I was ten when I marched for the first time in the September Parade that marked the Independence celebrations, accompanied by two hundred other children. Some of them were my colleagues and the rest were students from other schools around our town. My school’s marching band started the procession: Thirty older boys in white military-cut uniforms, a red feather crowning each of their tall caps. I was towards the back, holding hands with a classmate, both of us dressed as patriotic soldiers. Sustaining a bright smile, I was immediately intoxicated by the ecstasy flowing from the stands, filled with teachers and dentists, lawyers and real estate agents. Crowded in this immense display of bodies, citizens waved their flags and threw confetti on the avenue. The marching band persevered ahead, despite their inexperience. Triumphant, they played tone-deaf renditions of the repertoire of patriotic songs, horns a little out of tune, snares and cymbals reverberating out of turn . Still, I didn’t care. Being there was, in short, the fulfillment of a dream.
From a very young age I attended the Independence Day parade, accompanied by my father. We used to buy a can of guarana and sit on the long benches in front of the city hall. He offered me a bag of confetti and I mounted on his shoulders. Up there, holding his balding head, I too vibrated with that dissonant rhythm that broke out in the central square. I took a sip of the soda and threw a handful of confetti at the passing wooden horses, princesses dressed in crepe paper, slaves chained with cardboard. I looked forward to the day when I myself would be one of those children in the midst of the bustle, marching down the avenue, serving as a conductor on this display of patriotic energy. I imagined myself in elaborate costumes of a marshal and a colonel, a national hero whose effigy could feature on bank notes and postage stamps.
Later, as a teenager, I became a reporter in my school newspaper. The September Parade was one of the highlights in the school calendar, possibly the most important date of the year. In addition to the teachers and student bodies, it mobilized parents who sewed costumes, city officials who accompanied the rehearsals, and state government emissaries who inspected the progress of the presentations. My coverage started the month before the parade, when the marching band began its rehearsals. Armed with pen and paper, I attended the sessions organized daily in the sports gym, where I collected testimonies from the music teacher and the band members.
The discourse, always the same, was that they were doing their best to perform the famous patriotic songs, that the next parade would surpass that of the previous year, that the new generations were increasingly committed to the civic spirit and moral compass of our nation. They stayed there for the rest of the month, absorbed in their musical scores, as if they were part of an operation isolated from the rest of the school. In the end, they emerged confidently from the gym, dressed in their festive costumes, as if they were ready to wield weapons and die fighting on the battlefield.
The day of the parade was busier, so I left my notebook at home. To keep my coverage up to speed with the euphoria of the events, I borrowed my father’s portable recorder. I left my house early in the morning and followed the preparations: the raising of the flag, the setting up of stands, the lifting of pendants, the formation of military-like columns. As soon as the parade began, I went up to the main platform, where I interviewed the authorities attending the ceremony.
Waving his flag hanging, the mayor said that patriotism was an important feature of our town, that no one had invested as much in the September Parade as his administration, which was absolutely committed to the traditions of our people. The infrastructure secretary professed that the patriotic parade was only possible thanks to the elimination of potholes in the main avenue, a true act of civility. Then I talked to the chief councillor, who didn’t miss the opportunity to attack the mayor. Then came the priest of our church and the judge of our district, followed by the police commander and the president of the trade association. Transcribing the testimonies was a difficult task, since the men’s voices were covered by the strident repertoire of the marching band.
The years passed and my enthusiasm died down. When I was twenty, the parade seemed deeply boring and I preferred to stay home. At thirty, after becoming a geography teacher, the September festivities represented an unavoidable obstacle to my work. In the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the main event, students had to be released in the middle of my class, which delayed my lesson plans. At forty, I no longer cared to release students, to hell with them. What irritated me was the spectacle itself. I hated the national symbols, completely empty, and the proud hymns, especially when performed by the band of young amateurs. I loathed what the authorities had to say. They spent the whole year imposing obstructions on the school procedures and expected a sign of unconditional gratitude on that national holiday. I was irritated by the procession of children dressed as dead people, the stands filled with a crowd who ignored the true meaning of the party. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy made me sick and I was no longer able to drink my guarana. Still, I had to attend the parade, offer my smile to the authorities, and accompany my students as they marched down the avenue.
Now that I’ve become the school principal, I am one of those responsible for the organization of the September Parade. To open next year’s festivities, which I’ve already guaranteed to the mayor will be the biggest and best of all, I requested additional resources from the education department and ordered the confection of a huge wooden float in the shape of a horse. With the help of an engineer friend, we made a fertilizer-based explosive, to be implanted in the horse’s rib-cage. To secure the stability of the bomb and the continuity of our plan, the engineer suggested our device should be activated by sound. To this end, he himself created a complex system of triggers that only incites the explosion upon detecting the first fourteen chords of the national anthem.
To achieve this, I fired the music teacher and hired a conductor with fifteen years of experience in spectacles of this kind. To demonstrate my commitment to the civic spirit, I commented in an interview with the local radio that our rehearsals will begin in April.
Independence Day festivities of any nation are designed to generate an atmosphere of patriotic fervor among its citizens – observers and participants alike. Matheus Borges’ The Great Patriotic Parade documents the gradual change in the author’s feelings towards the annual Brazilian Independence Day parade and its flag-waving ardor, held in his town. Ranging from enthusiasm to indifference, to irritation, to the resigned acceptance of a public official, the story gives the readers a subtle account of the emptiness behind the scenes, and exposes the naivete of assuming these spectacles to be monolithic displays of national zeal.