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Throwing off their habitual reserve, Mexicans spring into action for well over 4,000 fiestas and festivals every year. Whether taking place in a tiny village or on a national scale, fiestas verge on a sacred institution, offering the opportunity to dance, sing, eat, and drink intensively in an outburst of exuberance that mirrors the vibrant colors of this vast land.
From the grand colonial cities of the central highlands to the more modest villages of the south, façades are brilliant pink, dense turquoise, saffron yellow, or deep red-ocher. Baroque churches resemble ornate Mexican cream cakes, ice-cream parlors rival the rainbow, and vibrant Indian costumes lend color to the whole. Yucatán cenotes (sinkholes) offer shades of emerald and jade, the Caribbean topaz and aquamarine, and the Pacific a deep cobalt — a palette that reflects one aspect of the complex Mexican spirit — exuberance.
Mexico Is... Life and Death
The Mexicans are fervent lovers of myths and legends, assimilating the cult of death into the cult of life. Their fascination with death is revealed in every aspect of their existence, from rattling fiesta skeletons to the soul-wrenching laments of mariachi singers and the often tragic vagaries of Mexican history. For the Aztecs life and death were two sides of the same coin — the sun set only to rise again, just as dead souls would be reborn once more. This deeply rooted belief led to their downfall when the Spanish conquistadore Hernán Cortés was mistakenly welcomed as the reincarnation of the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl who, according to legend, had sailed toward the risingsun, vowing to return. With the arrival of Christianity and its central belief in resurrection, Mexicans could adapt to the new spirituality without totally abandoning the old. Hence Mexico's traditional serenity in the face of death.
Mexico Is... Folk Art
Folk art, in a bewildering variety of colors, forms, and media, is present all over the country, as diverse as the landscapes and peoples from which it originates. Industrialized techniques may be creeping in to replace time-honored skills passed on down the generations, but little can change the imagination and flair of the craftspeople.
Most regions of Mexico have specific craft traditions, whether pottery, woodcarving, basket-making, weaving, metalwork, or simple objects made from pine trees, maguey fiber, and sisal. The markets of large towns generally offer the best selection for visitors, with the majority concentrated in the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, but Mexico City and Guadalajara offer the most varied selection from every region of the country. Hard to resist, these beautifully crafted objects were once extensions of spiritual beliefs, a rapidly disappearing practice in the face of commercialism and large-scale demand.
Mexico Is... Indigeneous People
Colorful and exotic, Mexico's indigeneous peoples are the most marginalized section of the population. Reflecting a strong continuity with the past, they are the victims of a political system and world view whose economic ends disregard their constitutional rights. Their very existence is now under threat.
Mexico's original inhabitants are an estimated 29 percent of the total population. Despite Independence and the 1910 Revolution, their lot has deteriorated with the demands of a rapidly modernizing Mexico. Most exist in extreme poverty and earn less than the minimum daily wage as artisans or members of the campesino (peasant-farmer) class. With negligible social assistance, their only recourse is to try for work in the big cites or seek illegal seasonal employment north of the border. For others, the last resort is begging.
Mexico Is... Tacos and Tortillas
Mexican cuisine is a combination of traditional Indian dishes and later Spanish influences, often spicy and invariably accompanied by tortillas and red beans. Its famous mole (sauce), when cooked over three days according to custom, is divine; when prepared in fast-food style it can be heavy, tasteless, and depressing.
From north to south, the basic ingredients in Mexican food remain much the same. Outside the main towns, it is difficult to find restaurants of a high standard, but Pacific and Gulf regions compensate with a wealth of exquisite seafood (lobster, red snapper, abalone, clams) on an often gargantuan scale or integrated into delicious soups. Resort towns have an increasing variety of sophisticated restaurants catering to an international clientele. Meanwhile, Mexican nouvelle cuisine is visible above all in the capital, where stylish restaurants revive Hispanic recipes.
Mexico Is... U.S. Relations
Mexico shares a 1,952-mile border with the United States. This vast strip has long been a testing-ground for two different cultures that meet, clash, and join economic forces. But interaction does not stop there. Particularly since the advent of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico's way of life is increasingly dominated by American culture.
There is nothing new about Mexico's fears of a cultural and political takeover: the country has been under invasion by the U.S. in one form or another since the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. This cost Mexico half its territory. Since then, the arrival of each new fad or technology from the north has been denounced by pessimists as heralding the end of Mexican traditions. However, extensive U.S. investment is nothing new: in the late 19th century the policies of dictator Porfirio Diaz led to substantial American participation in profitable oil, mining, lumber, and transportation concerns.