Retratos mexicanos

Retratos mexicanos - Mexican portraits

Not only have we been expelled from the center of the world, but we are condemned to search for it through jungles and deserts, or through the twists and turns and underground of the labyrinth.
Octavio Paz.

I still remember my father’s words to me when we visited Mexico together: “Son, look carefully at the faces of the people, they are different from ours, they reveal the pre-Columbian past of our continent.”

Mexico is the 13th largest country in the world in surface area. Its population today is almost 120 million inhabitants distributed across 32 states. Mexico is actually many Mexicos. It is many cultures within one country. A document from the National Autonomous University (UNAM) states that the nation is composed of more than 70 indigenous ethnic groups and 350 dialects. Many of these ethnic groups were present before the Spanish conquest, and some still exist today, long after Mexico’s colonization, attesting to the ethnic and multicultural wealth that the country still possesses. Mexico originated in the multiple large and small pre-Hispanic cultures whose roots are still alive today, and are manifested in the traditions across the various regions of the country. And at the same time, the country is heavily influenced by its legacy of Spanish colonialism.

Octavio Paz, in his famous work “The labyrinth of the past”, expressed the difficulty with which many Mexicans assume the two aspects of their country’s past, the indigenous and the Spanish. Paz believed that Mexicans reject the duality of these two pasts, the indigenous– for being an example of defeat, servility and violation, and the Spanish– for representing violence, murder and rape. And it is for this reason that Mexico has always been in a permanent search for its identity. For Paz, the Mexican lives in an endless labyrinth of loneliness, and Mexico is as alone as each one of its children. This original dichotomy and subsequent avoidance, typical of all Ibero-American elite groups from the mid-18th century to the early-mid-20th century, has led Mexicans historically to feel both admiration and mistrust for foreigners.

“In your house there is always room for one more”, it is said in Mexico. And in Mexico, “your house” is actually “my house” that has become yours. This famous phrase portrays the Mexicans as a cordial people, always welcoming of foreigners. And I was always, on every trip, well treated and welcome in Mexico. Through the ceremonious and formal tone of the Mexicans towards me, I have always felt respected by them, as a guest would be in one’s home.

There are many aspects that I appreciate about Mexicans, such as their love for family, their humility, sense of humor, and their preservation of gastronomic, musical, and celebratory customs. There is however one characteristic of Mexicans I find peculiar, and that is their perception of time. Mexicans seem to perceive time as going much more slowly than people in other countries. This unique perception of time finds its emblem in the diminutive and often-used term “ahorita”. Although this word literally means “now”, Mexicans use it to mean that now will really start at an indeterminate time in the future.

Contrary to what Octavio Paz thought, I think that the pre-Columbian and Spanish duality of history and cultures constitute a fusion that distinguishes Mexicans from citizens of other Latin American countries, and that this unifies them and strengthens the pride that each Mexican feels in his country. There is no prototype of being Mexican, but there are various ways of being, “tabasqueño”, “yucateco”, “sinaloense”, “tapatío”,” defeño”, and many more.

Mexicans are not orphans of the past. On the contrary, they have the heritage of unique and remarkable civilizations that, as my father showed me, are engraved on the features of their faces, and allow them to imagine a future of their own invention.

Pablo Munini  © September 2022

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