Written by Cecilia Otero on September 6th, 2020
Believe it or not, Mexico as represented by American media isn’t exactly accurate. You may think you know all there is to know about the culture of this vibrant, spirited country, but you might be surprised by some of its lesser-known traditions and customs. Mexicans are an incredibly diverse group of people whose cultural heritage has indigenous, European, and African roots that are impossible to generalize. Here are 8 things you didn’t know about Mexican culture.
- Mexico is an incredibly diverse country.
You may have a mental image of what the “typical Mexican” looks like, but the truth is that there’s really no such thing. Studies have found that Mexico is one of the most genetically diverse countries in the world, with over 300 languages spoken across 65 indigenous groups. In addition to its indigenous roots, Mexican culture also has ties to European and African traditions. This diversity has cultivated a lively heritage that’s as spirited as it is unique.
Photo by: Marisol Benitez
- The food you know is a product of colonization.
What comes to mind when you think of Mexican food? It’s probably some combination of flour tortillas, nacho cheese, and spicy beef. Pretty indulgent. The thing is, these ingredients were actually introduced into the Mexican diet by European colonizers. Traditional native cuisine is much healthier, and heavily plant based. Dishes are centered around fresh vegetables like corn and squash, hearty grains like amaranth and chia, and of course, beans.
Photos by: Holly Deckert, Brigitte Thom
- Vibrant folk art is central to Mexican identity.
Mexicans are respected worldwide for their fine artesanía. Defined by bold colors and intricate patterns, folk art is a wonderfully important part of Mexican culture. Always handmade, alebrijes, talavera, Huichol beading, intricate embroidery, and stunning leather goods make up just a fraction of the Mexican artistry that’s so highly admired around the world.
Photos by: Jeremy Lwanga, Pina Messina
- There’s an entire holiday dedicated to children.
You know Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but did you know that there’s a Children’s Day? Mexico celebrates its youngsters on April 30 with El Día de los Niños. On this special day, kids receive sweet treats from their families and have a fun day of games and parties at school.
- The salsa is always spicy... Even when it’s not.
If you’ve ever been to Mexico, or at the very least a Mexican gathering, you may be familiar with the phrase ¡No pica!, meaning “it’s not spicy”. Abuelas and taqueros alike will spot an American and be quick to point out their least spicy salsa, knowing not everybody’s palette is accustomed to the extreme heat of Mexican peppers.
Mexicans have a high heat tolerance, so delicious as they may be, Mexican salsas are always hot. Proceed with caution because despite the comforting reassurances of ¡No pica! ¡No pica!... You should know that si pica.
- Greetings are a physical affair.
Proper hellos and goodbyes are common etiquette in Mexican culture. When arriving at a social function, one must greet each person individually with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or at the very least a handshake. You’re expected to do the same when you leave, too. And no, you can’t get away with just waving to the crowd. Individual greetings/goodbyes are a sign of respect, and the rudest thing you can do is leave a party without saying goodbye.
- Dia de los Muertos is not “Mexican Halloween”
A fun celebration of all things spooky, American Halloween is lighthearted and casual. Dia de los Muertos is anything but. El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is a sacred spiritual festivity demonstrating respect and reverence towards dead loved ones. With ties to both indigenous religions and Catholicism, this holiday centers around the idea that you will always be a member of your community, even after death, kept alive by your memory and spirit. Mexicans celebrate the lives of those they’ve lost by welcoming them back into the world of the living with song, dance, and food, in the form of ofrendas.
Photos by: Filiberto Santillan
- La Serenata is the ultimate expression of affection.
La Serenata, or serenade, may just be the most romantic tradition in Mexico (and possibly the world). Imagine being woken in the middle of the night by tender love songs outside your window. A serenata is a meaningful gesture in which a young suitor hires a trio of musicians to serenade a sweetheart by moonlight, walking towards their bedroom window singing songs of passion. Shakespeare himself couldn’t write that level of romance. Romeo who?
Photo by: Bernardo Ramonfaur