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    Mexican community celebrates past, present

    To help keep traditions alive, Clearwater's Mexican community marks independence day.

    [Times photos: Jill Sagers]
    Maria Luisa Martinez, a Clearwater resident, holds her 7-month-old daughter, Giselle, and responds to el grito, the cry of Mexican independence, with her niece, 4-year-old Cynthia Martinez.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


    photo
    Sandra Jazmin Juarez Hernandez, 19, dances Friday night with the group Ballet Folklorica Macuilxochitl during the Mexican Independence Day fiesta at Harborview Center in Clearwater.
    CLEARWATER -- In the minutes before the famous cry of Mexican independence, or el grito, the crowd of 1,500 Mexican immigrants at Harborview Center late Friday night stood up, whistling and hooting.

    The room in the city's bland, whitewashed conference center had become a sea of bobbing cowboy hats and straw sombreros painted green and red.

    Slowly, a senorita dressed in a glittering red skirt and white shirt, and with green, red and white ribbons wound through her black hair, carried the Mexican flag to a stage in the city's conference hall. The crowd hushed. They saluted: palm down, right arm raised to the chest, parallel to the ground.

    The crowd sang the Mexican national anthem in both Spanish and Hnahnu, one of Mexico's many Indian languages.

    Then finally at 11:45 p.m., this city's first large, public celebration for the eve of Mexican independence day hit its climax. Two Mexican government officials waved national flags on the stage and gave the crowd el grito:

    "Viva Mexico!" shouted Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, secretary of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, where many immigrants here hail from.

    "Viva!" the crowd yelled back, repeating the 190-year-old cry of Mexican rebellion against Spanish rule.

    "Viva Mexico!" shouted Martin Torres, the Mexican consul who is based in Orlando.

    "Viva!" the crowd replied again, erupting into applause. They began chanting "Mexico! Mexico!" while clapping.

    The reaction of the family of Enrique Mayorga, a 14-year-old Clearwater High School freshman and Mexican citizen, was typical of other people in the crowd who have been residents of the United States for many years.

    The teenager, like the other Mexican citizens who crammed the city's conference center Friday, had never celebrated his homeland's independence day at such a big party here in the United States.

    The honor student, dressed in American Eagle khakis and a collared shirt, said he found his feelings somewhat difficult to explain. His friends are American and speak English. His education has been in English. His favorite music and television shows are American.

    "I do feel a pride that I'm from Mexico, but I also feel a pride living here," he said, without a trace of a Spanish accent. "I want to celebrate two independence days."

    Enrique said he felt patriotic too when his family drove to Clearwater Beach on the Fourth of July. They parked their pickup truck at 11 a.m. to get a good spot to watch the city's fireworks later that night. They hope to becomeAmerican citizens someday.

    His parents, Enrique Senior and Lourdes Mayorga, moved to Clearwater about 10 years ago, because they believe that their two children will get a better education here and can earn admission to college. They nailed down regular jobs, became fluent in English, bought a house and got involved in a local Catholic church.

    But the parents don't want their kids to grow up lacking a sense of their Mexican heritage, says Lourdes Mayorga, who dressed up for Friday's celebration in a black dress suit. Celebrating Mexican independence, said the 34-year-old mother of two, "is a custom that you grow up with in Mexico."

    "Living here even, it would be difficult for me ever to forget it, but maybe my children won't feel the same way," she said. "So this event we're having, it's about knowing where they came from, who they are."

    Friday's party commemorated Independence Day eve, when the "Cry of Dolores" or el grito, was given by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla on Sept. 15, 1810. Mexicans party again on Sept. 16, the official holiday. Tonight brings one more concert at 9 p.m. to Harborview for that.

    El grito happened late at night on Sept. 15, 1810, after Father Hidalgo discovered he was to be arrested for his revolutionary ideas against Spanish rule. So the priest called the parishioners of the town of Dolores together to encourage them to fight the Spanish, history has it. "Viva Mexico! Viva independencia!" he said, succeeding in persuading the crowd to rebel.

    The words would become the battle cry of his country's revolution, although Hidalgo was executed the next year and independence wasn't wrested from Spain until 1821. But the story became the reason for a big national party every year.

    This year, the party came to Clearwater. Friday night, kids ran around Harborview Center, pulling down the conference hall's streamer decorations. Teenagers ogled each other as local Mexican rock groups played early in the day, their speakers turned up too high for conversation.

    Humberto Perez, a 23-year-old Mexican citizen who has been in Clearwater working different jobs for the past four years, enjoyed the fiesta. He came with friends, all wearing straw sombreros painted red and green.

    "In Mexico," he recalled, speaking in Spanish, "there are a lot of parties bigger than this. You go out to cantinas, drink until late at night and dance a lot, too. Traditionally, there are flags and decorations hung everywhere all month."

    Many Americans, however, mistakenly think that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's grand national party day. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a successful battle for the Mexicans against the French army in 1862, is celebrated with somber political speeches. And Mexicans are bewildered by America's fascination with it.

    "Cinco de Mayo will never compare with Independence Day," said Lucia Eugenia Flores Gonzales, 38, a dancer in a folkloric dance group who visited Clearwater on Friday.

    To celebrate independence day here for the first time, city residents from Mexico and Orlando's Mexican consulate had been planning since May. It seemed appropriate to put on a celebration here, said Clearwater resident Virginio Paloma, because of the growing Mexican community in this area.

    Local Mexican businesses and the Organizacion Consejo Hidalguense, a group that helps local Mexican immigrants from the state of Hidalgo, donated about $7,000 to put on Friday's party. The Mexican government also helped, sending 36 artists, musicians and folk dancers to brighten the free event.

    On Monday, the performers gathered in Pachuca, the capital of the state of Hidalgo. They left Mexico on a bus dubbed El Conejo, or rabbit, for a 48-hour trip to Clearwater.

    When they arrived Wednesday, they checked into a Motel 8 on U.S. 19. They took photos of every moment to document their trip, even a picture with a waitress at Buddy Freddy's Country Buffet off U.S. 19, where they had lunch Thursday. They went to the beach. They reunited with friends here. For many it was the first time in the United States.

    Friday afternoon at Harborview Center, the Mexican artists on the trip held an exposition of their crafts for sale, ranging from wood boxes inlaid with shell to pictures created with colored pieces of straw, intricately glued to a wood background.

    As the evening came on, two visiting Mexican music groups played traditional tunes, while the crowd clapped and sang along.

    Mexican dancers concluded Friday's event. They began with slow-paced, pre-Hispanic dances. Their program climaxed with the swirling red skirts and stomping of the Mexican hat dance. The crowd whistled during flirtatious moments between the dancers.

    "We feel pride that we can celebrate this fiesta with our paisanos in this region," said Maria Luisa Flores Gonzalez, a 35-year-old folkloric dancer who traveled here for Friday's fiesta performance.

    "No matter how far away or how cold the night, or whether there is rain," chimed in her sister, Luisa Eugenia, speaking in Spanish, "the people of Mexico know that they can go their hometown's principal plaza every year on the 15th of September, and meet and be together to celebrate independence."

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