The Emergence Of Modern Mexico

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The official commemorative coin of the 1968 Olympic Games (above) displays a pre-Columbian athletic figure. It is a proud symbol of Mexico’s ancient past. Mexicans do not debate the rival claims of Columbus and Leif Ericson. They know for a fact that their ancestors were here thousands of years before either of those latecomers, and had long since developed a civilization of dazzling sophistication. We cannot cover the glory of this ancient past in a limited picture portfolio. We have chosen instead to focus for the most part on the painful and turbulent period in Mexican history between independence (1821) and the constitution of 1917. Complicated, even for Mexicans, it is magnificently melodramatic—a history of almost saintly heroes and of superbly repugnant villains. Mexico’s artists, like her novelists, poets, and musicians, provide clues to the bewildering story. Moreover, perhaps in no other country have the artists of modern times been so self-consciously identified with the national ethos. What follows is in large part a selection from their work. Our researches into many of Mexico’s impressive museums and archives have put us in debt to more sources than we can fully acknowledge; but we must record our special appreciation to the handsome periodical Arles de México .

The conquistadors were profit seekers, excited at the prospect of owning estates populated by hard-working Indians. But the Spanish colonial government had loftier aims. Church and State viewed the Indians as “free vassals of the crown,” entrusted by God to Spain’s “protective tutelage.” The two institutions made elaborate if frequently impractical laws to favor the Indians and protect them from exploitation. Furthermore, there was no objection to marriage between Spaniards and Indians. In fact, since few Spanish women came to New Spain, Spanish men and Indian women were deliberately encouraged to marry. Their children were called mestizos . At first, mestizos found themselves strangers among both Indians and Spaniards, but their numbers increased and they eventually predominated. African Negroes, originally brought in as slaves, also contributed genetically to the population. In the seventeenth century they outnumbered the whites, but since then they have for the most part been absorbed. Despite wholesale miscegenation, Mexico was by no means a casual, classless society. There emerged early in the colonial period four distinct groups: I. peninsulares or gachupines (Spaniards born in Spain); 2. créoles (whites of Spanish ancestry born in the New World); 3. mestizos; 4. indios (full-blooded Indians). The interplay of the divergent interests of these four groups became the basis of Mexican politics for more than three centuries. There are still some 5.5 million Indians in Mexico, living in the manner of their ancestors and speaking little or no Spanish. Nowadays their way of life is receiving increased attention, and the word Indian has a cultural rather than a racial connotation. An Indian who moves to the city and takes up European habits may say, “When I was an Indian …” In September, 1964, the world’s largest and most magnificent anthropological museum devoted exclusively to a national culture opened in Mexico City. Skillfully arranged exhibits depict the rich diversity of the Indian cultures throughout the country from prehistoric times to the present day, and the blending with immigrant strains since the conquest. Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and former ambassador to India, has written, “The difference between colonial Mexico and the English colonies was immense. New Spain committed many horrors, but at least it did not commit the gravest of them all: that of denying a place, even at the foot of the social scale, to all the people who composed it. There were classes, castes and slaves, but there were no pariahs, no persons lacking a fixed social condition and legal, moral and religious status.”