to his people.
So, there we were - 99,998 Mexicans - and us. We didn't see any western press or travelers. Wherever they might have been, they weren't anywhere on the plaza that I could see. And what a place to be, and what an event to see! The faces of the people milling around us were beatific, enraptured, jubilant - energized with anticipation. Families mingled together sharing food and drink. Little ones sat on shoulders. As night fell we painstakingly picked our way through the throng until we were within view of the main balcony of the National Palace.
Tucked away somewhere (likely safely within the confines of the National Palace) were Cuban President Fidel Castro (a close friend of Fox) and Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. What I would have given to have seen either!
First, there was a magnificent multimedia light show that would have put Disney to shame. A diorama-like moving projection of Mexico's history danced on the edifices of the buildings enclosing the huge plaza, as well as on a long wall of water spouting from a hidden source in front of the cathedral. To see that futuristic and extraordinarily well done presentation play across the historical facades of the huge plaza was an amazing experience.
Soon, Vicente Fox appeared on the balcony above the heads of the enraptured onlookers. Pausing to gaze around, he flashed a brilliant smile, opened his arms wide and began to speak. "Hoy tengo noticias para todos ustedes. Hoy celebramos no un cambio de gobierno, pero el primer paso para poner en nuestro país un futuro mejor" (Today I have news for all of you. Today we celebrate not a change of government, but the first step in giving our country a better future). I wish I could say that I grasped all his words, but most went by too quickly for my gringa ears. There was much talk of "gente" (the people) and "novedad" (newness) and "cambiar" (change).
From the balcony el Presidente Vicente Fox declared;"Esta es una revolución de la esperanza!" (This is a revolution of hope)
Fireworks blazed overhead while people sang and danced and laughed. It was an extraordinary place to be - this moment in history on which we had happened upon.
President Fox finished his tenure in 2006. The analysis of his time in office has been mixed and is a still subject of much contention, but there is no doubt that his election marked a radical fork in Mexico's path.
"In Latin America, presidents generally do not retire to the farm to write their memoirs. Most flee abroad, to escape extradition. More than one has lived in house arrest. Former chief executives of Mexico did not build presidential libraries, crusade against hunger, or run the United Nations. They generally caught the first plane to Europe, turning over power to a designated successor by pointing the dedazo, the "finger." The traditional cycle of our six-year presidential term, the sexenio, worked like this: A president used his first five years to spend the nation deep into debt. In his sixth year, known as the "Year of Hidalgo," he cut off the flow of money to the economy and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from Mexico's oil revenues to fund the campaign of his successor. Then the incumbent handed the sash to the man to whom he'd "given the finger" and got the hell out of the country, before the economic crisis kicked in.
Memoirs would have been a bad idea. They might have been used as evidence."
Vicente Fox, Former President of Mexico (2000-2006)
Rancho San Cristóbal, December 4, 2006