Independence Day is coming. Of that there can be no doubt. In Querétaro’s historic centre, everywhere you look there are flags. ‘If this was in Germany, I would think it was the return of the Third Reich,’ my philosopher friend had said earlier in the day, with the ever-heightened sensitivity to such overt displays of nationalism and the ability to turn it into an awkward joke that Germans tend to have. I can see his point. The streets are bedecked in red, white and green. Flags and banners are hung from every available building, window, lamppost and tree.
There is a crucial difference, however. This is a celebration of nationhood rather than the imposition of a regime. Mobile stalls on every street corner sell almost anything you can imagine in the relevant colour scheme: from glittered sombreros to plastic trumpets, whistles, drums and handheld windmills. Dresses and hairbands are decorated with red, white and green ribbons. Strings of lights hang across shops and cafés like a late summer Christmas. And in a finishing touch, to remove all doubt as to the provenance of the colour-fest, at the corner of Jardin Zenea a ten-foot light up sign shouts Viva Mexico.
If there’s no doubting the imminence of the occasion, Santiago de Querétaro also makes it easy to remember the date. Streets in the Spanish-speaking world are often named for significant days in history, permanent reminders of revolutions, battles and coups. From our hotel on Calle 5 Mayo – marking the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 – we walk to a terrace of tourist restaurants at the end of Calle 16 Septiembre. We are a week out from independence day. Given that already there’s the occasional stray firework, I can only imagine the scene when the day itself arrives.
I am with Katy, my closest cousin, born just a month before me. She works as a nurse in Mexico City, where she is setting up a social reintegration programme for young people who have suffered homelessness, addictions and abuse. She has come to the festival to see me with her friend Danny, an anthropologist whose research specialism is in the migration of young people from the rural areas of Mexico. I’m not normally a great fan of tattoos, but am thoroughly impressed by Danny’s left arm, which looks like a totem pole, decorated with brightly coloured traditional designs, symbols and patterns that no doubt hold deep significance in Mexican culture. The opposite, perhaps, of the flag: a country of a hundred and thirty million people with a rich and complex history reduced to a tricolour with the seemingly optional addition of a – very European – coat of arms.
Danny encourages me to try the seasonal dish: chile en nogada, a large green poblano chilli, stuffed with mincemeat and then covered in nogada, a creamy white sauce flavoured with walnuts and garnished with parsley and pomegranate seeds. These are sprinkled over either end of the dish to create an impression of – guess what! – the Mexican flag. He reassures me that it is sweet rather than spicy, in contrast to yesterday’s pozole rojo stew that had my eyeballs sweating even without the extra chilli that was available to sprinkle.
We wash down the dish of patriotism with a slightly un-Mexican jug of sangria and talk about the preponderance of flags and this phenomenon of streets named after dates, the fact that Britain does not share this tradition. Back home it’s names and not numbers that predominate, indicative perhaps of a culture focused on the individual rather than the collective. Katy speculates that the fifth of November is the closest we have to a date of national significance. Its bonfires to celebrate the preservation of a constitutional monarchy seem particularly relevant what with what’s going on back home: Boris Johnson’s proroguing of parliament with the assent of the Queen.
Later, back at the hotel on Cinco de Mayo, I scroll my Twitter feed. The writer Patrick McGuiness has shared a video of singer Kizzy Crawford leading a rousing version of Calon Lân from a balcony overlooking Penderyn Square in Merthyr Tydfil. Five thousand people have gathered to march for an independent Wales. The square is awash, like the one I have enjoyed in Querétaro, with flags of red, white and green. Y Ddraig Goch. Yes Cymru. And the standard of Glyndwr: a red and gold quartered flag with a lion rampant. Something is stirring. In another video, Delyth Jewell – Plaid Cymru’s assembly member for my region, south-east Wales – makes a stirring speech referring to the last words of the working-class martyr Dic Penderyn – O Arglwydd, dyma ganwedd – Oh Lord, what injustice! – and their counterpoint on the grave of ironmaster Richard Crawshay: ‘God Forgive Me’.
As I walk down the calendared calles of Querétaro, I think of the people commemorated in the names of squares back home – Owain Glyndwr in Aberystwyth, Dic Penderyn in Merthyr, John Frost in Newport – and I wonder whether there will ever be a street with a date.
Dylan Moore is editor of IWA's the welsh agenda and Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.
Photo: Jorge Aguilar via Unsplash.