“Well, I’m not going,” says Mike, the one-legged shoe-shine guy who works in the park by Las Tarascas. He’s referring to the Independence Day celebrations underway this evening in Morelia’s main plaza. Whenever I speak to Mike, which turns out to be pretty often—I walk past him to get just about anywhere and he likes to practice the English he learned all those years he lived in Phoenix—he tells me how he’ll go back to the U.S. one day, once his divorce is final. Which is to say that Mike is no sissy. But Mike says he’d rather watch el grito on TV from his couch than risk it.
There are many people who feel this way in Morelia about tonight’s much-touted bicentennial of Mexico’s declaration of independence.
“People are of two minds,” a taxi driver explained to me. “Part want to live their lives, but the other part, the families with little kids, they don’t want to risk the violence.”
Two years ago, while the governor of Michoacán was addressing Morelia’s Independence Day festivities, two grenades were tossed into the crowd. 8 people were killed and at least a hundred more spectators were injured.
Tonight, the memory of that attack is sharp in Morelia. Close to the stage where the entertainment is ongoing—even during the rain that fell earlier—there is a memorial to 2008’s dead. But even more visible are the police.
Federal and state police, as well as the Mexican army itself, are in fact the most noticeable presence at the festivities. They stand clustered on street corners dressed in black bulletproof vests or in army fatigues. They keep their hands on guns, or dog leashes, or both. A helicopter that I first thought must be a television crew also turned out to be police surveillance, as are the cameras scanning the plaza from the roofs of the big hotels that surround it.
In general, though, the police are good-natured—my son waves at them and gets furtive waves in return, and one K-9 unit was letting kids pet one of their bomb dogs during a brief downpour. They take one another’s picture in front of the cathedral. But the military is less personable. They cruise through on trucks rigged with machine guns, and they wear black masks—encapuchados—over the bottom half of their faces.
Speaking for myself, I am not relieved by the firepower. And I’ve read too much Latin American history not to think dark thoughts as I stand in a crowded plaza ringed by guns. And as a parent to a toddler, I’ve realized that the downward muzzles of the police officers’ guns is less reassuring when your son’s head comes to about the height of those muzzles.
None of the cartels claimed responsibility for 2008’s killings. And Michoacán’s presiding cartel, La Familia, went so far as to denounce the killing of women and children (blaming the incident on Zetas instead). Rumor has it that the cartels, which have a history of self-policing, tipped off the police about the whereabouts of the grenade throwers in Morelia. When the police arrived at the house, the suspects were waiting for them, bound and gagged.
But as it drizzles over the plaza tonight, Morelia is doing its best to be upbeat, to celebrate its national history and defy fear. In half an hour, the governor will shout el grito for Michoacán, and after that, by telecast, Morelia will join the one million Mexicans who made it into Mexico City’s zócalo to hear President Felipe Calderón make the same cry.
And I wish the same thing for Mexico and for every one out tonight across this country. From my home. Where my toddler might just sleep through the noise of fireworks.