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Mazahuacholoskatopunks …usos y costumbres

19 April 2009

Every writer on Mexico, especially Octavio Paz, has seen the survival of the indigenous cultures as a remarkable achievement — and it is.  Mexican culture is unique, but then, all cultures are… all take in the new and “modern” on their own terms.  One of my motives in writing  Gods, Gachupines and Gringos was to correct some common myths about Mexico — the first being that Mexican culture is a single thing, a specific blend of indigenous and “Spanish” influences in some specific formula.   You get the sense sometimes that people read that the DNA of the Mexican population, as a whole, is somewhere between 40 and 60%  indigenous, and then leap to the conclusion that 40 to 60 percent of Mexican culture is indigenous.  And, that indigenous culture is static.  And, that there is a monolithic indigenous culture in Meso-America.

While a good number of those myths are based on plain, old-fashioned reactionary thinking, there were a few resulting from “progressive” beliefs, which are equally false, and equally fatal to people expecting to deal honestly with the Mexicans.

It’s not a matter of political thinking, but just not thinking to assume that indigenous peoples were part of a static culture (and that there was a single indigenous culture in the Americas).  Of course, it is racist to assume that the indigenous peoples were “backwards” and sitting in darkness waiting to welcome their European overlords (and smallpox) to drag them kicking and screaming into the 16th century, but it is equally racist to assume that individuals and groups didn’t see advantages in the changes (dislocating as they were), nor that the indigenous people did not consciously adapt and adopt these changes to meet their own needs.  Or that what was 16th century indigenous culture would have stayed the same over the next five hundred years.

Very few of us expect people not to change, though many have a sentimental (or stereotyping) attachment to some outdated image of a people.    Look at how these men are dressed in the late 1920s in this photograph by Tina Modotti.


The big sombrero is what we usually think of when we think “Mexican”, but outside a football game (or a barroom for tourists) would you expect to see men dressed like that in Mexico City. This Mexico City street scene, by Carl Campbell, could be almost anywhere in the world:


People don’t dress like they did in the 1920s, and there’s no reason to assume they would.  Tourists are sometimes disappointed they don’t see more “indigenous costumes” on the streets when they come to visit.  Maybe they do, and just don’t know it.

The Mahuaza people , indigenous to the State of Mexico and Morelia,  like other people, adopting the outside cutlure to their own needs, and incorporating them into their “usos y costumbres.”

sem_cult_3Young Mazahua men work in Mexico City as construction workers.  The white pijamas of their elders would make them stand out in the city, and — they sense — open them to ridicule.  In a surprising way, the “uso y costumbre” of the Mazahua has not been to cover up their “tribal” affiliation, but to borrow from their new neighbors, the “urban tribes” of Mexico City.  Depending on their community within the larger Mazahua world, there are skater Mazahua, there are cholo Mazahua, there are punk Mazahua.

sem_cult_4Federico Gama, who has written Mazahuacholoskatopunks (photos from the book) notes that while the Mazahua in the city disguise their indigenous origin to outsiders, they can tell at a glance who is, and who isn’t, one of them.

As with any traditional community (whether indigenous or otherwise, anywhere in the world),  one learns the rules at an early age.  Because its the young construction workers who are earning money, and — in the modern age — money makes the world go ’round — the cholos and punks and skaters and emos are sem_cult_5taking over community leadership from the elders.   Part of tradition is learning the code… so, children preparing for the rite of passage (literally… taking the bus to Mexico City) are taught not just how to dress cholo, or darkeo or punk, but the walk, the attitude and how (and when) to throw up a gang sign… Mazahua gang signs.

The “mainstream” culture has also made its adaptions…  By custom, indigenous communities in Mexico City have always had their Sunday gathering spots.  Certain parks, and even certain park benches, are the village center where the scattered diaspora congregate to speak their own language and catch up on home business.  The Mazahu homies do that too, but with their own new tribal affiliations, savvy constuction company managers, recognizing that their cholo and punk and darkeo workers have differing tastes (hard to imaging an emo construction worker), already were setting up clubs for those workers.  A Mazua club with the same music and amenenities wasn’t that difficult for them.

I have my doubts about “usos y costumbres” as a legal right that overrides personal autonomy.  I’m wondering what will happen in a couple of years when a cholo’s kid decides he wants to go punk.  Or emo.

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