by Hank Leukart
October 5, 2014

Dancing for Mexican Independence

A Mérida medical student guides me through Mexican Independence Day.

Mexicans watch fireworks explode in the sky above the Mérida Cathedral for Mexican Independence Day in Mérida, Mexico.

Mexicans watch fireworks explode in the sky above the Mérida Cathedral for Mexican Independence Day in Mérida, Mexico. (view all Mérida, Mexico photos)

This is the second essay in a series about road tripping through Mexico's Yucatán. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.

M

ÉRIDA, Yucatán, Mexico — Walking out of my hotel in the sleepy Mexican town of Valladolid, I head directly to the zocalo (the town center). I’ve read that the town shuts down one of its streets every Sunday for dancing, and I’m hoping the promised dance party tonight will be even bigger and better than usual, because it’s the night before the Mexican Independence Day celebration. When I walk by Mexican soldiers with automatic weapons standing in camouflaged tanks, I wonder for a moment about the Yucatán’s security situation, until I realize that the soldiers and guns are simply a show of patriotism for Independence Day.

When I get to the closed-off street in the zocalo, it looks nothing like I’m expecting. Instead of a huge mass of 1,000 twenty-somethings, I see a smaller group of people of all ages, though many are older than 50. Instead of heart-pumping, electronic dance music, I hear a small brass band playing Latin jazz standards. And instead of people breaking, locking, and popping, everyone is dancing ballroom style.

I buy a cajeta-filled churro (I swear, I didn’t intentionally ask for them, but the vendor gave me a bag of five), stand on the sidelines, and watch the dancers. I’m impressed by the variety of the couples: senior husbands and wives, young daughters and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and teenagers have all coupled up and are dancing together. I’m also struck by how relaxed and unselfconscious the dancers appear; no one seems to care about whether their steps are up to par or whether their dance outfits are Instagram worthy. Thinking that I, too, should try to try to get past my anxiousness about my subpar dance moves, I scan the crowd for a woman my age. Unfortunately, I don’t see a single Mexican woman without a boyfriend or husband, which doesn’t surprise me, having observed, during the time I’ve spent in Mexico, the culture’s noticeable preoccupation with boyfriends, girlfriends, and love in general. When the band starts playing “Bésame Mama,” it occurs to me to ask one of the grandmothers sitting on the sidelines to teach me some dance steps, but I’m too afraid I’ll end up in a fight of honor with a 70-year-old Mexican grandpa — and I certainly don’t want any of the machine-gun-toting soldiers to get involved.

The following night, after a 100-mile drive to the west, I’m sitting in a bar and restaurant in the Yucatán’s cultural capital, Mérida. It’s the night before September 16 (Mexican Independence Day), which, I can tell by the streets and bars packed with people, is when Mexico’s big Independence Day party happens. While enjoying a margarita and a burrito, I meet Ana, a Mexican woman who tells me that she is a medical student at Universidad Marista, just north of the city center. She points to a television overhead.

“The president of Mexico will start the ceremony with a speech on television,” she tells me in Spanish. “The Yucatán governor will also give a speech in el zocalo, here in Mérida. Then, la fiesta starts!” She tells me that the president will lead el grito, a traditional, massively synchronized call-and-response ceremony (which dates back to 1910). I ask Ana how much studying she has left before she becomes a doctor, and she tells me that she has completed three of the first seven years of study, at which point, she will need to study for four more years for a speciality. She says that is considering studying the specialty in the US.

“I am one of only six women, out of the 24 students in the program!” she notes, reminding me that the Mexican gender gap and cultural gender dynamics are still decades behind the US’s.

“Well, at least that makes dating easier,” I offer, but she has a discouraged look on her face.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she says. I’m surprised.

“Around us, the dancing, throbbing crowd joins together, like a single, love-obsessed beating heart, singing “Para siempre, para siempre, te amo” (“Forever, I will love you”), in unison.”

“Really? I thought nearly everyone in Mexico had a boyfriend or girlfriend!” I joke. I tell her that, during college, when I spent three months studying at a Mexican university, it seemed rare for any given Mexican student to be without a significant other. The Valentine’s Day that I spent in Mexico made the US’s version of the holiday look like a day of uncaring.

Ana laughs a lot at that. “Yes, we’re very passionate people,” she says. “And, it’s true, all of the other students have boyfriends and girlfriends. When I was 17, I had a boyfriend for 5 years, but we broke up. I didn’t want to marry him. Now, I’m in love with someone at school.”

“Why aren’t you dating him?” I ask.

“He has a girlfriend,” she says.

“Of course he does,” I say, mostly — but not completely — joking. “It’s Mexico.”

We look up at the bar’s television just in time to see Enrique Peña Nieto (Mexico’s current president) start to call out the names of the leaders of the Mexican revolution. “Mexicanos! Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria! Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos!” he calls. After each name, I hear the crowd in the bar and out on the street yell,”Viva!”

“We need to run to the zocalo to see the governor and fireworks!” Ana yells at me. I hurriedly pay the bill and we begin moving as fast as we can toward Mérida’s Cathedral of Saint Ildefonso, the second oldest cathedral in the Americas. When we reach the zocalo, the streets are so packed (think Manhattan New Year’s Eve) that we can’t move, but our view is good. Thousands of people, holding long, red, white, and green balloons, shake them above their heads as bright, red explosions and white smoke trails fill the sky above the church. Ana gives me a red balloon to shake, and I immediately hit her on the head with it. (When you’re holding a long balloon in a large crowd, it’s really hard to resist hitting people on the head. Maybe that’s just me.) Then, I remember why I’ve always felt like a giant when traveling in Mexico: my view of the festivities is practically perfect because I’m at least a half-foot taller than almost everyone in the crowd. The fireworks end with the crowd chanting “Viva Mexico,” and, soon after, Intocable, a popular Mexican band, starts playing “Te Amo (Para Siempre)” (“I Will Love You Forever”). They continue with sappy song after sappy song, unabated: “Déjame Amarte” (“Let Me Love You”) , “Que Fácil es Amarte” (“How Easy It Is to Love You”), and, of course, “Eres Mi Droga” (“You Are My Drug”).

“See what I mean about love in Mexico?” I say to Ana. Around us, the dancing, throbbing crowd joins together, like a single, love-obsessed beating heart, singing “Para siempre, para siempre, te amo” (“Forever, I will love you”), in unison.

“Yes, we’re so passionate!” she yells out. “Te amo,” the crowd croons, seeming to agree with her. “Te amo para siempre.”

The night after Independence Day, I have dinner with Cynthia — a 30-year-old Mexican friend who lives in Mérida and works as an executive assistant at a real estate firm. Afterward, the two of us decide to visit La Fundación Mezcalería, a bohemian dance bar near the city’s center. The bar serves huge, brightly-colored, mason-jar cocktails made with mezcal, a Mexican alcohol made from the maguey (a kind of agave) plant. The bar’s band changes most nights, playing electronic, rock, hip-hop, and more. After the bartender hands Cynthia and me our cocktails, I notice that tonight’s band is playing salsa. Looking at the dance floor filled with experienced Latin dancers, I feel self-conscious and grab onto to my golden, tamarind-mezcal cocktail like it’s a protective parent, as though holding onto it tightly enough will somehow save me from all social embarrassment.

“Oh no,” Cynthia says in Spanish, as she grabs my hands and laughs. “You’re going to learn salsa now, and I’m going to teach you.” We start dancing together slowly, with me chanting, “Fast, fast, slow; fast, fast, slow,” under my breath. Gradually, my feet seem to attach to the music’s rhythm.

“Now, move your hips,” she says. Feeling silly, I try to keep my hips as loose as I can.

“Now, stop looking at your feet,” Cynthia says. “Look at my eyes instead.” I look at her eyes, and, it’s a miracle. We’re dancing salsa in sync, almost (but, admittedly, not quite) effortlessly.

“Now, more passion,” she says as she guides my arms to whirl her around.

I try. I really do. At least I’m not standing on the sidelines.

Read the last essay in this series about road tripping in Mexico. I go scuba diving in underground caves — and it’s one of the coolest things you can do in Mexico.

Mexican soldiers and tanks prepare for Mexican Independence Day festivities in the plaza in Valladolid, Mexico.

Mexican soldiers and tanks prepare for Mexican Independence Day festivities in the plaza in Valladolid, Mexico.

A vendor sells stuffed churros in Valladolid, Mexico.

A vendor sells stuffed churros in Valladolid, Mexico.

Residents of Valladolid, Mexico dance on a Sunday night in the town center.

Fireworks explode above the cathedral in Mérida, Mexico.

Fireworks explode above the cathedral in Mérida, Mexico.

Crowds gather to watch Mexican band Intocable for Mexican Independence Day in Mérida, Mexico.

Crowds gather to watch Mexican band Intocable for Mexican Independence Day in Mérida, Mexico.

Dancers enjoy music at Casa Pompidou in Mérida, Mexico.

Dancers enjoy music at Casa Pompidou in Mérida, Mexico.

Dancers enjoy music at La Fundación Mezcalería bar in Mérida, Mexico.

Dancers enjoy music at La Fundación Mezcalería bar in Mérida, Mexico.

Where to Go Dancing in Mérida, Mexico

  • OVERVIEW: Mérida is the self-proclaimed cultural capital of Mexico’s Yucatán and has a colonial downtown, good museums, 16 universities, and a vibrant nightlife.
  • LA FUNDACIÓN MEZCALERÍA: This bohemian dance bar sits at the corner of Calle 56 and 53 in the center of Mérida and serves up large, stiff mezcal drinks, live bands, and a friendly atmosphere. There’s a M$50 cover charge on the weekends but they allow reentry if you want to bar crawl, and the crowd here loves to dance.
  • CASA POMPIDOU: This mostly-outdoor electronic dance house and art gallery at the corner of Calle 53 and 58 in the center of Mérida fills to the brim with dancers on weekend nights (M$50 cover charge on weekends). The music is good, the crowd is laid back, and the micheladas flow. There’s also a small patio with tables to grab food for starving dancers.
  • RO BY CIELO: One of the most popular new dance clubs in Mérida, this trendy club sits above a “warm up bar” at Paseo de Montejo and Calle 17, just outside the old city center. It’s trendy and the crowd has money (M$100 cover charge) and dresses up, but they all love to dance.

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