POPULATION: 95 million

LANGUAGE: Spanish; over 30 Amerindian languages

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (with Amerindian elements); various Protestant churches


Mexico was the home of several native American civilizations before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. The Maya, Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs built cities and pyramids. Cuahtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, is a national hero. Under Spanish rule these peoples were converted to Christianity. European customs were added to their traditional way of life.

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. However, it had lost the northern half of its territory to the United States in 1818. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has remained has been in power for much of the twentieth century. Mexico has made great economic progress in the second half of the twentieth century. However, severe recessions resulted when the value of its currency fell in 1982 and 1994.


Mexico lies between the Pacific Ocean on the west and south, and the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to the east. It is bordered on the north by California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and on the east by the Central American countries of Guatemala and Belize. Most of the country is a highland plateau with little rainfall for most of the year. The plateau is enclosed by two mountain chains, the Sierra Madre Oriental to the east and Sierra Madre Occidental to the west. There is tropical rain forest in parts of the South and the Gulf coast.

Some 75 to 90 percent of Mexico's 95 million people are of mixed European (mostly Spanish) and Amerindian descent.


Mexico is the world's largest Spanish-speaking nation. Almost all Mexicans speak at least some Spanish. About 7 or 8 percent also speak an Amerindian language as their native tongue. There are more than thirty Amerindian language groups. The largest is Náhuatl; others include Mayan, Zapotec, Otomí, and Mixtec.


Particularly in Amerindian communities, curanderos function as healers who communicate with nature gods and spirits.

Christian saints are often credited with the supernatural powers attributed to the gods of native Amerindian religions. Practices at many Christian feasts parallel those associated with the worship of gods dating back to the pre-European past. Traditional masks represent animals, spirits, and religious or mythical figures.


Between 90 and 95 percent of the Mexican people are Roman Catholics. However, Mexican Catholicism includes folklore and practices of the pre-European religions. The Virgin of Guadalupe was proclaimed patron saint of Mexico in 1737. Similarly, many other Christian saints are identified with gods and goddesses of the Amerindian past.


Holy Week commemorates the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Christmas celebrations have been influenced by American customs such as gift giving and Christmas trees (sometimes even in churches). Preceding Christmas are the colorful posadas , nightly celebrations that begin December 16 and commemorate Mary and Joseph's search for an inn in Bethlehem before Jesus was born.

On November 2, the Day of the Dead, people visit the graves of their loved ones and leave behind fruits and flowers. December 12 commemorates of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531.

Secular holidays include national independence day on September 16 and the birthday of revolutionary and statesman Benito Juárez (1806–72) on March 21.


Infant baptism is practiced even in Amerindian communities where the other Roman Catholic sacraments are not observed. Most Mexican children also are confirmed.

A suitor must court his future in-laws as well as his intended bride. In Amerindian communities, marriages may still be arranged and sealed with an exchange of gifts.

Most Mexicans marry young. Only civil marriages are legally valid. However, more than 70 percent of all couples also marry in church. Many poor couples live together, however, without benefit of clergy or legal license.

The dead are not usually embalmed. Burial takes place twenty-four hours after death. Wakes are held, with the relatives and friends bringing food, drink, and other gifts to the bereaved.


Even brief exchanges and questions call for an introductory buenos días (good day) or buenas tardes (good afternoon). Male friends show their affection openly. Often they will embrace heartily on meeting and stroll arm in arm.

Government employees, including police officers, sometimes will accept or even ask for the mordida (literally "bite" or bribe).

In contrast with Americans, Mexicans set little store on punctuality. In fact, arriving at a dinner or party on time is considered rude.


About two-thirds of Mexicans are poorly housed. The poorest peasants and urban dwellers build their own adobe huts or wooden shanties. Only half of all dwellings have piped water and flush toilets. However, almost 90 percent have electric lighting. Improvised settlements, or shantytowns, cover the fringes of Mexico City and other cities.


Widespread poverty forces households to stay together for economic as well as social reasons. The household in many cases includes grandparents, aunts, and uncles as well as parents and children. Married children and their spouses also remain part of this unit until they can afford to set up their own households.

Family solidarity extends even beyond blood ties. Compadrazgo , or godparent-hood, plays a very important part in Mexican life. One study of a Mexico City shantytown found eighteen different occasions for involving godparents in celebrations. In return for his or her aid, a godparent expects loyalty, affection, and respect from the child and parents.


The more traditional forms of women's dress include a wraparound skirt, sometimes flounced and embroidered. Also included are the huipil , a sleeveless garment with holes for the head and arms; and the quechquemitl , an upper outer garment with an opening for the head only. The china poblana costume consists of a richly embroidered white blouse and black shawl, a flounced and spangled red-and-green skirt, high-heeled colored slippers, bracelets, earrings, strings of beads, and ribbons or flowers in the hair. Traditional peasant attire for men consisted of pajama-like trousers and tunic of unbleached cotton, a serape (used as both a blanket and a cloak), sandals, and wide sombrero . This attire has mostly given way to jeans, shirt, shoes or boots, and a straw cowboy-type hat.

12 • FOOD

The staple of Mexican food is corn, supplemented by beans, squash, and chili peppers. Cornmeal is patted into a thin pancake called a tortilla. Together with any of a variety of fillings, it forms a soft sandwich-like taco. (The crisp-fried "taco" known in the U.S. is a tostada ). Fried in chili sauce, the taco becomes an enchilada. The tamale is cornmeal dough wrapped around a filling of meat and chilies, then wrapped in paper, corn husks, or banana leaves for cooking. Tacos made with a tortilla of wheat flour are called burritos. Mole is a rich chili sauce that sometimes contains chocolate, which is native to Mexico. Mole poblano , traditionally the national dish, consists of turkey (a native bird) topped with a spicy mole.


Six years of education are free and compulsory for children from ages six through fourteen. However, many—a majority in rural areas—do not complete the required six years. About one out of ten Mexicans cannot read or write.

Enrollment in secondary schools has increased greatly in recent years. About four out of every five elementary-school graduates now enter high school. Some receive vocational training, while others continue on to one of the nation's 260 institutions of higher learning. The most important of these is the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico City.


Mexico's rich cultural life draws on both its Spanish and its Amerindian heritage. Oil paintings by twentieth-century artists Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, and others are admired for their vibrant colors.

The most popular stringed instrument in Mexico is the guitar. In mariachi (Mexican band) music, stringed instruments are combined with trumpets. The marimba (similar to the xylophone) is popular in southern Mexico. Twentieth-century composer Carlos Chávez drew on traditional musical forms in his works. The Ballet Folklórico mounts productions of traditional dance and tours internationally.

Noted Mexican writers of the twentieth century include the poet and essayist Octavio Paz and the novelists Mariano Azuela, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and Laura Esquivel.


Workers are protected by laws guaranteeing minimum wages, legal holidays, paid vacations, collective bargaining, and the right to strike. The minimum wage, however, was under $3 a day in 1995. Many Mexicans work as subsistence farmers or small-scale artisans and merchants. Their hours are long, and the income is generally meager.


Fútbol (soccer) is by far the most popular sport in Mexico. The top professional teams draw as many as 100,000 spectators to their matches. There is a professional baseball league. Other sports include golf, tennis, swimming, bicycling, track and field, and jai alai. Bullfighting and the jaripeo , or rodeo, are also popular, with about thirty-five arenas in Mexico.


Television now dominates popular culture. Telenovelas (soap operas) and variety shows especially popular. Rock and roll, international-style pop, and even Spanish-language rap are popular. Comic books and magazine-style fotonovelas are more common reading material than newspapers and books.


The most important form of folk painting is the retablo , which depicts a miraculous event. Other works of art include murals and yarn and bark paintings. Folk sculptures include masks, papier-mâché skeletons, and candle-bearing trees of life made of clay.

The variety of Mexican handicrafts is almost endless. Silver objects include bracelets, rings, necklaces, and earrings. Objects are also carved out of onyx, jade, and other types of stone. There are many regional styles of pottery. Other crafts include hand-blown glass, tile making, leather work, and lacquering. Weaving and embroidery are age-old crafts that are still practiced.


Many Mexicans are poorly fed and housed and do not receive adequate health care. Alcoholism is also a serious health problem. About 30 percent of the population is not served by a sewage system. Air pollution is a health hazard in urban centers, which are becoming increasingly overcrowded. In the late 1990s, Mexico City was considered one of the world's most dangerous cities in which to conduct business.


Frye, David. Amerindians Into Mexicans: History and Identity in a Mexican Town. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Ganeri, Anita, and Rachel Wright. Mexico, Country Topics for Craft Projects. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.

Meyer, Michael C. The Course of Mexican History. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Columbus Group. [Online] Available , 1998.

Embassy of Mexico in Canada. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

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