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Mexican Symbolism - Archives

Understanding Mexico
Dermot Sullivan

The other day I saw a hummingbird just outside my house. There is an area several metres from my front gate that acts to take the excess rainwater as there are no proper drains and we are on a hill. The majority of the time it resembles a dried river bed and sadly some people will throw their rubbish there. However, there are some lovely flowers and I watched the hummingbird flying up to them and having a drink! It goes to show that even in the grottiest places you can find beauty.

Life plods on here in Pachuca. Soon I will have a two week holiday for Easter. It’s something I’m looking forward to as I plan to go across the country from Veracruz City beside the Gulf of Mexico to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast. I’ll be doing it by bus so I should take in a few other places en route, like Xapala and Guadalajara. It should be good!

I am also happy to report that I have some tea! It was sent from England via Norway and hand-delivered to me in Pachuca. There is a Norwegian girl at work and her parents (who have come to visit for three weeks) kindly took a package sent from my mother. The kindly couriers actually live on an island with a population of three thousand. My mother sent them the parcel on the Thursday evening and it arrived at their house in Norway on the Saturday morning, yet the birthday cards sent to me from various addresses in England have yet to materialise … the kindly Norwegians also brought me chocolate from England, such as Cadbury’s Creme Eggs! Woo-hoo!

St. Patrick:
Why on earth do the Irish have a patron saint who is Welsh? Why do so many people celebrate a day that has little to do with him or the Church but alcoholism? I remember an advert in England some years ago in the build up to the 17th of March which said ‘Don’t forget St. Patrick on Guinness Day’. I would quite happy celebrate Guinness!
Pachuca in Mexico has got to be one of the least Irish places on Earth! My Canadian chum Rob has held a St. Patrick’s Day party for several years now. I went along to that being the only person who had any sort of Irish connection whatsoever. Everyone else was there to get blind drunk whereas I don’t drink that much anymore.

Someone came and painted a shamrock on my face and some Americans told me how they were part Irish … which to me is a real bore … why can’t they just concentrate on being American instead of going back to when their ancestors left Ireland? If Ireland is so great then why did they leave in the first place? The idea that everyone was forcibly evicted is false: despite the awfulness of the famine (which is when the largest migration happened), most people left Ireland for economic reasons. The eldest son would always inherit the farm and so the rest of the children would have to emigrate as there simply wasn’t enough land for everyone. Also, post-independence from the 1950s right up to the late 1980s there just wasn’t enough in employment in the country. The highly educated Irish workforce flourished in other parts of the world. Despite the romantic idea of Ireland, not many Irish people were rushing to go ‘home’ - hence my parents being in England for 33 years!

I was only person to track down some Guinness in Pachuca. Unfortunately it was rather pricey, one can costing 30 pesos, three or four times more than the local beers. My friend put on a good party though and I was grateful for his effort. I’ll still never understand why so many people want to pretend to be Irish. It’s just plain weird to me!

Nation Building:
England is a rather odd nation in that we don’t have much in the way of self-conscious nationalism or patriotism. We pretty much know who we are and we just get on with it. In the U.S. it seems you that you can say that you’re a patriot and ‘God Bless America’ and the nation whoops and cheers (and then probably cries afterwards).

The States like many nations feels the need to invent and keep an identity for itself. The English have done it in the past but it was so long ago that we’re very removed from it. The only time you find overt patriotism is at international football matches. We have been through many changes since 1066, not least changes of language, the rise and fall of Empire and the union of the four countries of the British Isles into the State of Britain. The lack of a self-conscious identity is probably the reason that foreign people find it so easy to integrate into Britain, as opposed to France where they seemingly regard those of North African descent as non-French even when they are several generations down the line.

Mexico is a country both sure and unsure of its identity. It has successfully been able to foster and install one into its population, to the point that Mexicans find it harder to integrate into the United States much more so than other Latin Americans, e.g. Cubans. Another complication is that in many ways regional identity is stronger for many Mexicans. Southern states such as Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatán have particularly strong identities, probably due to the large indigenous populations they contain.
The Norteños, whose traditional dress seems to be that of a Mexican rancher from the U.S. border, are very different too. The state that I live in, Hidalgo, seems not to have much of an identity to speak of, probably due to its close proximity to Mexico City.

One way that the identity is created is through the teaching of history in school. The struggle for Independence from the Spanish is seen as key. I asked a student what they thought the most important year in Spanish history was (I had in mind 1492 as there was the discovery of the New World, the fall of Grenada and Antonio de Nabrija wrote the first rules of the Spanish language – up to that point it had been considered a vulgar form of Latin). The immediate answer from some of the students was ‘Mexican Independence’. Considering that happened from 1810 to 1822 it was over three centuries off what I had in mind!

The teaching of history here seems to place Mexico above all else.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, I have been chosen to teach the children about Mexican patriotism through the medium of their national anthem. I can hardly think of anyone less suited to this, but my students have to put on a display about the history of the national anthem and why it is so wonderful. It would be funny if it weren’t for the seriousness that Mexicans view the flag and the national anthem. They are so sensitive (probably due to insecurity) to outside criticism that they overreact to any perceived slight to their nation. The students have the presentation in front of the school at the end of this week: hopefully they (and I) won’t screw it up.

All of what I’ve described may be strange for an Englishman but it tends to be the norm in other countries. Turkey is a place where the idea of a nation has been created. Just as Mustapha Kemel is revered in Turkey, the heroes of independence are venerated in Mexico. Miguel Hidalgo was the priest who led the revolt against the Spanish and the state that I live in is named after him. He was later captured by the Spanish and beheaded.

The seminal moment in Mexican history though was the Revolution. It started in 1910 and lasted for ten years. It started as a revolt against the thirty year rule of President Porfirio Díaz and his repressive regime. The liberal Francisco Madero became President in 1911 and Díaz fled to France. However Madero wasn’t able to control the different factions fighting for power throughout the country. In the north Pancho Villa, a bandit turned revolutionary, and the even more radical Emiliano Zapata in the south. He was fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants who worked the land.

Due to the machinations of the U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, a coup brought down Madero in 1913. One of his top generals, Victoriana Huerta, switched sides to the conservatives and Madero was executed. After this came a reign of terror where Huerta’s troops raped, pillaged and plundered throughout the country. The leftist forces defeated him in July 1914 but then started fighting amongst themselves until 1917. A constitution was enacted then which is still largely in force today. Zapata was assassinated in 1919 and Pancho Villa in 1923. By the end of the revolution ten years of violent civil war had left one in eight Mexicans dead and the economy was shattered.

The revolution on many levels was a failure. The constitution was maybe its greatest success though it seems a lot of people had to die to get to that point. After the revolution the same party was in power for over seventy years: the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, the National Revolutionary Party, which then became the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana, the Party of Mexican Revolution, which then became the ironically named Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the Institutional Revolutionary Party! The PRI, as they are called, are still together today and were in power until the year 2000. However, the word ‘failure’ doesn’t seem to appear in the teaching of the subject to children.

It’s All A Little Bit Too Fascistic For Me:
To install a feeling of a nation into the schoolchildren, every Monday the children must attend or participate in the ‘flag ceremony’ or homenaje. During the course of the ceremony, with martial music blaring out of loudspeakers, some of the students march around with the flag as if they are North Koreans or members of the Nation of Islam. When all of the students make the pledge to the flag they stand to attention with their arms extended in a sort of Nazi-esque salute, though whereas the Germans has their arms at a 35° angle, the children here hold their arm directly in front of them horizontally. It is a most unnerving sight and something most gringos never get used to.

The idea for the homenaje comes from the 1930s when overt displays of patriotism were considered desirable. Most nations have long since left this sort of thing behind, especially in Europe. We do not play the national anthem at sporting fixtures unless it is an international match and you seldom see the flag been flown in England compared to the States. The sight of Americans waving their flags manically or weeping with their hands on their hearts as they sing their national anthem makes English people at least feel deeply uncomfortable. This is nothing compared to what goes on here in Mexico: when the children sing the Mexican national anthem at the homenaje they have their hands in front of their hearts but with the palms facing the ground in some sort of crypto-Roman quasi-fascist stance. It is both completely ludicrous and deeply unpleasant. The amazing thing is that Mexicans have no idea how other nationalities regard the symbolism. I suspect that if they did they wouldn’t care anyway!

To be honest, the kids do it because they’re told that they have to it. The Mexican teachers do it as they had to do it at school plus the Department of Education tells them that they have to do it. What baffles me is when foreign teachers join in the act as well. You’d never get me pledging my allegiance to some foreign nation nor make a fascist salute to a flag.

The First Pledge:
When the children are seven years of age they make their first pledge to the flag. For this event the army goes to every Mexican school and parades and marches. One young boy will march out and make the pledge for all of the students. The headmaster will hold the flag and then all of the seven year olds will march out to him and shout that they are present and march around the place. Their parents will come and take photos. The army will march out of the school just as they marched in … incidentally; this is the only thing that I have been involved with in Mexico that has started on time! I put it down to military time-keeping. It seemed to have most Mexican scrambling to get to their places at the bugles started up. Being on time is something beyond most Mexicans.

Not surprisingly I didn’t enjoy the ceremony. I didn’t find it cute seeing a seven year old drill and make some lofty promise to die for his flag, but then I hated singing ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ at school. I never understood why we should sing such pre-First World War nonsense when the plaques of the boys killed in that war were on the wall beside us.

Class And Race:
Another bizarre concept tied into Mexican identity is that of La Raza, which literally means ‘the Race’. It was invented around the 1930s (though I’m not 100% sure about that fact) in direct contradiction to some of the Social Darwinist ideas to do with race that were popular in Europe at that time. There is even a metro stop in Mexico City called ‘La Raza’.

The idea is that Mexicans are neither Europeans nor are they indigenous peoples but a mix, una mescla, something unique and from that they can take their identity. There is always a need with Mexicans to identify themselves as different from the Spanish even though the whiter you are in Mexico it seems the further up the class system you are. Being part of the Mexican mix also differentiates you from being indigenous as they are at the bottom of the class system. It’s completely ridiculous as Mexicans also look back to the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mayans for their identity (they being the direct opposite of what it would be to be Spanish). I’d like to be able to explain the concept better but I don’t really understand it myself. It’s amazing how much of this fascist nonsense has persisted even though the majority of the world moved on after 1945.

I actually came across some proper indigenous women on the metro in Mexico City some weeks ago … it was a bit of an eye-opener … I had never heard Náhuatl spoken before and it was completely different to how I imagined it. There wasn’t a hint of Spanish in it, in fact it sounded like Korean! There was a family of women chatting away: a grandmother, the mother and a whole army of daughters … what happened next though really surprised me.

It seems that some yob, as he got off the metro train, made some sort of a rude gesture at the women and might have even spat at the outside window as he went out. The women immediately switched to Spanish and fired off a tirade of obscenities at the man!

Nahautl Indians

Both my companion and I were quite taken aback by the language, which continued long after the train had left the station. Granma, mother and the young daughters all joined in the effing and blinding until they tired of it, and then they switched back to Náhuatl to discuss whatever they chatting about previously … I always had looked at indigenous types somewhat differently up to that moment, probably due to my encounters with the Mapuche and the Aymara in Chile. However, the feeling I got from them in Mexico City was close to being like Irish gypsies! I wonder how they are in the rest of the country … I’m sure it’s different in the south … or maybe I’m being particularly naïve … we shall see when I go down there in the summer.
© Dermot Sullivan April 2007
dermotsullivan at

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Dermot Sullivan's Chile Diary
El Gringo - Diary Entry 2
Dermot begins teaching
Letter From Santiago No 3
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Santiago Diary No 4
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Santiago Diary No 5
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Chile Diary 10
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Chile Diary 14 - Sawdust
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