By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
Published: September 12, 2010
MEXICO CITY — There are the bicentennial buses. Bicentennial roads. A bicentennial marathon. A bicentennial song. The bicentennial digital library. A bicentennial video game. Even a bicentennial bird, the mountain trogon, and plant, the owl agave. And of course the bicentennial fireworks extravaganza, planned to be the largest the country has ever seen.
Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
A street stall in Mexico City sold flags, horns and hats in preparation for this week’s celebration.
What appears to be missing is bicentennial enthusiasm.
By accident of timing, as Mexico approaches the 200th anniversary on Thursday of the start of its rebellion against Spain, the national mood has sunk into its deepest funk in years.
A four-year drug war that has taken more than 28,000 lives has seeped into previously quiet corners of the country. Just Sunday night in the central city of Puebla, heavily armed marines captured Sergio Villarreal, known as El Grande, the leader of the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel.
The bloodiest town, Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, has canceled celebratory bicentennial fireworks out of safety concerns. So have at least two dozen other towns. Major commemorative public works projects, including the bicentennial monument itself, the Estela de Luz, a 30-story quartz obelisk in the capital, will not be completed in time for the big day.
A poll last week in Reforma, a daily newspaper, found only tepid support for the government’s celebration here in the capital, and a range of critics have suggested that the tens of millions of dollars — $53 million for the monument alone — would be better spent on schools, health care and other pressing social needs.
“We are in mourning,” said Ricardo Valdez, 53, a laborer passing through the historic Zócalo, Mexico City’s vast main square, where workers were busy on Thursday erecting scaffolding, staging and decorations for the celebration. “Look at all this useless expense.”
This is, however, Mexico, where, as the Nobel-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz once noted, “any occasion for getting together will serve, any pretext to stop the flow of time and commemorate men and events with festivals and ceremonies.”
The government still expects tens of thousands to fill the heavily guarded Zócalo, as they do every independence day, and perhaps many more to line a parade route to the square.
The highlight of the celebration, which also commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution, will be a series of spectacles on Wednesday night, including one choreographed by Ric Birch, who produced Olympic ceremonies in 1992 and 2000. The aim is a party for the ages, with dancing, an aerial acrobatic show and performances by celebrities including the chart-topping Tigres del Norte.
As usual, the president will deliver the traditional grito, the shout of independence, to the crowds just before midnight.
The minister of education, Alonso Lujambio, whose department is overseeing bicentennial events, acknowledged the problems of such a celebration now.
“Mexico is going through difficult moments, that’s true,” he said in an interview. “There are some who therefore think there is no reason to party. I believe the exact opposite, that precisely because we are living difficult times we need a sense of unity to confront the problems.”
He suggested the government would face criticism no matter what it spent or planned, particularly in a feisty democracy only 10 years after the end of seven decades of one-party leadership.
“That has generated a new pluralism, a hypercritical vision of our collective life,” he said, adding, “It seems sometimes we don’t know how to balance the country’s advances with that urge to criticize in which it seems the one who is most intelligent is the one who is most critical.”
Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, agreed. The drug war has overshadowed some bright spots, he said, including signs of growth in the economy. The gross domestic product expanded nearly 6 percent in the first half of the year.
But he said that the “depth of malaise” in the country was indisputable, and that it had intruded on the bicentennial mood.
“Citizens are learning to disagree and still find things to unify them,” he said, especially in a country where “history really matters, symbols matter” because of the nation’s past adversities: the blood-soaked parting with Spain; the disastrous loss of territory to the United States in the 1840s; and a revolution, whose 100th anniversary will be celebrated in November, that spiraled into a brutal civil war.
Aztec legends are recounted here as if they happened last week. Many streets, buildings, monuments and cities are named after national heroes, nearly all of whom, including the father of independence, Miguel Hidalgo, died tragic deaths.
Earlier this year, soldiers in 19th-century-style uniforms paraded the glass urns containing bones said to be of 12 heroes of independence down the capital’s main artery, Reforma, as they were transferred from the Angel of Independence monument to scientists who will once and for all positively identify them.
Still, infusing a sense of unity is daunting in a country with 32 states, ranging from the tropical rainforests in the south to the desert of the north, from remote highland Indian villages to Miami-style resorts, from European-style bistros in the capital to tin-roof shacks on the outskirts.
“Everything is very symbolic, far from reality, very patriotic, when Mexicans are not very patriotic,” said Adriana Ugalde, 22, a college philosophy student working the late shift at a Starbucks in the historic center of Guanajuato, the capital of the state where independence was born. “Maybe in some aspects, but to speak like this of a real Mexican identity, I don’t know.”
But it is not hard to find those with a more positive outlook, particularly as independence day approaches and people warm to the idea of a big party.
Emiliano Galvez, 31, a mechanic who bought a red, green and white sombrero for his 5-year-old son on a visit to the Zócalo on a recent afternoon, felt pride as he watched preparations.
“This is my country, so of course we are going to celebrate,” he said. “We grew up learning about our heroes, and now this is the time to really celebrate them, not to complain about the country.”
Elisabeth Malkin contributed reporting from Guanajuato, Mexic