!Viva Mexico! - with XXL flags

Celebrating Independence Day today, Mexicans assert national identity

As an entire elementary school marches past cheering "Viva Mxico!" Reyes Hernndez Valds tends his traditional flag stand, festooned with more than three dozen banners, and laments the fact that fewer Mexicans are buying their ultimate national symbol.

Mr. Hernndez, his father before him, and now his son have come from a farming community west of the Mexican capital for the last 40 years to sell Mexico's eagle-embellished red, white, and green flag during the "patriotic month" of September, which reaches its high point with Independence Day today. "We're losing our traditions, and then a lot of people are out of work," he says, "so even a flag becomes a luxury."

But what Hernndez's son, Jos Luis Hernndez Valds, has noticed over the last few Septembers is that people who do buy a flag are tending to buy them bigger - some eight feet long. "It just seems that people have decided that if they want to make a statement, the bigger the flag the more forcefully they are saying it," says the textile-factory worker. "For them it says loud and clear, "I'm Mexican!' "

Across this city and in many other Mexican communities, Mexicans are flying ever larger flags over their homes and businesses this month, even draping them across car hoods and tying them to car antennas - sometimes one on each side, as in a presidential motorcade.

Mexicans buying or flying the giant banners tend to say simply that "bigger is more beautiful." But for some observers the ever-bigger symbols are a people's subconscious response to a world where national identities are blurring and national sovereignty is under attack.

Flags as a defensive reaction

"These monumental flags are a defensive reaction to the global process we're in where international influences are everywhere and individual nations count less," says Jorge Chabat, an international relations expert in Mexico City. "People feel powerless in the face of these changes, but they can at least reassert the nation by flying a big flag."

Mr. Chabat - who recalls growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, where in September every child had a small flag, but where big flags were reserved for public buildings - says it is no coincidence that the big flags started selling about the time Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, in 1994.

"That was the average Mexican's first practical encounter with the coming world of multilateral trade deals, foreign investment, and international political pressures," he says. "The response for some was to roll up in the flag."

Mexico's bigger-flag-is-better binge is not limited to average citizens. In fact the trend was set by the government of President Ernesto Zedillo, which a few years ago began raising truly mammoth flags around Mexico City and other sites - particularly right up against the northern border with the US. One of those flags, in Ciudad Jurez and visible from most of El Paso, Texas, just across the border, briefly touched off a letter-writing campaign to the El Paso newspaper to do the Mexicans one better with an even bigger example of the Stars and Stripes.

Rolling up in the flag

For Mexicans, the idea of rolling up in the flag is nothing abstract. As every Mexican schoolchild knows, it was on Sept. 13, 1847, that a young cadet defending Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle from the invading US Army wrapped himself in the castle's flag and plunged to his death. This, rather than allow the enemy to seize either him or the flag. Today he and several other cadets who perished in the battle are reverently remembered as the "boy heroes" and honored every September along with Mexico's revered founding fathers.

Chabat says he wouldn't be surprised if sales of the big flags jumped last week on the revelation that a US company may own the copyright to Mexico's national anthem - thereby giving it the legal right to charge a fee every time the anthem is played outside Mexico. "These big flags are a kind of compensation for a rapidly changing world where even national symbols can turn out to be not so national," he says. The flags "are an attempt to cover over suspicions that these nationalist sentiments might be obsolete."

Viva Mxico!

In another part of the city, flag vendor Jorge Santiago Morales says the hardship and sacrifice that Mexicans associate with the winning of their independence "is what causes us to wear our independence out on our sleeve." Independence "is something we won with great difficulty," he adds, "so it makes sense that when we celebrate it, we would do it in a big way." Still, most of the flag vendors at the four-wheeled wooden carts dotting major intersections are less analytical in explaining the very big flags.

"The reality is that after 20 years doing this I hardly sell enough flags, big or small, to make a profit anymore," says Pedro Vidal Reyes from a corner in the city's historic center - even though he sells two big flags in a matter of minutes.

Adds Paula Contreras, who is operating a flag stand on the same center-city corner for the second year in a row, "What are people trying to say with these big flags? Well, 'Viva Mxico!' of course."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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