Life in Modern Mexico

Indigenous Culture in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

America is ambivalent about Mexico. We love the beaches and the margaritas but we fear the drug cartels and the random killings along the border. We visit the ancient ruins and buy the colorful crafts, but deplore the corruption. Mexico has one of the most inequitable distributions of wealth in the world. Then there is the whole immigration problem (if it really is a problem).

In fact, Mexico is a complex country. It is in many ways more diverse than the United States because of the variety of indigenous cultures, overlain with Spanish Catholic ideas and institutions and further complicated by immigration from many parts of the world. (Mexico City has a Chinatown, and it is common to find names like O'Reilly, McGregor, and O'Gorman alongside the names of Spanish and indigenous origins.) The images of the arid stretches of cactus and mesquite that we see in movies and on TV are found only in the north of the country.  The central region consists of forested  mountainous highlands falling down to tropical lowlands on the Gulf and Pacific coasts. Further south and east, the flat Yucatan Peninsula is an entirely different ecosystem. Mexico is roughly as long, from north to south, as the Unites States is, and the cultural differences that one encounters are greater than those between Maine lobstermen and Georgia peanut farmers.

My part of Mexico, the place where my wife Janet fell in love with a house and a town and where we spend about half of our time, is Patzcuaro. A colonial city in the central highlands, about four hours from Mexico City and at an altitude of 7300 feet, Patzcuaro is uniquely well preserved. It became the original capital of the state of Michoacan in 1540 when the Spaniards were busy dividing Mexico into provinces. In 1580, when the capital was moved 40 miles away to Morelia, Patzcuaro became a backwater, with little development and almost no destruction of the colonial-era buildings in the center. It was thus spared the fate of many of Mexico's cities in which commercial development has irreversibly altered the center.

Patzcuaro is special for the pervasiveness of its indigenous culture. The area around Lake Patzcuaro was the center of the Purepecha empire, one of the few Pre-Columbian empires in central Mexico that were never conquered by the Aztecs. The Purepecha people are a vital force in the Patzcuaro region, and their language, Tarascan, is still in wide use (although there are signs that it is losing ground to Spanish).

The biggest event of the year in Patzcuaro, for both Mexicans and North Americans, is the Day of the Dead, an essentially pagan event dressed up in Catholic guise. It is held on November 1st and 2nd. People from the villages prepare for the celebration by spending two weeks prior to the holiday decorating their ancestors' and relatives' graves with flowers, candles, and shrines. At midnight or later on the two nights of the holiday, families take food and drink to the cemeteries, light candles around the graves, and spend the night visiting with the departed. The Purhepecha believe that life is just one brief stage of existence, followed by an eternal afterlife. The dead return to visit with their earthly relatives on these two nights. Unlike our Halloween, the Day of the Dead is a happy, peaceful opportunity for catching up with those who have passed on. The candle-lit cemeteries are amazingly beautiful, and visitors walk freely through them as family members – presumably both the living and the deceased -- talk quietly among themselves.

The cultural richness of Mexico attracts many North Americans, some seasonally and some full time. Patzcuaro has a gringo population of about 150. That number is dwarfed by the estimated 60,000 North Americans living in the Guadalajara/Lake Chapala area. In spite of the drug wars and the economic problems in both Mexico and the US, North Americans continue to move to Mexico. We are the latest invaders, but we are mostly welcomed.

Mexico has suffered greatly at the hands of its invaders, beginning with the diseases and slaughter  brought by the Spaniards and followed by the exploitation of its population and its resources by foreigners from all over. Nevertheless, it is a resilient country; Mexicans get along. As Janet often says, these are the descendants of the people who lived through the conquest, the smallpox plagues, the eras of slavery and abuse, and centuries of wars and revolutions. They will survive whatever comes next, and they will do so with smiles, kindness, and gentle words.