It wasn’t hard to decide what to see and do in one week in Mexico City, because everyone we spoke to, foreigners, Mexicans, and Chilangos (=Mexico City-ans) alike, gave us the same short list: Chapultepec, Xochimilco, various places to see murals, Bellas Artes and the Modern Art Museum, the Children’s Museum, and, always, always, the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Anthropology it was, on Thursday morning.
Joy had been to the Anthropology Museum on previous trips, and was prepared to take the munchkin to a nearby playground for a couple of hours so that I could get there. It wasn’t necessary. Munchkin had a great time there. So did we. It’s beautiful and so jam-packed of fascinating stuff that you’d have to go back every day for a week to do it justice.
The museum, and Mexico City itself, added some food for thought to something I’d been chewing on for weeks: the relationship of Mexicans to their indigenous roots. They almost all have them, and so this museum, organized by culture (Oaxacan, Toltec, Mayan, Tlaxcalan, Pueblo, etc.), covers the background of almost everyone in the country. We don’t have a comparable museum in the US; we couldn’t; it would have to be an anthropology of the whole world. The National Museum of the American Indian is fantastic, I’ve been told (haven’t gotten there yet), but like the vast majority of estadounidenses,* what I would be learning about there wouldn’t be the heritage of my own family. (Now, I might be in the minority in that sometimes it seems like everyone else claims a Cherokee ancestor, but going by what people report on the census, only about 1 in 100 of us is Native American/Alaskan/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.)
In short, the categories of one culture don’t always apply to another, and it’s hard to know where the tender spots are. It definitely takes more than a few months’ acquaintance to understand another culture’s complexities of race, class, and ethnicity. So I have no conclusions, but some observations:
– The pride Mexicans in general take in their country’s pre-Hispanic heritage is evident, and not just in their flag, which alludes to the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlán by the Aztecs. To give just one other example, the most universally admired past president of the country seems to be Benito Juárez, the first of an entirely indigenous background.
– Juárez, who left office 138 years ago, is also the country’s last indigenous president.
-Even mestizos who are sympathetic to indigenous people, are concerned about their exploitation, have strongly Indian features, and give their children names from that heritage, may think of themselves as a separate group, speaking of “indigenous people” as “they,” not “we.”
-Everyone eating at a restaurant in a ritzy neighborhood of Mexico City (Polanco) was very light-skinned and European-featured. Everyone working there was dark-skinned and Indian-featured.
-Skin color per se doesn’t seem to be a sensitive issue. Friendly nicknames such as “moreno” and “negro” (“dark one,” “black one”) are as unremarkable here as they would be unthinkable in the US.
-The beggars in San Miguel all appear to be indigenous (possibly mestizo; definitely not European). Joy said she’s observed the same everywhere. Indians in Mexico are generally extremely poor.
– The museum itself evaded a lot of the political issues that are inevitably tangled up in anthropology and ethnology. The section on modern Chiapas, for example, gave no hint that the people being described there so widely despise the federal government, both for its neglect of their region and for the programs it proposed after the Zapatista movement started.
A complicated picture, no question. At least as complicated as race, class, and ethnicity in the US, and a lot more mysterious to me.
After the museum, we went out for about our third Asian meal. We wondered if other people who visit Mexico City take it as an opportunity to eat as much Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food as possible. Probably if they’re Asian-food addicts who’ve been living in a small Mexican town, they do. And then we went to the Children’s Museum, the first truly expensive such place we’ve been to, but totally worth it. The munchkin got inside a giant hamster wheel (twice), went fishing with magnets, saw a just-hatched baby chick, helped Joy play a computer game, etc., etc. Thursday is their late night–open until 11–and we stayed until 10:40. The munchkin looked set to go all night, but her parents were dead on their feet.
*Thank you, Spanish language, for providing a demonym that neither implies that we’re the only residents of the entire American continent(s), nor sounds dumb, like “USans” does. We could use one in English, and would no doubt come up with one if we took seriously the problem with “American.” I usually settle for “US American.”