Living Between Worlds
December 15, 2020
The differences between the cultures within a country, along lines of geography, wealth and class, are at least as large as those between them. I grew up with a Mexican mother and a British father in the UK, visiting my Mexican family for Christmas and living there for two years 10 years ago.
Mexico has developed relatively recently. It was a Spanish colony until 1810, did an Animal Farm for a century and then had a revolution in 1910. It took another 90 years for PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in its current iteration) to lose an election. In Britain, the last violent transition of power was the Glorious Revolution, the (more-or-less) Bloodless Revolution. Between then and now has been a history of increasingly inclusive economic and political institutions until universal suffrage was achieved in 1928. These two countries were used as case studies in Why Nations Fail, an excellent book with an explanatory title.
Class and wealth is a fascinating subject for me, mostly because it’s been a constant theme for my family, both sides of the Atlantic. Mum’s Mexican, with a richer, Nahuatl-indigenous father and poorer, European mother. Dad’s English. My grandfather started work at 14 as a dockworker and finished his career running the operations of the House of Lords. Dad grew up poor in a ‘rich’ country, Mum grew up rich in a ‘poor’ country.
These histories lead to very different cultures which come together to surprising effects at that strangest of places: an international school. Mix rich professionals and poor aristocrats, expats and nouveau-riche, and view it through the eyes of a ten-year-old. There’s something wonderfully instructive about wealth and class when in a place where one is usually found without the other (we were expats there temporarily, having neither, but it’s great having the same accent as the fancy movie villains). The fees were astronomical in pesos, but not entirely unaffordable in pounds. Especially when the company is paying.
First, everything becomes normal. A friend is as likely to offer to pick you up in a chauffeur-driven limo as a tatty pickup. The family dog is equally likely to piss in the Gucci handbag or bark at the gates. And – something I only realised recently – the same behaviours were judged very differently by different people. Is a baroque-style ‘drawing room’ tasteless or classy? Do you invite someone for enchiladas or stilton? It’s not just the magnitude of the differences, but the direction. In some places, it is fashionable to claim indigenous descent. My Abuelo was always a bit embarrassed of his.
I’ve been constantly trying to figure out what parts of the culture I see as ‘Mexcian’ are from my family and which parts belong to the nation as a whole. I’ve got the passport, but not the identity; it leads to an interest in everything, and gets thrown into stark relief when we leave Mexico City.
Mexico has 26 million people in a country of 2 million km2, making it 7x the size of the UK with only twice the population. Mountains, swamps, deserts and distance separate the 32 states, meaning that the population centres have distinct food, culture and dress. When visiting local
markets, none of us recognise the fruit there. It leads to the feeling of being a stranger in a familiar land. Each of the cultures is made of parts I recognise – Spanish Catholicism, indigenous art, chilli and chocolate, building a whole that is wholly different from what I could have expected.
In the end it seems easier to just shrug and have a taco.