Mexico and Mexicans

According to my aunt Jayne (a.k.a. Tia Juana), my maternal great-great-grandparents, Macario and Agalo Soto Jaramillo traveled from Nuevo Leon, Mexico to Weslaco, Texas in the U.S. sometime in the 1930s. Since there are no written records of their arrival, our family can't be sure why they decided to leave Mexico, nor exactly when they left. We do know that once they arrived they began performing all the odd-jobs migrant workers are associated with- factory work, day labor, and farming. We assume they came pursuing the dream of so many other immigrants, that of making a better life for themselves.

Mexico's history is often sordid and violent; any of the momentous events of the early 20th century could have influenced my ancestors' departure . While the aftermath Mexican revolution of 1910 would eventually bring about democracy and relative stability, the direct result was lasting strife. In the late '10s, multiple guerrilla movements rose up. Shortly thereafter, the precursor to the modern Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.) came about. To consolidate its power, the government broke with the Roman Catholic church in the '20s, going so far as to deport hundreds of priests. As with many other nations, the Great Depression of the '30s greatly disrupted Mexico's finances. Finally, the ill-planned nationalization of oil and rail industries in the late '30s further destabilized the Mexican economy. Likely, a combination of these and other upheavals persuaded the Jaramillos to migrate.

The land they left possesses some interesting characteristics. Because of its rugged terrain and because it is nearly bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, Mexico's climate varies a great deal. The Northern region boasts deserts and the Southern region jungles. Beaches that support a vast tourism industry line the Eastern and Western coasts. The Sierra Madre Oriental, Occidental, and del Sur mountain ranges dominate Mexico's nearly two million square-kilometer area. Descendants of indigenous tribes still live near and atop these ranges. My ancestors home state, Nuevo Leon, lies at the northeastern tip of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Created by ancient volcanism, the Mexican Plateau rests between three series of ranges. Mexico City, the capital, resides in the south of this central plateau.

Despite its size and central location in the western hemisphere, Mexico has few neighbors. Guatemala and Belize lie along Mexico's southern border. The United States lies to the north, but its importance as a neighbor cannot be overstated. The vast border between the two countries stretches hundreds of kilometers from California to Texas. The border's size, coupled with the barren land surrounding it, factor greatly in the modern immigration issues plaguing the two nations. Easy access for freight and investment also impacts U.S.-Mexican economic relations. One source states that over 88% of Mexico's 2001 exports were shipped to the U.S. (Parker, p. 42).

While its arid northern climate and economic difficulties compared to the U.S. may suggest a reliance on less sophisticated subsistence strategies, modern Mexicans use all the major strategies except hunting and gathering. For instance, many Mexicans practice Industrialism by working in maquiladoras. Introduced in the '60s, these facilities fabricate export goods from raw materials and components imported tax-free. To lower the cost of transporting their large portion of export goods bound for the U.S., most maquilidoras are situated as close to the U.S. border as possible.

Maquilidoras use a mix of modern and obsolete factory machinery, varying by product. A textiles maquiladora needn't contain the machinery used in automobile plants, for instance. Production at a textiles maquiladora may entail the use of powered carding, drawing, spinning and weaving machines along with manual work. Automobile maquiladoras typically feature conveyors, lifting machines, powered fastening tools, and robotic assembly tools.

Division of labor in these plants is mainly by socioeconomic class. However, in the case of “high-tech” production methods, specialized technical knowledge may be more important than class. The upper class often acts as management, while the lower class employees perform the labor intensive and low-wage jobs. Despite employing over a million Mexicans, maquiladoras are not often owned by natives. Rather, international corporations usually own and direct the facilities.

Horticulture is another Mexican subsistence strategy of note. Example crops include coffee grown in the states of Veracruz and Chiapas and vanilla grown in the state of Veracruz. Both of these crops require labor and time intensive manual tending to cultivate successfully. Both types of horticulture require standard gardening and farm implements. Both also employ small hand tools for pruning and, in the case of vanilla, for manual pollination. Lastly, each type also requires specialized processing machinery. Coffee requires roasting and sorting machines; vanilla requires drying and distilling implements.

Division of labor is based on socioeconomic status and specialized knowledge. One has to learn how to cultivate such crops successfully. Given the effort required, those actually employed in the fields are often of a lower class than those running the businesses. However, some Mexican coffee companies, like Café Justo, are run in a co-op format in which all employees own a share in the company.

According to the C.I.A. World Factbook Mexico's government is a “federal republic.” In anthropological terms, this means that Mexico has a centralized, democratic political system. Specifically, the country is comprised of 31 states, and a federal district. Each state has a regional government headed by elected officials, similar to the U.S. The federal district, and the federal government is run by the president of Mexico. Also, similar to the U.S., Mexico's government possesses judicial, legislative and executive branches.

Being a republic, the people vote to confer legitimacy to their representatives. Unlike our system, there is no Electoral College; presidential elections are by popular vote. Also, presidents may not serve consecutive terms. Similar to the U.S., however, Mexico's legislative branch consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate, the Cámarar de Diputados and Cámarar de Senadores, respectively. Instead of voting for each member individually, Mexico's legislative branch is only partially elected by popular vote. 200 of the 500 House seats and 32 of the 128 Senate seats are instead assigned via a party-based proportional system.

Interestingly, voting in Mexico has always been a officially high priority. Any citizen with a national identity card is automatically registered to vote in all relevant elections. In fact, it is technically mandatory that they do so, but this isn't enforced. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Mexico's voter turnout consistently reaches 60% for presidential and legislative elections. This is very different from U.S. voting trends; only presidential elections are likely reach this degree of voter turnout. The implication is that governmental participation is both more respected and more important to Mexicans than U.S. citizens.

Mexico's economy is as modern as its government. It's a large capitalist economy with elements of socialism that utilizes negative reciprocity. Mexico's official currency is the peso, with an exchange rate of about eleven pesos to the U.S. dollar. Mexico's G.D.P. is about one trillion U.S. dollars, and its labor force is about 45 million strong.

The maquiladoras mentioned above are prime examples of the capitalist idea of value-added exchange. In these factories, neither the employees nor the owners reap direct benefit from what is produced. What they are selling is the labor the workers apply to the imported materials. Indeed, one of the reasons the system is so attractive is that only that labor is taxed; incoming components and outgoing goods are duty-free. The labor of the workers is valuable enough to pay for the factory's operation, their own wages, their managers' salaries, all applicable taxes and whatever cut the owners take. Socialism in Mexico takes the form of a government-subsidized health care and pension programs, government run schools, and police, fire and postal services.

Predictably, as a modern economy, Mexico's tertiary economic sector is its largest. The C.I.A. World Factbook attributes about 60% of both G.D.P. and labor force to this sector. While this sector includes the nominal list of professions from banking to engineering, the tourism industries stands out. Mexico makes billions of U.S. dollars from tourism every year.

Mexico's secondary economic sector sits between the other two in both G.D.P. and labor force allocation. However, to get actual percentages one must extrapolate from various studies as no readily available source breaks down economic sectors anthropologically. First, one can assume the mining and oil industries are at least as lucrative as other secondary sector industries. Next, using this assumption one can approximate the actual G.D.P. and labor force percentages using Mexican mining studies and official PEMEX (Mexico's nationalized oil company) revenue reports. Subtracting these figures from the C.I.A. Word Factbook data garners an estimate of 27% G.D.P. and 20% of the labor force for Mexico's secondary economic sector. Similar treatment of the primary economic sector gives about 13% of G.D.P. and about 20% of the labor force.

While Mexico has no official state religion, the Geotravel Research group puts Roman Catholicism at 89%, Protestantism at 6%, and “other” religions at 1% of the population. As the numbers show, Catholicism heavily predominates in Mexico. This religion has been a large cultural element of the Mexican people since Cortés and his conquistadors brought it with them in the 1500s. However, the beliefs of the indigenous groups have permeated Mexican culture as well. According to my Aunt, superstition is rampant, and especially so in the poorer border-towns her mission trips took her to. I would posit that the surfeit of saints revered by Mexicans stems from the polytheistic religions common to the ancient civilizations of the region.

Church attendance in Mexico is relatively lax outside of holidays. Most likely this is due to the cultural emphasis on family and work. Yet, during holidays, church attendance increases, and there are many holidays throughout the year.

One of the most interesting and recognizable Mexican holidays is La Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. On this day, November 1st or 2nd, it is believed the souls of the dead return to Earth for a brief time. To celebrate, people will return to the graves of loved ones and leave gifts. It's a day-long social events with food, drink, and carousing. In some cities, parades, complete with elaborate floats are held. Traditional and iconic works of art depicting skeletons and skulls are often crafted to commemorate the day.

Social organization in Mexico is influenced most by the cultural value of family. To Mexicans, family always comes first, and a large family is considered a blessing. While having a large extended family under one roof is not considered abnormal, continued urbanization is making this arrangement less common. Mexicans practice a form of bilateral kinship in that one will know of and be connected to both sides of one's family. In rural or low-income households, unmarried children stay with parents until they marry. Even after marriage, some couples will stay with one of the their families until they can obtain a house of their own. Grown children will often move elderly parents in to care for them. Mexicans tend to be very respectful of older people.

Given the prevalence of Catholicism in Mexico, monogamy is practiced. Marriages are expected to last and divorce rates are low. However, common-law marriages and civil-unions are widely practiced as well. Often civil-unions performed by secular authorities will directly precede a large Catholic wedding, complete with a large reception afterwards. Marriage partners are chosen for love by the majority of Mexico, but some indigenous people still practice arranged marriages.

Mexican gender roles could be described as “traditional.” Husbands are expected to work outside the home and provide for and guide the family. Machismo is very much alive in Mexico. Conversely, Wives are expected to work in the home, and perform craft-work. Yet, in the later quarter of the 20st century the changing economy allowed for and sometimes pushed women into the workforce. Currently about a third of Mexican women work outside the home.

Socioeconomic classes in Mexico are heavily stratified. There is an ever widening gap between rich and poor. Though some larger cities and resort areas sport huge mansions as expensive as anything in the U.S., vast swaths of rural and urban areas alike lack electricity, running water and sanitation. Only about 4% of the population is unemployed, but the C.I.A. World Factbook estimates nearly 25% of the labor force is underemployed- making do with less than their skills should allow. Over 13% of the population suffer from extreme poverty.

Rural and indigenous populations often fair worse than urban people. On top of the economic burdens, there is a strong cultural prejudice against the Mexican Indians. They are looked down upon and often distrusted. The Mexican Indians number about ten million today and directly descend from the ancient civilizations that once flourished in Mexico. Most of the remaining Mexicans are mestizos, mixed, and have both European and Mexican Indian ancestors.

While Spanish has been Mexico's official language for centuries, it is interesting to note just how many languages its inhabitants speak. Mostly due to the indigenous groups, nearly 150 distinct languages are spoken in Mexico. Only a low portion of the populace uses these languages, but its amazing that there are so many spoken in such a relatively small area of the world.

Several things seemed interesting to me while I was researching. One near and dear to my heart is the profusion of tortilla eating found in Mexico. I've heard tortillas referred to as the Mexican equivalent of bread, and I suppose to some extant that's true. However, one source states Mexicans eat, on average, one kilogram of tortillas a day. I can't imagine eating two pounds of bread a day. However, I remember my grandmother making stacks and stacks tortillas that we (any family members that happened to be around) would gravitate towards throughout the day. It may even have been a kilogram per person. Of course, there are differences. Here in Michigan, its much easier to get wheat flour than good masa. Also, in Mexico, one can find all kinds of hand-driven and electric machines that help make lots of tortillas quickly. In the U.S., such devices are often difficult to find or prohibitively expensive.

Another interesting cultural element I noticed was how Mexicans view time. The Geotravel briefing on Mexico goes into great detail regarding customs of punctuality. Like the Lakota, Mexicans are very flexible regarding time, and there is a similar cultural reference to the difference between Mexican and U.S. customs. When someone says they want to meet at a specific time it is apparently common to ask “a la Mexicana?” or “a la gringa?” “A la Mexicana,” like a Mexican, means go ahead and be a half-hour late. “A la gringa,” like a U.S. person, a “gringo,” means you should be on time.

Another interesting thing is the disparity between the stereotype of the “lazy Mexican” and what one actually sees in real Mexicans. In written accounts and the documentary I watched, there were constant examples of hard-working, enduring people. I'm sure there's get-over artists in every culture, but it seems the negative stereotypes are diametrically opposed to what the majority of Mexicans have to do everyday just to survive. I presume the idea came about because of the differences in views of time and the focus Mexicans put on social interaction. Also, the traditional siesta may have something to do with it.

Lastly, and possibly related to the above point, Mexicans have a strange approach-avoidance relationship to the U.S. Resentment over past wrongs and current inequalities fuel anti-U.S. sentiments. At the same time, Mexicans seem to almost look up to the U.S. and desire what our wealth and technology can bring. It's a smoldering thing, a distaste and concern that our country is out to constantly exploit theirs. U.S. tourists flock to Cancun, Cozumel, and other tourist hot-spot every year. They have a great time. Yet, many violent and vocal groups deride Mexican immigrants, and accuse them of stealing jobs or worse. Despite all this, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans attempt to gain entry into our country every year to work and to become U.S. citizens.

The attached article dovetails with the last point, I think. In the article, the author talks about how Mexico seems to have allied itself so thoroughly with the U.S. that if the U.S. economy tanks, so too will Mexico's. I think this is indicative of two cultural elements. First, it seems in keeping with the global capitalist society we humans seem to be creating. All sorts of interesting financial deals are being made every day between various nations- all for profit. No past mistakes or missteps have dissuaded Mexico's government from seeking profit as other countries have. Second, if the U.S. is the big, powerful neighbor, Mexicans are pragmatic enough to try to ride our coattails to get where they want to go. The issue the article raises is that maybe our coattails won't take Mexico where it wants to go.


· Parker, Edward. (2004). Countries of the world: Mexico

Suchlicki, James. (2008). Mexico: From Montezuma to the rise of the PAN (3rd ed.) C.I.A. World Factbook. (2009).

· Geotravel Research Center. (2009). Culture briefing: Mexico Café Justo Website. (2009).

Encyclopedia Britannica Website. (2009). Maquiladora entry Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) Website. (2009).

ACE Project Website. (2009). Mexican Government entry The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Website. (2009). Mexico and United States entries

Personal Communication with Jayne Stamurs (I.M. Interview). (2009.11.18).

Indican Pictures (2007). El Inmigranté (DVD)

Carlsen, Laura. (2009). Mexico and the crisis of a dependent economy. Americas Program Commentary (News Article).

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