A Breast of History: Celebrating Mexico’s 200th Independence

Mural of Mexican Independence fighters in Pátzcuaro

There is much to catch the eye as Mexico prepares for the 200th birthday of its independence: much of it here in Morelia is cast in glitter wire that lights up at night. On the street where my son goes to daycare, the high schoolers have been rehearsing their parade march every morning for weeks. And the explosions will start tonight as well—hopefully only fireworks. There will borrachismo, a great grito—¡¡¡Viva México!!!, sombreros, and all the hubbub and gridlock and chaos that one would hope for on such a day. Hopefully, there will be no grenades, like those that killed 8 people and wounded over a hundred more here in Morelia two years ago. But in spite of the sparkle and clamor, my fascination with Mexican Independence has gotten caught up with the spectacle of one woman’s left breast.

Let me back up. Mexico’s Bicentennial bonanza—which will be epic or paltry, wasteful or unifying, depending on whom one asks—is the province of the nation’s Ministry of Education. That’s right, the Ministry of Education is doling out glitter sculpture, coordinating the distribution of flags, and hiring world-class events choreographers to oversee festivities. At first, I thought that this was an odd choice of party planners, but I have since realized why this is so.

Comprehension came with the decorations: Golden silhouettes of soldiers on horseback. A great big bell. Signs atop the Aqueduct proclaiming Morelia, this city where future independence fighter Miguel Hidalgo was rector of the Colegio de San Nicolás and Morelia’s namesake, José Maria Morelos, was his student, “the cradle of the ideology of independence!” Suddenly, Mexico’s multisyllabic street names—including Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo and José Maria Morelos y Pavón—have arisen in glitter tableaus, in pop-art, in billboard images, in telenovelas in sepia, on the 200 peso bills. It’s as if the faces of Samuel Adams, Betsy Ross, Patrick Henry, Francis Scott Key and their ilk were suddenly flashing across U.S. media. All of Mexico, thanks to the Ministry of Education, is brushing up on its history.

I have a mixed relationship with even U.S. history. I know the details almost to the day of General Sullivan’s 1779 invasion of Iroquoia, but I confess that I used Wikipedia for that basic list above. Here in Mexico, I’m even worse. My husband looks ill every time I say “Teohuaticanos,” instead of “Teotihuacanos,” in a room full of Fulbright’s Mexico scholars. In spite of the Ministry of Education’s best efforts, I have needed cheat sheets just to remember that Morelos is the guy in all the pictures with the red bandana on his head.

Then, last weekend, in the Plaza Chica in Pátzcuaro, I met Gertrudis Bocanegra. And, for as little as anyone seems to know about her, she is beautiful: thick-legged, loose-haired, rumpled. She is the first monument to a non-virgin mother that I have seen in Mexico so far. And she looks like a terrifying woman: it’s no wonder the Spanish felt compelled to execute her.

Statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra in Pátzcuaro

But, as if the artist felt that people needed to be reminded that Bocanegra was in fact a woman, in one hand she holds her breast, an afterthought, an offering. You have taken my son and my husband, I imagine her saying, go ahead, taste of my body as well. And yes, it is this flash of suggested flesh that has allowed me to imagine the war for independence for myself, from a woman’s perspective, from a mother’s perspective. Just as the Ministry of Education had hoped, I’ve been hooked by a story, however dimly remembered.

So now I’m off to the celebrations, and not only for the spectacle. I’m going because I’ve become impressed by the bravery of lives lost long ago, by history of people who died to change it. And by Mexico’s Ministry of Education, which got through to even this historically challenged gringa.

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