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Jan 12, 2022
How could anyone hope to summarize Mexico, a rich and complex nation whose physical terrain includes balmy beaches, steamy jungles, snowy volcanoes and teeming lagoons? Try and you’ll come away with a surface sketch that takes time, curiosity and a studied appreciation to fill in the lines. Long home to Indigenous groups, including the Aztec Empire, Mexico’s modern Roman Catholic tradition comes from its Spanish colonial history, which led to it becoming today the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Its large economy, ecological diversity, historical brilliance and growing financial influence combine to make Mexico among the most visited countries in the world, ranking seventh in 2019. Join us as we explore some of the wonders it has to share.
A LOOK BACK
1 - Ancient history
The Indigenous cultures of Mexico have a rich history, having pioneered the domestication of maize, tomato and beans — an agricultural bonanza that allowed its early residents to prosper. The earliest complex Mexican civilization was the Olmec culture, one of just six places where human civilization emerged independently, called “cradles of civilization.” The Mayan and Zapotec civilizations followed, forming an early MesoAmerican writing system. Later, the city of Teotihuacan exerted military and political influence on the region, followed by the Mexica culture, which established modern-day Mexico City as the center of its empire. It was the Prussian intellectual Alexander von Humboldt who eventually coined the term “Aztec” to refer to these peoples linked by trade, custom, religion and language.
2 - The Spanish Influence
Mexico, called Nueva España — “New Spain” — was under Spanish rule for three centuries. When, in 1531, the “Virgin of Guadalupe” appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego, saying she was the mother of God and that he should build a church in her honor, it became a rallying call for the evangelization of Mexico — and birthed a national Catholic symbol that was separate from Spain. That fact would become important in 1810, when a revolt led by a priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo, took up the Virgin as their banner. By 1821, the insurgents had solidified their War of Independence from Spain, creating a “Declaration of Independence” that set the stage for the modern Mexican republic. The rest of the 19th century included multiple civil wars and military conflicts involving both the French and the United States. But since the Mexican Revolution waged between 1910 and 1920, Mexico has remained mostly politically stable — and, in 2000, saw the dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), finally end after losing the presidency for the first time in 75 years.
3 - Modern Mexico
Historically, Mexico has struggled with massive income inequality, institutionalized corruption and high crime rates related to the drug trade. Certain cities, particularly those bordering United States entry points, have become particularly violent in recent years — claiming at least 120,000 deaths since Mexico’s drug war began in 2006. Despite these dangers, much of the country is very safe, particularly the Yucatán Peninsula, which has become a tourist hot spot with beachside cities including Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, this last drawing crowds to its cliffside Mayan ruins.
Where to Go and What to See
1 - The Sites and Spectacles
A nod to its immense cultural heritage, Mexico ranks first in the Americas and seventh globally in UNESCO World Heritage sites, with 35. They include pre-Hispanic, temple-dotted indigenous cities of Palenque, Chichen-Itza and Teotihuacan, plus the Sian Ka’an tropical forest biosphere and the whale sanctuary of El Vizcaino, among other places. Chief among their noteworthy heritage traditions include parades celebrating Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead), Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) and, of course, Mariachi bands, which have been honored by UNESCO on its list of items with intangible cultural heritage.
2 - A Curious Cuisine
Everything is worth tasting in Mexico, given the diversity of its influences, mixing Spanish roots with indigenous taste buds. Local specialties include the Yucatán’s cochinita pibil — slow-cooked pork — or world-class moles, complex sauces whose recipes are stingily kept secrets in Oaxaca and Puebla. Famed chefs and dizzying culinary variety abound in Mexico City, spotlighted by its native daughter Daniela Soto-Innes, who was named the best female chef in the world in 2018, making the then 28-year-old the youngest to ever receive the award. Sweet breads are popular, as are a wide array of beverages, from atole and champurrado to milk chocolate and aguas frescas. And crystallized sweets — rompope, cajeta and jericaya, among others — are a traditional indulgence whose origins trace to convent kitchens throughout Mexico.
3 - Sports & Culture
Like many Spanish-speaking countries, soccer remains king — even though the sport’s arrival in Mexico dates back only to Cornish miners toward the end of the 19th century. Mexico City was the first Latin American city to host an Olympic Games, in 1968. Baseball and basketball also remain popular, with its basketball team winning the Americas Basketball Championship in 2013. Lucha libre, the Mexican term for professional wrestling, draws large audiences, and inspired the title and eponymous character of Jack Black’s 2006 film Nacho Libre. Mexico has won 13 Olympic boxing medals, putting it close to the top 10 in overall boxing medals. And bullfighting, despite efforts by animal rights activists to ban it, is still a traditional favorite since its introduction with Spanish colonialism in the 1500s. Nearly every major Mexican city boasts a bull ring: Mexico City’s can host 60,000 spectators, making it the largest in the world. It is one of just eight countries where bullfighting remains legal, and second only to Spain in the number of bullfights per year.
1 - Fun Fact
The Aztec Empire was notably informal in that it did not demand total legal loyalty from the territories it dominated — instead, simply requiring “tributes” of those they conquered. It was known for avoiding killing enemies on the battlefield … a practice that was less altruistic than it sounds, given that they avoided casualties mostly so they could perform large-scale human sacrifices in religious ceremonies outside of battle.
2 - Modern Politics
In recent years, Mexico partnered with the United States and Canada on a new trade deal but has also been willing to accept Chinese investment and has maintained neutrality regarding political turmoil in nearby Venezuela. It continues a longstanding practice of neutrality for Mexico, which, except for World War II, has mostly avoided taking sides in international conflicts despite staying involved globally by becoming a key figure in both the United States and the G-20 international economic forum.
3 - And Economics
Mexico opened up its oil industry in 2013, yet current president Andrés Manuel López Obrado — elected in 2018 — has been reluctant to allow private companies to seriously compete with the state-controlled oil giant Pemex. And despite a cratering economy, AMLO, as the president is known, has pumped $7.4 billion into an infrastructure problem meant to employ and enrich southeast Mexico. But critics worry that the initiatives are “white elephant projects” with no real economic gain, calling into question how open market Mexico’s economy will remain going forward.
What sport is Mexico a top Olympic competitor in?
How many lives have been lost to the Mexican drug wars since 2006?
More than 120,000
More than 200,000
Less than 120,000
Less than 100,000
What Mexican musical form has been honored by UNESCO?
Mexican boy bands
Is Mexico a member of the G-20 and the United Nations?
United Nations, but not G-20
G-20, but not United Nations
How many UNESCO sites can be found in Mexico?
What is the nickname of Mexico’s president elected in 2018?
Mexico’s top natural resources do not include:
What is the Mexican term for wrestling that inspired the film Nacho Libre?
More than 120,000
What to Read
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo (1955):This Mexican classic was originally met with a lukewarm reception that eventually shifted to critical acclaim. The novel, which follows Juan Preciado as he searches for his father, is celebrated both for its spellbinding plot and its use of magical realism, a literary device that would prove hugely influential for another great Latin American novelist, Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez
Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (1989): Esquivel’s debut novel follows the magical realism path set forth by Rulfo, fully realizing the form while following the lead character, Tita, as she tries to restore her relationship with Pedro, the love of her life. The art of cooking and Mexican cuisine permeates the pages, inspiring each chapter title and a 1992 film of the same name.
Valeria Luiselli, Los ingrávidos (2012): For a more contemporary writer, look no further than Luiselli, whose essays and novels are wonderful eyes into Mexican culture. Her debut feature is built on conversations between the central character and literary figures from the past. Her writing is especially accessible and has been translated into multiple languages globally.
What to Watch
Pan’s Labyrinth: Some may be surprised by the film’s inclusion on this list, but the immensely popular dark fantasy film was directed by Guillermo del Toro and is a Spanish-Mexican co-production that takes place five years after the Spanish Civil War, intertwining the real world with a mystical labyrinth and the mysterious faun-like creature at the heart of it all. Del Toro has compared his film to The Chronicles of Narnia as well as The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria Cuervos, two films that were shot while Spain was controlled by dictator Francisco Franco.
Roma: This Mexican drama, set in the early ’70s, follows the life of a Mexico City housekeeper working for a middle-class family. The semi-autobiographical film, shot in black and white, received 20 major nominations — winning nine of them, including Academy Awards for best foreign language film, best director and best cinematography.
The Exterminating Angel: The premise is simple: What if the bougie guests at an upscale dinner party were unable to leave? Tension and drama ensue, creating a social experiment in which all norms are discarded as the guests’ struggle to survive reveals their true, animalistic nature — in a 1962 movie from Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel, which was recently transformed into a chilling opera by a British composer.
What to Listen to
Mariachi: Perhaps the most popular Mexican musical form, it arose in the 1940s in the western parts of Mexico, and is played by an ensemble including a guitarrón, vihuela, guitar, violins and trumpets. The most popular Mariachi group, Mariachi Vargas, was created in 1897 but has been influenced artistically by Rubén Fuentes, now 95 years old, since 1950. Go to Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City to find thousands of mariachis contending to be paid for their services, hoping to be conscripted into weddings, baptisms or birthdays.
Grupera: This music grew out of the ’80s and blossomed in the ’90s in Mexico, a time when the original wave of rock bands had exhausted their interest in doing covers of popular U.S. songs and started pioneering their own tracks. Pop in the likes of Los Muecos, Los Freddy’s and Los Babys to get a taste.
Mexican Ska: Originating in Jamaica, the Mexican ska movement broke ground in the ‘60s due to the influence of small bands, such as Los Matemáticos, which wrote their own tunes while also covering Jamaican hits. A more punk-influenced sound emerged in Mexico City and hit the height of its popularity in the early 2000s, although Mexican ska groups like Panteón Rococó, Inspector and Control Machete remain popular.
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