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Cinco de Mayo: The State, the Church and the Army

     When I first went to Mexico City in 1943, an attractive garden filled the main square, the Zócalo. Then the garden was replaced with a vast expanse of concrete where the crowd could congregate and applaud at official ceremonies. Recently it has been the scene of all kinds of anti-government demonstrations, mostly supported by the PRD city government. Now the national government has taken it back with a vengeance.
     With the approval of President Zedillo, the Church announced plans to use it for the beginning of a procession to the Palacio de Bellas Artes in disregard of existing laws. Cardinal Norberto Rivera pointedly called for "religion freedom, even in public." As a prelude to the Eucharistical Congress, the Basilica of Guadalupe was reopened at an impressive ceremony. The focal point is the miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which, as the symbol of Mexico, was framed by a huge Mexican flag. Bishop Schulenberg, who had been ousted from his job as custodian of the shrine because he said the story of the Virgin was a pious myth, was publicly derided. It was declared hopefully that Pope John Paul II would soon proclaim Juan Diego a Saint, and the annual visit of the Pope to the Portuguese shrine of the Virgin of Fatima was viewed as a favorable portent.
     The Pope had proclaimed 25 Mexicans to be martyrs. They apparently had been killed during the Revolution. A large handsome case has been made up of 25 sections, inside which bones of the martyrs had been placed. They could be seen through the glass, which the faithful were expected to kiss. It was shipped off to Rome for the Pope to bless before being returned home. Mexico was returning to the times before the Revolution, when the Church worked in close cooperation with the government.
     So did the Army, which likewise was making a comeback. For the first time, the Battle of Puebla was reenacted in the Zócalo. Amidst much noise and applause, the Mexican troops advanced gloriously, while the French hit the dust. From the balcony of the government palace, President Zedillo made a patriotic speech. It was clear that the Cinco de Mayo would become the main national holiday, to the greater glory of the army. Much praise was lavished on a new novel about the period, Noticias del imperio by Fernando del Paso.
     In his speech President Zedillo said it was the holiday of Mexicans everywhere, in evident allusion to the Mexicans in the United States. From Des Moines, Iowa, my sister-in-law Maxine Thomas reported that for the first time it was celebrated there.
     In all of this, there was no mention of the fact that the Mexican victory simply slowed the French invasion. Instead, it was stressed that the French army had been defeated for the first time since Trafalgar. Curiously, a message came from France saying that May 5 is the day of the Foreign Legion, which apparently distinguished itself at Puebla. I am confused about this, and I don´t imagine I would get much clarification from Mexicans. ¡Viva México!

Ronald Hilton - 5/7/00