On Mexico's National Holiday, Not Much To Celebrate

It's a National Holiday today in Mexico, but there isn't that much to celebrate. The economy is sinking, there are relentless rains and protests in the street and — horror of horrors — Mexico's cherished national soccer team may not go to the World Cup for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. On many accounts, it's a bummer of a national holiday is in Mexico.

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Today, in Mexico, it's Independence Day. Most of the country shuts down to celebrate the long struggle, begun in 1810, to break with Spain. But this year, many Mexicans are having trouble finding reason to celebrate. The economy is sinking. Kidnappings and extortion are on the rise, and the capital has been paralyzed by near-daily political protest. NPR's Carrie Kahn sent this report from Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Tens of thousands sporting oversized sombreros and all manners of red, white and green accessories filled the historic Zocalo Plaza late last night, to hear the new president's first grito, the traditional Independence Day cry.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: Viva Independencia Nacionale.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING "VIVA")

PENA NIETO: Viva Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING "VIVA")

KAHN: As tradition dictates, Enrique Pena Nieto emerged from the balcony of the National Palace, to re-enact the Independence Day call to arms just as the revolutionary heroes did 203 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KAHN: All that splendor, fireworks and cheer was a stark contrast to the scene just two days ago. That's when water cannons and hundreds of riot-clad police rolled in, to clear out thousands of protesting teachers and setting of hours of street battles.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

KAHN: The teachers, upset about a recently passed set of education reforms, were eventually cleared out, but many problems remain. There are signs political opposition is growing against Pena Nieto's aggressive reform agenda. The economy, heralded as the rising Aztec tiger, is expected to grow barely 1 percent this year. The peso has taken a beating lately. Violence is still endemic in wide swaths of the country. And the teachers have vowed to come back to the Zocalo tomorrow and resume their almost daily protests, which have wreaked havoc on this already chaotic capital.

If that weren't enough, the national soccer team, a usually unifying force that trumps politics and prosperity, did not automatically qualify for next year's World Cup in Brazil. That's the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

Not to take the sports analogy too far, but the team is much like the country itself these days. It has a star-studded roster poised to rise on the world stage, yet unable to live up to the hype. Last week, though, they hired on a new coach who's said to have the Midas touch in a last-ditch effort to secure a wild-card spot. So viva to Midas. May his touch be golden in sports and in healing a much-bruised national psyche.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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