A simmering drumroll builds to the eruption of a 21-gun salute fired at midnight on the Plaza the evening of Sept. 15, 1835. The chapel bells bellow endlessly, a beckoning call to the citizens of Santa Fe. City councilors, musicians and military officers parade around the perimeter of the square, stopping on each corner to share a few words on this momentous occasion. The people dance and sing until the sun rises, and still the party carries on, stretching into the next day, culminating in a dance to the death between matador and bull.
Whether this celebration of Mexican Independence Day, also known as El Grito, actually played out as described has been lost to history, but it’s the way five local resident organizers intended for it to go. “We have explanations of the planning,” says New Mexico State Historian Rick Hendricks. “We don’t have anybody commenting about, ‘Wow, what a great party that was.’”
Father Miguel Hidalgo issued his legendary Grito de Dolores, or “Cry of Dolores,” on Sept. 16, 1810, beseeching the people of Mexico to rebel against Spain. Re-enactments take place every year. In Mexico City, the president steps out on the National Palace balcony, shouting, “¡Viva Mexico!” The teeming crowd echoes, “¡Viva Mexico!” in response.
Ask any gringo about this year’s planned El Grito celebration on the Plaza, and they’re likely to respond, “What’s that?” Americans often mistake Cinco de Mayo, the commemoration of Mexico’s victory over the French, for the celebration of Mexican independence. “It’s almost like we’ve got them flipped around,” Hendricks says.
Mayor Javier Gonzales says the Consulate of Mexico in Albuquerque requested that the celebration be held on the Plaza on Friday, Sept. 16. “When they came up to Santa Fe and asked me, I loved the idea,” Gonzales tells SFR. While El Grito is not an official part of the mayor’s “People to the Plaza” initiative, he says it is in line with its spirit “to gather as one community and to do so where we can all celebrate together.”
El Grito follows Santa Fe’s annual Fiesta celebration the week before, and the burning of Zozobra the week before that, but the mayor says he isn’t worried about a festival overload. “We have markets that are huge, and the summer Bandstand initiative. All of those we’ve been able to develop with very convenient ways for people to get to the Plaza.”
It’s difficult to say whether any modern celebration of El Grito took place on the Plaza before the 1990s. Like during the state’s sparsely documented Mexican period, records of the event are hard to find.
"I remember 20 years ago, nobody was doing anything for Sept. 16."
“I remember 20 years ago, nobody was doing anything for Sept. 16,” says Cesar Araiza, who owns Panaderia y Tortilleria on Airport Road. He used to attend El Grito celebrations in Mexico, but has yet to do so in the United States where he’s lived since 1989.
Alicia Estrada-Flores helped organize Santa Fe’s El Grito celebration for 10 years, starting in 1994, in the hopes of bringing attention to this significant moment in Mexican history. “The Mexican Independence Day celebration in those days was a wonderful celebration for our Mexican/Latino community,” Estrada-Flores says.
She says El Grito was held on the Plaza once before she became involved but otherwise took place in locations like Franklin E Miles and Ragle parks. Estrada-Flores estimates that during the years she organized the event, 4-5,000 people filled city parks to celebrate Mexican independence.
Araiza says that while the Plaza would be a traditional location if held in Mexico, “I don’t think they have enough space. I think it is one of the reasons they do it at parks.”
Diana Montoya moved to Santa Fe from Juarez, Mexico, when she was 3 years old. She says the El Grito gathering in Santa Fe is typically “huge,” which makes the parks a preferable location. “I think some people are going to feel like we’re invading,” Montoya says.
Gonzales has zero concerns about the number of celebrants, saying, “I think it would be a wonderful thing to see the Plaza packed.”
Barbara Lopez, the special events coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department, says she has yet to receive any detailed plans from organizers but thinks the venue change will be an improvement. When held at city parks, she says, “a lot of times neighbors will complain of noise because they do go after hours.”
Estrada-Flores says the typical celebration consists of “everything you have to have in a big Mexican fiesta: Mexican music, mariachis, Mexican food and drinks, bounce houses for children and a lot of prizes for children and youth.”
How about an old-fashioned bullfight? “I doubt if the people of Santa Fe are ready for that,” says city Councilor Peter Ives. “You’ve probably noticed there is a very strong animal rights group within Santa Fe.”
Gonzales suggests a mechanical bull as a more humane alternative. Lopez takes the question a little too seriously. “I can’t guarantee that’s going to happen,” she tells SFR. “We need to be presented with that request, and then we go from there and make sure it goes with what’s allowed on the Plaza.”
City Councilor Chris Rivera says the Plaza is more restrictive than other city parks, and party planners “will have to follow all the rules.” Otherwise, he says he believes the celebration should resemble those of previous years. “The venue is really the only thing that’s different.”
The locale may mean more than Rivera or the consulate realize. “A Mexican independence celebration requires several things,” Estrada-Flores tells SFR. “A big, open space that is family friendly, with easy access, where you are in your comfort zone. … Although, undoubtedly, La Plaza de Santa Fe is a beautiful and historical place, it is not the ideal place to present the Mexican independence celebration.”
Still, Gonzales hopes to attract members of Santa Fe’s Mexican community, who typically spend more time on the south side of town. “Even if they’ve only been here for a week, we want them to come down to the Plaza and be able to participate,” Gonzales says. “There needs to be more bridges built between the Mexican community in Santa Fe with the rest of the community. … I think El Grito on the Plaza is a good opportunity.”