- Historic Sites
In the bright mestizo tapestry of Mexico’s thirty centuries of civilization, the Indian, the Spanish, and the modern threads interweave—and tangle
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
In asserting a passionate pride in his Aztec ancestry, Joselito temporarily ignored the fact that he is a mestizo, a genetic amalgam of Indian and Spanish ancestors dating back to the days of Hernán Cortés. Considering the universal propensity for sexual intercourse regardless of race, one can confidently state that there are very few pure-blooded Spaniards or Indios in Mexico. Though some are more Spanish or more Indian than others (a perfect fifty-fifty combination would be improbable), almost all Mexicans are mestizos. Many of them are frankly ambivalent about their indigenous origins. Some Mexican women still refuse to shave the hair off their legs, no matter how unfashionable they look, because hairy legs and armpits are symbolic of Spanish heritage. Even their darker-skinned servants, whose legs tend to be naturally hairless because of their Indian parentage, often take pride in a slight fuzz on their calves. And there are certain Mexican men who constantly boast of their sangre española as if there were not a trace of Indian genes in their obviously mestizo makeup; but these same proud gentlemen are nevertheless quite willing to transmit their presumed genetic superiority to the bare-legged maids their wives disdain. The droit du seigneur , widely practiced by baronial landholders and lesser gachupines during the colonial era, closely paralleled the after-sundown integration of the southern gentry who fathered thousands of mulattoes in this country. There was, however, a very important difference: many of the Spaniards actually married native women or the mestizo offspring of preceding generations, thus creating the predominantly mestizo population that calls itself Mexican.
Although in a physiological sense their Indian heritage was clearly dominant, many upper-class mestizos joined the Spaniards in systematically oppressing millions of natives during the long colonial period, forcing them into a state of virtual peonage. This anti-indigenous attitude still persists in Mexico even though the government and certain intellectuals have occasionally encouraged pro-Indian movements. The regime of President Alvaro Obregon (1920–24) warmly endorsed an intense but short-lived campaign for indigenismo by José Vasconcelos, his minister of education, who himself later turned his back on the descendants of Moctezuma. The famous Mexican muralists—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clémente Orozco—have all celebrated the greatness of Mexico’s native roots, and a long succession of brilliant anthropologists and archaeologists have sung the glories of Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec cultures (the new museum of anthropology, opened in Mexico City in 1964, offers the most concrete evidence of their ancient grandeur); yet the average Mexican has been so brainwashed by centuries of racial humiliation that he still prefers to consider himself more Spanish than Indian. (This statement will no doubt annoy some of my more chauvinistic friends in Mexico, who a few minutes later will patronizingly use the term indito when referring to their maids, gardeners, or other darker-skinned subordinates.)
The fact remains that, in spite of their Hispanic pride, most Mexicans emotionally identify with their Indian ancestors when they look back on their historical beginnings. They hate Cortes and love Cuauhtémoc. And they are particularly disdainful of Malinche, the Aztec interpreter-mistress of Cortes, who helped the conquistadors defeat her own people. Indeed, her name has come to mean “traitor,” and among the worst insults in Mexico even to this day is to call someone a malinche . Several years ago we heard Juan O’Gorman, the painter, sneeringly refer to Rufino Tamayo as “a malinche who has forsaken his Mexican heritage and now paints like a decadent European.” There are, of course, numerous art connoisseurs who feel that Tamayo is far more Mexican than O’Gorman: he simply refuses to engage in the revolutionary polemics of the Rivera-Siqueiros coterie that has dominated Mexican art since the early twenties.
Putting aside any judgment of their aesthetic worth, the great muralists have indeed had a profound influence on the cultural life of Mexico. Along with the archaeologists who unearthed the magnificent ruins of past civilizations, Diego Rivera and his followers have given the Mexican a sense of cultural identity that is rare among Latin Americans. He may have a rather schizoid attitude about his Spanish-Indian background, but he at least knows where his roots are. He is, in fact, the progeny of two enormous cultural forces that have sometimes clashed like blind and angry giants, each struggling to overcome the other but never completely succeeding.
First of all, the Spaniards sought to impose their language upon the Indians and were generally successful; yet there are still thousands of natives in isolated areas who cling to their ancient tongues and absolutely refuse to speak “the devil’s language.” Less than fifty miles from Mexico City, in a small town called Tepoztlán, about seventy per cent of the villagers spoke Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs, as recently as 1940. There are, indeed, certain indigenistas who have proposed that Mexico adopt Nahuatl as the official language.