The country of México is rich, diverse and full of surprises. How do you explain this complexity to those less familiar with the culture? Inspired by Jenny Price’s essay, 13 Ways of Seeing Nature in LA (itself an homage to the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird), students at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) offer the following — “13 Ways of Seeing México.”
The 13 different perspectives, below, may surprise. They may make you laugh and they should make you think. Some will agree, others take issue. Our hope here at UDLAP is that you take these 13 reasons as an invitation to explore the country further!
1. Through prehispanic cultures. Before the Spanish people came to conquer, there were amazing sets of pyramids, sacred places and incredibly big stones with art on them. Mayan civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by Mayan people, and noted for its highly sophisticated writing system, based on images and figures. Mayan civilization developed in the area that is now southeastern Mexico, as well as Guatemala and Belize, and other parts of Mesoamerica. The Maya are also noted for their art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system. We believe it is the most known pre-Hispanic culture of Mexico, including the Aztecs, due to Chichen Itza and the pyramid El Castillo (which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World). Even today, people go to El Castillo every equinox to “recharge” energy even though that pyramid has existed for over 500 years.
2. After colonization. The conquest took place from 1519 to 1521, right after the fall of Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital, center of America during that time). After the Spanish conquest and the process called “colonization,” more than one third of the native people were still alive, although they lived in deplorable conditions or they were slaves of the Spaniards. The area that is now Mexico (back then New Spain), became a part of the Spanish Crown, making it a viceroyalty. Spaniards destroyed native religions, art and customs by mixing it with theirs. This process helped to evangelize the indigenous in an easier way. They also separated the people in social classes (castes), leaving indigenous people and slaves at the lowest and spanish and the creoles at the top. Nowadays those social classes that existed have been eradicated, cultural mixing spreading over the last six centuries.
3. As one big family. In general, we are warmer to the people we’re close with, and we tend to show this with physical contact, not sexual or anything, but touch is sometimes the way we show others that we appreciate them or that we feel comfortable around them. This sometimes freaks foreign people out, since Mexico is sort of unique in the sort of way that we kiss each other on the cheek just to greet a stranger. Maybe this is why Mexican families and interpersonal relationships in general tend to be closer or even more dependent than other cultures.
4. As a sense of belonging. Depending on the state where you were born, you form a sense of belonging within your community. Mexico is an extremely big country, with more than 68 indigenous languages, and as a consequence, there are a lot of different accents and dialects. One word in Mexico City means another thing in Monterrey. In Bajio, to the West, for example, “consigueme un jale” means someone to hook up with; up North, however, it means “help me get a job.” There is no need to explain the confusion that can bring. There is a big difference between Mexico’s center and México’s north, but there’s still a difference between states, and the way that each one thinks.
5. Polytheistically. Despite the fact that Mexico is considered to be a Catholic country, we have many different saints and versions of the Catholic faith. Depending upon where you are, certain religious rituals can change. Every town has a saint that “protects” it. We also celebrate “santos” which are basically a “name day”: if you are named Santiago, your santo is the day that Saint Santiago died.
The reason for this goes back to colonization. When the Spanish invaders forced the native people to abandon their beliefs and adopt the Catholic church, they met (obviously) lots of resistance. Gradually, Mexican people combined their beliefs and rituals with the Roman Catholic faith, so that they could continue to worship their gods and deities. The result of this is the eclectic version of the catholic religion we have in Mexico.
Polytheism in Mexico can be physically visited and experienced at the church in San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas. Inside the structure of a catholic chapel is a shrine to worship Mayan and catholic saints at the same time. There are no benches to pray in, as you would find in a typical church, but Catholic saints pictured on the walls on top of mirrors, since the Chamulan people you have to face and be honest to oneself. Here you confess in front of both religions. You can also find the floor decorated with pine sacred to the Chamula culture and candles like those used in christianity to ask for miracles. They celebrate rituals for John the Baptist and Kin Tajimoltic all in the same ceremony.
One common belief is about the Saint Death — most of their followers are narcos, or drug dealers. It started with old religions (religions originally from Mexico), which began as a comparison of the gods of death or of the underworld; which is commonly seen as a good thing because those gods were revered because they thought it would help them on their path to the afterlife but some religions rejected their belief because they thought it was against other religious beliefs. They can be found on three different colors and each give luck depending on the color, red for love, white for luck and black for protection.
Another example of the paganism that permeates Mexican Catholicism is the Festival del Caldo, celebrated in Queretaro. For this festival, people feed and fatten three bulls for a whole year. On the day of the festival, the members of a council parade the bull, decorated with flowers and vegetables, throughout the town. At the end of the procession, the bull is sacrificed in front of everyone and the townspeople prepare a broth for the rest of the pueblo. All this is supposed to be dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
6. Through salsas. Just like the accents and dialects, the food changes depending on the region of the country. If you are not used to spicy food, this can be very dangerous, because the salsas can change. A LOT depends upon the state. In Puebla, green salsa is not really spicy, but if you go to Queretaro, the red salsa is the safe one. You have to be careful when you try the Mexican salsas and try and not get cocky when applying salsa to your tacos. Maybe in the last state, the green salsa was bearable, but in the next one, it could kill you.
7. As a site for pilgrimage. On the 12th of December, we honor the Virgen de Guadalupe. This day is celebrated with pilgrimages, local fairs … and not going to work or school. It is part of our heritage as Mexicans, since it represents the mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures.
8. While waiting for the subway at 5 am. The subway in Mexico City, called Sistema de Transporte Colectivo Metropolitano, or simply the metro, is a fast and useful form of transportation around the city. This is one of the cheapest subway systems in the world, and the routes for the wagon trains are well-designed. It is possible to appreciate the confluence of different people in each station. At five in the morning, people are heading to work, school, or doing their activities, using this form of transportation every single day. This is why you can see people dressed in suits, jeans, or uniforms. In fact, many people in CDMX prefer to use the metro because this is the fastest way to travel without any trouble. It is chaos, but that’s the city. It’s common to see people who wear formal outfits, like suits or dresses, because they work in an office. This kind of person is called a “Godinez.” They are a Mexican subculture — all these people usually work from nine to six. Evidently, the metro stations are different depending on the zone you visit; for example, in Polanco there is a very nice station, but there are other parts where the station can be dangerous. This is why you should know how to move around in a big city like CDMX.
9. Through a glass bottle. There is nothing like having tacos, or street food, accompanied by a drink in a glass bottle. Probably the biggest drinks are Coca-Cola and Boing. We do not know how to explain the importance of the glass bottle. It’s just the charm or magic that comes from drinking from it. Something from a paper cup, can or a plastic bottle just won’t do.
10. Through mordidas (the cake). Birthdays in Mexico include a special ritual. This ritual might seem slightly creepy and satanic to some, because we sing a special song around a cake with lit candles and all the other lights out. The birthday person blows out the candles and makes a wish, and that’s when everyone starts chanting “mordida, mordida, mordida!” which literally means bite, bite, bite. Well, everyone except that one fat tía who keeps saying “Ay no mordida a su pedazo,” bite your own slice, so that she can enjoy some cake. But no one cares about that tía and so now you have this amazing cake that your abuelita stayed up all night to make, covered in a thick layer of icing, sitting right in front of you, and people chanting for you to take a bite.
That’s when you know it’s a trap. You lean in to take a small bite from the edge of that creamy beautiful cake, when suddenly everything goes black, suddenly you can ́t breathe anymore and you know exactly what just happened. So you pull yourself up while you hear laughter mixed in with your tía screaming “She can ́t breathe! It’s not funny!” and someone has to help you wipe your eyes so that you can open them and blow your nose to breathe properly. That’s when you look down at that once amazing cake, that now looks like a puddle of mud. All you can do is pretend you didn’t mind, since everyone seems to enjoy your suffering, so you just smile and run down to the bathroom to wash off your face. You come back to your mom trying to salvage some of the cake to give to that one fat tía who was so against you giving the cake a mordida.
11. Through morditas (the bribe). As well as the birthday cake, there is a term called “mordida” and it´s not exactly what you’d expect. As a citizen of a third world country, when we get in trouble with law as traffic stops, sobriety tests, administrative incongruences, tax evasions, among many others, our first reaction is to get out of this sticky situation through a few pesos.
12. Through street food. As college students, fast and cheap food is heaven. That is why when you are in a hurry and it is not your pay day, you can rely on street food stands. There is a lot of variety that you can choose from: tacos, hot dogs, hamburgers, esquites (cups of corn kernels), snow cones, just to name a few. You could say these food stands are bargains since they are cheap and delicious. But be careful — sometimes the price comes in other ways and what seems cheap can come out expensive. You might risk a long long night in the bathroom!
On the other hand, street food stands are not only for you to enjoy and eat (or puke(, but also for making an honest living. A person who did not finish their basic education, but is good at making gorditas, can earn money easily by setting up a stand of gorditas outside their house, in their garage, or at the tianguis. People also use this chamba as a temporary job, when they got the sack or are unemployed. Some people say you can somehow measure the level of unemployment by counting the food stands outside the houses in a block. However, there are also employed people who use stands as a second source of income, since they can choose and manage their own schedule.
In our experience sometimes this food tastes just like the food your mom or grandmother cooks; it has a more homey taste and feeling, so that is why you do not think twice about later repercussions it might have on your stomach.… So yes, Mexico is filled with delicious food, but also with hard working people who are always looking a little extra money.
13. From a closed off street. When you are having a party, it is normally going to be a big one — especially in small towns where you invite almost everyone. Hence, there is a need to have a big place to host it. This is when you rent a large canvas tent to set up in the middle of your street. You don’t even think about renting a party hall; using the street is always the first option and is free. What you save on renting a place, you spend on all the food that you are going to give to everyone. What is interesting about this is that you just close your block, without any notification or special permission, and still none of your neighbors will report you to the authorities. If the police were to pass by when you are having your party in the middle of the street, they wouldn’t say anything about it.
The parties get loud, thanks to sonideros — as a neighbor you just say “Uy, hay fiesta hoy” and that’s it, you learn to sleep with the noise. Sonideros are an interesting part of Mexican parties. They were born in Mexico City, then brought to every town in the country, no matter how small. Sonideros bring several giant speakers, light effects and staff — who talk between songs, encouraging people to dance and greeting the person being celebrated in the party. It represents our spontaneous culture and our love for just having fun.