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Mexican Independence Day: A Guide to Mexico’s History and Unforgettable Celebrations


Parades, fireworks, screams and shouts, and maybe even a few shots of tequila—Mexico’s Independence Day is one of the most lively holidays in the country. A celebration of independence from Spain, the festivities extend over the course of at least two days, and not even the children go to sleep before midnight the night before. Independence Day is full of color, noise, music, food, and laughter.

If you’re wanting to travel to Mexico or take part in Hispanic Heritage Month during September in the United States, you’ll enjoy the festivities even more if you can understand and speak the language. Start learning Spanish with Rosetta Stone’s Dynamic Immersion method, but skip learning long vocabulary lists by heart. Instead, let your brain steep itself in a more comprehensive process that connects visuals with phrases.

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When is Mexican Independence Day?

Mexican Independence Day is celebrated every year on September 16, no matter what day of the week it falls on. However, the celebration begins the night before. Everyone starts buying food and drink a few days ahead of time to prepare for El Grito, explained below, an event that happens in each major town or city square late in the evening.

The festivities start in the early on and usually last well into the night, so September 16 is also a day to rest, and all banks and government offices are closed that day. Traditionally, there’s a parade on September 16, but really the entire month of September is designated as el Mes de la Patria, which is a month of national celebration to honor Mexico’s autonomy.

Another term for these celebrations is the Fiestas Patrias, National Festivities, in part because multiple Latin American countries celebrate their independence from Spain in September.

sky-filled-with-fireworks-over-mexico-city-on-mexican-independence-day

How did Mexico win its independence? 

Mexico won its independence through political negotiation with and sustained armed struggle against the Spanish. Spain began exploring, conquering, and colonizing Mexico in the second decade of the sixteenth century. By 1635, it established the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the territory of Mexico and beyond, and appointed the governing viceroy as representative of Spain.

17th-century and early 18th-century Mexico saw a period of increased trade and commerce, as well as the growth of the mestizo (Spanish and indigenous) community. Starting in the earliest part of the 18th century, Spain was ruled by the House of Bourbon, a French dynasty united with the Spanish through aristocratic lineage.

When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, the Spanish king was replaced by Napoleon’s brother, causing those in Mexico to question who was in charge and paving the way toward independence. In the meantime, those who believed Mexico should be autonomous, started to plan for an armed uprising and organized a large army in Central Mexico in the state of Querétaro, and in nearby Dolores, Guanajuato, where Father Miguel Hidalgo became a key figure in the struggle.

With a flag of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his hands, Father Hidalgo initiated the coup d’etat attempt on September 16, 1810. This cry of independence is known as the Grito de Dolores. Though substantial military gains were made by Hidalgo and his army, Hidalgo was executed after the army suffered a defeat…but not for long! Meanwhile, a constitution was drawn up in Spain during 1812 granting Mexico representation but no autonomy, so the fighting continued.

A new leader, Jose María Morelos who was also a priest, took over for Hidalgo, but was eventually defeated and killed. Before that occurred, Morelos, in 1813, called for an independent nation, under which all would be equal, with a national congress to be created in Mexico.

Vicente Guerrero took over as their leader, and the fighting continued until 1821 when a military alliance was created, the Plan de Iguala, which quickly brought down Spanish rule, helped by simultaneous instability in Spain, and declared independence for Mexico. The next year the first independent congress of Mexico was held. After a short-lived constitutional monarchy, Mexico declared itself a republic with the new Constitution of 1824 in place!

mexican-family-gathered-around-the-dinner-table-making-fresh-guacamole

What’s the difference between Mexico’s Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo?

Here, queridos (“dears”), there is a big difference! Among the holidays in Mexico, Independence Day is one of the biggest celebrations, but Cinco de Mayo, while recognized, is really a minor holiday. Not even the banks close on this day. Celebrated on May 5, this holiday honors the Battle of Puebla of 1862 against the Second French Empire. So if you were paying attention above, the Battle of Puebla happened long after Mexico’s independence. 

How is it that the French were fighting with Mexico on Mexican soil? After Mexico became an autonomous nation, there were two more wars in that same century: the Mexican-American War and the Reform War, both of which depleted Mexico’s funds. After Mexico announced it would not pay its debt to foreign nations for two years, France, Britain, and Spain sent ships to the city of Veracruz. Only France stayed and attempted to create an empire. The Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo was part of the Mexico-France struggle. Against all odds, the soldiers at Puebla won the battle with the French that day, showing strength and increasing morale. France withdrew from Mexico a few years later.

Compared with celebrations in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is much more popular in the United States and has come to be, on the one hand, a celebration of Mexican-American identity, and on the other hand, a good excuse to have a fun party.

Just to be clear about all these Mexican holidays, Mexico’s Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo have nothing to do with the Mexican Revolution, which occurred in the early part of the 20th century and is celebrated on November 20.

>> Don’t miss out on any of the fun! Here’s a complete guide to every holiday in Mexico

How does Mexico celebrate Independence Day?

As we mentioned earlier, Mexico doesn’t just celebrate Independence Day; it celebrates the entire month. There’s a general patriotic feel in the air during all of September, and people feel compelled to eat chiles en nogada (chilis in cream sauce), the traditional dish for celebrating Mexican independence because of the dish’s national colors–red, green, and white–the same colors as the national flag. It’s not uncommon to see colorful decorations around the neighborhood or in stores. Here are a few of the most common celebratory activities for Mexican Independence Day.

lights-shaped-like-an-eagle-hanging-over-the-streets-of-mexico-city

El Grito de Dolores (The Cry of Dolores) 

El Grito de Dolores commemorates Father Hidalgo’s call to arms in Dolores, Guanajuato, which occurred in the early morning hours of September 16, 1810. Though historians dispute the details, it is thought that he rang the church bell to call the townspeople to fight for their independence. There is no doubt they did take up arms against the Spanish with the Virgin of Guadalupe as their patroness.

Nowadays, this historic moment is relived in every city across Mexico on the night of September 15. In the capital, the Mexican president appears with the flag on a balcony at 11:00 p.m. In provinces, the government or municipal president will appear, and Mexican ambassadors in foreign countries may do the same.

They yell out a few exclamatory phrases remembering those who fought for independence and end with the phrase: ¡Viva México! (“Long Live Mexico!”) and the ringing of a bell. It’s not uncommon to hear that phrase shouted in the streets at other times too. Everyone shouts back ¡Viva México! Then sings the National Anthem. After that, the festivities officially start! But some people choose to start their celebration early at home and watch El Grito on television. 

Traditional festivals and dance

Several other events may take place either on the night of El Grito, on the official Independence Day, or during the Mes de la Patria. These include military parades, fireworks, folkloric music and dance, and presentations by elementary school children. 

a-generous-plate-of-chiles-en-nogada-served-on-mexican-independence-day

Celebratory foods and drink 

Aside from being an event to celebrate as a nation, the night of September 15 is a time to celebrate with friends and family. The most popular dish for Mexican Independence Day and the Mes Patria is chiles en nogada. This elegant dish consists of red, green, and white food that honor Mexico’s flag colors. Though the dish might appear simple, the recipe requires about twenty ingredients and multiple steps. It usually takes most of the day to make. A fried or roasted poblano chili is stuffed with picadillo: ground meat with cooked dried fruit. It’s then topped with a walnut cream sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds and parsley. The result is a marvelous combination of sweet and salty flavors with a touch of cream and spice.  

Another traditional dish served for this holiday is pozole: a slow-cooked soup with hominy and either pork or chicken, served with fresh vegetables, chili, and tostadas. ¡Delicioso! Other Mexican dishes like enchiladas, guacamole, tamales, or sopa azteca may be served as well.

As Mexico’s national drink, tequila, perhaps with a bit of lime and salt, might accompany the meal and flow into the night. Another item with the colors of the flag that’s popular for this celebration is the drink called Bandera (“Flag”) or Banderita (“Little Flag”). Consisting of three shot glasses lined up in a row, you take a sip, one after the other, according to the order of the colors of the Mexican flag: first the lime juice (green), then the tequila (white), and finally the sangrita (red, made with tomato juice and spices).

Make the most of every celebration

September is an exciting month to visit Mexico, especially if you’re there for Independence Day on September 16 and the night before for the Cry of Dolores. We’ve given you a little history and background so you can enjoy the celebration, but you can savor it even more if you learn some Spanish before you go. 

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Written by Rowena Galavitz 

Rowena Galavitz is a Spanish translator, bilingual copy editor, and language and literature instructor with three master’s degrees who loves Spanish and all things Mexico.

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