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September 17, 2013 at 6:00 AM

They’re free, independent and ready to party in Chiapas

Fireworks lit the front of city hall in San Cristobal, Chiapas, during Independence Day celebrations that started Sunday. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Independence Day fireworks on Sunday light the front of the 1885 city hall in San Cristobal, Chiapas. Zapatista rebels seized the building in 1994. Sunday just brought grumpy teachers. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — I didn’t get the fake mustache or the giant sombrero, as I’m told is the custom for celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day. (Darn, the stands were sold out of fake mustaches by the time I was ready to commit.) But I did put on a big hat. And I got my face painted. Sort of.

OK, I got my hand painted.

I guess I was caught up in the giddiness of the day. Or maybe it was the thin air in this mountain town at 7,200 feet.

It was a red, white and green Mexican flag on the back of my palm, with matching glitter, courtesy of one of the ambitious roving young boys at Monday’s Independence Day parade in this city, considered the cultural capital of Chiapas.

One of the enterpriseing boys offering on-the-run face painting during the Independence Day parade in San Cristobal. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

One of the enterprising boys offering on-the-run face painting.

The boys toted cardboard boxes with pots of paint and glitter stuck to the top and scooted through the crowd collecting 5 pesos per paint job — about 37 cents U.S.

The parade, which featured high-school bands, angry teachers and what must have been just about every unit of the Mexican military, along with their mortars and bazookas, was the finale of a brisk 24 hours of Mexican patriotism. Mexicans reserve the biggest splurge of celebrating for the night before Sept. 16, their official day of independence.

The teachers were a part of nationwide protests against recently passed education reform championed by Mexico’s president. In Oaxaca, before I left on Saturday, teachers had blockaded streets leading to the zocalo, or city square, and there was evidence of a similar action in San Cristobal on Sunday. I wondered how passionately Mexico’s federal holiday would be observed in Chiapas, perhaps best known outside of Mexico for the 1994 Zapatista rebellion that saw the seizure of San Cristobal’s city hall. But by sundown Sunday, protest placards had disappeared and a full night of military bands, folk dancing, Mexican pop music and dazzle-bang fireworks brought thousands into the city’s heart.

The folk dancing, featuring saucy caballeros pirouetting around scarf-twirling ladies in whirling skirts, started at 7.

Your humble correspondent, left, with new friends (and a borrowed hat) in Chiapas. I swear I was sober.

Your humble correspondent, left, with new friends (and a borrowed hat) in Chiapas. I was stone-cold sober. I’m not sure about them.

Knowing that “El Grito” — the climax of the night when a top local official would repeat a historical declaration of independence from Spain — would happen at 11 p.m., I was curious how they would sustain the performance. As I watched folk dance after folk dance after folk dance, it occurred to me that if their dancing didn’t last forever, it might just feel that way.

Visitors from New Zealand, Debra and James Lockie, get in the spirit at San Cristobal's big party.

Visitors from New Zealand, Debra and James Lockie, get in the spirit at San Cristobal’s big party.

OK, I shouldn’t dis the folk dancers. (I’ll save that for the glitter-skirted female pop singers who followed.) No, really, overall it was a rousing, feel-good party, ending with pinwheeling fireworks from a 60-foot tower in front of the cathedral, then red, white and green sparks blazing and booming high into the sky.

I went back to my hotel on the edge of downtown and slept well until awakened by loud rock music from somewhere in the neighborhood. Apparently some merrymakers didn’t go to bed when I did. I looked at the clock: 4:48 a.m.

Mexico loves its holidays, and being here to experience one was something I’ll not soon forget. Expect more detail in an upcoming travel article in The Seattle Times.

0 Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: Chiapas, Chiapas celebration, Mexican Independence Day

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