For one day Wednesday, Mexico looked beyond its drug war to throw a 200th birthday bash celebrating a proud history, whimsical culture and resilience embodied in the traditional independence cry: "Viva Mexico!"
Across the capital, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets despite their fears, blowing horns and dancing alongside serpent floats, marching cacti and 13-foot-tall warrior marionettes and into a night of open-air concerts.
President Felipe Calderon capped the evening by ringing the original independence bell in the Zocalo square and proclaiming: "Long live independence. Love live the bicentennial. Long live Mexico" to the roaring thousands repeating his cry. Down the city's main promenade, the iconic Angel of Independence exploded in fireworks.
"I love being Mexican!" said Michel Dosal, wearing a green, white and red mohawk wig as he sprinted along the 1.7-mile (2.7-kilometer) parade route. "The 15th of September is better than Christmas. It's better than my birthday!"
In cities where drug violence is heaviest, festivities were more subdued. The grito was canceled in Ciudad Juarez for the first time in its history. People still showed their patriotism in the border city -- Mexico's most violent -- by hanging Mexican flags from their roofs and hosting family dinners as virtual grito was broadcast on TV.
In the western city of Morelia, scene of cartel-related grenade attack that killed eight during the 2008 independence celebration, barely 2,000 showed up at the main plaza for a grito that once drew tens of thousands.
"My son asked me to take him to see the grito, so I brought him despite my fears," said Silvia Godinez Perez, a secretary.
"We can't easily forget what happened two years ago." But in Mexico City, a $40 million fiesta, two years in the making, drew revelers who traveled from across the country. "This one is special," said Iris Mari Rodriguez Montiel, a small business owner who had traveled from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz and waited since morning for the festivities to start.
"It gives me chills just to think about it. I love Mexico. There's only one Mexico."
Little girls wearing ribbons of the Mexican flag watched from the shoulders of their fathers, and other children blew trumpets as the air filled with confetti. Marchers with green, red and white cacti sprouting from their heads formed a sea around an enormous newspaper boat sporting phrases from the independence era.
"It's like a Carnival of Rio, plus an Olympic ceremony, plus Woodstock all put together in the same day," said artistic director Marco Balich, who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. "For the cost of a warplane, you can celebrate the birthday of a country."
Several neighboring heads of state and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis attended.
Still, anxiety hovered over the festivities in a country that most recently has seen car bombs, the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate, and the massacre of 72 migrants who refused to smuggle drugs for a brutal gang.
Military helicopters buzzed overhead, heavily armed federal agents and metal detectors greeted revelers.
"We should be proud of all we've achieved," said Daniel Mendiola, a 64-year-old retiree who eyes were glued to a giant screen in front of the Angel of Independence monument earlier in the night. But he said he would leave after the parade, skipping the big-name acts jamming on a series of stages set up along the main Reforma Avenue.
"We have this doubt," he said. "The idea that there will be problems later on."
While drug violence during a grand festival would have been unheard of just a few years ago _ even cartel capos celebrate religion and family in Mexico _ that changed after the attack in Morelia in 2008.
Prosecutors in the Caribbean coast resort of Cancun said they were investigating whether six men detained Wednesday with assault rifles and hand grenades had planned an attack during the bicentennial festivities.
In northern Nuevo Leon state, eight gunmen were killed in a shootout with soldiers, authorities said. "In Mexico, we all live in fear. And the worst part is that we are starting to get used to it," said Eric Limon, 33, a professional dancer who volunteered to wear a jaguar mask and swing a colorful Aztec club and spear for the parade.
"I want to be part of something important," said Limon, who was part of the parade. "I know this won't solve our problems, but this is my grain of sand to create a sense of unity. This is what Mexico needs."
Still, it was hard to keep Mexicans away from a party. Those who stayed away from the city center staged impromptu fireworks displays in their neighborhood streets, sending rockets whistling and booming into the sky and raising clouds of smoke. "To celebrate the identity of a country, especially in this moment in Mexico, I think is really needed," Balich said. "Especially for the young to be proud of their identity, to make an optimistic statement at a difficult time."