Whew! It’s taken me 10 days in Mexico City to finally sit down for long enough to write about it. Ever since arriving to Benito Juarez airport last week, I’ve been zooming from one place to another in a series of taxis, subways, buses, and my new favorite thing, peseros, a.k.a. microbuses, which squeeze passengers like sardines into a space the size of an ice cream truck and cart them around town for 3 pesos, or 30 cents, a ride.
I spent my first three days in orientation meeting the other Fulbrighters, whose projects range from studying diabetes to boxing to lizard mating habits. We took a crash course in Mexican etiquette, which includes kissing hello and goodbye (I can definitely get used to this) and uttering provecho, (“bon apetit”) to anyone whenever you feel like it, even if you’re just passing by someone digging into a plate of quesadillas on the street.
We got a big dose of Mexican history during a visit to the 2,000 year-old pyramid-like structures of Teotihuacan, and later a tour of Diego Rivera’s sprawling murals in the Palacio Nacional. As we craned our necks to take in Rivera’s images of warriors, slaves, priests, and politicians, our guide kept emphasizing a point that would later come up again (much to my geeked-out excitement) in my Mexican music classes.
Mexico is a country where mestizaje, or the mixture of Spanish, Indian, and African blood and beliefs, is everywhere. Everything from the street names to the staple food ingredients (corn, cows, sugar, and cactus are just a few) reflect the fact that modern Mexico grew out of one of the most intense cultural collisions in human history. The result is a mind-blowingly diverse mestizo culture, cuisine, and music scene like no other in the world.
The Aztecs relied on several varieties of corn and beans before the Spanish arrived in 1519, introducing pigs, cows, and chickens to the New World diet.
So I wasn’t surprised when mestizaje was underlined on the first day of classes at the School of Mexican Music here in Mexico City. The school welcomes students of all ages to learn to sing, strum, and read sheet music. At the same time, they’re asked to stretch their understanding of Mexican music all the way back to its roots in indigenous farming practices, Spanish conquest, and African slavery. Imagine, says one professor, what it sounded like when a Indian farm boy in 17th-century Mexico started noodling on a European violin.
Here is an audio sample of Modern Son Huasteco, a regional style of Mexican “country” music:
Title: “El Zacamandú”
Album: El Ave de Mi Soñar: Mexican Sones Huastecos.
Artist: Los Camperos de Valle
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
If you’ve ever had, say, a taco, then you’ve experienced Mexican mestizaje with your tastebuds. This year I’m hoping to post lots of examples of Mexican culture, past and present, to take in with your ears. Some will be music, some will be sounds, and some will probably be sizzling roadside snacks. Feel free to chime in yourself — I’d hugely appreciate any questions or comments.
Time for class, ¡Hasta luego!