I don't know any place in the world that matches Mexico for a high-dose contrast between the European "Old World" and the "New World" of the Americas. Fascinated by this dramatic confrontation of such different worlds, I studied Latin American history, became fluent in Spanish, earned a Fulbright award for studies in Latin America, and have continued to visit Mexico many times over the years.... with still more to discover.
Perhaps Columbia, Peru, and other South American countries can claim a similar culture-clash distinction. But the global impact in 1521 of Cortés meeting Emperor Montezuma in Tenochitlán (capital of the Aztec empire, now Mexico City) has been considered the meeting place... of mankind itself (Malcolm Lowry).
This contrast of "Old" and "New" worlds is, of course, a historical construct. Mexico was "old" way before the so-called European conquistadores claimed it as theirs. But the distinction holds for the ways in which the known Western world, especially of Europe, was so dramatically changed with the "discovery" of the Americas by three little Spanish ships bringing both amazing news and wealth back. One can argue about what was brought to the New World in return, and history is filled with such arguments.
Across contemporary Mexico, one can see magnificent structures, murals, pottery, and cultural products of Aztec, Mayan and other Pre-columbian civilizations. They provide a glimpse into some of the history and knowledge of amazing civilizations that preceded Columbus. Even the foods introduced by the New into the Old World, remain daily staples in the tasty cuisine of "Mexican food". Centuries of both culture-clash and cultural mix of the indigenous and the colonial endure here.
After centuries of rule by Spanish and subsequent French monarchies, Mexico fought for and gained independence in 1821. The political task of the time was to unify the different regions into a nation-state with one identity."Mestizo", or ethnic mix, was the predominant theme in this political philosophy. But the formation of one national culture and polity remained a difficult task due to regional loyalties, political and economic instability, military uprisings, and foreign invasions.
Mexico lost large portions of its original territory in the 19th C. The war/invasion of the United States from 1846 to 1848 led to the annexation of huge portions of formerly Mexican land. Mexico was invaded again in 1862 by the French, who installed a monarchy in coalition with conservative Mexican elites. Civil war ensued until the French were defeated by Mexican liberals in 1867, which inaugurated a new republic.
Many Mexicos: Diversity
The different regions of Mexico present contrasts of geography and cultural variety. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) created a convergence for national identity. Nevertheless, identity-politics have remained fierce, with different regions claiming their own affiliation.
In contemporary Mexico, although the majority of the population is mestizo, there is renewed attention to and appreciation of cultural difference and diversity. Rethinking the role and meaning of indigenous peoples has given rise to the notion of a pluralistic national identity.
Geography is one way to approach Mexico's extraordinary diversity. Six major regions may be considered, but one city ranks above others as "la cabeza del gigante".
Mexico City ranks as the largest city in North America and is one of the largest in the world. Located beside the active, snow-capped volcano, Popocatépetl, it is the federal center of Mexico. Yet the Mexican nation has traditionally been characterized by strong provincial and local cultural identities. People tend to identify closely with their own region, with strong regional and local identities haven given rise to the idea that there exist "many Mexicos." Although Mexican culture is diverse, a strong push towards a "mexicanidad" nationalism persists.
The states typically listed in this group are the desert-dominated Baja California, Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo León, Sinaloa, Sonora and Tamaulipas. Six of them share a border with the United States, whose commercial and cultural influence is notable.
The Central Northern Region of Mexico i contains the states of Aguascalientes, Colima, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. Mexico's most densely populated area, it contains a diverse mix of cultures, with a common thread being its its colonial past, still very visible in its architecture and social distinctions. A region of wealthy silver mines, it also produced wealthy, culture-rich cities with resplendent architecture, like Guanajuato and Zacatecas. Regarded as having the highest living standards in the country, this region has attracted much European immigration. It is also home to several indigenous groups, including the Huichol people, famed for their artwork and ritual use of peyote.
Central Mexico, once defined by the majestic Aztec capital of Tenochitlán, is now dominated by the dense metropolis of Mexico City. This region includes the Federal District as well as the states of Hidalgo, Mexico State, Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Veracruz (also considered part of the South division, below). Many cities here, especially Mexico City and Puebla reflect both strong colonial and indigenous heritage. In contrast, the Caribbean south-central coastal state of Veracruz is heavily influenced by Cuban culture.
Historically the poorest region in the country, the southern states of Campeche, Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Veracruz, and the Yucatán are home to many indigenous peoples. These states are the most linguistically diverse in the country, with hundreds of indigenous languages still spoken here. Again, diversity is evident in populations and cultural impact.
For example, the state of Oaxaca is famed for its vibrant and colourful cuisine, as well as for its decorative pottery. The Costa Chica region of Guerrero state has a notable Afro-Mexican population, descendants of African slaves who were brought to the region in the 16th C. Chiapas the southernmost state, attracted international attention in 1994 when the Zapatista army took up arms against the government, a movement that continues today throughout the region.
Each region displays local cultural features that are part of its distinctive history. Along with a common history of colonialism runs a common theme of unequally distributed land ownership and use. This was one of spurs to the Mexican Revolution and continues to mark the great disparity in wealth distribution in Mexico, making some of its wealthiest citizens gated prisoners in a potentially hostile environment.
Unique Tradition and Revolutionary Art
Mexico's long tradition of visual art goes back to pre-Columbian times. When the different Indian civilizations prospered, they constructed urban centers and religious buildings with impressive architecture as well as sophisticated graphic art in their frescos, pottery, and sculpted work. .
The Mexican Revolution generated a period of intense and populist-oriented artistic innovation. The most widely acknowledged Mexican art form became, the mural. Artistic excellence and state support fuelled a renewed interest in popular Mexican history and culture and Pre-Columbian themes. Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco are among its most famous muralists, as is Frida Kahlo among its more personally expressive artists.
Mexico has a vastly rich artistic tradition of internationally renowned fine art and folk art that continues to the present. Visit almost any region and you will find amazing local art and handicrafts in the form of paintings, ceramics, weavings, and sculptures. Some are in galleries and some are sold on the street.
Here's a selection of some anonymous folk art and fine art (Fernando Pereznieto) that I've purchased in different regions of Mexico, some from street-vendors and some from galleries. I get much pleasure from the inventiveness and decorative sense of this work.
I've always been charmed by the folk art gracing even the dustiest villages in Mexico. Huichol yarn-paintings and beadwork provide other unique examples of Mexican art, as do painted and carved wooden masks. Symbols specific to each culture are usually incorporated into these art forms. The art created for festivals, such masks and paintings relating to the Day of the Dead, add to the wealth of Mexican art.
Many of us from northern lands seek out Mexico for its wondrous beaches and warm winter weather. I'm among them. So many places beckon on Mexico's eastern Gulf's "Mayan Riviera", the Lakes area (Lake Chapala), and the Pacific Coast. I'll focus now on just one: Puerto Vallarta.
This little village on Banderas Bay was off the map until it hit movie-star status. It was The Night of the Iguana, with John Huston directing Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Ava Garden among its spicy cast that turned a picture-perfect fishing village into a stellar spot. The cinematic luminaries, apparently charmed by this location, stayed on ... and Puerto Vallarta has never since been the same. The village and its surrounds have now grown into a famed vacation spot.
I've visited Puerto Vallarta several times, following the route taken by so many North Americans escaping a long winter at home. I'm always delighted by the Malecón, the shoreline promenade in the town's center. It's a stunning walk, not only in its views of water and sunsets, but also in the artful way the pavement is patterned and decorated with marvelous sculptures.. The fanciful and anthropomorphic sculptures along this seaside path are triumphs of the originality and appeal of Mexican art. Larger than life-size public art works in bronze by sculptors like Sergio Bustamante, Alejandro Colunga, Guillermo Gomez, Jonas Gutierrez, and Oscar Zamarripa have become rightly famous public delights. Children and adults touch, sit or climb on them, or just enjoy their ingenious company. So much visual art lives here, as in much of Mexico.Sometimes there are also wonderful sand sculptures and imaginative street performers mimicking incredible statues.
Art is an Active Part of Life ... especially in Mexico
Art here is not only feast for the eyes. It is not an elitist activity channelled into museums and galleries, but is an essential and active part of life. People use what comes to hand in daily life to make art. They make it when they can with the time and materials available to them. They often have full-time jobs as waiters, mechanics, house-cleaners, ditch-diggers, gardeners, or whatever. Yet they still make art happen in their lives. I've seen art made from hammered bottle caps made into sculptures and tactile paintings. Torn strips of discarded clothes have been turned into fabric art hangings. I've seen worn old shoes decorated and turned into cactus planters. Even the small tin nichos, originally used as devotional retablos, have been cleverly designed to convey folk sayings and social commentary (shown below).
My point is that everything is open to artistic transformation. The spontaneous output of a creatively expressive culture is visible in its art. The active exercise of this energy is what I love about regional art... and art in general.