Whenever a Mexican asks me when my birthday is and I tell them the date, they inevitably say “Día de la Bandera”. Young, old, it doesn’t matter, every Mexican knows what day they celebrate their National Flag. It always amazes me that they know this little bit of trivia; because in my home country, that is exactly what it seems to be – trivia or trivial. I would guess that less than 20% of my countrymen could tell you when Flag Day is in the USA.
A flag is the ultimate symbol of its country, and yet is seems so few of its inhabitants know the true history and symbolism of their national flag. Being continually reminded of this special day here in Mexico, I naturally feel a special kinship with the Mexican flag.
Flag day in Mexico is celebrated on February 24th and became a national holiday in 1937. However, the flag that President General Lázaro Cárdenas saluted on the first ‘Día de la Bandera’ looks somewhat different than that of the flag we see today. As with most countries, the Mexican flag has been through its share of changes since adopted when Mexico declared sovereignty from Spain in 1821. While the 1821 flag resembles the flag we know today, with its green, white and red vertical stripes and majestic eagle emblazoned in the center, it has become more ornate over the years.
It should be said however, that many historians feel that the true ‘first’ Mexican flag was the flag carried by Miguel Hidalgo during the ‘Gritos de Dolores’, or the first cry of revolution that sparked the War of Independence from Spain on September 16th, 1810. On that day, Hidalgo carried a flag that depicted the Virgin de Guadalupe and she became the first symbol of the rebel army during the revolution.
After the war was won, the ‘official’ Mexican flag was green, white and red and displayed the Mexican coat of arms at the center, an eagle with a crown above its head just above a nopal cactus. A few years later, in 1823, the crown was removed as a show of freedom from the Spanish rule and the well-known serpent was placed in the eagle’s talons. At this time the leaves of the laurel and oak trees were also added.
The third incarnation of the Mexican flag was brought about during the Imperial Reign of Maximilian, an Austrian born archduke backed heavily by the French Empire. His rule, while not recognized by all nations, lasted from 1864 to 1867. During this brief time he changed the appearance of the Mexican flag. The Coat of Arms at the center of the flag was modified to more resemble the coat of Arms of France and 4 golden eagles were added, one in each corner of the flag.
After Maximilian’s defeat and subsequent execution in the summer of 1867, Mexican President Benito Juárez went back to using the previous version of their national symbol. It would be changed again three more times before President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz proposed the version we see today on Independence Day in 1968. However, this version was not officially confirmed into law until Flag Day in 1984, more than 15 years later.
Setting aside the flag illustrating Guadalupe carried by Hildago, the Mexican flag has always contained three large vertical stripes, green, white and red. It is said that the green represents the movement for independence; the white, the purity of the Catholic faith; and the red, signifies the union of Spanish and Mexicans that joined together to win independence on the North American continent.
The eagle too, has always been present. While shown in different aspects over the years, it remains at the center of the flag to this day. Perhaps that is because the legend of the eagle also lies at the heart of Mexican history and the country itself. Interpretations of the eagle’s significance vary somewhat, but most agree that the symbol comes from the Aztec people. One story says that the Tenochtitlan people were told by the sun god Huitzilopochtli to look for an eagle sitting on a prickly pear cactus eating a snake in order to find the location of their new city.
It is said, they saw this mythical eagle in a marshy lake that is now the location of the zócalo or main square in Mexico City. The prickly pear cactus represented the fruit of the land and the snake, wisdom.
Over the years, while the symbols themselves have stayed the same, what they are said to represent has changed. Nowadays, a more official interpretation says the eagle characterizes the Mexican people defiantly ready to take on the challenges of life. The snake is said to be Mexico’s enemies and the fact that it is being eaten by the eagle, means they will defeat their enemy’s attacks. The cactus, with all its thorns, depicts the challenges faced by the country’s people, but the fact that the eagle stands upon the cactus also says that they will overcome these challenges. The laurel and the oak that rise up on either side of the eagle represent both the victory and the martyrdom of the people who have given their lives for Mexico.
No matter how you choose to interpret the symbols on the great flag of Mexico this coming ‘Día de la Bandera’, there is no doubt, this is a country rich in history and pride dating all the way back to the Aztec people and still evident today every February 24th.
Written by Kary Vannice of the Huatulco Eye