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Day 209 – The Many Mexicos (Castillo de Chapultepec and Anthropology Museum)

May 7, 2011

Location: Mexico City, Mexico

Date: Saturday, May 7, 2011

What do you think of when you think of Mexicanos? Day laborers hanging out in front of Home Depot? The guy who mows your lawn? Cholo gangsters? Families running across the U.S.-Mexico border? General Santa Anna at the Alamo? Aztecs and Mayas, maybe?

Whatever you thought, it’s almost assured that it’s more complicated than you think. Mexico has one of the most diverse populations on earth. Like Vietnam, Mexico is a tableau of ethnic minorities. The Mexican government officially recognizes 62 indigenous groups, but no doubt there used to be many more. Disease, conquest, and intermarriage have eliminated or integrated many more.

Furthermore, these indigenous peoples aren’t like the marginalized Native Americans in the United States. A full 10% of the 107 million Mexican citizens have indigenous roots. Nearly 5 million of those are spread between what used to be the Aztecs and the Mayas. But there are many more with even more unpronounceable names: Mixtec, Otomi, Totonac, Tzotzil, Tilapanec. . .the list goes on.

In the U.S., Native Americans make up only 1.5% of the population whereas Black Americans make up around 12%. If we imagine that all the Black people in the U.S. were replaced with American Indians, we can begin to imagine what kind of influence Mexico’s indigenous population has on Mexican culture. Mexico may not be immigrant-diverse, but that’s because it’s got a big one to begin with.

A visit to the National Museum of Anthropology provides a glimpse into this world. Located in Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), it’s an overwhelming complex and not just because there’s a giant fountain in the courtyard.

The countless halls are filled to the brim with information on a mind crushing number of Mexican indigenous cultures. After just two halls everything starts to blend together. It’s like trying to swallow the whole of European history in one sitting.

A measure of Mexico’s variety of cultures is this little tidbit: Spain’s conquest of the western coast was bloody and incredibly difficult. That’s because there were so many separate, independent civilizations that the invaders had to go from town to town to subdue the area. The different languages and political structures made it impossible to conquer large areas at one time.

The anthropological museum stands in stark contrast to its neighbor, the National Museum at Chapultepec Castle (Castillo de Chapultepec). Here sits another Mexico—the one impacted by the West.

It’s the site of a famous 1847 Mexican-American War battle. There, six teenage Mexican soldiers refused to retreat and defended the castle to their deaths. Los Niños Heroes (Boy Heroes) are commemorated by a towering memorial near the castillo and with a September 13th holiday. The U.S. Marine Corp. remembers the battle in the first line of the Marines’ Hymn: “From the Halls of Montezuma. . .”

The Castillo was also subsequently the home of Mexican Emperor Maximillian I and his consort Empress Carlota. They ruled from 1864–1867 when France (with the backing of Spain, the U.K., and Catholic clergy) briefly took over the country in an attempt to recapture the glory days of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The castle has been preserved in that modest Louis XIV style. A separate room for every day-to-day activity, heaps of gold, lots of polished wood, stained glass, and marble on marble bathrooms. It’s miles away from the lives of the indigenous people. A true monument to the interlopers.

The western conquest makes it all the more remarkable that much of the indigenous culture is still preserved and appreciated. Sadly, the thing that has helped protect these indigenous customs and languages is the same thing that harms those cultures: isolation. The indigenous groups tend to be geographically secluded. They have also been largely cut off from economic growth. Despite their numbers they—like their Native American brethren to the north—are mostly separated from the New World and are stuck in the Old.

In some ways, that’s the way it’s always been. While some Mexicans lived in castles, their countrymen subsisted off the land. Today, you’ll see a BMW rolling down the street past an old woman selling trinkets to passing tourists.

It’s all a reflection of the real, diverse, complicated Mexico. Whether it’s anthropological museums that need a month to properly visit or a castle on a hill or the ruins of an unknown civilization or an illegal running across the border to do work you and I don’t want to do—it’s all Mexico.

Whew. . .I’m starved. Anyone up for some tacos?

GALLERY: Click through to see bonus pictures of some more Mexican mural art.

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