by Christine Stoesser
“Resignation is one of our most popular virtues. We admire fortitude in the face of adversity more than the most brilliant triumph,” wrote Nobel Prize winning author and Mexican Octavio Paz in his 1961 collection of essays The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. On a trip to Mexico this past August I came face to face with a country vastly different from my own, yet linked somehow through its inclusion in the North American continent, and its close proximity to the bombast of the United States.
After two days in Mexico City I was already trying to form a cohesive opinion of my new surroundings; they eluded me. I was puzzled, and still am. My boyfriend’s iPod was stolen out of his suitcase in our hostel in the Zocalo; his underwear neatly folded as if in apology. The Zocalo (central square of the city) was once an Aztec city of immense pyramids before the conquistadores arrived and tore them down, building stunning cathedrals where they had stood, using the rubble as building material and the Aztecs as slaves. Underneath all this history, in the Zocalo subway station, is a glass-encased model of the original Zocalo. Although underground, it symbolizes a culture that has never truly died. The subway itself is a running example of ‘fortitude in adversity’—moving approximately 21 million people around 163 stations takes a special kind of courage— the service is smooth, the price right (about $.30) and the riders extraordinarily patient, and accommodating, knowing exactly how to angle their elbows and knees in order to create just a little more space.
Remarkable as well is Mexico’s reverence for the arts—celebrated artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo adorn Mexico’s $500 peso bill, their tumultuous, affair-ridden marriage a symbol of national pride. It is interesting to note that while Rivera’s murals ensconce the interior of Mexico City’s gorgeous Palacio des Bellas Artes, and his iconic mural Sunday afternoon dream at the Alameda Park hangs still in the park of the same name, it is the self-portraits of Kahlo that hang in the houses of the people, in restaurants, shops, and cafes. In Oaxaca, and throughout much of Mexico, art is not contained in galleries—it’s everywhere, and sustains the life of the sculptors, woodcarvers, potters, and textile artists who make and sell it. Music as well is integrated effortlessly into Mexican society, and every musician is multi-talented, confident, and always ready to perform.
At the onset of my adventure I felt annoyed by what I considered an overwhelming assumption on the Mexicans’ part that I was wealthy—by the end of the trip, I had realized that, in comparison, I am. Surprisingly, however, I only saw one person in three and a half weeks who was likely homeless, and unemployed. Everyone else was at work doing something, anything, whether it was driving a Collectivo taxi, running a public washroom, or waiting at a remote gas station with a basket full of mangoes for the next vehicle to appear. One Yucatan penitentiary was actually selling hammocks handmade by its inmates.
“Our poverty can be measured by the frequency and luxuriousness of our holidays,” wrote Paz of the Mexican fiesta, which is usually a celebration for a patron saint of a city or village. “…Fiestas are our only luxury.”
I was lucky to attend a fiesta in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. There were fireworks, and food, and drinks served while people danced to a band that grew exponentially drunker. I felt out of place but not unwelcome amidst the revelry, unaccustomed to such a blatant sense of community. But if I understood for a moment what it means to be Mexican, it is now lost; thus I feel I must return, perhaps in the winter.