The Culture of Mexico


While most Mexicans these days prefer the common clothes we see throughout the Western world, many Mexicans maintain the use of a variety of traditional clothes and textiles, especially in the indigenous communities found throughout the country.

Some of the most beautiful examples of indigenous clothing can be found in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. The women of these communities often use traditional woven blouses, shawls, and skirts, which are made on a back strap loom.  The huipil is a common form of traditional clothing for women from these areas.  Huipils are blouses made from cotton or wool and are decorated with brilliant colors and complex designs.   Many of the designs found on these garments date from pre-Hispanic times and have religious significance.

Throughout Mexico, both in indigenous and non-indigenous communities, women wrap themselves in colorful rebozos, which are delicately woven shawls made of wool, silk, cotton, or other fibers.  The most expensive rebozos are made of fine silk. While principally used as an adornment, rebozos also serve a multitude of practical purposes.  Many women, especially in rural areas and indigenous communities, wrap up bundles of wood, fruit, or other items to haul from place to place. Rebozos are also used as a type of baby sling. The rebozo has its origins in clothing brought from Spain, but many designs are uniquely Mexican.  

Robozos Clothing

Straw and palm hats (sombreros) are often associated with Mexico, especially the extra-wide brimmed sombreros, which are very useful to combat the extreme heat and sun of the arid parts of the country.  Images of the revolutionary heroes Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa always appear with these giant sombreros.  Sombreros de Charro are another version of this common Mexican hat.  Rather than straw or palm, these hats are usually made of felt or some other material.  They also have extra wide brims and are often decorated with sequins and other elaborate details.   You can see these beautiful hats on display during a Charreada, or Mexico Rodeo (See Sports).  

Mexican Somberos

In tropical parts of the country, many men favor the light and comfortable Guayabera, a button up shirt that is suitable for casual or formal occasions.  These shirts come in a variety of styles, often with elaborate embroidery.  Guayabera shirts are also a common costume for folkloric dancers from various regions of the country.  Men in the Northern states of Mexico such as Chihuahua are usually associated with cowboy hats and cowboy boots, due to the high numbers of ranches found in this part of the country.

typical clothing of mexico

Fine and Folk Arts:

Mexico is well known as a country for art lovers.  From the epic murals of Diego Rivera, to the personal and surreal works of Frida Kahlo, you can spend countless hours exploring the world of Mexican Art. 

Thanks in part to “Fridamania,” people throughout the world have now become aware of two of Mexico’s most celebrated artists, Frida Kahlo, and her husband, the famous Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera. 

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacan, then a small suburb of Mexico City.  Frida’s short life was plagued by tragic accidents and personal struggles, many of which provide the source material for her work.  In 1913, she endured an attack of polio, which stunted the growth of one of her legs.  At age 18, she was involved in a serious bus accident from which she never fully recovered.  This accident continued to give her health problems for the rest of her life.  It was during her recovery from this accident that Frida started to paint. 

At age 21, Frida married Diego Rivera, who was already a well established artist by that time.  Diego helped to persuade Frida to pursue her artistic career.  Although not terribly prolific, Frida left behind an impressive and largely biographic body of work, most of which can be found in the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, in Mexico City. Kahlo is best known for her self-portraits, with some of her most famous works being “The Two Fridas” (Las Dos Fridas), the “Self-Portrait with Monkey,” and her “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.”  Frida Kahlo died in 1954, at the age of 47. 

While Frida Kahlo’s art deals with very personal and biographical themes, Diego Rivera’s work portrays the history and politics of Mexico and the world, in addition to broader philosophical ideas.  Diego Rivera was born in 1886 in the state of Guanajuato.  At the age of ten, he began to study at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City, quickly gaining a reputation as a young and very talented artist.  He then moved to Paris, France to continue his studies.

Upon returning to Mexico, Diego began working for the Ministry of Education as a mural painter.  Post-revolutionary Mexico was full of hope and ideas, and Rivera began by painting murals depicting the history and struggles of the Mexican people.  An active member of the Communist Party of Mexico, Rivera carried his political and philosophical ideas into his works, occasionally crossing the line and offending his patrons.  Several of his murals were altered or destroyed because they contained politically charged images that upset the public.

Some of Rivera’s most famous works include “Mexico through the Centuries” (México a Través de los Siglos), “Man in Control of the Universe” (El Hombre Contralor del Universo), and “Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda” (Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central), all of which can be found in Mexico City.  Diego Rivera passed away in 1957.

In addition to Rivera and Kahlo, there are literally dozens of Mexican artists with unique styles worth studying. The books Modern Mexican Painters by MacKinley Helm, and Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Siqueiros by Desmond Rochfort are great places to start reading.  Other names you should look out for include David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, Dr. Atl, Juan O’Gorman, and Rufino Tamayo.   

While Mexico is home to a wonderful diversity of fine artists, it also has a strong tradition of folk art.  In Oaxaca, you can find wonderfully playful and whimsical wooden sculptures, known as “alebrijes.”  The northern town of Mata Ortiz in the state of Chihuahua is famous for revitalizing the beautiful pottery of the ancient Paquime Indians.  And throughout the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, you can find finely crafted textiles produced by the local indigenous populations.

folk art of mexico



Despite wide scale European influence, many of the foods of ancient Mesoamerica are still consumed today.  Mexican cuisine is a unique combination of pre-Hispanic and European traditions.  Additionally, the geographical area consisting of Mexico and Central America is considered to be one of the richest in the world in terms of flora and fauna.  By some estimates, Mexico posses about ten percent of all the plant species in the world, and many of these species are endemic.  This fact translates to an array of culinary delights using exotics fruits and vegetables found nowhere else in the world.  From chocolate to vanilla, to spicy chiles, Mexico has a reputation for exotic and delicious foods.

The staple of all Mexican food is corn, which was considered sacred by such pre-Hispanic peoples as the Maya and Aztecs.  Ground corn is used to make tortillas, soft flattened corn dough that is warmed over a comal (griddle) and used to scoop up foods.  The tortilla also forms the basis for a variety of dishes, including tacos and quesadillas, which are essentially tortillas of different shapes and sizes stuffed with meats, vegetables, and different cheeses.

Making Tortillas

Spicy chiles are also a key ingredient in Mexican cooking, with ground chile powder being sprinkled over any thing from corn cobs to mango slices.  There are over 30 chile varieties used in Mexican cuisine, from serranos, to mulattos, to chile ancho.  Each chile has a unique flavor and different level of spiciness.  The famous Mexican dish Mole uses over four different kinds of chiles, as well as cacao (chocolate) to flavor this sweet and highly spiced sauce.

In the fall of 2005, the Mexican government sent delegates to Paris with a convincing list of reason why the culinary traditions of Mexico should be declared a “Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). 

For more information on the culinary traditions of Mexico, see the Recipes chapter.

Homes and Architecture

One of the most unique and charming features of popular Mexican architecture is that many homes are flush with the street, with no “front yard” to speak of.  This is especially true in colonial cities such as Oaxaca, Zacatecas, and San Miguel de Allende.  As you walk down the streets of the colonial cities of Mexico, you have no idea what may lay behind the closed doors that you confront. The houses may be massive or humble, but you have to walk through the door to find out.  You can also find this architectural style in many countries in Europe and throughout Latin America.  Another feature of many Spanish Colonial style homes is the interior garden.  Often, a series of rooms are situated around a central patio or jardín (garden).  These patios are kept cool with a stunning array of tropical plants. 

Another notable characteristic of Mexican and Latin American architecture is the use of clay tiles or tejas as roofing material.  The use of these red tiles that are seen throughout Latin America was imported from Spain.  Their design makes for an instant rain gutter and the tiles can easily be replaced as they crack or wear out.

In modern Mexico, however, you can find anything from Condominium-style buildings to the typical “America-style” home with a small front and back yard. Unfortunately, modern building materials such as concrete blocks largely dominate the construction of new homes in Mexico.  Sand and gravel mining of river bottoms is one of the main sources of raw materials for making concrete blocks, threatening many of Mexico’s main rivers.  See for more details or the destructive practices of sand and gravel mining. 

In rural areas, a popular form of architecture is the use of adobe blocks as a construction material.  Adobe is actually an Arabic word that the Spanish adopted when they were battling the Moors in the 8th through the 15th centuries.  The Spanish verb adobar literally means “to plaster”.  Adobe blocks are a mixture of earth and straw, formed in the blocks when the earth is wet and then dried in the sun.  This ingenious building technique has served indigenous communities of Mexico for thousands of years.  The use of adobe as a building material pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish and is still common today.  Adobe houses hold in the heat during the winter and keep things cool in the summer.


The Mexican people have a deep love and respect for their music, and Mexicans both young and old are versed in the traditional songs of their country. Traditional Mexican composers such as Augustín Lara and José Alfredo Jimenez are still as popular now as when they were first writing songs.

The diversity of Mexican music is stunning, and here we will only begin to touch on the vast variety of styles heard throughout the country.  The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Mexican regional Music,a book by Ramiro Burr is an excellent resource for those interested in learning more about the world of Mexican music.

If you visit Mexico, during your travels you may see a spectacular Mariachi concert or strolling musicians singing classic ranchera music.  You may also run into a Calle Jorneada, a group of musicians dressed in traditional costumes originating from Spain who invite spectators to join them in a traveling concert as they meander through city streets.

Of the dozens of different styles of Mexican music, Mariachi is perhaps the most famous.  It originates from the state of Jalisco and is an amalgam of European and indigenous music.  Mariachis are known for their exuberant costumes, which consist of boots, pants and jackets lined with metal buttons, and wide-brimmed hats.  The principal instruments of Mariachis are trumpets, guitars, and a bass.  The most well-known Mariachi group in Mexico is the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded in 1898, in Tecalitlán, Jalisco.  Although the members have changed through the years, you can still see this group perform today.

Ranchera is a form of music that is closely tied to Mariachi, as Mariachi groups often perform songs written by Ranchera composers.  Ranchera, much like the early “Country” music of the United States, was originally a form of rural folk music.  Ranchera is typically a rather “macho” form of songwriting, where men sing about getting drunk, falling in love, or being betrayed by women. However, many female artists have gotten into the act and can match the men in their boasts about liquor and complaints about the opposite sex.  Famous female Ranchera singers include Lucha Reyes, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lola Beltrán.   

José Alfredo Jimenez is considered the most famous composer of Ranchera music.  He was born into a humble home in the state of Guanajuato, and his songs, often tragic and poetic, have been interpreted by such well known singers as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and Vicente Fernandez

Rock en Español is a relatively new form of music in Mexico, with groups such as Maldita Vencindad and the Caifanes paving the way for modern rockers like Café Tacuba and Maná.  In Mexico, the culture of Rock ‘n’ Rock really started to take off in the early 1980’s, as live rock concerts were banned until this time.  Other excellent groups in the Rock en Español genre include Elefante, Control Machete and Natalia Lafourcade.

Mexico also has a true jewel in the genre of Musica Infantil (children’s music).  Francisco Gabilondo, also known as “Cri Cri, el Grillo Cantor” (“Cri Cri, the Singing Cricket”) was born in 1907 in the state of Veracruz.  A largely self-taught musician, Cri Cri composed over a hundred delightful children’s songs about such whimsical subjects as cowboy mice, tango dancing spiders, and a kindergarten for dogs. 

See the Resources chapter for more information on Cri Cri and Mexican music in general.

musicians in mexico


Goooooooooooooooooooooooooool!” is a familiar shout for sports fans in Mexico, who take their Futbol (soccer) very seriously.  Futbol is the most popular sport in Mexico. When an important game is being played, stores, streets, and even beaches will be empty as practically everyone in the country will be glued to their T.V. sets.  While there are numerous small leagues throughout the country, La Selección, Mexico’s National Team, is the team that draws the biggest crowds.  Recently, Mexico has done quite well on the international scene, participating in several recent World Cups.  

Another important spectator sport is Mexico is the Charreada, or Mexican Rodeo.  Charreadas actually have very little to do with the rodeos found in other parts of the world.  The Charreada is a spectacular display of costumes and daredevil stunts, with Mariachis providing the entertainment and tequila and beer served to the spectators.  There are both male and female charros (rodeo participants), each with distinctive clothes.  Boots and wide-brimmed sombreros are standard with all charros.

Bullfighting is also extremely popular in Mexico, with hundreds of bullrings (plazas de toro) throughout the country.  The largest bullring in the world is the Plaza México, located in Mexico City, where the country’s top bullfighters face the meanest bulls.

If you don’t go for roping cows or bloody bull fights, you may find something to like in Mexico’s Lucha Libre (pro-wrestling), a rather bizarre and theatrical spectator sport filled with colorful masked characters fighting it out to the shouts of an enthusiastic crowd.  Classic Lucha Libre stars such as El Santo also double as movie stars, with dozens of cheesy movies featuring El Santo still popular today.


Recent estimates claim that about 90% of Mexicans are Roman Catholic.  Other religious groups represented in Mexico are Protestant Evangelical, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Mormon Church (the Church of Latter-day Saints).  A very small percentage of Mexicans define themselves as Jewish, and fewer than 4% of people polled in the 2000 census responded that they had no religion.

While Catholicism is hugely popular in Mexico, Catholics from other countries may be surprised when they visit Mexico, as the brand of Catholicism practiced in Mexico is often a mixture of traditional Catholicism and indigenous rituals.  While Catholicism teaches that there is only one Supreme Being, God, Catholicism in Mexico is quite blatantly polytheistic, with particularly strong worship of the Saints and the Virgin Mary.  The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s principal saint, is a national symbol almost as important as the Mexican flag. 

The story of the virgin of Guadalupe involves a young indigenous Nahuat (Aztec) man named Juan Diego, who claimed to have a vision of the Virgin in the year 1531.  Juan Diego, who had recently converted to Catholicism, was traveling on the Cerro de Tepeyac (Tepeyac hill) to a monastery in Tlatelolco when he heard the song of many birds and stopped in his tracks.  He then witnessed a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary before him.  The virgin spoke to him in his native language, Nahuatl, and told him to announce to the local bishop that a church was to be built on the hill. 

When Juan Diego told the Bishop Juan de Zumarraga about the Virgin’s request, the Bishop told him to bring a sign from the Virgin to prove his story.  Juan Diego was troubled until his received another visit from the Virgin who commanded him to collect roses from where he first saw the Virgin and take them to the Bishop. 

Juan Diego did as he was told, and bundled them in his tilma (a large cloth shirt, or sarape). When he returned to show the Bishop the flowers and opened his tilma, he found that an image of the Virgin had been imprinted on the fabric.  The Virgin in the image had dark skin like the indigenous people of the region, and her image helped to convert many indigenous people to Catholicism.

It is worth noting that in addition to Catholicism, many indigenous people in Mexico still hold on tightly to their ancient religious traditions.  In many cases, the pre-Hispanic religions of Mexico are blended with Catholicism.  For example, in the largely Mayan state of Chiapas, many churches have been decorated to resemble earthy caves, with plants and pine needles scattered on the floor.  In these churches people gather in small groups on the floor to worship, rather than seated in neat rows.  Catholic churches in these areas may also serve as sites for ritual shamanistic healings and other ceremonies.

Other important indigenous cultures that still practice their traditional religions in Mexico are the Huichols of Nayarit and Zacatecas, the Otomi of Queretaro, Chamulas, Mixtecos, Zapatecos, Huaves, and the many Mayan ethnic groups of southern Mexico.
Despite the Mexican government’s recent promises to improve public education in Mexico, the country still struggles with serious issues within its educational system.  Large scale teacher strikes often paralyze schools for weeks, and politics and corruption plague the system.  The Secretaría de Educación Pública (Secretary of Public Education) claims that over two million children in Mexico still don't have access to a basic education.  This is probably due to the fact that a large number of students live in highly impoverished rural areas which lack basic services and infrastructure. 
In Mexico, education is considered mandatory through fourteen years of age. The Secretary of Education (SEP, Secretaría de Educación Pública) is the government agency responsible for public education.
The educational system in Mexico is divided as follows: 

  1. Children 4-5 years of age attend Kindergarten (El Jardín de Niños, also known as “Kinder”)
  2. Children 6-12 years of age go to Primary School (Escuela Primaria)
  3. Primary School is followed by Secondary School (Secundaria)
  4. At age 15, young adults can move on to at least two years of Preparatory School (Escuela Preparatoria), which often combines academic and vocational programs.
  5. Upon completing Preparatory School, students can move on to study in universities or technical schools. 

There are a number of options for higher education (Educación Superior) in Mexico, including public and private universities and vocational schools.  Students may also enter specific schools devoted to pedagogy (teaching). 

The National Autonomous University of Mexico, (La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM) located in Mexico City was one of the first public university founded in Latin America.  It is also often considered one of the best public universities in Latin American.  UNAM is famous for such unique programs as Mesoamerican studies and the indigenous languages of Mexico. 

In Guadalajara, the second most populated city in Mexico, students may attend the University of Guadalajara (La Universidad de Guadalajara or UDG) or the (La Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, or UAG), both public institutions

The Technical Institute of Higher Studies of Monterrey (El Instituto Technologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM)), also called the “Tec de Monterrey,” is a private institution popular with wealthier Mexicans, with campuses throughout the country.



Recipes from Mexico

Traditional Beverages:

Horchata is deliciously sweet and refreshing rice drink found throughout Mexico.
3 cinnamon sticks
12 cups cold water
1 ½ cups plain white rice
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons roasted almonds
Combine the cinnamon, water, sugar and the roasted almonds and boil the mixture on the stove for two minutes.  Reduce heat and add the rice.  Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes or until the rice is only slightly soft.  Remove the horchata from the stove and let it cool
Blend the horchata until smooth, and filter the liquid through a strainer.  Serve with ice.
Makes about 12 glasses of horchata.

Agua de Tamarindo
Tamarind is a seed pod that has a sweet/sour pulp.  Tamarind pods are available in most international food markets. 
¾ cups sugar
8 tamarind pods
3/4 cup sugar
12 cups water
Place all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  The tamarind pods should begin to separate slightly as the water boils.  Remove the pot from the heat and let cool. 
Strain out the tamarind pulp and serve over ice. 
Makes about ten glasses.

Agua de Jamaica

Jamaica is the Spanish word for Hibiscus.  This is the perfect beverage for a hot summer day.  It is made from dried hibiscus flowers.  If you can’t find hibiscus flowers, hibiscus tea bags are usually available in specialty grocery stores. 
2 cups dried hibiscus flowers
12 cups water
1 cup sugar
Mix ingredients together in a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Remove the pot from heat and let sit for about 45 minutes.  Strain out the flowers and serve over ice.
Makes about 10 glasses of hibiscus water. 
Festive Beverages:

This is a traditional drink served hot, especially during the Christmas season.
1 ½ cups sugar
10 cups cold water
3 yellow apples, chopped
2 red apples
1 small pineapple, chopped
3/4 cup prunes
1 cup raisins
5 whole guayabas (these tropical fruits are occasionally hard to find, but worth it!)
2 cups orange juice
1 cup lemon juice
4 chunks raw sugarcane, about three inches long
6 cinnamon sticks
Combine all ingredients in a large pan and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Once the ponche starts to boil, reduce heat and let simmer for 30 minutes.  A crock-pot is also ideal for making ponche.

Mexican Typical Main dishes:

While many of the following dishes are traditionally served with meat and lard, here we present healthy vegetarian versions of these Mexican classics. 

Pozole is a wonderful corn stew that is served for special occasions.  It’s especially popular in the state of Guerrero, but is eaten throughout the country. 

3 quarts water
2 cans vegetarian broth
1 large package of corn for pozole (available in most ethnic grocery stores) or 3 cans white hominy
2 large onions, diced
5 medium carrots, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
3 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon of oregano
1/2 cup of chile piquin
Olive oil
Salt to taste
Shredded Lettuce
Tostadas (fried corn tortillas)
Red radishes, diced

Cook the pozole according the package directions.  Dice the onions and garlic and sauté in olive oil.  Place the pozole, vegetarian broth, water, onions and carrots in a large pot.  Heat over a high flame until boiling.  Reduce heat and simmer until the carrots are cooked.  Add oregano and chile piquin.

Garnish with lettuce, radishes, and more oregano.
Makes about 8 servings of pozoole.

Enchiladas Verdes

Enchiladas are a common meal throughout the country.  There are literally dozens of varieties, and many served with chicken or beef.  Enchiladas verdes are easy to make and are a delicious vegetarian alternative.

2 pounds tomatillos, peeled
4 Serrano peppers
2 large onions
1 cup water
1 pound vine ripe tomatoes, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 dozen corn tortillas
1 pound white cheese, shredded
Sour cream to taste

Roast the tomatillos in a skillet without oil.  Remove the peels.  Chop the Serrano peppers and onions.  Place the tomatillos, onions, and peppers in a blender with a little water.  Blend until smooth.  Add a couple pinches of salt and blend again.

Put a dash of olive oil in a large frying pan and heat. Add the tomatillo mixture, add a pinch of cumin and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.  Turn off heat and set aside. 

Fry the tortillas lightly in vegetable oil, and dunk each tortilla in the tomatillo sauce.  Fill the tortillas with shredded cheese and fold in half.  Arrange three enchiladas on a plate.

Garnish with cilantro, sliced tomatoes and sour cream.

Makes three to four servings of enchiladas.

Desserts from Mexico:


Flan is a traditional caramel custard that makes a wonderful finish to any Mexican meal.

2 cans (14 ounces each) condensed milk
2 cans (12 ounces each) evaporated milk
1 ½ cups sugar
12 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of cinnamon

Place the sugar in a saucepan and add enough water to cover the sugar.  Heat the sugar over high heat until the sugar starts to caramelize.  Pour the liquid sugar into a soufflé mold while it’s still hot, coating all sides. 

Mix the other ingredients together and pour into the mold.  Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.  Place the mold in a shallow pan with warm water added.  Bake for an hour, remove from the oven and let cool.  Remove from the mold and serve.  Garnish with another dash of cinnamon. 

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