It is a common misconception that Cinco de Mayo marks the Mexican Independence Day. Or maybe it’s just the Americans that like the sound of Cinco de Mayo and using it as an excuse to drink a lot of Coronas… The truth is that Cinco de Mayo celebrates a legendary (and unlikely) battle won by the Mexicans against the French in Puebla in 1862. It was on September 16, 1810 with cries for freedom (also known as Grito de Dolores) against the Spanish Crown by a Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo Y Costilla that the war of independence in Mexico was started. The country did not achieve its independence until 1821 but September 16 is celebrated every year along with those gritos. It is a national holiday and a day where friends and family gather to celebrate with traditional meals (like posole or mole poblano), gritos of “Viva Mexico,” lots of tequila, cervezas, and parades.
Since arriving on Sunday everyone kept asking me how I was going to celebrate this holiday. Did I have plans? Am I going to el Centro for the big gathering? Have I had any posole yet? But after four days of intensive Spanish immersion and fighting off mosquitos and the heat, I was feeling rather exhausted as the week was progressing. I learned that the Independence Day celebrations start the night before (on September 15) at 11PM when everyone yells “Viva Mexico!” And in Merida where most people eat and go out very late (it’s too hot to do anything earlier in the day), the celebrations weren’t going to start until well after 9PM. My Mexican family was having people over and asked me to join them at home, but the director of my school offered to have me spend the evening with her and her friends in el Centro, Merida’s version of New York’s Times Square. All over Mexico people shout “Viva Mexico” at 11PM and it is a tradition here in Merida for people to go to the zocalo, in front of the governor’s building to share that experience. I loved the idea of being part of the excitement but the thought of being out so late had me frazzled a bit. I was nursing a migraine by the time I finished my morning classes and I was seriously thinking about flaking out on the whole ordeal, but I was determined to make this happen. So I came home, gritted my teeth, took a deep breath (along with some Coca Light and Advil), turned the lights off, and closed my eyes for an hour to get ready for my outing.
Since we weren’t having dinner until 9:30 I had plenty of time to compose and psych myself up- I sound like such an old fuddy-duddy I can’t stand it! What happened to me? Knowing that I don’t know my way around the city yet, Eva (la directora del instituto) came to my house to pick me up in a taxi. She was dressed in a long black gown trimmed with ruffles and large flowers, looking fabulously Mexican and ready to party. Me? I wore jeans, a long sleeve top, and Birkenstocks, dressed for maximum comfort while trying to fend myself against mosquitos- when did I turn into a total party pooper?
When we left my house around 9PM none of the guests for the party had arrived yet. It really surprised me how late people like to get started here (this morning Dona Gloria told me that everyone left by midnight, “muy temprano”- very early). It was my first night out and it was fun to see how the city had transformed after the sun went down. There were bright festive lights in red, white, and green along the major boulevard (Paseo de Montejo), restaurants and bars were hopping with activity, and the traffic seemed to have more than doubled. We picked up another student, Ken, and Eva’s friend Linda on the way, and met Eva’s son Cristian and his friend Carlos, whom everyone affectionately called “Charlie Brown” at the restaurant. Eva made reservations at a restaurant called “Pancho’s” for our celebratory dinner, which was conveniently located just two blocks away from el Centro. We sat in the large garden in the back under balloons and twinkle lights, and with cool evening breezes stirring up all around us and a spectacular view of the cathedral beyond the walls, I finally relaxed and started to enjoy the evening. My headache was long gone by then and when I heard suggestions of tequila shots to start the evening off right, I perked up and said “Viva Mexico!”
Charlie Brown had us try the “tradicional,” which was Cuervos and he recommended that we take it cold. Hmmmmm…. A little salt, a little lime, and a small sip of cool liquid gold. It was smooth and refreshing. Right away, Linda, a retired Cuban American, Charlie Brown, a fun-loving Mexican from Puebla, and I signed up for another round. At Charlie Brown’s urging, I tried the next shot with “sangrita,” which turned out to be spicy tomato juice, not unlike Bloody Mary. He told me I should drink the sangria as a chaser instead of salt or lime. It wasn’t overly spicy or too salty, and I thought it made for a tasty combination. Next came my first bottle of Sol, the most popular beer in Merida. Charlie Brown ordered me another tequila and told me to use Sol as my chaser, but luckily Eva knocked the tequila over, helping me slow down my consumption of alcohol. Soon thereafter came the food. We had an interesting table side preparation of a dip/salsa, just as you would get guacamole made table side but with different ingredients. I didn’t make out everything but what stood out for me were the pumpkin seeds, semillas de calabaza. Somehow we all ended up ordering either the shrimp tacos or quesadillas as our entrees, and had a great time chatting and devouring our food. At exactly 11PM Charlie Brown turned on his mobile device to watch the President lead the declaration and for us to follow. For each of his “Viva Mexico!” we shouted “Viva!” “Viva Mexico!” “Viva!” With noise makers and enthusiastic rounds of applause, the entire restaurant and the people in the zocalo screamed in unison. “Viva Mexico!”
Feeling quite content I was ready to go home after dinner but the evening wasn’t over yet. My little voice of dissent was quickly drowned out by everyone saying it was too early and I was too young to feel tired. Indeed, I was the youngest one at the table after Cristian left and I was told to hush. What do Mexicans like to do after they eat and drink tequila? Dance, of course! I shouldn’t have doubted Eva and Linda, because they took me to a little Cuban place where this incredible Cuban band (headed by the son of Ruben Gonzales of the Buena Vista Social Club fame) was playing. Um, yeah, AMAZING! As we were walking into the club a welcoming party who had set up a table by the entrance waved us over to offer beer and tequila. Linda and I looked at each other and grabbed our tequila shots, smiling ear to ear. I think I love it here. Vivia Mexico!
You have to love a country where no matter what size, color, age, or gender, when you hear great music people get up and start moving. Ken, the other student from school, surprised me by dancing up a storm and teaching me the basic steps for Salsa. This little club was filled with so much happy energy it was hard for me to contain my giddiness. I loved every note the band played and soaked in every syllable they belted out. Linda, being half Cuban and having lived in Merida for 5 years, knew the band well and was kind enough to introduce me to them during their break. It was like drizzling spicy chocolate syrup on top of my fabulous Mexican Independence Day ice cream sundae.
The club was still rocking when we left at 2:30AM. To end the evening on a beyond-fantastic-put-a-cherry-on-top-of-that-sundae way, I was chauffeured home by Eva in her son’s yellow Hummer bopping my head to Mexican pop music. I was going to stay home and miss all this?!
Pancho’s: Calle 59 no. 509 Merida (Calle 59 #504 x 60 y 62), Mexico Phone: 52 999 923 0942