About one hundred years ago a roaring hurricane swept along the Mexican border with such fury that it radically changed the course of the Rio Grande—and consequently altered the international boundary. When the storm finally subsided, the village of El Paso, Texas, was about 630 acres larger, and the bawdy little pueblo of Juárez, Mexico, was that many acres smaller.

This accidental “land grab” caused prolonged and acrimonious litigation in several international tribunals, but some of the bitterness and resentment vanished on December 13, 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson and President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz simultaneously pressed buttons to dynamite the river back into a channel that restores the 630 acres to Mexico. Surrounded by cool, elegant diplomatic aides and decoratively accompanied by their wives, the two heads of state gave each other a cordial abrazo and exchanged assurances of eternal friendship between their two countries.

But there were certain die-hard Mexicans in the crowd who took a dim view of the polite ceremony performed on the new bridge crossing the Rio Grande. One of the more pithy skeptics was an old mestizo farmer from the other side of the muddy river, whose leathery, pockmarked face was fixed in a dark scowl as President Johnson announced that his government had voluntarily ceded the small tract of land back to Mexico.

“What a miserable farce, man!” the old man stage-whispered to his middle-aged son. “The goddamned gringos took a mountain [no doubt referring to the states of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona] and now they give us back an anthill!” (“ Qué chingadera, mano! Los pinches gringos nos robaron una montaña y ahora nos devuelven un hormiguero! ”)

Aside from expressing an anti-American attitude that is fairly prevalent among his countrymen, the old man’s gripe is a prime example of the average Mexican’s intense everyday consciousness of his country’s tumultuous, violent history. No nation in Latin America is as attentively aware of its past as is Mexico. Hundreds of brightly colored murals in public buildings, schools, monasteries, theatres, even gas stations, are constant reminders of Mexico’s sanguinary struggles against Cortes, the Catholic Church, and subsequent military and commercial invaders from Spain, France, and the United States. Everywhere he turns, the twentieth-century Mexican can see remnants of each bloody era: rose-pink colonial mansions tightly squeezed between steel-and-glass skyscrapers on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City; crumbling ruins of an Aztec temple next to a high-rise apartment complex; a full-blooded Zapotec peon leading a flock of proud turkeys across a busy intersection as the light-skinned driver of a sleek Mercedes-Benz shrugs with typical Hispaqic resignation.

The crosshatchings of Mexico’s multiethnic history can be found at every level of the country’s day-to-day existence, and quite frequently you will see some Mexican passionately react to his ancient past as if it were only yesterday. Several years ago, President Adolfo López Mateos entertained Marshal Josip Tito with a bullfight in which an outstanding Mexican matador competed with one from Spain. Much to the dismay of 60,000 highly patriotic spectators, the Spaniard easily dominated his less experienced rival during most of the afternoon. Then, just as the Mexican (he was a coppery-skinned youth with the high cheekbones of his Aztec forebears) was about to face his last bull, a shrill, piercing voice cut into the ominous hush that always precedes the bull’s sudden charge out of the pen: “Don’t forget, Joselito, that the goddamned Spaniards burned Cuauhtémoc’s feet!” (“ Acuérdate, Joselito, que los malditos gachupines∗ quemaron los pies de Cuauhlémoc! ”) He was referring, of course, to an incident that occurred more than four hundred years ago, but the matador, Joselito Huerta, responded to that chilling exhortation as if Cuauhtémoc were a member of his immediate family. Meeting the angry bull on his knees, he made several suicidal passes ( passos de muerte ) as his compatriots went wild with nationalistic pride. And with each successive pass Joselito created wave upon wave of hysteria, defiantly moving closer to the enraged and snorting beast while the crowd chanted “Cuauhtémoc! Cuauhtémoc! Cuauhtémoc!” as if the Spaniards were once again scorching the naked, blistered feet of Moctezuma’s nephew. Although not a graceful performance, it was easily the most dramatic bullfight in many decades, and Joselito was carried from the Plaza Mexico on the shoulders of still-screaming fans whose hatred of Cortes and all other gachupines had been fed to satiety by one of their own blood brothers.

Gachupín is derived from a Spanish word meaning “hollow log”; to a Mexican, however, it means “Spaniard”—in a derogatory sense.