Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Father and son, dressed in traditional costumes, show their national pride Sept. 15, 2019, as they prepare for the Independence Day "El Grito" reenactment in the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square.

Why more Mexicans wrap themselves in the flag

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On the eve of Mexico’s Independence Day, people rest on benches outside a church in the capital, snacking on tacos and tepache – a fermented, pre-Hispanic beverage made from pineapple peel, raw sugar, and spices. Few know that inside the church lie the remains of Hernán Cortés, who conquered the Aztec empire for Spain. Fewer still know that this year marks the 500th anniversary of his arrival on Mexican soil.

Today, Mexico’s struggle is no longer in opposition to European conquerors. The new foes are globalization, neoliberalism, and U.S. President Donald Trump, who has portrayed his country’s southern neighbor as a crime-ridden nation pushing unauthorized migrants north. But those challenges and humiliations have sparked a renewed sense of Mexican patriotism and nationalism – just as Mexicans have elected their most populist, leftist president in decades. 

“Viva México” has always implied a search for identity in a country that defines itself as mestizo, or mixed blood, but hasn’t always been at ease with that reality. Now, Mexico is experiencing a resurgence of interest in precolonial art and sport. And fans of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are rooting for his promises of transformation. But as he nears one year in office, it’s unclear whether the bold promise will succeed – or even what it really means.

Why We Wrote This

What does it mean to be Mexican? Five hundred years after the Spanish conquest, three years after Donald Trump took office, and one year after Mexico elected its most populist president in decades, the answer is complex – but also proud.

The mood is festive, buoyant. Tens of thousands of Mexicans jam the Zócalo, the sprawling public square in front of Mexico’s National Palace. They don oversized sombreros and mustaches in a raucous nod to the revolutionaries who founded Mexico, starting with the call from priest Miguel Hidalgo in Dolores to rise up against colonial Spain on the morning of Sept. 16, 1810.

“Viva México! Viva México! Viva México!” thunders the country’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, from a dais at the National Palace.

“Viva!” returns the crowd in a sonorous, synchronized chant.

Why We Wrote This

What does it mean to be Mexican? Five hundred years after the Spanish conquest, three years after Donald Trump took office, and one year after Mexico elected its most populist president in decades, the answer is complex – but also proud.

The heroes of Mexican independence celebrations – which kick off with El Grito, or the cry of Dolores, each Sept. 15 – are always clear. But they are never as absolute as the rituals might suggest – and that’s never been truer than this year, 500 years after Hernán Cortés arrived at the coast of Veracruz and waged the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire.

“Viva México,” the cry of independence that marks Mexico’s struggle against imperial Spain, has always implied a search for identity in a country that defines itself as mestizo, or mixed blood, but hasn’t always been at ease with that reality.

Octavio Paz, the late Mexican poet and Nobel Prize winner, wrote in “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” an essay on Mexican identity, that the cry, when used in the context of an expletive, carries with it the subtext of a ravaged nation that is both a challenge and an affirmation. “When we shout this cry on the 15th of September, the anniversary of our independence, we affirm ourselves in front, against, and in spite of the ‘others.’”

Today the country’s struggle is no longer in opposition to European conquerors. The new foes are globalization, neoliberalism, and the United States under President Donald Trump – who many Mexicans believe has humiliated their country, sparking a renewed sense of patriotism and nationalism. It comes as Mexico, not coincidentally, has elected its most nationalist, populist leader in decades.

Indeed, for many in the square here, the “Viva México” exhortations are a battle cry for a new Mexican nation, or the Fourth Transformation, that AMLO has promised will mark his presidency. The 4T, as it’s called, would follow independence in 1821, the reform movement of the 1850s, and finally the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Mexicans in traditional military dress parade through the city to celebrate the anniversary of independence.

Alejandro Moreno, who conducts public opinion polls, says enthusiasm for AMLO’s government comes with a surge in what it means to be Mexican. In polling around Independence Day for the newspaper El Financiero, national pride stood at an average of 91% for all 32 Mexican states.

On the edge of the main square here, Edgar Tena, an accountant and lawyer, is dressed in a velvet hat with red, white, and green stripes, the colors of the Mexican flag. His wife and college-age sons are wearing equally over-the-top headgear. This he calls their patriotism – and it’s the first time they’ve opted to display it at an independence celebration since his sons were born. But he says his nationalism runs much deeper, and he strikes a more somber note.

“We cannot accept it, so many things have built up, and this is why we shout,” he says. “We want to be free. This is a call of hope, and the hope that the 4T represents. Viva México!”

A gulf has always existed between Mexico and American perceptions of the country: At worst, people north of the border view Mexico as a backward or crime-ridden nation that pushes unauthorized immigrants to the U.S., at best a place for a beach vacation. In fact, with thousands of years of indigenous history woven into the fabric of modern life, Mexico is “the most authentically mestizo of all the Latin American countries and has achieved a greater degree of cultural synthesis,” says Ronald Wright, author of “Stolen Continents,” a book about the survival of indigenous cultures after the conquest.

But the country’s rich and diverse history is hard to appreciate in the U.S., experts here say, when the rhetoric coming from the north is often so harsh. In the 2016 election, Mr. Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” He made a border wall the centerpiece of his campaign and promised it would be the Mexicans who would pay for it. His administration has pushed Mexico to do more to stop Central American migrants – causing some anti-migrant sentiment to flare in Mexico, which in turn has offended people’s pride in the country as a haven for war refugees and political exiles.

For many Mexicans, the deadly attack Aug. 3 at a Walmart in El Paso by a gunman railing against the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas represents the apotheosis of anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. Its roots trace as far back as Protestant colonizers in a fledgling America whose antipathy toward Catholic Spaniards remains to this day in the form of anti-Hispanic sentiment, says Mexican historian Silvestre Villegas Revueltas from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Storefronts that specialize in textiles line part of the historical district of Mexico City.

But animosity toward the U.S. also runs deep in Mexico. Anti-Americanism predates the Mexican-American War, in which Mexico lost half its territory to the U.S. in 1848 while the U.S. became a regional and later a global superpower. From the second half of the 19th century on, Mexican foreign policy was shaped around the idea of differentiating itself, as much as economically and politically possible, from imperial Yanquis.

The antipathy was finally tempered during negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s. The accord’s promise of a partnership drew the two nations together and old misgivings were buried, at least for a time. It would be wrong to say that widespread anti-Americanism has flared anew in Mexico; the deep distrust today is focused mainly on the Trump administration.

But Andrés Rozental, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister during the NAFTA negotiations, says that if Mr. Trump continues his attacks on Mexico, it could despoil three decades of building a bilateral relationship.

“Obviously if the Mexico bashing ... and everything that we have on the bilateral agenda continue to be dealt with by the U.S. president and his government on the basis of Mexico being the ‘them’ against the ‘us,’ then I am convinced that there will be eventually a resurgence of what is a fairly latent anti-Americanism in Mexico.” 

And yet Mexico has had to deal with foreign powers on its soil since way before its clash with America. When Cortés arrived on the Gulf coast, he aligned himself with indigenous groups against the Aztecs and felled the mighty empire in central Mexico within just two years.

Five hundred years later, as the main square here fills out for independence celebrations, people stream past the Church of Jesus of Nazareth in Mexico City, many blowing whistles without looking up. It is here that the bones of Cortés have been laid to rest – after being moved around and their location kept secret for decades. Even today his resting place is hardly acknowledged: There’s just a plaque, well above eye level, that reads: “In this temple rest the remains of the conquistador Cortés, who died in 1547.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
The archaeological site of the Templo Mayor, the former main temple of the Aztec empire, sits in the historical center of Mexico City, surrounded by colonial-era buildings.

The people who have congregated on the benches that surround the nondescript church are using it for a place to rest or eat – tacos and tepache, a fermented pre-Hispanic beverage made from pineapple peel, raw sugar, and spices. Few know that Cortés’ remains lie here, and fewer still that it’s the quincentenary of his arrival in Mexico. Those who are willing to share their thoughts – and most look confused about why they are even being asked – say his place in Mexican history is unclear.

Just as an older generation of Mexicans was taught in school about evil American imperialists, it was also given a black-and-white picture of Cortés. Officially, he was the villainous intruder who plundered Mexico and stole Tenochtitlán for Spain. Diego Rivera’s early 20th-century murals in the National Palace depict Cortés as weak and sickly. The historic figure La Malinche, who served as his ally and interpreter and gave birth to his child – and thus the mestizo nation – is reviled. To be a malinchista in Mexico means to be a traitor to one’s culture – part of the identity struggle that Paz wrote about.

But distance has given way to a more nuanced view. Blocks from Cortés’ tomb lie the ruins of the Templo Mayor, one of the most sacred sites for the Aztecs. It is believed to be the spot where the Aztecs witnessed the eagle with a snake in its mouth upon a cactus – the symbol on the country’s coat of arms. The stones of the Templo pyramid were used to build the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico – the backdrop for Independence Day celebrations.

“We are not pure Aztecs, nor are we pure Spaniards,” says archaeologist Martin Robles Luengas, who works as an official guide at the Templo Mayor. “Today as a Mexican you cannot complain of the Spaniards, because part of you is a Spaniard.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
“We are not pure Aztecs, nor are we pure Spaniards. Today as a Mexican you cannot complain of the Spaniards, because part of you is a Spaniard.” – Martin Robles Luengas, an archaeologist who gives tours of the Templo Mayor, the former main temple of the Aztecs, in Mexico City

Yet questions of identity are far from settled. This year AMLO used the 500th anniversary of Cortés’ arrival to write a letter to the Spanish king demanding an apology for the conquest. “It wasn’t just about the encounter of two cultures,” he said of his request. “It was an invasion. Thousands of people were murdered during that period. One culture, one civilization, was imposed upon another to the point that the temples – the Catholic churches – were built on top of the ancient pre-Hispanic temples.” 

Some members of Morena, AMLO’s political movement, went even further. One senator urged Mexicans to give up carnitas, or roasted pork tacos, since pigs were introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards. “You should realize that every time you eat roast pork tacos, you are celebrating the fall of Tenochtitlán,” she said.

Spain dismissed AMLO’s letter, and Mexicans have largely ridiculed conquest politics, not least the call to forgo pork. Many say Mexico would be better off dealing with modern discrimination against indigenous people than a centuries-old war. And yet the issue is symbolic of deeper sensitivities.

“Mexican identity is very much founded on the basis of defending our honor, from being trampled on by foreign forces,” says Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador. “So we were humiliated by the Spaniards who conquered the Aztec empire, we were humiliated by the United States who stole half of our territory, we were humiliated by the French. It’s a long story of humiliation.”

That story connects to a renewed sense of nationalism that is surfacing in Mexico – and it is showing up in areas other than politics and whether to eat pork. It has also led to a revival of precolonial art and sport.

On an early evening in northern Mexico City, the skies, beholden to the rainy season, threaten to open. But 20- and 30-somethings continue to arrive, heading to a stone-walled court in the back of a community center, FARO Azcapotzalco Xochikalli. The young people suit up – binding cloth around their hips, waist, and groin areas – and start passing a ball back and forth to warm up.

This is no soccer game, however. They are about to play ulama, a ballgame that dates back thousands of years and was once a high-stakes ritual in Mesoamerica. The modern iteration no longer entails human sacrifice, but it is still fierce: At more than 6 pounds, the rubber ball resembles – and feels – like a bowling ball. To move it, the players can only hit it with their hips, either bumping it in midair or lying on the concrete floor and sweeping it down the court with a pelvic thrust. 

In some variations, the object is to put the ball through stone hoops, 20 feet in the air, on either side of the court. But the team is so new that few people here have mastered the skill. Simply reaching the other team’s end line is the goal at this point.

Chantal Perez Urbina, a university student studying chemical engineering, says when she began playing ulama a year and a half ago, she had bruises and scrapes across her body. But she was compelled to keep returning to the court, despite the skepticism of her family, in a drive she talks about in almost spiritual terms. “These are our roots. This is our origin,” she says. “It’s an equilibrium between our energy, just like life and death, the energy moves between us in each blow. This is about rescuing my culture.”

It’s also about understanding themselves. Ulama was so integral to Aztec society that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived they immediately banned it, part of a long process of stamping out indigenous culture, from language to religion to architecture. “They took everything from us,” says Ms. Perez Urbina, “even the very stones of our pyramids to build their churches.” 

The community center offers a host of other workshops built around precolonial traditions, from dance to medicine to indigenous language. But the activity that’s received the most attention is ulama. “No one thought that this workshop was going to work [with] a sport that disappeared 500 years ago,” says Emmanuel Kakalotl, the coach, during the pickup game.

Mr. Kakalotl says about half of Mexico’s states now field teams that play each other in tournaments. Andrea Aviles Escoto, an ulama player who took up the sport just 10 days earlier, would like to see teams in every state. She sees the resurgence of ulama as part of AMLO’s Fourth Transformation. “This is the power of Mexico,” she says. “Our culture, our land, and traditions – our ancestral power.” 

As AMLO nears the anniversary of his first year in office Dec. 1, it’s still unclear whether he can deliver on the promises of 4T – and even what the initiative really is. In a country with deeply rooted issues that overlap – from corruption to drug violence to stark inequality – it would require a radical overhaul to address any one of them. So far analysts see little evidence that is happening beyond the rhetorical.

AMLO’s popularity remains high, with approval ratings of 60% to 70%. The first leftist president in modern history, he draws the bulk of his support from the working class and rural poor but also from the academic left and disillusioned voters from other political parties.

A lot of his appeal lies in an everyman style – he addresses the nation every day at 7 a.m. in press conferences – and eschewing the wealth and pomp associated with earlier presidencies. He slashed his salary and put the presidential jet up for sale, for example, moves that were symbolically resonant. 

Dr. Villegas Revueltas, the historian, says that the Fourth Transformation is right to try to complete the job of independence, reform, and revolution, to bring economic benefits to all segments of society. “We weren’t equal in 1521, nor in 2019,” he says.

But to get there, AMLO is casting himself as a ’70s-era revolutionary, Dr. Villegas Revueltas says – talking about energy, food, and economic independence. Implicit in AMLO’s message is a rejection of globalization. But if he were to actually act on his words, many believe the economic consequences would be dire.

“We have a man who talks about energy independence ... about food independence – those types of things that have already failed in the past,” Mr. Guajardo says. “And yet there is the temptation to go back.” 

In many ways, AMLO and Mr. Trump are similar figures, although from opposite sides of the political spectrum. They both use “us versus them” rhetoric to rally supporters. 

“They know exactly how to play to their base and what it is that fires their base up,” says Mr. Rozental. “In the case of Trump, it’s all of this stuff about anti-immigration and then ‘let’s drain the swamp.’ ... Here it’s the same thing. ‘Let’s get rid of everything that we had before because it was all bad, corrupt, rotten ... and we’re going to make a new transformation of Mexico.’”

The clash of personalities could lead to a clear rupture in the bilateral relationship if not played right. But so far AMLO has been handling Mr. Trump with restraint, agreeing to do more to stanch the flow of migrants under threat of tariffs, for example, and steering clear of confrontation.

Politically this stance has not damaged him at home, but if Mr. Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric heats up, as many analysts believe it will for the 2020 election, AMLO runs the risk of looking as if he’s doing the American president’s bidding.

The strongest stand AMLO’s government has taken thus far came in the days after the El Paso massacre, which the Spanish newspaper El País called the “greatest racist crime against Hispanics in modern United States history.”

Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard called the attack “an act of terrorism” and said that he would push to have the gunman extradited to Mexico. He is also organizing a summit of leaders from Spanish-speaking nations to address white supremacy.

Such moves have kept AMLO supporters believing that change is coming. For the first time in her adult life, Ximena Fernandez chose to go to the independence celebration this year so she could show her support for the Fourth Transformation. As regional dance exhibitions from each state dazzle the crowd on large-screen TVs, she says this year El Grito is about far more than patriotism, mariachi music, sombreros, or simply being proud of who you are.

“I think the meaning of the Grito is not only independence but sovereignty of the people,” she says.

“Today, in Mexico, we know what President Trump is doing. And we don’t like it because we are a country of migrants. ... We know as a people or a nation that we have this fight to come,” she says. “Not with anger but with, ‘Hey, look at us. We are doing something different. We are not only “narcos” or “criminals.” We are people like everyone in the world who work and just want peace.’”

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