Heritage Reflecting History: The Intersection of Cultures in Mexico

How do cultural interactions shape the identity of a place or people? Anyone living in North America — The United States in particular — feels right at home with this concept. Even I, with my minimal travel experience (that is not aging well in my secret quarantine bunker), can recognize the influences of Dutch ideologies on New York City, or the many micro-cultures of Los Angeles, or even the traces of old New England in Connecticut. But how far back can I trace these cultural intersections, and how deeply are they ingrained?

I’ve always admired and appreciated Mexican culture. Still, I have only recently begun to recognize it as having a similar tale of colonization and cultural tradeoffs, one that has undoubtedly impacted the very definition of Mexican heritage. Many of these exchanges are easily recognized and blatantly obvious: more than 80% of the country practices Roman Catholicism, and the number of indigenous speakers dwindles every year. But, I have to ask myself, can I go further than that? How much of Mexican culture today is derived from outside influences? Are there regions of Mexico that differ in the degree of cultural exchange they’ve had, and does that make their culture more “authentic”? Is society’s conception of cultural heritage a complete lie? Can I make myself spiral into an existential crisis over this by the end of the article? Let’s find out!

Mexico at First Glance

Surprisingly, it’s not difficult to find instances of cultural intersection within Mexican culture that have persisted today, a phenomenon so common that this intercultural mixing (in the most literal sense) has a word, mestizaje. One of the best examples of this exists within Mexican fare. Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. However, the French still managed to leave a little farewell gift for Mexican cuisine in the form of crepas (better known as crepes), the cousin of the enchilada. Crepas are still a staple of traditional Mexican food, such as crepas con cajeta, crepes served with caramelized goat’s milk and topped with nuts (Godoy). Similarly to crepes, while many popular Mexican dishes such as the quesadilla have their beginnings rooted in Pre-Columbian Mexican culture (the Aztecs had already popularized the consumption of corn tortillas and would often stuff them with squash and pumpkin as a dessert), the introduction of livestock by the Spanish — such as sheep, lambs, and cows — led to the utilization of meat and dairy products more commonly into Mexican cuisine (Doña Cholita). Even dulce de leche, one of the most popular confections in South America, has possible origins in the Philippines, only reaching Mexico through the Spanish invasion of both countries (Alfajores Bakery). This makes deciding what should be considered “authentic” Mexican cuisine a constantly moving target that is frequently debated but almost always includes dishes with a mixed heritage of influences.

Alfajores, a common Mexican pastry with dulce de leche as filling (Montenegro, Vintage Kitchen Notes).

Even the most well-known holidays within Mexican culture have roots in their post-colonial past. Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday of reuniting with the souls of deceased family members and celebrating their return, has ties in both Mesoamerican and Spanish culture. The celebration stems from the Aztec’s cyclical view of the universe and the Nahua tradition of family members providing deceased loved ones with food and water to help their souls travel to Mictlán, or the final resting place. This ended up fitting well with the Spanish tradition of All Soul’s Day, in which families would bring wine and pan de ánimas (“spirit bread”) to their relative’s graves, covering them with flowers and candles to guide their souls back to the land of the living. Both traditions are well represented in the current iteration of Dia de Los Muertos, with loved ones setting up ofrendas for their relative’s favorite foods and other offerings, along with candles and marigolds, or cempasuchils (History.com Editors). In an ironic twist, even the attire and skull imagery of Dia de Los Muertos has its roots (indirectly) in European culture: the skeletal symbol and dress of the holiday were popularized by José Guadalupe Posada’s painting, La Calavera Catrina, which was meant as a social commentary on the Mexican people favoring European dress over their own attire (History.com Editors). Much to my surprise, it seems like Mexican culture in its modern form is just as, if not more, diverse and multicultural than the United States.

A Dia de Los Muertos ofrenda (Chavarria, Fierce).

The Degree of Cultural Exchange

While Mexico appears to reflect America in its multiculturalism, one of the most interesting components of its cultural heritage is exploring its indigenous peoples today and how cultural interactions (or lack thereof) have shaped their cultural identities today. One of the best examples of this is the Tarahumara, also known as the Rarámuri. Concentrated in the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Rarámuri have a history of cultural isolation, partially due to the harsh geographic landscape of the Occidental and their reluctance to open up to outsiders (Zbichorski and Ryan). When Spanish conquistadors first invaded Mexico, the Rarámuri fled deeper into the Sierra Madre mountains to escape colonization and slave raids and remained mostly isolated until recently (Karsten). As a result, less is known about this indigenous group and their culture as a whole: they are a mostly agricultural society with a cultural emphasis on harmony in nature and incredible running skills due to their mountainous lifestyle. Still, they haven’t received as much global or national attention, cut off from the rest of Mexican culture. Conveniently, they only became recognized internationally when their skill as runners seemed to place them as the evolutionary key to long-distance running, monetizing their exclusive culture.

Lorena Ramirez, a famous long-distance runner and member of the Rarámuri (Coppel, REI).

In light of this, how can we perceive our own cultures? Mexico is just one case study that emphasizes how muddled cultural identity can get when the history of colonization and immigration is incorporated. Is mainstream Mexican culture the “authentic” form of their cultural heritage, retaining some components of the past while incorporating the traditions of the Spanish colonizers and other immigrants? Both groups have been represented in the mix: however, neither group receives the cultural awareness it deserves by cherry-picking only certain aspects of both. Are Spain and indigenous groups like the Rarámuri the “authentic” cultures then, even though Europe lies a world away and the residents of the Sierra Madre have turned away from the rest of Mexico? How do we reconcile the fact that so much of our cultural heritage was adopted, or borrowed, or stolen, or forced upon us? Is it still ours simply because we were born into it, regardless of the history behind it? The easy answer, of course, is that there is no easy answer when it comes to culture. If anything, we should look at our cultural heritage more in shades of grey rather than black and white. However, if there’s one thing I can glean from this case study, dear reader, it is that your cultural heritage is just that: yours. Don’t let anyone else decide for you what it is or is not.