Citizens of Mexico highly value their nation, independence and community. Their culture is a composite of influences handed down by countless civilizations. From the early Mesoamerican civilizations to the diverse populations that live there today, Mexico’s citizens have remained proud of their heritage and their country.
Many rural communities maintain strong allegiances to regions, often referred to as patrias chicas (small homelands). The large number of indigenous languages and customs in these regions, especially in the south, naturally accentuate cultural differences. However, the indigenismo (ancestral pride) movement of the 1930s played a major role in unifying the country and solidifying national pride among the various populations.
Family remains among the most important elements in Mexican society, both in private and public life. From infancy to old age, an individual’s status and opportunities are strongly influenced by family ties. Many households, in both rural and urban areas, are inhabited by three or more generations due to the economic advantage (or necessity) of sharing one roof. Mexicans generally establish strong links to family members, including in–laws and friends of the family, who are generally thought of as aunts and uncles. The elderly, adults, teenagers and small children commonly attend parties and dances together. Weddings are generally lavish family-oriented events as are the traditional quinceañera celebrations given in honor of a young woman’s 15th birthday.
The majority of the Mexican population speaks Spanish, the official national language. However, another 60 indigenous languages are still spoken in Mexico, including Maya in the Yucatán; Huastec in northern Veracruz; Nahuatl, Tarastec, Totonac, Otomí and Mazahua mainly in the Mesa Central region; Zapotec, Mixtec and Mazatec in Oaxaca; and Tzeltal and Tzotzil in Chiapas.
Catholicism has become the dominant Mexican religion since first being introduced during Spanish colonization in the 16th century. Currently, more than 75 percent of Mexico’s population is Catholic, making Mexico the second-largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil. During the Mexican Revolution of 1917 and the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924 – 1928), there was a strong anti–clerical movement. This idea became less prevalent in the between 1940 and 1960. In fact that era saw a boom in the construction of new churches.
The Basílica of Guadalupe, built between the 16th and 18th centuries to honor Mexico’s patron saint, is located in Mexico City. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them peasants, travel from near and far to worship at the shrine. Although this is probably the most important and beloved religious site in Mexico, thousands of other churches, convents, pilgrimage sites and shrines exist throughout the country.
Mexico’s present population consists of Roman Catholics (76.5 percent), Protestants (6.3 percent), Pentecostals (1.4 percent), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (1.1 percent). Another 14.7 percent are non-religious or are of other faiths.
Many Mexican holidays are Christian in origin, such as Pre-Lenten Carnaval; Semana Santa (Easter week); Christmas, including Las Posadas (the nine–day celebration that begins December 16th); and Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), which celebrates the Epiphany. Mexican children receive the bulk of the season’s gifts and toys on Día de los Reyes.
On December 12, El Día de la Virgen De Guadalupe, Mexico honors its patron saint. During January, the city of Morelia celebrates the fiesta of the Immaculate Conception, and on the 17th of that month, pets and livestock are adorned with flowers and ribbons for the fiesta of San Antonio Abad.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which occurs on November 1, has ancient Aztec and Mesoamerican roots. This day is set aside to remember and honor the lives of the deceased while celebrating the continuation of life. Halloween (October 31st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) are also locally important holidays. During this period, families celebrate the spirits of departed loved ones in various ways, including erecting ofrendas (small altars) in their houses, decorating tombs and eating skull-shaped candies (calaveras) and sweet breads. It is a time for celebrating ancestors–with whom many believe they can communicate during these events–and embracing death as natural and inevitable rather than as something to be feared.
On October 12 of each year, the Día de la Raza (Race Day) is celebrated in recognition of the mestizo (mixed) character of Mexico’ s indigenous and European population. Widely celebrated patriotic events include Independence Day (September 16) and Cinco de Mayo (May 5), which commemorates the Mexican victory over French invaders in 1862.
Mexican cuisine varies greatly by region but depends heavily on an ancient trinity of staples: corn (maize), beans and squash.
Another staple, rice, is usually served alongside beans. Mexicans also tend to make liberal use of avocados (often in the form of guacamole), chili peppers, amaranth, tomatoes, papayas, potatoes, lentils, plantains and vanilla (a flavoring that is pre-Columbian in origin). Salt and hot peppers (often served in a red or green sauce) are the most common condiments; maize tortillas complement most main dishes.
Popular dishes vary by region and individual circumstances, but some of the more widely enjoyed foods are tortillas (flat bread wraps made from wheat or maize flour), enchiladas, cornmeal tamales (cooked within corn husks or banana leaves), burritos, soft–shell tacos, tortas (sandwiches of chicken, pork or cheese and vegetables enclosed in a hard roll), stuffed chili peppers and quesadillas (tortillas filled with soft cheese and meat). Other favorites are soups and spicy stews such as menudo (made from beef tripe and fresh vegetables) and pozole (stewed hominy and pork). Seafood dishes such as pulpo (octopus), chipachole (spicy crab soup) and ceviche (seafood marinated in lime or lemon juice) are popular in coastal areas. In Oaxaca and a few other states, fried and spiced chapulines (grasshoppers) are considered a delicacy. A favorite among the Nahuatl Indians is huitlacoche (corn fungus) served wrapped in fat–fried quesadillas.
Among the preferred desserts are sweet breads, chocolates and dulce de leche (caramelized milk), which is also called leche quemada or burned milk. On city sidewalks and streets, little bells announce the approach of paleteros, ambulatory vendors whose small insulated carts are filled with frozen paletas (popsicle-like treats made from creams or juices) and ice cream. Sugar–battered flautas (deep–fried filled corn tortillas) are popular with children of all ages.
Meals are often washed down with aguas frescas (watery sweet drinks, usually roselle flowers), horchata (a milky rice–based drink) and drinks flavored with watermelon or other fresh fruit. Also popular are licuados (fruit shakes or smoothies). During the Christmas holidays and on the Day of the Dead, one of the more popular drinks is atole (or atol), a hot combination of corn or rice meal, water, and spices.
Several well-known alcoholic beverages made in Mexico are derived from the maguey and agave plants. Maguey–also known as the Century Plant–is used to make pulque, an inexpensive drink. The plant was cultivated by many small farmers because it could thrive on infertile, rocky soil. Agave, in particular the blue agave, is used to make tequila, Mexico’s national liquor. The drink takes its name from Tequila, Jalisco, where it originated. Another alcoholic drink made from agave is mescal, which is produced primarily in Oaxaca.