Suggest to any Mexican that Mexico has a penchant for American pop culture, and a defensive reflex goes straight to mariachi, lucha libre, and anything else Mexican.
But thousands allowed America's cultural hegemony to seep in on Saturday, as Mexicans from all walks of life gathered to retrace the dance steps in Michael Jackson's hit 1983 video "Thriller" to mark what would have been the pop star's 51st birthday.
In doing so they claimed to break the Guinness Book of World Records for number of people dancing to Thriller in a single gathering, surpassing attempts in both Spain and England. (The previous record was apparently set by a mere 242 students from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. in May. Guinness will make a final determination later.)
Part homage, part Halloween, the event drew more than 50,000 people (including over 12,000 dancers), according to city officials.
Grown Mexican women got their faces painted as zombies (some paid an extra $1 to have a scar or wound added for ghoulish effect). Kids donned sunglasses, hats, and white gloves, running around as miniature Michael Jacksons in a sea of dancers carrying out the zombie moves of the hit video and belting out lyrics in English. All this in front of Mexico's iconic Monument of the Revolution, no less.
MJ's special status
This might be sacrilege for any other star, but not Michael Jackson.
"He transcends borders," says Fabiola Aguilar, decked out in the red get-up that Michael Jackson wore in the original video. She crouched over, next to her 9-year-old son in an identical outfit, and both simulated arising from the dead, as they rehearsed moves they'd practiced for two weeks. "Dancing brings us all together."
Birthday celebrations and memorials across the globe came as Jackson's June 25 death was officially ruled a homicide.
Mexico City's event had the full backing of the capital, which marveled at the spontaneity of a grassroots effort turned mega. "Many of these kids weren't even alive when Thriller came out," says the head of the city's youth institute, Javier Hidalgo, sporting a white glove.
Facebook's role in the record
Record-breaking was helped by the phenomenon of social networking. The day after Jackson's death, Mexico City resident Carlos Contreras was talking with his friends about a birthday tribute on August 29. "We thought we'd be 20 people," he says. But thanks to Facebook, word spread, choreographers were brought on board, and Sunday rehearsals leading up to the event drew as many as 2,500 people.
Michael Jackson mania was a balm to a city battered by swine flu and its reputation for violence, one so desperate for tourists that it has offered them free health insurance on visits here. "It shows we are a city that is tranquil, full of life, one that wants to have fun," says Alejandro Rojas, the city's tourism director.
Yet as city officials celebrate – finally – some fun news out of Mexico, not all viewed the event as pure fiesta. Hector Jackson, Mexico's premier impersonator who led the choreography, reminded solemnly: "This is first of all an homage to the king of pop."