Wednesday, September 15, 2010


One hundred years ago today, Porfirio Diaz and Mexico City's high society celebrated the centennial of Mexican independence with lavish galas and sumptuous banquets. Beyond the bounds of the capital, however, discontent bubbled, and less than 2 months later Francisco Madero would begin the armed uprising that marked the start of the Mexican Revolution.

A century later, Mexico is not blithely ignorant of its problems. Economic stagnation, political incompetence, and a bloody and unwinnable war against narcotrafficking offer a grim backdrop to this fall's festivities. Yet the government has forged ahead with a bicentennial commemoration most characterized by excess. Over the past weeks, workers have erected massive screens and stages along Paseo La Reforma and converted the city's central plaza, the Zocalo, into an arena ringed with towers and spotlights. Beyond the parades, there will be musical performances ranging from Paulina Rubio to Los Tigres del Norte, and a massive fireworks display. A $54 million dollar bicentenary monument will not be completed until 2011.

The prodigality has provoked predictable resentment. But comments about how the money should have been spent--gratuitously reported in U.S. newspapers--miss the point. Governments everywhere have always invested excessively in such commemorations. Mexico has a particularly lengthy tradition of "nation building," and it was precisely because the first fifty years of independence were so troubled that Diaz--and his P.R.I. successors--invested heavily in didactic public rituals. This is not to say that Paulina Rubio will solve the country's problems, but to observe that this overblown commemoration is part of a lengthy tradition of state obsession. If the spectacle aims to enthrall and inspire, it is in the tens of thousands crowding the plazas where Mexicanness is truly celebrated.

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