TLAXCALA, Mexico — For an hour Wednesday, a Mexican official on a loudspeaker exhorted thousands of people in this old colonial town to cry out and whistle and wave their small flags with "pride and emotion and respect and joy" when the presidents of the United States and Mexico arrived together.
The Mexicans followed instructions, and Bill Clinton soon received the warmest and most massive welcome of his three-day state visit to Mexico, his first as president. The enthusiasm prompted Thomas "Mack" McLarty, the president's special envoy to the Americas, to tell reporters: "This is a hometown crowd. . . . You get out in the country, and the people just really make an effort. The people are so warm."
That warmth was reflected when Clinton left the podium and walked with his crutches to the crowds in the central gardens of the Plaza de la Constitucion. Bodies surged and hands reached out to touch him. People handed him gifts--a blanket, a wooden frieze of Don Quixote and dozens of roses.
After 10 minutes of handshaking, the president came across a 9-year-old boy, Aldo, holding up a sheet of paper with welcoming words for Clinton in English. Written in various magic-marker colors, the sheet welcomed the president, called for peace and love, and asked for a remembrance of the visit, perhaps a photo with the president.
Instead, the president autographed the sheet, writing, "Aldo, good work. Thank you, Bill Clinton." When he walked away, the boy and his mother, Patricia Valladolid, hugged each other and sobbed with joy.
The town of Tlaxcala, about 50 miles east of Mexico City, was founded by the Spaniards in 1519. The plaza--with its 16th century cathedral, 16th century government palace and 18th century palace of justice--lend the town a Spanish colonial air. It is so picturesque that scenes for a new version of "The Mask of Zorro," starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins, were filmed here a couple of months ago. The producers could not find a site in California that looked more like the U.S. state during its Spanish colonial period.
Tlaxcala is also a stronghold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled Mexico for nearly seven decades. That made it an ideal place for the government of President Ernesto Zedillo to whip up a festive welcome for Clinton.
The atmosphere was carnival-like. Half a dozen mariachi bands entertained the crowds. Folkloric dancers, the men wearing hand-carved wooden masks and the women dazzling colored dresses, jumped and twirled in the plaza to the beat of a brass band. Rainbow-colored parasols snapped open against the sun. Mexicans on rooftops threw down confetti when the cars carrying the two presidents made their way to the plaza.
Both presidents wore jackets but no ties. Zedillo, speaking to the crowd, held up two Mexican newspapers. The headlines of one shouted that "Tlaxcala is the center of the world"; the second said in English, "Welcome Bill."
"This is an especially important day for my wife and for me," Clinton, who was accompanied by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, told the crowd, "because we were married about 22 years ago, and we came to Mexico on our honeymoon. And so we always love to come back. And this is a very romantic setting to be in today."