Fidel Velasquez, leader of Mexico's principal labor union for 53 years, died while I was in Mexico in the summer of 1997. He was 97.
His body lay in state at the union's headquarters on the plaza of the Monument to the Revolution from Saturday evening until Sunday noon. I went there on Sunday morning to see how the Mexican people say adios to one of their most famous public figures.
Photographs show the plaza jammed for political rallies, and authorities had expected hundreds, if not thousands, to gather there. Portable crowd barriers had made a maze of the plaza and the adjoining streets. Big men in dark suits with wires of radio receivers snaking out of their ears and into their coat collars stood around looking less menacing than self-conscious; police cars, marked and unmarked, drove in and out, stopping occasionally so that the officers inside could confer with their men on the street; a platoon of soldiers in battle gear sat in a transport truck parked on a side street behind the monument.
But the barriers and police and soldiers had few people to control. Only a relative handful of Don Fidel's rank-and-file were there, and most were auto workers from the local Chrysler plant who formed an honor guard, and it was said they had been bribed with new blue work uniforms and envelopes filled with pesos.
Most of the other people in the plaza, it seemed, were like me, onlookers, curious about what might happen. We shuffled around and looked at one another or at the technicians and cameramen for Televisa who were busy setting up their equipment. I saw no tears.
Four buses manuevered into parking spaces, two marked for the family and two for members of the CTM. A hearse arrived and backed up to the sidewalk in front of the building.
A correspondent for a U.S. newspaper spotted me as a fellow yanqui and we talked. She had been inside the CTM headquarters for the obsequies, she said. The president and most of the cabinet had been there, along with family and union leaders, and the president had given a eulogy of sorts. As he talked, a cat made its way through the crowd, toward the casket, she told me, and she had decided that, this being Mexico, the soul of Don Fidel had entered the cat and he was there for one last time. Nevertheless, someone scooped up el gato before it could brush against a presidential leg and threw it outside.
The president spoke of all that Don Fidel had done for the country--he had been a close adviser to the last nine presidents and a powerful voice in the Institutional Revolutionary Party. But the president, like so many of the prominent who were quoted in the newspapers, said little about what the one-time milkman had done for the obreros, the workers, of Mexico.
Some of the security men with the ear-plug radios moved barriers to allow the buses through to a side door. A couple of tv cameramen rushed to get pictures of people boarding the buses.
We heard clapping at the top of the stairs and pallbearers appeared with the casket--the funeral home's finest, a newspaper had quoted a family member as saying-- and began struggling it down the steep front stairs. A bouquet slid off and scattered on the steps. Some began to chant "Fee-del...Fee-del..." but the chant was half-hearted and trailed off like cheers at a football game that fail to excite a rally. No one cried.
The pallbearers lifted the casket into the hearse, the doors closed, and slowly the vehicle pulled away, followed by the buses. The crowd scattered. The men with the dark suits and the wires coming out of their ears unhooked the barriers and moved them in batches to the side of the street. Then they were gone too.