Mexico celebrates its bicentennial

MEXICO CITY — For one day Wednesday, Mexico looked beyond its drug war to throw a 200th birthday bash celebrating a proud history, whimsical culture and resilience embodied in the traditional independence cry: "Viva Mexico!"

Across the capital, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets despite their fears, blowing horns and dancing alongside a parade of serpent floats, marching cacti and 13-foot-tall warrior marionettes and into a night of open-air concerts.

President Felipe Calderon capped the evening by ringing the original independence bell from a balcony in the Zocalo square and delivering "El Grito," patterned on founding father Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 call to arms: "Long live independence. Love live the bicentennial. Long live Mexico!"

Roaring thousands echoed his cry. Down the crowded main promenade, the iconic Angel of Independence exploded in fireworks.

"I love being Mexican!" said Michel Dosal, wearing a green, white and red Mohawk wig. "The 15th of September is better than Christmas. It’s better than my birthday!"

In cities where drug violence is heaviest, festivities were more subdued. The grito was canceled in Ciudad Juarez for the first time in its history. People still showed their patriotism in the border city — Mexico’s most violent — by hanging flags from their roofs and hosting family dinners.

In the western city of Morelia, scene of a cartel-related grenade attack that killed eight during the 2008 independence celebration, barely 2,000 showed up at the main plaza for a grito that once drew tens of thousands.

"My son asked me to take him to see the grito, so I brought him despite my fears," said Silvia Godinez Perez, a secretary. "We can’t easily forget what happened two years ago."

But in Mexico City, a $40 million fiesta, two years in the making, drew revelers who traveled from across the country.

"This one is special," said Iris Mari Rodriguez Montiel, a small business owner who had traveled from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz and waited since morning for the festivities to start. "It gives me chills just to think about it. I love Mexico. There’s only one Mexico."

Little girls wearing ribbons of the Mexican flag watched the 1.7-mile parade down Reforma Avenue from the shoulders of their fathers. Other children blew trumpets as the air filled with confetti.

Neighboring heads of state and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis attended.

Still, anxiety hovered over the festivities in a country that most recently has seen car bombs, the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate, and the massacre of 72 migrants who refused to smuggle drugs for a brutal gang.

Military helicopters buzzed overhead. Heavily armed federal agents and metal detectors greeted revelers.

"We should be proud of all we’ve achieved," said Daniel Mendiola, a 64-year-old retiree who eyes were glued to a giant screen in front of the Angel of Independence monument earlier in the night. But he said he would leave after the parade, skipping the big-name acts jamming on a series of stages set up along Reforma.

"We have this doubt," he said. "The idea that there will be problems later on."

While drug violence during a grand festival would have been unheard of just a few years ago, that changed after the attack in Morelia in 2008.

This year there were no reported attacks against the celebrations. Prosecutors in the Caribbean coast resort of Cancun said they were investigating whether six men detained Wednesday with assault rifles and hand grenades had planned an assault on bicentennial festivities. In northern Nuevo Leon state, eight gunmen were killed in a shootout with soldiers, authorities said.

"In Mexico, we all live in fear. And the worst part is that we are starting to get used to it," said Eric Limon, 33, a professional dancer who volunteered to wear a jaguar mask and swing a colorful Aztec club and spear for the parade.

"I want to be part of something important," he said. "I know this won’t solve our problems, but this is my grain of sand to create a sense of unity. This is what Mexico needs."

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