Culture Name


Alternative Names

Cultura mexicana (sometimes referred to as mexicanidad)


Identification. The word "Mexico" is derived from Mexica (pronounced "Me-shee-ka"), the name for the indigenous group that settled in central Mexico in the early fourteenth century and is best known as the Aztecs.

Mexicans make several cultural subdivisions within the nation. The most common one identifies northern, central, and south or south-eastern Mexico. The extensive and desertlike north was only sparsely populated until the middle of the twentieth century, except for some important cities such as Monterrey. It has traditionally housed only small indigenous populations and is generally regarded as a frontier culture. Densely populated central and western Mexico is the cradle of the nation. Highly developed Indian cultures populated this region in pre-Columbian times and it was also the heart of the colony of New Spain. Many prominent colonial cities are major urban and industrial centers today. Southern Mexico has a tropical or subtropical climate and some rain forest. It is characterized by a strong indigenous heritage and is also the poorest part of the country.

Another relevant cultural division is that between the central template highlands (the altiplano) and the much more humid mountainous regions (the sierras) and coastal plains. In many parts of Mexico this division parallels the relative presence of indigenous populations, with the sierra regions being the most indigenous.

On a smaller scale the Mexican nation has traditionally been characterized by strong provincial and local cultural identities. People identify closely with their own state; stereotypes about people from other places abound. Strong regional and local identities have given rise to the idea that there exist "many Mexicos." Nevertheless, even though Mexican culture is diverse, there is also a strong identification with the nation-state; nationalism is vigorous.

Location and Geography. Mexico is situated in North America, although culturally, it is identified more closely with Central and South American countries. It borders the United States in the north, Guatemala and Belize in the south, the Pacific Ocean in the west, and the Gulf of Mexico in the east. The national territory measures more than 750,000 square miles (nearly two million square kilometers) and contains a wide range of physical environments and natural resources. Two huge mountain chainsthe Western Sierra Madre and the Eastern Sierra Madrerun from north to south and meet in central Mexico. East and west of the mountain chains are strips of humid coastal plains. The entirely flat Yucatán peninsula in the southeast is an exception in mountainous Mexico. The possibilities and limitations of this topographic and climatic system have had a strong influence on Mexico's social, economic, and cultural organization.

The national capital is Mexico City, situated in the heart of central Mexico. In pre-Columbian times it was the site of the capital of the Aztec Empire and during the three centuries of colonial rule it was the seat of the viceroys of New Spain. Mexico City today is the second largest city in the world with 17 million inhabitants as of 1995. Most administrative and economic activities are concentrated in Mexico City. A ring of citiesPuebla, Cuernavaca, Toluca, and Querétarosurrounds the capital. Other major cities are Guadalajara in the west and the industrial city of Monterrey in the north. In the late twentieth century, major urban centers developed along the border with the United States.

Demography. The preliminary results of the 2000 population census calculated the total number of Mexicans as 97,361,711. In 1950, the total population amounted to approximately 25 million, with the figure reaching nearly 50 million in 1970. These numbers demonstrate the rapid rate of demographic growth that was so characteristic of Mexico during the second half of the twentieth century. The growth rate has slowed, but the population is still very young. The average life expectancy in 1999 was estimated at sixty-nine years for men and a little over seventy-five years for women; the infant mortality rate was almost twenty-five per one thousand. In the late twentieth century, emigration to the United States (mainly of the illegal variety) became a significant phenomenon.

Mexico's population still contains many Indian groups. Depending on the definition used, the total number of Indians varied from 6.7 million to 10 million in 1995. The most significant groups are the Nahuas, Otomís, Mayas, Zapotecas, Mixtecos, Tzeltales, and Tzotziles.

Linguistic Affiliation. Spoken by more than 95 percent of the population, Spanish is the official language of Mexico and was introduced through conquest and colonization. Mexican Spanish has its roots in the Spanish of Spain. In terms of grammar, syntax, and spelling there are no important differences between the two, but the pronunciation and sound are different. Certain words from the principal Indian language (Nahuatl) are incorporated into Mexican Spanish, especially in the domains of food and household. Some of these words have also been incorporated into other languages such as the English 'chocolate' from the Nahuatl 'chocolatl'. The national culture of Mexico boasts sixty-two indigenous languages. In 1995 at least 5.5 million people spoke an indigenous language. The level of bilinguism, however, was high at 85 percent.

Symbolism. The most prominent symbols that express and reinforce national culture belong to the domains of state, religion, and popular culture. As a product of the Mexican Revolution (19101917), the Mexican state has been an important point of convergence for national identity. Because it was a widely shared process that profoundly refashioned the country's social, political, economic, and cultural characteristics, the revolution itself has become an important source of national identity. The postrevolutionary state has been very active and effective in nurturing national symbols and heroes. Children who attend public schools honor the national flag and sing the national anthem every Monday morning. The flag consists of three vertical strips in the colors green (representing "hope"), white ("purity") and red ("blood"). In the central white strip is the image of an eagle standing on a cactus plant and eating a snake. This image represents the myth of the foundation of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire.

The most important icon of Mexican national culture is the Virgin of Guadalupe, which illustrates the pervasive influence of Roman Catholicism in the national culture. She is viewed as the "mother" of all Mexicans. The dark-skinned Virgin is the Mexican version of the Virgin Mary and as such represents national identity as the product of the mixing of European and Meso-American religions and peoples. Her image was used in the struggle for independence against the Spanish.

Mexicans have developed a particular sense of uniqueness, which is expressed in the popular saying como México no hay dos (Mexico is second to none). This sense is also expressed in numerous elements of popular culture such as food and music.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Mexican national culture slowly emerged from a process of accommodation between the indigenous cultures and the Spanish colonial domination that lasted three centuries. Mexico gained independence in 1821. In the nineteenth century, the formation of the national culture and polity remained a difficult task mainly due to political instability, military uprisings, and foreign invasions. In these years Mexico lost large portions of its original territory. Most important in this respect was the war with the United States between 1846 and 1848, which broke out when the United States attempted to annex independent Texas. The war ended with U.S. forces defeating the Mexican army. The 1848 peace treaty ceded Texas, California, and New Mexico to the United States and reduced Mexico's territory by half. Despite this tragic loss, the war did contribute to the development of a genuine nationalism for the first time. In 1853, in a contradictory decision, the Mexican government sold present-day southern New Mexico and Arizona to the United States in order to solve budgetary problems. The relationship between Mexico and the United States has remained difficult and ambivalent ever since.

Mexico was invaded again in 1862, this time 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 that was finally becoming a nation-state. These were years of nascent economic, infrastructural, and political modernization. Political stabilization and economic development were also the hallmarks of the regime of Porfirio Díaz (18761910). The years of the Díaz regime were also the time when Mexico became increasingly connected in a railroad network. These processes fostered the political, economic, and social integration of different groups and regions within the nation and strengthened state and nation building. These profound transformations, however, also created many tensions and conflicts between rich and poor, peasants and large landowners, Indians and non-Indians, and the politically influential and the aspiring middle classes. This instablility eventually led to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, which drove Díaz out of power and then developed into a harsh and violent civil war. It is estimated that 1 million people were killed during the revolutionary period (of a total population of a little more than 15 million in 1910). Armed struggle formally ended with the adoption of a new Constitution in early 1917, but it still took several decades more before a new nation-state consolidated. Postrevolutionary reconstruction affected all domains of society and gave an entirely new meaning to the nation.

National Identity. The development of Mexican national identity has occurred through distinctive positioning in the international arena and through internal strides towards unity and homogeneity. Mexico's history of complicated relationships with colonial or imperial powers explains its current drive toward a proud and self-conscious identity. Especially after World War II, the nation sought ways to project itself onto the international scene. For example, Mexico hosted major world sporting events on three occasions: the Olympic Games in 1968 and the World Cup world soccer championships in 1970 and 1986an accomplishment achieved otherwise only by rich countries such as France and Italy.

The development of Mexican national identity has also focused on Mexico's distinctive relationship to the United States. U.S. economic and cultural influence in Mexico is strong. Mexicans resent this situation but at the same time admire the achievements of their northern neighbors.

Internally, the forging of a national identity always revolved around the issue of race. The adoption of liberalism in the nineteenth century implied that all racial groups in Mexico were made legally equal in the framework of the incipient nation-state, although not in social practice. The dominant ideology actively sought to eliminate racial heterogeneity. It was believed that only a racially homogeneous population could develop a national identity, which led to the promotion of racial mixing, or mestizaje.

After the revolution, the emphasis shifted from racial to cultural differences. The value ascribed to Mexico's indigenous peoples also changed. The grandeur of pre-Columbian Indian culture was incorporated into the national imagery. At the same time, the ideas and policies that stressed cultural uniformity and homogeneity persisted. In the ideology of the revolution, the opposition between Indian and European had given rise to a synthesis, the mestizo, who was considered the authentic Mexican. In the middle of the twentieth century, the elaboration of the national identity increasingly concentrated on the supposed (psychological) character of the quintessential Mexican mestizo. This gave rise to the mythology of mexicanidad, or "the essence of being Mexican."

In recent years, the ideas about Mexican national identity have again changed. Although the absolute majority of the population is mestizo, there is a renewed attention to and appreciation of cultural differences and diversity. The rethinking of the role and meaning of indigenous peoples has given rise to the notion of a pluricultural national identity.

Ethnic Relations. Social policies aimed at the emancipation of Indian groups and the elimination of profound socioeconomic inequalities have been employed since the 1930s. Nevertheless, indigenous populations are among the poorest and most marginalized groups in Mexico. Prejudice among broad sectors of the population toward Indians persists. Elites in provincial towns in predominantly indigenous regions are often openly racist. This situation has strained ethnic relations and there has been a rise of indigenous movements in recent years that demand a new space in the national culture. Most significant has been the outbreak of armed indigenous rebellion in the state of Chiapas, where the Zapatista Army for National Liberation declared war on the government in January 1994.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Mexican cities have been built from the central square (zócalo ) outwards. The main church and the municipal or state palace are invariably to be found on the zócalo, which is the center of a colonial checkerboard pattern of streets. The zócalo with its benches, bandstand, and fountain is a crucial place for citizens to meet for leisure activities, political rallies, civic rituals, and demonstrations. The huge zócalo in Mexico City has become synonymous with a public space appropriated by ordinary people.

In recent decades, Mexican cities have grown at a pace surpassing the capacities of urban planning. Urban growth has been accompanied by squatter settlements and uncontrolled commercial and industrial expansion. This growth has also consumed extreme amounts of space, because low-rise buildings prevail and because priority is given to new and prestigious projects in the outskirts as opposed to urban renewal.

Mexican architecture was heavily influenced by Spanish and French traditions. Nevertheless, local traditions and indigenous crafts always mediated European influences. In the twentieth century, Mexican architecture developed a proper style. Public buildings constructed in the latter half of the century breathe a monumental atmosphere, reminiscent of the great pre-Columbian pyramids.

The houses of well-to-do Mexicans have been inward looking, towards a patio, since colonial times. Their front sides mainly consist of plastered walls and barred windows. This reflects the desire to protect the family from the outside world and underscores the key role of family life in the national culture. Today, wealthy neighborhoods are mosaics of entirely walled residences. The majority of poor Mexicans live in smaller and very modest houses and apartment buildings. Building one's own house is an important cultural imperative. Mexicans like to paint their houses in vivid colors.

An extensive network of highways links Mexican cities and towns. All major highways converge on the capital, which illustrates the national culture's deeply engrained centralist tradition.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Mexico possesses an extensive and sophisticated culinary culture, with a great variety of regional dishes. Three products constitute the heart of most Mexican dishes: corn, hot peppers (chiles), and beans, products that stem from pre-Columbian times. Corn is consumed in all possible forms: as a cooked or roasted corncob (elote ), cooked grain of corn, porridge (atole ), as wrapped and steamed dough with filling (tamal ), but most importantly as a tortilla, a thin, round "pancake." Tortillas are made from corn dough and come in many sizes, although the traditional tortilla that accompanies most meals has a diameter of approximately six inches (15 centimeters). When tortillas are filled with meat or other ingredients they are called tacos or quesadillas, which are especially popular in central Mexico. Much of the sophistication of Mexican cuisine comes from the use of more than one hundred different types of chiles, which range from the large and "sweet" chile ancho to the small and extremely hot chile habanero.

Mexicans generally have a light breakfast of coffee and/or fruit before they leave for work or school. Halfway through the morning, people may eat a warm tortilla-based snack or a bread roll. The most important meal of the day is served between two and four in the afternoon (the comida ) and consists of three or four courses: soup; rice or pasta; meat or chickenif affordableaccompanied by tortillas and refried beans; and dessert. Dinner is served between eight and ten at night and consists mainly of sweet rolls, coffee, and milk. Mexicans frequently eat outdoors. Homely restaurants serve inexpensive fixed menus known as comida corrida. Mexicans drink huge quantities of soft drinks and beer. Although the national liquor is tequila, which is produced from the maguey cactus, Mexicans prefer rum with cola during weddings and other celebrations, or fiestas.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. There are numerous religious and secular occasions in Mexico that are accompanied by special food. A popular religious fiesta is the Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas) on 2 February, which celebrates the purification of Mary and the presentation and blessing of Jesus. After the church ceremony family and close friends join for tamales. During the Day of the Dead, 2 November, people consume pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a long and flat sweet bread prepared with many eggs and sugar. At Christmas people eat romeritos, a plant similar to rosemary served with sauce and potatoes; bacalao, dried codfish cooked and served in a sauce of tomatoes, olives, and onions; and all sorts of stuffed turkey. In September people commemorate independence and, in central Mexico, eat a sophisticated dish called chile en nogada, a stuffed chile poblano dressed with a white walnut sauce, red pomegranate, and green parsley, in a representation of the Mexican flag.

Basic Economy. Mexico has a free-market economy with a mixture of modern and traditional industry and agriculture, increasingly dominated by the private sector. Until the mid-1980s, state regulation of the economy and protectionist policies were influential, but since then the Mexican economy has experienced deregulation, internationalization, and privatization. The number of state-owned companies fell from more than one thousand in 1982 to fewer than two hundred in 1998. Economic restructuring was promoted by national and international interest groups in response to several late twentieth century economic and financial crises.

The gross domestic product (GDP) amounted to $415 billion (U.S.) in 1998. The composition of GDP by sector was as follows: agriculture, a little more than 5 percent; industry, 29 percent; and services, almost 66 percent, of which commerce, restaurants, and hotels accounted for a third. Mexico's external debt amounted to $154 billion (U.S.) in 1997.

Land Tenure and Property. The unequal distribution of land was a key cause of the Mexican Revolution. The struggle for land led to the adoption of a policy of land reform that reached its height in the 1930s but slowed steadily after. Since then Mexico has known three types of land tenure: pequeña propiedad (small property), ejido, and the tierra comunal. The first category refers to privately owned land. Ejido land, which was established after the revolution, is officially owned by the state, which confers usufruct rights to land reform recipients. Legally recognized communal lands, the tierra comunal, belong to particular communities and are distributed according to tradition. In 1992, a controversial constitutional reform put an end to land reform and made possible the privatization of ejido lands.

Commercial Activities. The GDP of commerce, restaurants, and hotels accounted for $77 billion(U.S.) in 1998. Mexicans have a long tradition of acquiring basic goods and foodstuffs in small neighborhood grocery shops (tienda de abarrote ). These shops may sell very small quantities of certain products. In 1998, more than half of all commercial units belonged to this category and almost a third of all personnel employed in commercial activities worked in these shops. At the same time, in urban areas there is an increasing tendency to shop in huge supermarkets. Mexican merchants own most national supermarket chains, but American and French companies are rapidly gaining influence in this sector.

Major Industries. The gross national product (GNP) of the manufacturing industry in 1998 amounted to almost $82 billion (U.S.). The major manufactured goods were motor vehicles, consumer durables, food, beverages, tobacco, chemicals, textiles, and clothing. After Mexico City, the most important industrial center is Monterrey in the north. Much of recent industry is organized in so-called maquiladoras (labor-intensive assembly plants). All sorts of maquiladoras were originally introduced only in a narrow zone along the U.S. border, but they are now allowed throughout Mexico.

Trade. In 1998, Mexico's exports totaled more than $117 billion (U.S.) and its imports amounted to more than $125 billion (U.S.). Although Mexico produces and exports large quantities of oil, the overwhelming majority of exports came from the manufacturing industry. The most important sectors were, in diminishing order, machinery, automobiles, textiles, and clothing. The United States is by far the most important trading partner, accounting for more than three-quarters of Mexico's imports and exports. Trade with the United States and Canada increased substantially following the implementation in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico is pursuing additional trade agreements with countries in Latin America, as well as with Israel and the European Union to lessen its dependence on the United States.

Division of Labor. The labor force consisted of 38,617,500 persons in 1998, of which 20 percent were employed in the primary sector, almost 25 percent in the secondary sector (especially in manufacturing and construction), and 55 percent in the tertiary sector, which includes commerce and services. Although jobs are formally assigned on the basis of qualifications, access to jobs is crucially mediated by personal networks.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Mexico has a very unequal distribution of wealth, even compared to other Latin American countries. With the introduction of neoliberal economic policies, inequalities have sharpened. In 1998, the top 20 percent of income earners accounted for 55 percent of Mexico's income, while an estimated 27 percent of the population was living below the poverty line. The size of the middle classes has shrunk in recent years.

Although poverty and marginalization are widespread, they are particularly strong in central and southern Mexico and especially in rural areas. An official marginalization index that includes income levels and the availability and quality of services (such as drinking water, sewage, and education) indicates that the smallest settlements are the most underprivileged.

There is a correlation between socioeconomic hierarchy and ethnicity. Among the poorest segments of the population a strong presence of Indian groups can be found. In 1995, almost all communities whose populations were comprised of more than 40 percent native language speakers suffered from high degrees of marginalization. This strongly contrasts with the wealthiest segments of the Mexican population, which are predominantly made up of whites.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Class differences are marked in Mexico and are expressed symbolically in numerous ways. Wealthy Mexicans live in neighborhoods that are sealed off by armed private guards. At the same time, conspicuous consumption and grandeur is an important characteristic of Mexican culture. A prominent medium is the possession of new and expensive cars. Members of the lower middle class put in great financial effort to demonstrate to the outside world their aspirations, sometimes to the detriment of elementary needs.

Wealthy people dress elegantly according to international clothing standards and wear expensive watches and jewelry. Dress codes are very strict in Mexico, especially at work and school. In primary and secondary school, students wear uniforms. Since colonial times, the use of sandals has been associated with the countryside, poverty, and Indians.

An important cultural marker of class difference is access to all sorts of private facilities. Whereas wealthy people and members of the upper middle class send their children to private schools and universities, use private means of transportation, and go to private hospitals and sports clubs, the not-so well-off make use of crowded state-subsidized facilities.

Class differences are also confirmed in certain behavioral rules. One such rule involves the ritual of waiting that a person from a lower position in the social hierarchy has to endure when seeking access to someone at a higher level. When class differences coincide with ethnic distinctions, discriminatory practices are not unusual.

Political Life

Government. Mexico is a federal republichence its official name Estados Unidos Mexicanos operating under a centralized government. Governmental powers at the federal level are divided between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but in political practice the executive, that is, the presidency, has had strong control over the legislative branch. Only in recent years has the legislative branch seen its power increase because of the strengthening of the multiparty system. The president is elected by popular vote for a six-year period and is both the chief of state and head of government. The president appoints cabinet members. The legislative branch is a bicameral National Congress consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies has five hundred members, elected for three-year terms; the Senate has 128 members, elected for six-year terms. In the judicial branch the Supreme Court of Justice is the highest tribunal.

The federation is made up of thirty-one states and the Federal District (the capital). Each state has a governor, who serves a six-year term, and a unicameral legislature. Both are elected by popular vote. Before 1997, the chief of the Federal District was appointed by the president, but has since been elected directly by popular vote. The Federal District also has an Assembly of Representatives. The local administrative level is the municipality, which is governed by a popularly elected mayor and a municipal council for three-year terms. Suffrage is universal and mandatory (but not enforced) for those over the age of eighteen.

Leadership and Political Officials. The modern presidency stands in a long tradition of pre-Columbian rulers (tlatoani ), Spanish colonial viceroys, and nineteenth century and revolutionary caudillos. The president holds great discretionary powers. Power and leadership are attained through the management of personal relations, which are ruled by principles of loyalty, trust, and reciprocity. These informal networks are interconnected in a pyramidal way and form the real centers of decision making. Vertical patron-client relations can be found in all segments of society. Interactions between politicians, union leaders, top bureaucrats, and ordinary people also take place through these networks. In recent years, academic credentials and technocratic knowledge have become more important than political and electoral experience.

Besides being chief of state and head of government, the president has traditionally been the leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held power from 1929 to 2000. During much of the twentieth century, Mexico was a one-party democracy. The PRI emerged from the revolution and incorporated mass organizations of workers, peasants, and urban middle classes. Because of its particular origins, its longevity in power, and the influence of diverse interest groups, the PRI is difficult to classify ideologically. There are two other significant parties in Mexico. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) began enjoying electoral success at the state level in 1985. The social-democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) emerged as a breakaway movement from the PRI in 1987 and began governing Mexico City in 1997. Both the PAN and the PRD aim at democratization, but the PRD also proposes a more equal distribution of wealth. The dominance of the PRI in federal elections was finally broken on 2 July 2000, when the candidate of the PAN won a stunning victory with 43 percent of the vote.

Social Problems and Control. Both petty and organized crime increased in the 1990s. Muggings and burglaries, increasingly violent, became widespread. Drug-related violence constituted another serious cause of concern. Public security has thus become a key issue for ordinary citizens and the authorities. At the same time, the police and the judiciary system are widely believed to be ineffective and lack public credibility, partially due to unresolved high-profile political assassinations and corruption. This has led to incidents of people taking the law into their own hands. Paid neighborhood watches are common wherever people can afford them. Private security guards no longer patrol only at banks and government buildings but also at medium-sized offices and shops. In response, the government founded an additional police force in 1999, the National Preventive Police.

Military Activity. Mexico has had civilian presidents since 1946 and has not been involved in international disputes in recent decades. The primary role of the military is the maintenance of internal order. The Ministry of National Defense (the army and air force) and the marines together comprised an armed force consisting of almost 240,000 members in 1998. Military expenditures have increased substantially in recent years and amounted to $2.5 billion (U.S.) in 1996, accounting for almost 1 percent of the GDP. In recent years the military has been involved in two serious problems: the armed uprising in the state of Chiapas and the struggle against drugs. Mexico is a major supplier of marijuana and heroin to the U.S. market and is the primary transshipment country for cocaine from South America. In 1998 the government spent $147 million (U.S.) to combat drug trafficking, an amount that has increased spectacularly in recent years.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

As part of its revolutionary heritage, the state provides welfare facilities for most Mexicans. In urban centers, but not in rural areas, health facilities are mostly well equipped. Based on the revolutionary constitution of 1917, education is provided freely by the state. People who have worked in the formal economy receive small pensions after they retire. There are no unemployment benefits. After 1982, the state's ability to uphold social expenditures was seriously undermined by economic crises, the financial burden of external debt, and the adoption of structural adjustment policies. A major government initiative, the National Solidarity Program, was launched at the end of the 1980s to attempt to counteract this development and revitalize social policies. The program was based on a shared obligation by the state and local communities to implement projects aimed at improving the standard of living. The National Solidarity Program was practically discontinued with the election of a new president in 1994, and replaced with new, but less ambitious, programs. Given the magnitude of Mexico's problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, and deficient social services, the effects of these programs have been modest.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Several political pressure groups in Mexico have founded powerful organizations. Very influential are the national business associations that have sections in all states and major cities. The most important are the Confederation of Employers of the Mexican Republic, the Coordinating Council of Entrepreneurs, and the Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce.

In recent decades, numerous organizations and associations have emerged around particular social issues. They strive to be independent from political parties and openly battle government-controlled organizations. There has also been a tendency to form national alliances of local and regional organizations. Two large networks of peasant organizations are the National Union of Regional Autonomous Peasant Organizations and the National Coordinating Committee "Plan de Ayala." Nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) have also emerged in urban areas because of the inadequate conditions in housing, transport, public services, and security. The most important of these is the National Coordinating Committee of Urban Popular Movements. In Mexico City, the Association of Neighborhoods emerged after the 1985 earthquake. Indigenous movements have proliferated in recent years, founding the National Indigenous Congress. In the 1990s, NGOs focusing on the defense of human rights have become influential. They are a response to political violence and police brutality. The environmental movement is gradually becoming more active in Mexico.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. The degree of economic participation of women was 35 percent in 1995, while that of men was about 75 percent. Nevertheless, female economic participation is increasing rapidly. In addition, it is generally assumed that many women are employed in nonregistered and underpaid informal activities. Women also generally earn less than men and their level of educational is lower. Most women are economically active when they are young (between twenty and twenty-four years of age).

Although the political arena is strongly dominated by men, the presence of women in public space has become more common place. In the early twenty-first century, for example, the leadership of major political parties was in the hands of female politicians, as was the government of Mexico City and the chair of Mexico's largest union. The involvement of women in numerous social movements has also been significant.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Although women and men are equal before the law, clear differences persist in terms of authority and privileges. Women play crucial roles in the family, but even here the male is "chief of the family" (jefe de familia ). Women are seen as the caretakers of morality and hence take center stage in the domain of religion.

In assigning males and females to different economic, political, and social roles, Mexicans can make use of complex and sometimes contradictory cultural representations of masculinity and femininity. The two key cultural icons for defining femininity are La Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The myth of La Malinche refers to the Indian woman who was given to conqueror Hernán Cortés in 1519. During the remaining part of the conquest she was his interpreter and "mistress." La Malinche is the collaborator and traitor, but also the sexually violated who gave birth to an illegitimate son, the first mestizo. In contrast to La Malinche, the Virgin of Guadalupe represents suffering and sacrifice. This has given rise to the image of the submissive, self-sacrificing, but virtuous woman (la abnegada ). Together these myths explain the ambiguity attached to defining females. The key concept for defining masculinity is machismo, which is associated with violence, power, aggressiveness, and sexual assertiveness. These general cultural representations have formed the basis for ideas of "natural" male dominance and power and female suffering and motherhood. They have been influential in the imagery of Mexican men and women, but they are increasingly considered simple stereotypes. Under the influence of profound social and cultural transformations in an increasingly urbanized Mexico, perceptions of masculinity and femininity are shifting continuously.

Marriage, Family and Kinship

Marriage. Mexicans are free to choose their marriage partners. Informally, however, there are rules that constrain choices, most importantly those related to class and ethnicity. People usually marry after a period of formal engagement that can last several years. In 1995, the average age at marriage for a male was almost twenty-four years; for a woman it was nearly twenty-two years. Out of all Mexicans aged twelve and above, just over half were married or otherwise united. Although the basis for marriage is love, many Mexicans consciously or unconsciously look for a partner who can provide social and economic security or upward mobility. Monogamy is the only marriage form allowed. A marriage ceremony consists of a civil registration and a religious wedding. Afterwards, the couple holds a huge and costly party with family and friends. At the beginning of the 1990s, the divorce rate was a relatively low 6.5 percent. It is legally easy to divorce but the social pressure against it can be formidable.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the common household unit: in 1995, almost three-quarters of all family households were nuclear. Households consisted of an average of 4.6 members. In the same year, almost 6 percent of the households were single-person. At the same time, a significant number of households consist of "extended" nuclear families, which often exist on a temporary basis. Particularly among the urban poor there are households consisting of parents, children, grandparents and sometimes other relatives. Recently married couples may live for a few years with the kin of husband or wife in order to save sufficient money to establish an independent domestic unit. In the countryside different nuclear families might live close to each other and share common resources. In 1995, 82 percent of households were male-headed. Although women generally hold fundamental responsibilities in the household, men are still the principal authority. Domestic violence constitutes a serious problem in Mexico.

Inheritance. Inheritance laws make no distinction between men and women. Each child is legally entitled to an equal share, but in practice male descendants are often privileged. In the countryside land is often distributed only among sons.

Kin Groups. The extended family is of crucial importance to most Mexicans. Although family members generally live dispersed, sometimes very far away due to international migration, they seek opportunities to gather on several occasions. Family members will occasionally get together for a meal during the weekend, but will more typically gather on religious occasions. Fictive kinship relations are established through godfathers (padrinos )and godmothers (madrinas ) at Catholic baptismal ceremonies. The family and larger kin groups are the main locus of trust, solidarity, and support in Mexico. These networks are mobilized with diverse objectives such as finding work, establishing political connections, and evading red tape.


Infant Care. The average number of children per household has decreased in recent decades and was just over two in 1995. Infants are mostly cared for at the parental home. Some are cared for at a private nursery from the age of three months. At the age of four, children are officially required to attend a kindergarten for two years. Children in Mexico are rapidly integrated into the activities of adults, but they are also strongly protected and not actively encouraged to discover their surroundings on their own.

Child Rearing and Education. After kindergarten, children are required to go to primary school for six years. Nevertheless, in 1995 almost 32 percent of the population over the age of fifteen had not finished primary school. In public and private schools pupils have to wear uniforms. Whereas public schools stress civic values and lay education, the majority of private schools tend to place more emphasis on religious values. There are also more liberal private schools. Relations between teacher and pupils tend to be strict.

Role and rule differentiation between girls and boys begins at an early age and forms key aspects of child rearing until adolescence. Male babies are dressed in blue and female babies in soft pink. There is a tendency to raise boys as "little men" and girls as "little women," thereby preparing them for their future gender roles. Sexual education within the family is still taboo for many Mexicans. Methods of child rearing also show differences according to class. In lower-class households it can be strict and traditional. During the 1990s, the government launched campaigns against the use of corporal punishment.

The most important initiation ceremony for girls is held when they turn fifteen. This fiesta de quince años marks the transition from girl to señorita, that is, a young virgin. The event also indicates that the young woman is now available for marriage. The ritual includes a holy mass during which the need to maintain purity until marriage is stressed. Afterward, the family holds a large party. There is no comparable ritual for boys.

Higher Education. In Mexico higher education is considered a road to socioeconomic progress and well-being. During several decades, public universities were recruitment sites for the political and administrative elite. This function has increasingly been taken over by the most prestigious private universities. In 1995, nearly 12 percent of the population over the age of twenty-five enjoyed some degree of higher education. At the beginning of university courses in 1998, there were just over 1.5 million students in the universities (excluding preparatory schools), of which 811,000 were men and 704,000 were women. Half the students studied social and administrative sciences and a third were in engineering and technology.


Mexican etiquette is strongly informed by the culture of social hierarchies and distance. These can exist along the lines of race and gender, but class distinctions regulate social interaction most decisively. It goes without saying that the different social hierarchies frequently run parallel.

Generally speaking, Mexicans shake hands when they meet or in the case of two women meeting or a man and a woman meeting, kiss each other on the cheek once. In the case of close friends and on special occasions, such as New Year's Eve, Mexican men and women embrace each other, pat each other gently on the back, and then shake hands. This abrazo expresses confidentiality and the crucial value of trust. Because strangers cannot be placed within the different circles of intimacy and confidentiality they are generally treated with suspicion.

When people of different socioeconomic status meet, the individual with the socially ascribed inferior status will wait for the person with superior status to define the terms of the encounter. Mexicans are very keen on being addressed with their academic or professional title. The most commonly used academic title is that of licenciado. The form of address of licenciado is more linked to the position someone holds than to that person's precise academic credentials. People of lower standing will also invariably address a socially superior with the formal you (usted ), while the latter will most likely use the informal you (tu ). These forms of address draw boundaries, create distance, and confirm the social hierarchies so characteristic of the national culture.

Mexicans value the art of eloquence. Conversations will mostly begin with polite and informal exchanges and slowly move toward the subject matter. Even then Mexicans remain indirect speakers, avoiding clear-cut statements. Politicians and senior bureaucrats are identified as the masters of this rhetorical style. They have become the object of irony in the hands of the famous comic Cantinflas, who by speaking a lot but saying nothing gave birth to the verb cantinflar.


Religious Beliefs. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Mexico. After the conquest by the Spanish, Mexico's indigenous peoples readily accepted Catholic beliefs and practices, but they did so on the basis of their pre-Hispanic religious beliefs. The Virgin of Guadalupe, for example, was associated with the pagan goddess Tonantzin. As a result, Mexican folk Catholicism is frequently described as syncretic. Catholic beliefs pervade the life of ordinary Mexicans. Because the Catholic Church has been a very powerful institution in Mexican history, its relationship with the state has at times been tense and sometimes openly hostile. In recent decades, Protestant missionaries have been particularly active in southern Mexico and among the urban poor.

Religious Practitioners. The most important practitioners are Catholic priests, who conduct regular masses and officiate over events Mexicans consider crucial such as birth, weddings, death, and quince años (the initiation ceremony for girls). Priests also perform more quotidian rituals such as the blessing of new houses or cars. As parish priests are profoundly involved in the social life of local communities, their influence reaches beyond religious matters.

Rituals and Holy Places. Mexico's most significant religious rituals are determined by the Catholic calendar. Easter (Semana Santa ) is perhaps the most important of all. In different places within Mexico, the reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday is attended by great crowds. The largest is in Iztapalapa in Mexico City and attracts more than 100,000 believers.

The nation's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, has her shrine in Mexico City, near the hill of Tepeyac, where she first appeared in 1531. The huge modern basilica there attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the country every year, especially on 12 December, Guadalupe's Day. Every community (rural or urban) has its own patron saint who is honored with processions and fiestas every year.

Death and the Afterlife. Representations and rituals of death play a prominent role in popular culture, art, and religion. It has been suggested that this is related to pre-Columbian indigenous beliefs. Such rituals are most vigorously expressed in the festivities of the Days of the Dead, 1 and 2 November. On this occasion, Mexicans arrange altars for the dead in their homes with food, beverages, and other objects (such as skulls made of sugar or chocolate) to welcome them on their return to earth. Many Mexicans also visit churchyards and adorn the graves with large orange flowers. They will spent some time by the grave praying but also sharing memories about the deceased. The so-called Mexican cult of the dead has attracted much attention abroad.

Medicine and Health Care

The Mexican health system is sharply divided between public and private facilities, the latter being accessible only to the well-to-do. The overwhelming majority of the population depends on government institutions such as the Mexican Social Security Institute. The national health system consisted of more than seventeen thousand medical units in 1998, of which 885 were hospitals and the rest basic medical service centers in rural areas. The government health sector had a budget of approximately $11 billion (U.S.) in 1999 and employed around 300,000 doctors and nurses. Many doctors from public hospitals also have their own private consultation clinics.

Ordinary Mexicans frequently discuss sickness, health, and medicine and are familiar with self-treatment. Since most medicines can be purchased freely in commercial pharmacies, Mexicans tend to consume medication in considerable quantities. In addition, several folk health-providers exist and have a regular clientele. Herbalists can be found at local markets. Curanderos ("healers") use traditional curing procedures and medicinal plants. Spiritualist healers consider themselves religious practitioners first and alternative health-providers second. Generally, Mexicans do not assume a fundamental inconsistency between folk health-providers and physicians.

Secular Celebrations

The Battle against the French is celebrated on 5 May (Cinco de Mayo ), remembering the victory of Mexican forces over the French invaders in the hills near the city of Puebla in 1862. It took the French a year to bring reinforcements and take the Mexican capital in 1863. Cinco de Mayo is an important symbol of national sovereignty and parades are held throughout the country.

Independence Day is 16 September and celebrates the start of the struggle for independence in 1810, which began when the Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla rang the church bells in the village of Dolores and called upon the parishioners to drive out the Spanish. This actthe so-called Grito de Dolores is repeated ritually on the night of 15 September by the authorities throughout Mexico and even by ambassadors abroad. The ritual ends with the vigorous shouting of "Viva México " three times. On the morning of 16 September there are military parades organized by the government. Independence Day is the most important civic ritual and enjoys broad popular participation. During the whole month of September houses, offices, and public buildings are decorated with the colors of the Mexican flag.

The Day of the Revolution, 20 November, commemorates the planned uprising of Francisco Madero against the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1910 that marked the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. It is mainly a state-orchestrated event that arouses modest popular participation. The main event is the long sports parade in front of the National Palace in the center of Mexico City.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. The most important federal institution active in the field of arts is the National Council for Culture and Arts (CNCA). The CNCA coordinates the activities of more than thirty public institutions in the world of arts; one of them is the National Fund for Culture and Arts, founded in 1989, which provides modest financial support (such as scholarships and project financing) to young and distinguished artists in a wide variety of disciplines. There are also private funds that support the arts.

Literature. The earliest evidence of writing dates back to 600 b.c.e. in the form of Zapotec glyphs, which have not yet been deciphered. Pre-Columbian literature is generally considered to include the scarce writings from before the conquest as well as the poetry and prose in indigenous languages that was recorded in alphabetical writing and produced after the conquest. The former group comprises the codices, pictographic writings on accordion-pleated amate ("paper,") most of which were destroyed. Their content is mainly religious and historical. The most important Mayan literary texts, such as the Popol Vuh, belong to the second group. One of the most significant legacies of Aztec culture is the poetry of the king of Texcoco, Nezahualcóyotl (14021472).

In colonial New Spain, the seventeenth century produced two most outstanding literary talents: writer and scientist Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora (16451700), and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (16511695), a brilliant woman who became a nun in order to continue her scholarly and literary pursuits. She is best known for her poetry and her theological and secular prose.

After independence, such international literary trends as romanticism, realism, and modernism influenced Mexico's literary achievements. Ignacio Manuel Altamirano (18341893) was the foremost representative of Mexican romanticism, which strove to develop a national literature nurtured by the realities of the country. Others include José López Portillo y Rojas (18501923) and Amado Nervo (18701919).

The Mexican Revolution and its aftermath led to the emergence of a new generation of writers and literary themes. The "novel of the revolution," which started with the 1915 publication of Los de abajo ("The underdogs") by Mariano Azuela (18731952) and expanded with Martín Luis Guzmán's novels, takes a bitter look at the revolution, the violence, and its leaders. This theme has also inspired other authors, among them Mexico's contemporary literary giant Carlos Fuentes. Juan Rulfo published very little but Pedro Páramo (1955) is considered a masterpiece. In poetry, a group centered around the literary journal Contemporáneos set new standards in the 1920s. Mexico's most outstanding poet, however was Octavio Paz (19141998), who also wrote numerous essays including El laberinto de la soledad (1950), a classic essay about Mexico's national character that earned him international recognition. In 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In recent decades female novelists as Elena Poniatowska, Angeles Mastretta, and Laura Esquivel have gained prestige in Mexico and abroad.

Graphic Arts. Mexico's long tradition of graphic arts goes back to pre-Columbian times. When the different Indian civilizations prospered, they constructed impressive urban centers and religious buildings and produced sophisticated graphic art such as pottery and frescos. In general, pre-Columbian sculptures and images of gods provoke a sense of awe and fear. Pre-Columbian art has acquired a prominent place in the canon of the national culture and is displayed in numerous museums, especially the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. These museums are frequently visited by pupils from primary and secondary schools as part of their history assignments.

After the Spanish conquest, the church and the monasteries were the key contributors in the field of arts. As a consequence, religious architecture became the most important form of creative expression. Although icons and styles were imported, techniques, materials, and forms used by indigenous artisans gradually gave way to a distinctively Mexican style. At the end of the seventeenth century a recognizable Mexican baroque with an abundance of decorative elements flourished. In the eighteenth century, this developed into the even more profuse Churrigueresque style. Sculpture and painting developed along similar lines.

Political instability and recurrent war seriously hampered artistic development in the nineteenth century, with the exception of painting, where there was a hesitant interest in pre-Columbian themes. The most important artists were Pelegrín Clavé and landscape painter José Maria Velasco.

After the Mexican Revolution, a period of intense artistic innovation commenced, giving rise to the most widely acknowledged Mexican art form, the mural. A recognition of artistic independence by the new revolutionary elite and active state support coincided with a renewed interest in popular culture, such as the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada (18511913), and in pre-Columbian themes and artistic expressions. Mexico, its history, and its people became the single most important themes of the huge murals that decorate the walls of public buildings. The most well-known exponents of the Mexican Muralist school are Diego Rivera (18861957), David Alfaro Siqueiros (18961974), and José Clemente Orozco (18831949). In recent years, the eccentric paintings of Frida Kahlo (19071954) have attracted worldwide attention. Painters of later generations who have gained national and international reputations include José Luis Cuevas, Juan O'Gorman, Rufino Tamayo, and Francisco Toledo.

Mexico's artistic qualities are perhaps best illustrated by the broad variety of popular art and handicrafts. Popular artists can be found throughout Mexico, but regions and even villages specialize in particular trades.

Performance Arts. In classical music the Mexico Citybased National Symphony Orchestra and the Philarmonic Orchestra of the National University are most renowned. Mexico's most important composer of the twentieth century was Carlos Chávez (18991978). Popular music, such as mariachi and ranchero music, has acquired fame throughout the world and produced such stars as Vicente Fernández and Juan Gabriel. Mexico also has a native rock scene. Mexico City has become a major recording center for the Spanish-speaking world. The same is true for the production of soap opera series for television. Mexican cinema flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, producing such heroes of popular culture as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. One of Mexico's most important venues for the performance arts is the Festival Cervantino, which is held every year in the provincial town of Guanajuato.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Most scientific research in Mexico is conducted in the public universities, mainly in the National Autonomous University and the Autonomous Metropolitan University, both in Mexico City. The National Polytechnic Institute, also in Mexico City, is the foremost research institute in engineering and technology. In recent years there has been government support for developing research centers outside the capital. There is also an extensive network of specialized autonomous research institutes that are dependent on state finances such as the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics and the College of Mexico.

Just over half of the almost $2 billion (U.S.) of federal expenditures in science and technology in 1998 was channeled through the Ministry of Public Education and another 34 percent was channeled through the Ministry of Energy. The majority of the latter funds are spent on research into the exploitation of oil. Public policy concentrates on three areas: promotion of quality and quantity of scientific research, establishment of linkages between science and industry, and the promotion of technological innovation.

The National Council of Science and Technology is the most important funding agency for the physical and social sciences. In 1998 it had a budget of $287 million (U.S.), with 47 percent allocated to individual postgraduate grants, 25 percent to scientific research and technological development, and 22 percent to the National System of Researchers (SNI), a program of financial incentives to productive academics. In 1998, more than sixty-five hundred researchers were in the SNI. Information on corporate funding of research and development is unavailable but is estimated to be very modest compared to Mexico's main trading partners.


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Web Sites

General information about indigenous groups:

Government institution for culture and arts:

Hyperlink about the Zapatista uprising:

Informative hyperlink on Mexico:

Mexican newspaper:

Mexican weekly magazine:

Official demographic information:

Statistical information: El Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática. Official Statistical Information. Web Site. Electronic document. Available from

Wil G. Pansters

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PANSTERS, WIL G.. "Mexico." Countries and Their Cultures. 2001. 30 May. 2016 <>.

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