Mexico

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The Spaniards were perhaps more successful in imposing their religion on their defeated foes. They brutally forced the Aztecs, Mayans, and Zapotecs to bury their temples under huge mounds of earth, and then built elegant Christian churches on top of them. Because of its awesome ritual, mystery, and theatrical grandeur, Catholicism had a special appeal for the easily mesmerized masses who had formerly worshipped at the altar of Quetzalcoatl and other Aztec gods. It was fairly simple for them to accept at least the outward trappings of the new religion, but they also grafted onto it some of their own attitudes and superstitions. The Day of the Dead, which is a uniquely Mexican holiday, is a most fascinating example of an ancient Indian concept expressed in the brilliant ambient of the Catholic Church. Since they believed their own lives did not belong to them, death had no personal meaning for the Aztecs, and their philosophical resignation was transmitted to their mestizo descendants.

Thus, as the poet and critic Octavio Paz observes in his memorable Labyrinth of Solitude , we Mexicans decorate our houses with sugar-candy skulls and paper skeletons strung with fireworks, and eat bread in the shape of bones on the Day of the Dead. We also tell stories in which death laughs and cracks jokes, and we sing songs like “La Vida No Vale Nada” (“Life Is Worth Nothing”)—not defying death, mind you, but simply accepting it with a gentle irony.

Three years ago, while attending a Day of the Dead fiesta in the town of Mixquic, I saw a group of teenagers joyfully marching through a church cemetery with a pink papier-mâché coffin on their shoulders, chanting a silly little rhyme about death. The macabre joke horrified a group of American tourists but merely amused the hundreds of Mexicans who were casually eating dinner with their families and friends among the graves of deceased relatives. I cannot claim to be that nonchalant, yet I sometimes envy my Aztec ancestors’ commendable indifference to dying.

Aside from their religion, language, and architecture, the Spaniards imported a whole range of social mores that were absorbed or rejected with varying degrees of resistance by successive generations of Mexicans. Among the more easily propagated Spanish customs was machismo , the typical Latin’s neurotic insistence on his male superiority, which undoubtedly appealed to the manoriented societies of the Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Tarahumares, Yaquis, and other tribes. At any rate, Mexicans have widely adopted the European habit of relegating their wives to second-class status while keeping a mistress in a love nest, or casa chica .

Another Spanish custom which gained wide acceptance was compadrazco , the strong familial role of compadres (godfathers), who are actually expected to function as second fathers to their godchildren. It is a warm, cozy relationship, and many a Mexican child soon realizes that his godfather is a handy buffer between him and his parents. My godfather, who once gave me a dozen baby chicks and a half watermelon for my birthday, would always go into a towering rage whenever my father spanked me. He frequently belted his own children but was somehow convinced that my skinny little bottom was sacrosanct.

During the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876–1911), the French had a considerable influence on the intellectual and cultural life of Mexico. The French Parnassians and Symbolists were imitated by Mexican poets; Auguste Comte and Ernest Renan were suddenly discovered by philosophers at the Universidad Nacional; and the monied aristocracy adopted an urbane Parisian manner and tried to duplicate the ambiance of the Paris salons in their elegant mansions in the Colonia Roma. Speaking French is still a “must” among Mexican intellectuals and writers, most of whom are far more knowledgeable about Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus than they are about any American authors.

Referring to this Frenchification of his fellow intellectuals, Paz believes that the Mexican discovered his universality in French culture. “The models of our poetry, like those of our political systems, are universal—with little interest in time, space and local color. Our poets tend to ignore our national particulars in favor of a universal conception of mankind. … Hence our poetry is Romantic or national only when it is weak or self-betraying. The same is true, in various ways, of the rest of our artistic and political forms.” If this standard were applied to the murals of Rivera, Siqueiros, and their numerous followers, they would be judged “weak or self-betraying,” for they are certainly nationalistic in the most extreme sense of the word.