September 23, 2005

Chicanos would do good to visit Mexico

By Ricardo Raúl y Daniel Alberto Pozos y Garay

Living in the USA tends to cut you off from the rest of the world, especially culturally speaking. In my life I’ve met people from various parts of the globe and one thing they’ve all shared is a fundamental knowledge of the world outside their homelands. For instance, it’s quite common for people in countries other than the USA to watch foreign films in conventional movie theaters and to listen to top-hits by recordings artists from all points of the globe on local popular FM stations.

Conversely, here in the USA, foreign films are relegated to small, indie movie houses in the “pink districts” of the nation’s larger metropolitan cities. As far as foreign music titles are concerned, you’re likely to find only the big-hitters of their kind in a small section labeled “world music” in the far back corners of selected big-name music store chains.

This concern with things “only mainstream,” “only-American” can be particularly troubling for the USA’s Chicano population. Since the year 1848, Chicanos/as in the USA have struggled tirelessly to hold on to their Mexican-ness, that is, their language, religion, customs, traditions, and their overall culture. In the words of the late and noted, prolific Chicano journalist, Ruben Salazar, “A ‘Chicano,’ is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself.” How then can Chicanos/as truly be “Chicano” if their scope is severely limited by the Anglo American hegemony that dominates their everyday lives?

One solution open to most Chicanos/as is to reestablish ties with the mother country, this is to visit Mexico every so often.

On my most recent Mexican getaway, I came to the realization that many valuable things can be learned from even the shortest stay in our neighboring motherland. To those Chicanos/as that have never ventured further south of the border metropolises of Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Nuevo Laredo; Mexico is but grimy streets lined with cheesy, seedy nightclubs and artisans eager to sell American-friendly knick-knacks for un dólar. No, one must travel a bit further south of the American-tailored border towns to unravel Mexico’s profound historical and cultural wealth that are its patrimony.

My plane landed in Guadalajara, Jalisco—my plane ticket proved to be the most expensive component of my two-week stay—which served as my point of departure from which I panned out to several nearby cities and towns all the way to Mexico City.

Just in time to catch the tail-end of Guadalajara’s annual Mariachi festival, I experienced Sunday Mass in Guadalajara’s main cathedral accompanied by a top-notch Mariachi as the festival is accustomed to commence and conclude under the auspices of the local Catholic dioceses. Never, in my wildest dreams did I imagine Catholic rites to be so uplifting and spirit-driven. Growing up in the USA, most of us Chicanos/as have been inured to the dull Catholic masses and rituals led by US clergy usually of Irish and Italian extraction. American attempts to modernize the Catholic Mass with soft rock bands have failed to add the spice they promised and are often times borderline irreverent.

The mariachi intermittingly played throughout the mass leading the jam-packed faithful in the football stadium-sized Cathedral in song; at times silencing the crowds with the sheer consonance of the vocalists and trumpeters—redefining “panache”—yet never once stealing from the solemnity of the event. At Mass’ conclusion I made my way to the surrounding churches on seemingly every corner of the historic district to find each to be equally as attended by the faithful as the cathedral, testament to Mexicans’ devout Catholicism (or perhaps Mass is just far more enjoyable in Mexico than in the USA).

Thereafter, I hopped a bus to nearby cities and towns all the way to Mexico City, to places where time stopped some three centuries ago with a backdrop of the most beautiful sceneries to be found on the planet. In colonial times, Mexico, then known as “Nueva España” or “New Spain”, was Spain’s chief viceroyalty and in pre-Hispanic times, about 90% of “Mesoamerica’s” primary civilizations lay within Mexico’s present-day limits. It’s no wonder today you’ll find mammoth sized colonial era churches and municipal palaces alongside equally impressive indigenous ruins. Chicanos/as, equal parts indigenous and Spanish, are offered the opportunity to truly, [tangibly] uncover their roots.

I question how much Mexicans Americans know about Mexico and their Mexican heritage. I doubt they know that Mexico is home to the Western Hemisphere’s first library, first printing press, first post office, first university…. Yes, long before there was Harvard University and the other overpriced ivy league schools on the USA’s east coast, Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) founded in 1551 (originally a monastic higher learning center), was the first secular and public university in the Americas.

The architecture and décor to be found throughout central Mexico—most dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries—is unparalleled elsewhere in the world; bearing more of the UNESCO’s prestigious “patrimony of humanity” seals than any other country in the Americas. Not to mention the sounds—oh and the [tastes] —of Mexico that make local Old Town’s so called “authentic Mexican cuisine” seem like reheated TV-dinners. If Mesopotamia is the Eastern Hemisphere’s “cradle of civilization,” then by the same standards, Mexico is worthy of the same mention in regards to the Western Hemisphere.

Perhaps more captivating than Mexico’s spectacular landscapes, colossal baroque monuments, and magnificent pre-Hispanic archeological sites such as Zacatecas’ La Quemada or the massive pyramids at Teotihuacan; are the very people that call Mexico home: the Mexicans.

I venture these millions of dark-hued, dark-eyed; untiring, determined laborers don’t look too different from their ancient Aztec ancestors of some 500 years ago. They’re a stark contrast to the blond, blue-eyed, light-skinned prototypes featured high above on towering billboard ads throughout the city and the city’s elite ruling classes. These folks won’t let a thing like racism get them down. The women are undoubtedly the most courageous, riding sardine packed subway cars and dimly lit city streets in the dark of night selling wares and homemade snacks on their way to and from school and/or work; their dignity intact as they challenge the standards for beauty set forth by primetime’s snow white novela protagonists.

Indeed, we Chicanos/as here in Aztlán could learn a thing or three from our compatriots south of the border. Their hard work, tightly knit families and determination in the face of utter hopelessness is an inspiration to us all. Besides, tourism is one of Mexico’s top sources of revenue. If Anglo Americans vacation in Europe to galvanize their ethnic pride and learn their ancestors’ historical and cultural feats of greatness, then we Chicanos have our own Europe right within our reach (in every sense of the word) beckoning us to relearn who we are and from whence we came.

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