MEXICO’S PRE-COLUMBIAN HERITAGE    By James J. Horn,  Ph.D    Copyright 2003, updated Nov. 2014

[This is a print copy of a lecture to the Cuernavaca Community Cultural Center November 7, 2014. The delay in printing it is due to the need to document it. Lecturers have the benefit of not needing documentation but printing it without footnotes could be considered plagiarism. It was not easy to recreate sources for a lecture given various times over the course of 20 years but all but a few paragraphs are now documented. Some sources are unfortunately lost.]

[A word on language:  it is not politically correct to use the term “Indians” in the U.S. where “Native Americans” is preferred, or in Canada, where “people of the First Nations” is the mouthful preferred. Anthropologists tend to use “Amerindians” or “indigenous people.”  Mexicans in their daily speech still refer to “Indians,”  but to call someone “un Indio” is rather perjorative. I use a variety of terms here, including Indian, without any intention to insult and hope the politically correct police will not be too offended.  The great thing about a blog is that it permits comments, so any helpful suggestions are welcome]

CCCC Lecture

Jim Horn lecturing to the Cuernavaca Cultural Center group. Photo by John Markovich.

 Visitors to Mexico cannot help but be impressed by the ubiquitous legacy of  the native cultures that predominated here before the Spanish conquest. World class museums display magnificent artifacts of those cultures, while modern muralists have glorified the Indian civilizations in colorful frescos in public places. Hundreds of archaeological sites thrill visitors with the majesty of their art and architecture, mute testimony to the heights of a civilization brought to ruin.  But beyond the ruins, you can see this Amerindian legacy  most visibly in the faces of the Mexican people.  Full-blooded Indians may be under 30 percent of the population but the overwhelming majority of Mexicans are mestizos, the blending of Indian and Spanish that resulted from miscegenation following the conquest. Despite  the devastation of the conquest and centuries of exploitation and discrimination,  the physical presence of the Indian in the population is the predominant feature.  To look into the eyes of a Mexican is to see an Indian. The preservation of its native past is one of the central features of Mexico’s present.      By contrast, in North America before the arrival of the Europeans,  millions of natives in scores of cultures occupied every part of the continent.  Yet today,  unless one lives near a reservation,  that heritage is virtually invisible, preserved in only a few archeological sites and museums. Divergent historical developments account  for the greater survival of  the native heritage in Mexico.


Various Indian groups crossed the Bering Straits from Asia and diffused through all of Latin America about 50,000 years ago.  Evidence of human activity in Mexico goes back over  30 centuries  but few details of their cultures emerge until about 10,000 B.C. These groups  were hunters and gatherers.  They survived by digging up the roots of plants and harvesting wild fruits, berries, and grains, supplementing their meager diet with hunting for game. When they exhausted what the area could provide, they moved on. Hunters and gatherers were always migratory or at least semi-migratory.  As such they  could not develop high cultures. Food scarcity kept the population limited.  Everyone had to contribute to the food supply so there was no excess labor to build pyramids or create great works of art. There was no way for nomads to schlep a pyramid from one area to another as they sought new sources of food  (Meyer & Sherman 1991: 3-6).

But sometime around 5000 B.C., perhaps much earlier, the accidental sprouting of a kernel of corn gave someone the idea that it could be planted.  That discovery marks the beginning of all the cultures of pre-conquest Mesoamerica.  The Olmecs, the Mayas, the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, the Toltecs, the Aztecs, all owed their existence to the discovery of maize (Simpson 1962: 12). They learned the science of agriculture and used natural selection to grow larger and larger ears of corn.  The culture of maize spread north to the Great Lakes  and south into the Andes. By 2500 B.C. settled agriculture competed with hunting as a source of food, and by 1500 B.C. agriculture predominated. The long delay in converting from hunting to agriculture undoubtedly had a lot to do with the fact that agriculture was significantly more arduous work than hunting and less pleasureable, so farmers replaced hunters  in greater numbers as the supply of game animals decreased  (Kandell  1988:12). And of course, the supply of game animals decreased with population growth, requiring more agriculture.

Large population settlements based on agriculture are evident by 1500 B.C. As corn became the staple of their diet, it is no wonder that it became central to their religion. The ancient Hebrews had  manna from heaven, the ancient  Christians  asked their God for their daily bread and put images of wheat on the vestments of their priests. To the Mexican Amerindian cultures, corn became a miraculous grain, the center of tribal religion, the staff of life, with a corresponding deity, a god of corn for whom elaborate ceremonies of propitiation were performed  (Simpson 1962: 13).

An adequate food supply and an expanded and sendentary population made possible the development of high cultures. That is not to say that corn was their only discovery or invention. From the seeds  of the lupine plant they created scores of  varieties of beans. From the root of a morning glory they created the sweet potato. They had tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers. Imagine, no tomato sauce nor minestrone in Italy, no Mediterranean diet  before Columbus! They had squash, zucchini, pumpkins, gourds, and artichokes. The white potato originated in the Inca and pre-Inca Andes where over 3000 varieties of potatoes nourished humans and animals and later transformed the diet in Northern Europe. Imagine, no potato in Ireland before Columbus! (Simpson 1962: 12). The Amerindians bequeathed our most common snack foods, peanuts, popcorn, and corn chips. Today Mexicans call corn chips totopos, an abbreviation of the Náhuatl word, tlaxcaltotopochtli, for tortillas that crunch when you eat them. They had chicle for chewing gum to clean their teeth after meals  (Townsend 1992:170-173). TheMexicans enjoyed pineapple, papayas, passion fruit, berries, sunflowers, and avocados. They had herbs, spices, and flavorings like vanilla, cilantro, and sage. And where would the world be without chocolate?  Chocolatl  in Náhuatl was a valued bean used even as surrogate currency in trading.  It was ground, boiled with water, and sweetened with honey to create a beverage for the high lords and priests. There was even a Maya god of chocolate.  Of course whoever invented chocolate deserves to be deified!  The Spanish found it too bitter and added sugar before they sent it back to Europe where it became the rage.  The ladies at the court of Versailles could not retire without their cup of chocolate.  The European craving for coffee, chocolate, and sweets made sugar the most valued commodity in 16th century Europe, condemning millions of Africans to slavery and premature deaths  (Weatherford 1988: 206-208).

Amaranth containing 16 percent protein was a popular nutritious grain among the Mexican cultures. The Aztecs made it into images of their gods that they annointed with sacrificial human blood that the Spaniards denounced as  a mockery  of communion.  The Spanish authorities banned the grain under penalty of death, and it only re-emerged in cereals and candies in the late 20th century. The Indians grew a native cotton superior to that in Europe, a native tobacco, and a multitude of herbs and dyes. Agriculture was not an accident but a science.  The Indians had a diet high in cellulose.  How did they know that chili peppers broke down cellulose?  How did they know soaking corn in lime was essential to release its nutrients?

Amazingly, three-fifths of the plants now in cultivation were known to pre-Hispanic cultures (Weatherford 1988: 70-75, 101-105). That is not to say that the diet was perfect in all places or that they did not suffer from plagues, droughts, pests, and hunger.  Many ancient Mayan cadavers show evidence of diseases related to malnutrition. But overall, these sedentary populations grew and prospered. The irony of course is once they brought  larger populations into existence they had  to be supported and the Indians became slaves of their own inventions. Agriculture requires heavy labor and severe labor discipline. It required knowledge of the seasons and the development of a calendar. So they had to study the stars and develop a system of mathematics. The Mayans had the concept of zero centuries before the Arabs introduced it into Europe, and they had a calendar more exact than the European.  They could predict eclipses using ancient mathematical formulas exactly like those used by the ancient Chinese (Simpson 1962: 13).

Their achievements were so awesome that Erich von Daniken  proposed that  these poor brown people couldn’t possibly have  accomplished it all  by themselves and they must have had help from outer space! He sees  an ancient astronaut in the Indian figure carved on the lid of the sarcophagus  at Palenque (Carmack et al. 1996: 24-5). What trash!  While there might have been some transference from one ancient culture to another, archaeologists and anthropologists believe most of the pre-Columbian science was developed independently out of necessity, and perhaps more than once.

The surplus food supply also allowed for the creation of what the anthropologists call “parasite classes,” those who do not contribute to the food supply: warriors, priests, teachers, artists, poets, sculptors, craftsmen, architects, and engineers. An elaborate hierarchy of  such groups existed centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards.

“The crowning irony” of their achievements was that when the Spanish arrived, instead of finding impoverished, nomadic natives groveling in the dirt for food, they found sedentary cultures with accumulated wealth and a work force accustomed to intensive field labor.  The Spaniards merely replaced the native rulers with their own overlords (Simpson 1962: 13). The Spaniards  had not come to work with their hands.  Their dream was to accumulate enough land and wealth to become an hidalgo. from the Spanish for hijo de algo, a son of a someone, which is better than being a son of. . . something else).  Cortés himself had said, “I came to get rich not to till the soil like a peasant.”  Rising socially meant the Spaniards had to exploit the native riches without getting their hands dirty. As  Eric Wolf put it, (1959: 94) the conquest of the Americas was the conquest of a native labor supply.  Post-conquest Mexico was constructed on the backs of involuntary native labor. But when Francisco Coronado ventured out onto the Great Plains in search of cities of silver, his report to the Crown lamented that the cities of gold were  “. . . nothing but little villages, and in many of these they do not plant anything and do not have any houses except of skins and sticks, and they wander around with the cows.” Hence the Great Plains were ignored until the late 19th century even by the most aggressive expansionists in history, the North Americans (Simpson 1962: 49,50; Wolf 1959). Those cultures that were not sedentary or lacked accumulated wealth were regarded as obstacles to development, more conveniently  pushed  aside or exterminated.

In the coastal areas of Latin America and the Caribbean islands, where cultures were not accustomed to and resisted field labor and mining,  it was easier to replace them with African slaves. The Amerindians died from diseases, ran away, resisted bondage, or made poor slaves.  Africans had a long history of exploitation by Europeans and they had developed resistence to European diseases that devastated Amerindian populations. Africans were long accustomed to field labor, and the cruel selection process of the long passage left only the hardiest survivors. Africans were not enslaved because they were inferior to Indians but rather because they could be enslaved and were better investments for mercenary Europeans.

 By the end of the 17th century virtually the entire Amerindian population of the Caribbean was wiped out (Harris: 1964). Replacing natives by black slaves resulted in little visible Indian heritage in the islands or coastal areas where the population pattern is still white, black, and mulatto.  By contrast, in those highland areas with sedentary Amerindian cultures that could be adapted to European tasks, the population was somewhat preserved, if not as Indian then as mestizo. The Indians were not exterminated because Spaniards needed their labor.  So the highland areas of Latin America are still white, red, and mestizo, and the Amerindian physical type is still a predominant feature of the population (Harris: 1964).


It is impossible to know how many Amerindians populated the Americas before Columbus.  By the time of the conquest, there may have been 30 million inhabitants in Mexico alone, compared to only ten million in Spain itself  (Meyer & Sherman 1991: 89).  Eric Wolf estimated that it took ten thousand Indians twenty years to build the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán (Wolf 1959: 94).  That so many workers could be spared from agriculture would indicate an extremely large population in the first century A.D.  Charles Mann in his provocative book  1491 (2005) speculates that population in the Americas was far higher than previous estimates and that the devastation by disease was far greater.

Linguistic evidence also indicates that Indian  numbers were voluminous. There are 123 linguistic families in Latin America- families as large as the Romance languages.  There were 260 languages spoken in Mexico and Guatemala alone, some as far apart as English and Chinese.   Over 50 native languages are still spoken actively in Mexico. War, abuse, and European diseases wiped out two-thirds of the indigenous population before the end of the 16th century, a genocide by any definition.


I can’t begin  to discuss  here the history and accomplishments of so many major native cultures in Mexico alone. But the Aztecs require attention. Their capital, Tenochtitlán, became the capital of New  Spain and modern Mexico, and their language, Náhuatl, is still spoken widely in the republic with 800 thousand speakers in 16 states (Riding, 1984: 214). Their cultural achievements bequeathed significant features to modern Mexico.  Numerous Mexican place names are derived from Náhuatl words:  Chapultepec, Xochimilco, Xochicalco, Nezahualcóyotl, Tlaxcala, Cocoyoc, to mention a few. The Spaniards preceded Amerindian city names with the name of the Virgin or a saint, so we have today Santa María Tonantzintla and Santa Isabel Ixtápan.

They called themselves  Mexica. There is no word Aztec in Náhuatl but that name is now the commonly accepted term, applied by later scholars, derived from their supposed origins in a distant unknown island of Aztlán. The Mexica followed their priests and their sun god Huitzilopochtli wandering through Mexico from the 12th century, entering the Valley of Mexico about 1300 A.D., very late relative to other civilizations and almost a thousand years after the classic Maya. They were not welcomed  by the cultures previously established there due to their obnoxious practices of human sacrifice and stealing their neighbors’ women. Their conflicts and antagonisms with other cultures threatened them with war, and so they removed  themselves to an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco about 1325 (Fehrenbach 1973: 55).

Texcoco was the most strategically placed of five interconnected lakes bordered by fertile lands.   Their previous migrations followed the destiny foretold by their priests that they should settle where they found an eagle perched on a cactus.  That  miraculous vision just happened to appear on the most defensible site on an island adjacent to the riches of the valley. An eagle perched on a nopal cactus devouring a serpent today graces  the folds of the Mexican flag commemorating the Aztec foundation of Mexico (Townsend 1992:60).

   From their island stronghold in the lake they offered themselves as mercenaries to other cultures in the valley, providing their great skill as archers. They made alliances with groups along the lake shore and eventually became the dominant partner. Soon after they turned to conquer all their neighbors before expanding an enormous tribute empire in all directions for over a thousand miles.     The term  tribute empire means they did not actually occupy conquered areas but forced those cultures to pay  them tribute: rubber balls from Veracruz,  chocolate and quetzal plumes from Chiapas,  jaguar skins from Tabasco. If the tribute was not forthcoming then a punitive army would be sent to exact brutal and bloody reprisals to restore obedience.

They called their capital on the lake México-Tenochtitlán and enriched it by the spoils of conquest and the tribute payments of conquered regions. The city took on a splendor beyond imagination in late medieval Europe, as trophies decorated the city comparable to the tributes that poured into ancient Rome. Three concrete causeways 30 feet wide connected the island with the mainland (the pre-Columbian Amerindians invented cement); two stone aqueducts brought fresh water from the mainland hill at Chapultepec where the Aztec emperors had vast hunting reserves. They expanded their agricultural base on the so-called floating gardens or chinampas that created today’s Xochimilco. The lake was part fresh water and part brackish. They built dikes to separate the salt water.  On the fresh water they built rafts; some say they were not rafts but enclosures (Townsend 1992: 167). They piled silt from the lake bottom onto the rafts or into  the enclosures, planted trees around the rafts to anchor them to the lake bottom, and expanded their city by thousands of such productive islands  separated by narrow canals for their canoes.

  Canoes carried fruits and vegetables through the city, past homes and palaces stuccoed and painted brilliant colors,  a scene so beautiful the Spanish chroniclers said it reminded them of Venice except that it was so clean. Indeed, Tenochtitlán was cleaner than any city in Europe. Canoes, like floating  “honey-dippers”, carried excrement from public deposits to be used as fertilizer on their fields.   The Aztecs also had better personal hygiene than the Spaniards for whom bathing was regarded as unhealthy.  Many Aztecs bathed daily and their nobles when meeting  the Spaniards held branches of aromatic flowers before their noses (Meyer & Sherman 1991: 89).  The use of canoes offset their lack of the wheel which would have been less important anyway given the lack of beasts of burden and the mountainous terrain (Kandell 1988: 19).

In the great market place there were separate areas for gold and precious stones, wild birds and animal hides, household pottery and decorative ceramics, woven baskets, and exotic goods from hundreds of miles away. A noble class of  long-distance trader-spies called the pochteca sought out the  best goods of conquered areas to be sent to the capital, and kept Moctezuma informed of political developments in the vast empire. No wonder it is a pochteca who is the narrator in Gary Jenning’s  novel  Aztec (1980). Who better to describe what was happening all over the Mexica world?  Aztec  is a fascinating novel, depicting the blood and gore of the civilization and the cultural clash with the arriving Christian conquerors.  One might take issue with some of the anthropological interpretations,  but whoever met two anthropologists who agreed on everything?  (The sequels Aztec Autumn and Aztec Blood are unfortunate disappointments).

(As long as I’m talking about fiction let me trash James Michener’s  dreadful novel Mexico. Unlike most of his novels which are based on authentic  historical places and cultures,  this one features a composite of many different Mexican cities and cultures. There isn’t a single interesting character, there is no character development, and if Michener’s name were not on it no publisher would have touched it).

The Mexica capital was more spectacular than even fiction has rendered it. There was a royal aviary with every imaginable bird  displayed in  ten rooms with salt and fresh water ponds  embellished by hanging gardens. The royal zoo had animals native to every part of the empire consuming 500 turkeys a day, tended by trained veterinarians and deformed persons. There were no zoos in Europe at this time.  Not only were there royal  botanical gardens but even private gardens and orchards (Meyer & Sherman 1991: 88;  Townsend 1992: 170).

Public spaces were graced with spectacular murals and sculptures like the great calendar stone.  The Mexica room at the national Museum of Anthropology inspires awe at their artistic skills. When the archaeologists began excavating the great Aztec pyramid, the Templo Mayor, behind the Cathedral just a few decades ago, they found so many works of art that they built another museum just to display the hundreds of pieces found there. Today the Templo Mayor complex is one of several world class museums in the great capital.

The city was certainly larger and more spectacular than any contemporary city in Europe.  Population estimates vary, but if Michael Coe is correct that the population was 200,000, that would have made it five times the size of contemporary London.  At the time of Henry VIII London had only 40,000 people and Paris only 65,000.  And those cities wallowed in filth and  paled in comparison with the beauty of  Tenochtitlán.

By any standard, for its time, this was one of the world’s most magnificent civilizations.  But it had a deplorable dark side. This was a melancholy people mired in tragedy and gloom because their entire raison d’etre was war. Every civilization has had its wars with similar confusion of motives.  Modern nations fight wars of conquest that they prefer to call liberation; they fight wars against opposing ideologies and religions and justify them with patriotic rationale. Wars for territorial or economic gain end up as campaigns to insure peace, to bring freedom, to end all wars.   Their soldiers are brave and heroic while the enemy are evil, cowardly aggressors. The Aztecs lacked our superior rationalizations but had comparable confusion of motives. (source lost) In their campaigns for expansion of empire, the Aztecs waged war fundamentally to capture victims for religious sacrifice.  We don’t know at what point their religious mission became confused with the need to glorify and expand their civilization through conquest.

Mankind’s survival depended on the protection of the gods who had to be propitiated with gifts, and what gift more precious than human life. After all, a human sacrifice is the very basis of Christianity and martyrdom is heroic in Christianity, Islam, and other religions. To the Mexica the lives of  their enemies in war were  most precious and so they fought not to kill but to capture. (That goal would give them a significant tactical disadvantage when facing the Spaniards.) When no excuses for war presented themselves, the priests arranged for  “flowery wars”  with neighboring cultures, the rules and quotas worked out by mutual agreement so both sides had fresh blood to offer the gods (Townsend 1992: 200).

The hapless victims were dragged to the top of the Pyramid of the sun god Huitzilopochtli where four priests held them spread-eagled over the sacrificial stone. The high priest then brandished a large obsidian knife and smashed open the chest cavity, pulling out the palpitating heart. The glistening heart was then shaken in the four sacred directions to splatter the blood offering on the celebrants like a kind of holy water. The heart would then be fed to the image of the sun god or it was placed in a ceremonial urn and burned with incense to carry the offering to the heavens. Some estimates are that 20,000 victims were sacrificed over several days for the dedication  of the Templo Mayor. Some ceremonial cannibalism accompanied the slaughter following the idea that eating the flesh of heroic warriors endowed the diner with favorable attributes. Some writers believe  cannibalism  went way beyond a ceremonial nature and became a   favored food of the elite classes with enormous banquets of human flesh to celebrate important occasions (Kandell, 1988:60-62). The priests of  Xipe, god of spring, flayed the dead victim and wore his skin for 20 days until, the Spanish chroniclers reported, they stank like dog

Imagine the disgust of Cortés when he arrived in Tenochtitlán, perhaps mistaken by Moctezuma for the legendary return of the god Quetzalcóatl. Of course the royal tour would include the sacred precint and the temples where blood stains splattered  the stairways,  where he was met by the priests, dressed in disheveled black gowns, who never bathed, their clothing and hair fouled by the dried flesh and blood and stench of their victims, the stone idols splattered with blood and human remains.  Cortés could only have been revolted by this  evidence of  diabolic idolatry that had to be extirpated. And so the extermination of a disgusting religion  and  the gift of Christianity became the stated motive of the conquistadors.  As Bernal Diaz put it, (1966)  “We came to serve God,  but also to get rich.”

 What followed was one of the greatest conflicts the world has ever known, a bloody but also an ideological clash between opposing civilizations and cultures. The Spaniards had many advantages:  superior technology, horses, gunpowder, armor, Indian allies revolting against their repressive Aztec overlords, Indian indeciveness  and poor tactics, not a small amount of luck, and European diseases.     Small pox and other diseases to which the Spanish had developed immunity devastated the Indian population even before Spanish arms destroyed the capital.

When it was all over, hundreds of buildings were reduced to rubble; the canals were strewn with debris and the gardens and orchards laid waste. The idolatrous works of art were smashed to bits. The histories and literature written in pictograph codices were burned. Tens of thousands of Aztecs perished.  On the ruins of a once majestic Indian civilization the Spanish built the capital of New Spain.  A stone memorial amid the ruins of the  market at Tlatelolco says it all.  “This was not a triumph nor a defeat, it was the tragic birth  of the Mestizo people who are the Mexico of today.”


Well, what of the Indian today? Alan Riding says (1985: 89)  “Proud of its Indian past, Mexico seems ashamed of its Indian present.”    Mexicans take great pride in their pyramids,  monuments,  and museums, in the great murals depicting the glorious Indian past. Streets and even cities are named after Indian heroes. But if you are an Indian in Mexico today you are shamed, deprived, and disparaged. The issues of   race, class,  and economic discrimination are too complex to be explored  here except superficially(see Harris: 1964). Some have speculated that the legacy of the conquest created a national experience of defeat and betrayal, the sense of  being  a conquered nation,  with the cultural baggage that implies. Perhaps one could compare that to the anti-Yankee sentiments in the south of the United States, the only part of the country to have been occupied by a foreign enemy. Did the experience of the conquest lead to a sense of inferiority, of defeat, of shame within the national psyche?

There is no doubt that the mestizo people were not created voluntarily; Indian men watched their women taken by force. The new society was built from the rape and pillage of the indigenous people. That was just the beginning of a long history of defeat and  humiliation suffered by the Mexicans at the hands of foreigners which has led the Mexican to expect defeat, to view his destiny as being “screwed,” so to speak (Riding 1985: 7, 16). The fatalistic world view emerges in their vocabulary. Octavio Paz explored this phenomenon in his classic Labyrinth of Solitude, and Alan Riding in  Distant Neighbors expands on the linguistic analysis of the word “chingar.” This is  literally the F-word in Mexican Spanish, but connoting more a forceful rape than a consensual act.   Malintzin, La Malinche to the conquistadores, was Cortés’ mistress and translator, viewed by modern Mexicans as one who betrayed her people (Paz 1961:75-77; Riding1985: 13).  In bearing Cortés a son, she became the original “chingada.” Since she had been enslaved by her own people and there was no notion of  a common Indian nationhood, she can hardly be blamed for betraying  what did not exist (Fehrenbach 1973: 131).

The word  chingar has many nuances. The Spanish expression  hijo de puta (son of a whore) became in Mexico hijo de la chingada. If you tell your tennis partner his ball is out of bounds he responds, no me chingues or  vete a la chingada, (go to hell). A chingadera is a dirty trick. A  chingón is someone smart enough to chingar someone else. Nowhere else in the Spanish- speaking world does the word have so many nuances nor such historical significance (Riding 1985:  13, 14).

 Mexicans laugh hilariously at themselves when they watch the film El Norte. In the movie  a Guatemalan refugee seeking to pass through Mexico to the U.S. asks the village elder how he can pass as a Mexican. The elder asks him, “how is the weather.”  “Hace calor,” he replies.  “No, no,no,”  says the elder. “Hace un calor de la chingada.” That’s how a Mexican would say it.  So when the Guatemalan is interrogated by Mexican authorities he lets out a string of chingada this and chingada that and the authority replies. “it’s OK, he’s a Mexican.”

In many Latin American countries,  a major governmental scandal or economic collapse  will kindle explosive demonstrations and the looting and sacking of  stores, businesses, and government buildings.   But in Mexico you can have a major earthquake, a devastating devaluation of the currency, and  news that a government minister has run off with millions, and the Mexican response is just a stoic lament, “somos los chingados.” We are the fucked ones. Perhaps the revolution in Chiapas in 1994 started to change that, but even in minor events that the Mexican feels he has no control over, he shrugs his shoulders and says, ni modo. Nothing can be done about it. Just as the individual Indian had no control over his destiny, the Mexican today seems to expect and accept the worst (Riding 1985: 13-16).

Another Mexican trait with possible roots in the conquest is machismoMachismo comes from the Spanish word for male of a species: there are machos and hembras. A macho Mexican needs to flaunt his masculinity by flirting and sexually suggestive remarks to women,  by siring many children,  by having a mistress or two, by aggressive bravery in driving a car, in sports like the bull fight, or in bar fights.The Indians watched helplessly as the Spaniards took their women by force. Their impotence was accentuated by all the post-conquest Spanish institutions designed to keep the Indians in their place.Is machismo then  in part an outgrowth of that impotence, a cover-up for the males’ actual fragility?If you’re really all that masculine why do you have to constantly prove it? Of course  machismo prevails in other Mediterranean cultures especially in Spain, where no comparable experience of impotence prevailed, so its roots are undoubtedly not singular to the Mexican experience. But it is certainly possible that the sense of conquest and betrayal of the Indian male and  helplessness in the face of the post-conquest  Spanish authoritarianism helped shape the importance of this  facade of masculinity in the modern Mexican male.  (source lost)

The counterpart of machismo is “marianismo,”  the veneration of the feminine ideal, the placing of women on a pedestal, most particularly  one’s own mother. And no mother is more important than the mother of Christ. When the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in 1531,  she became the national icon, the patroness of the country,  more important in Mexican Catholicism  than Christ himself.  Her popularity among the Indian converts was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that she appeared in the very place where the Aztecs revered Tonantzin, their earth mother.  Deserted by their own gods who had failed to defend them against the conquest, the power of the new gods especially the Virgin speeded the intense if superficial conversion of the Indians to Christianity.  Today even the upper class women venerate the Indian virgin even if they reject Indian culture in other parts of their lives. In 2002 Pope John Paul II named Juan Diego a saint despite the fact that even some priests doubt his authenticity. The suffering Virgin embracing her afflicted son  is a powerful icon in Mexican Catholicism. The Mexican mother today smothers her son with affection and the son offers unconditional devotion to his mother, whose honor is beyond desecration. One does not insult another’s mother without risking grave consequences, and no insult is more provocative than to  say “chinga tu madre.” Vale Madre means something is super while my paper strewn desk would be called  desmadre,  disgraceful (Riding 1985: 14

Of course, there may be other roots for this Mexican defense of their women, including  the lengthy Moorish experience in Spain.The Moors with their veiled and protected women occupied Spain from 711 to 1492 and surely bequeathed a strong cultural heritage. But while there may be other roots of cultural phenomena like machismo and marianismo,  the experiences of the Indian and the conquest certainly added their own nuances. I am merely suggesting a number of modern cultural legacies that may  have emerged from the Indian experience. All this is quite superficial and somewhat Freudian. For every observation I am making someone might take issue or propose alternative explanations, but one cannot deny that  the conquest of native cultures had to have had an impact on the Mexican  psyche.

Observers have noted the characteristic humility and courtesy of the Mexican. Perhaps some of that can be traced to ancient Indian servility. The Aztecs taught their children to be courteous, to show humility, to know their place. When you exit a taxi and thank the driver, how does he reply? “De nada,” or “ No hay de que.” Yes, but more often he says  “Para servirle.” If you ask a Mexican his name and he has been properly educated at home, he will reply with a bow, “José Sánchez González, para servirle.” A receptionist answers the phone, “como puedo servirle.” A businessman lets you know he is “su servidor.

 Mexico today continues unbroken the ancient Indian tradition of fine handicrafts and spectacular art works, with strict attention to detail and the use of brilliant colors. The Mexican laughs at death, following the non-Western Indian concepts from which the Day of the Dead is still celebrated today.

 Perhaps the greatest legacy of the conquest however lies in the patterns of racial identity and social discrimination today. To some degree those patterns resemble  black/white relations in the U.S.  except that mixed bloods are treated differently. In the U.S. anyone with any black blood is defined as  black.  In modern Mexico there are just two racial groupings, Indian and non-Indian.  A mestizo may have considerable Indian blood but he is not an Indian  (Harris: 1964).

If you are going to discriminate against Indians you need to know who they are. With so many mixed bloods in the population, a majority in fact, how does one identify an Indian?  An Indian today is one who lives like an Indian, lives in an Indian community, speaks an Indian language, wears Indian style clothing, and participates in Indian rituals. That is, he behaves according to patterns locally identified as Indian. And because it is possible to pass as a non-Indian those who remain behind are more isolated and marginalized. (Harris)  If an Indian gets an education and a decent job, puts on a business suit, and behaves as a non-Indian he can be elected president of Mexico. Witness President Benito Juárez, a full blooded Zapotec from Oaxaca who is something like a combination of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Mexico today. But those who remain Indians in an Indian village are scum to their non-Indian overlords. They have few resources, inferior schools, inadequate medical attention, a higher incidence of disease and alcoholism, fewer economic and political opportunities, and characteristic poverty, a situation not unlike reservation Indians in the United States.  (Harris)

In post-conquest Mexico, just as in the ante-bellum south of the U.S., instruction was denied because education ruined a good field hand.  Such legal restrictions were justified by a doctrine of white racial superiority that is still embedded in the culture.  There are more blondes in Mexican soap operas and television ads than there are in the United States. Superior is advertized as the blonde of beers.  Some Mexicans still avoid the sun lest they appear too moreno.

The  Mexican Indian was the field laborer, the miner,  the bearer of all hard work, but a reluctant  laborer  since the rewards were so pitiful.  And so they were  labeled lazy, shiftless, stupid, sometimes uppity, the same terms that dominant overlords always used to define the dominated  (Harris). The revolution in Chiapas in 1994 was an explosive outburst against their continued subjection and centuries of discrimination. The Indians  screamed “basta!”, enough. They demanded  honor and respect and an end to exploitation. And so in the 21st century Indians are still struggling to overcome this oppressive legacy of the past. Proposals for Indian autonomy and programs for bilingual education and rural development  today dominate the political discourse on this unfinished busi

Octavio Paz (1961: 65) says that Mexico must be understood in terms of this pre-Hispanic context; it is non-western, inscrutable, with a culture and cultural values vastly different from Americans,  concerned about things like honor that Washington often  fails  to consider in its foreign policy. But that’s another lecture. Well, I have dealt only superficially here with the most salient aspects of Mexico’s Indian past  that seem to me to be the keys to understanding Mexico’s present.

Netzalhualcoyotl,  poet-prince of Texcoco,  (his poems have been translated into English by Lysander Kemp)  wrote:

            Even jade is shattered.

            Even gold is crushed.

            Even Quetzal plumes are torn.

            One does not live forever on this earth,

            We endure only for an instant. 

Indeed, in the long history of human civilization, the Aztecs were but an instant.  But in that short time they created a magnificent if defective civilization, an awesome heritage enshrined in Mexico’s monuments and perhaps entombed in the modern Mexican.

* * * *


Bernal,  Ignacio,  1975, MEXICO BEFORE CORTEZ, ART, HISTORY, AND LEGEND (GardenCity, N.Y.: Doubleday)

Carmack, Robert M., Gasco, Janine, & Gossen, Gary H., 1996, THE LEGACY OF MESOAMERICA (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).  For advanced students of anthropology.

Coe, Michael, 1967,  MEXICO (N.Y.: Praeger)

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal, 1966, THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE CONQUEST OF NEW SPAIN (N.Y. : Farrar, Straus, & Giroux).  The conquest seen through the memoirs of one of the captains of Cortés.

Fehrenbach, T.R., 1973,   FIRE AND BLOOD, (N.Y.:  Bonanza Books/Macmillan)

Fuentes, Carlos.,  1992,  THE BURIED MIRROR  (N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin)

Harris, Marvin,  1964,  PATTERNS OF RACE IN THE AMERICAS , reprinted  1980, (Westport Ct: Greenwood Press)

Jennings, Gary, 1980  AZTEC  (N.Y.; Atheneum)

Kandell, Jonathan, 1988, LA CAPITAL, THE BIOGRAPHY OF MEXICO CITY ( N.Y.: Random House).


Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, 1988, THE GREAT TEMPLE OF THE AZTECS (London: Thames & Hudson).

Meyer, Michael C. & Sherman, William L., 1991, THE COURSE OF MEXICAN HISTORY ( 4TH ed.N.Y.: Oxford University)  An excellent, readable textbook.

Paz, Octavio, 1961, THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE ( N.Y.: Grove Press) A classic exploration of the Mexican psyche.

Prescott,  William Hickling, 1949, A HISTORY OF THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO (N.Y.:Heritage Press).  An old classic with a gripping story based on excellent research despite the author’s blindness.

Riding, Alan, 1985, DISTANT NEIGHBORS ( N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf)


Simpson, Lesley Bird,  1952   MANY MEXICOS ( Berkeley Ca: Univ. of California)

Thomas, Hugh, 1993, CONQUEST, MONTEZUMA, CORTÉS, AND THE FALL OF OLD MEXICO (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster). This is the definitive work on the conquest.

Townsend, Richard F., 1992,   THE AZTECS (London: Thames & Hudson) An excellent scholarly study.

Weatherford, Jack, 1988,  INDIAN GIVERS  (N.Y.: Ballantine Books) A fascinating account of the Indian legacy to the modern world.



  1. Jim, Living in Arizona and close to the Mexican border, I now know and understand a little more about my neighbors to the south. Very interesting. Thanks for sending. Sully Frumenti

    • Thanks Sully. You remind me of how many interesting people I met leading 80 programs for Road Scholar (Elderhostel). I hope you are still actively traveling.

  2. Jim,
    Your lecture was excellent and very much appreciated – as is the work you put into this printed version. You provided a great service to the Cuernavaca community and now to a wider audience of those interested in Mexican history and culture. Thank you.
    John Markovich

    • Thanks for your kind comments John, and for following my blog. It’s been a pleasure finding Cuernavaca expats with so much intellectual curiosity.

  3. This entry is truly a gift to me! Thanks. I’ll add a few things here. You need to read Charles C. Mann–“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, and its sequel: “1493. . .”. This gives a more modern story based on newer methods of analysis. Also do a Google search and you will notice a site near Puebla was dated by five different scientific methods and shown to be at least 250,000 years old. This doesn’t fit at all with current theories, so artifacts were confiscated by the Mexican government, and the site sold off as common real estate, the developed. To end I will comment that in the galleries and museums of Oaxaca City, “indian” artifacts are noted with the name of the artist, not who donated the piece or anthropological references. To me this shows an enhanced sensitivity. Thanks again. –Don Karp

  4. Thanks for your comments Don. I did read Charles Mann and he’s mentioned in the text and cited in the source list. Mann’s books are so lengthy and detailed I could hardly dwell on them in a 50 minute lecture. I certainly recommend them both to anyone interested in the subject. I am flabbergasted at your mention of a site 250,000 years old since my archaeological sources say there is little evidence of habitation until 30,000 years ago and that such evidence is really scanty until 10,000 years ago. I can’t google the site near Puebla without knowing its name, though I have visited some sites there. I appreciate your interest.

    • “Hueyatlaco” is what you get from: “250000 year old site Puebla” The accepted date 0f 30,000 years ago is why this
      site was closed down.

      • I found the literature about Hueyatlaco, a nasty debate between geologists and archaeologists. The prevailing view of professionals is the dating is erroneous. It doesn’t help that only one site has been found that contradicts the 30,000 years-ago date. I can see that a claim of 250,000 years for the site, or older, would shake up the establishment. On the surface it doesn’t seem credible. I hope the debate continues however and that further studies clarify the issue. Thanks for bringing the site to my attention.

  5. Thank you for your interest in understanding and making understand mexican culture. Is is really complicated but this is an excellent approach. Best regards, Pilar Alcaide

  6. This is really impressive–am putting it into my folder, along with notes, etc. from my 3 trips to delve into Maya culture (2 Mexico with you, 1 to Guatemala). Still need to see Monte Alban sometime. Thanks for sending this

    • Thanks Phoebe, yes Monte Alban and also Mitla are a must for those who love Mexican archaeological sites. When you are ready for Oaxaca I can put you in touch with a superb guide/ tour leader.

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