Dieciséis de Septiembre
Story by Andi Teran
El Paso in September is unlike any other American city. Aside from the desert sun dipping behind the mountains to (finally) offer some relief from the summer heat, there’s a feeling of celebration in the air. Ask any El Pasoan why the Mexican restaurants are suddenly more festive or how the colors of the Mexican flag — red, white, and green —seem to permeate the landscape, and they’ll tell you, simply, “It’s Dieciséis de Septiembre!”
More commonly known as Mexico’s Independence Day, this national holiday commemorates the insurrection that led to Mexico’s separation from Spain. It’s a patriotic day of parades, traditional food and fireworks — similar to our own Fourth of July festivities — but also a time to come together as a people. For a binational city like El Paso, whose very fabric is interwoven with its sister city of Juárez across the border, the meaning of Dieciséis de Septiembre lies in the symbiotic history of a shared identity.
In the earliest hours of September 16, 1810, in the small town of Dolores, Mexico, secular priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang a church bell and gathered his congregation. His pronouncement to the crowd — his shout or grito — was a call to arms that ultimately ignited Mexico’s War of Independence. Though it would take a decade of revolution for Mexico to claim its freedom from Spain, it was Hidalgo’s “Cry of Dolores” speech that became the beating heart of Mexico’s independent spirit. Every year on September 15 — the eve of the holiday — the grito is reenacted, with the president of Mexico ringing Hidalgo’s actual bell at the National Palace in Mexico City. The symbolic grito commemorates the war’s most well-known heroes as chiming bells and three shouts of “¡Viva México!” echo throughout the Plaza de la Constitución — the palace’s zócalo or town square — and across the country as fireworks fill the skies.
Lest you think the festivities end there, the following day is all about attending a patriotic parade (after sleeping in, of course) and gathering for a meal with family and friends. The entire month is referred to as El Mes de la Patria, or month of our homeland, and restaurants often serve the official dish of the holiday — chiles en nogada. Seasonal and steeped in history, it isn’t an easy recipe to replicate and was created to mimic the colors of the Mexican flag. Though stories vary on its origins, it is said that a trio of nuns in Puebla, Mexico, created it not only to welcome the Mexican Army General Agustin de Iturbide, who had just signed the Treaty of Córdoba effectively giving Mexico it’s independence from Spain, but to showcase seasonal ingredients specific to the region. Some accounts say that Iturbide was afraid of being poisoned but couldn’t resist the novelty and beauty of a dark green poblano pepper stuffed with picadillo — ground meats combined with fruits and spices — smothered in a white walnut cream sauce and garnished with bright pomegranate seeds and sprigs of parsley. Iturbide is credited with designing the first Mexican flag, so perhaps this was his inspiration?
In El Paso, the Mexican flag is as visible as our own and though the 16th of September is a traditionally Mexican holiday, it’s fitting that it’s celebrated every year at the Chamizal National Memorial. This National Park was once the site of a 100-year boundary dispute between the United States and Mexico over the natural course of the Rio Grande River and how it effectively divided the two countries. A peaceful negotiation saw a national memorial and park erected on the El Paso side and a parque público, or public park, created on the Mexico side. They are a stone’s throw away from each other and effectively occupy the same space, the same land. Whether you’re standing on one side or the other, you’re breathing in the same air, and if you rang a bell, you’d hear it on both sides.
Dieciséis de Septiembre is a reflection of where we’ve come from, a cultural signifier of our past as it connects so strongly to our present. We never forget our Mexican roots or the people who crossed the border (and continue to cross) in the hopes of sharing in the relationship between these two cross-cultural countries. El Paso has always believed in authenticity — in people, not borders — in what unites rather than divides.
“¡Viva El Paso! ¡Viva El Paso! ¡Viva El Paso!”