As a foreigner, it seems to me that Mexican identity is something very visual, full of colour and symbolism. Certain images come to mind as symbols of Mexico; some of them could be seen as stereotypes, but their reality and presence (or omnipresence) in Mexican culture is undeniable. That's my view, anyway, as an outsider who has spent more of her adult life here than anywhere else.
I thought I would elaborate here on a few of these well-known images and symbols.
The Mexican flag is an image and object that inspires a fierce loyalty and patriotism. It is treated with the utmost reverence and respect. Schools usually have a flag ceremony once a week which involves an honour guard marching with the flag, everyone saluting and singing the national anthem. You see it everywhere, especially in September for the Independence Day celebrations, and everything is adorned with the colours of the flag; green, white and red.
The flag itself is full of symbolism. Each of the colours has a meaning; green represents independence and hope, white stands for purity, faith and unity and red symbolises the blood of the heroes of independence.
The image in the centre comes from Aztec mythology. It is said that the Aztecs, before they built their empire, were wandering in search of a place to make their home. The gods told them to build their capital where they saw an eagle, perched on a nopal cactus, with a serpent in its mouth. On an island in the middle of a lake they saw this exact scene, so that is where they founded the city of Tenochtitlan, the site of present-day Mexico City. Hence on the flag you can see the eagle with a snake in its grasp and the nopal cactus.
Which brings me to the nopal. It seems like a stereotype - a cactus - but it really is everywhere, from prehispanic codices to the flag to modern-day logos, souvenirs, health food products and supplements, etc. The plant itself can be seen in parks and gardens, by the side of the road, on patches of wasteland and of course in the countryside; it's not for nothing that there is a widely-used saying Más mexicano que el nopal (more Mexican than the nopal!) which, whether used proudly, affectionately or mockingly, firmly asserts the inherent Mexicanness of both the nopal and the person being referred to!
|A pictograph representing the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The name means "the rock where the prickly pear (fruit of the nopal cactus) abounds".|
Read my post on nopales for more about different ways to eat them and their nutritional properties.
What would Mexican food be without chile? Actually, chillies are not the be-all and end-all of Mexican cuisine and there are plenty of dishes that are not hot at all... But, let's face it, the chilli is the emblem and essential ingredient that defines so much of Mexican food, from the small green chile serrano, the slightly fatter chile jalapeño, the big dark green chile poblano, the smokey chile chipotle, the long skinny red chile de árbol, the plump round yellow and orange habaneros, the darkly rich but mild dried pasilla and ancho chillies to the tiny blood-red chile piquin, to name but a few. Embrace the heat.
|Image courtesy of Flickr: corazon de melon|
Those tacky souvenir Mexican hats you can buy at the airport do have an authentic historical origin somewhere in there. Obviously, you don't generally see people wearing hats like this in present-day Mexico, unless you're at a fancy-dress party maybe, but go back a hundred years or so to the rural environment of the haciendas and ranchos and you would probably see a similar type of hat worn by the charros.
Charros are skilled horsemen - sort of equivalent to cowboys - still in existence, though more for sport than work these days. Their typical hat has a very wide brim to protect the wearer from the sun, wind, dust and rain, and is slightly lifted up at the back. This hat also has a lot of other practical uses, from head protection in case of a fall to a shield against a knife attack!
|Image courtesy of Flickr: Pepe Antonio|
|Image courtesy of flickr: jlmaral|
The eye-catching outfit worn by a Mariachi is in fact based on the charro suit. The word mariachi refers to both the style of music and the musicians. It's customary to have a mariachi group play at a special event, like a wedding, a birthday or a graduation party and people still hire mariachi to serenade someone (perhaps more often after a few drinks!) from outside their window in the middle of the night!
Everyone knows that Tequila is Mexican, right? It competes with mezcal, which is more widely produced, for the role of Mexico's national drink, but tequila is definitely more internationally famous and the drink that most people in other parts of the world associate with Mexico.
|Blue agave around the town of Tequila|
Tequila gets its name from the small town in the state of Jalisco where it was first produced, and these days the name tequila is protected by a denominación de origen which means it can only be produced in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. It is made from the heart of the blue agave cactus through a long process which you can get more than a glimpse into if you visit one of the tequila distilleries which offer tours, as we did many years ago when we went to the town of Tequila...
|Jimadores cut the heart from the blue agave which is used in the tequila-making process.|
A few years ago on a visit to England, I was surprised to see a very Mexican-looking painted skull design on a pair of boots! Did you know that these brightly-coloured skulls are usually made out of sugar? Sugar skulls are a traditional part of the Day of the Dead celebrations, used to decorate the altars that are put up in honour of a deceased person, or given as gifts. The patterns on the skull are made with coloured icing sugar and it could have a little tape on the forehead with the name of the person who will receive the gift. Sometimes, instead of sugar, the skulls are made from chocolate or amaranth, and often there are non-edible ones made of clay and painted.
This tradition has its origins in prehispanic culture where death was seen as the conclusion of one stage of life which would extend into the afterlife and skulls were kept as trophies and shown in rituals to mark this transition. They had a type of altar called a tzompantli which was decorated with strings of skulls of those who had been sacrificed to the gods.
After the Spanish Conquest, attempts were made to ban these pagan practices, but it proved impossible to wipe out these traditions altogether. The prehispanic festivity was combined with the Catholic All Souls Day and became the Day of the Dead which is celebrated today, and the Spanish brought the technique of alfeñique, making figures from sugar paste, which has been used to make the skulls ever since.
They serve as a reminder of our own mortality and of those who lived before us.