HISTORY, ART, AND PSYCHOLOGY IN MEXICO

 

        In July of 2007 I spent two weeks in Mexico City. I had previously been in Baja California and the Yucatan, but not in central Mexico.  It had been on my list of places to visit someday ever since slides of Mexico City were shown by my Spanish teacher in high school.  While there, I presented papers at two psychology conferences, the Inter-American Congress of Psychology and the Latin American Regional Conference of Cross-Cultural Psychology.  I visited museums of anthropology, history, and art, as well as cathedrals and ruins of ancient temples.  To supplement that, I read History of Mexico by Inigo Fernandez, 2002. I took day trips to see pyramids in Teotihuacan, silver jewelry in Taxco, and churches in Cuernavaca, along with beautiful mountain scenery.  I ate great food in restaurants and on the street, danced in discos, and met many people from various countries.  Here are some of the many things that I learned and experienced on my trip.

 

BEFORE THE SPANISH

        According to genetic studies, the indigenous peoples of the Americas came from Asia. They were hunters who apparently crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska during the ice age about 35,000 years ago.  Some scholars argue that additional people came by boat across the Pacific.  As they moved southward and multiplied, they created diverse cultures adapted to the local environments of climate, plants, and animals.  They spoke more than 500 languages. 

        About 9,000 years ago groups in Mesoamerica (now Mexico and central America) developed agriculture, domesticating the corn plant maize, as well as beans, chilies, and squash. This enabled them to live in larger more permanent communities, and to support warriors and a ruling class of priests who observed the sky to know when to plant and to harvest. They developed rituals to mark the agricultural cycles of the changing seasons, and worshiped gods of nature, including gods of the sun and the rain which are so important for agriculture.

        The earliest known culture in Mesoamerica was called the Olmec, which left monumental stone heads when the culture vanished around 100 AD.  The Teotihuacan culture lasted a thousand years from about 300 BC to 700 AD and built pyramids to the sun and the moon.  Further south the Mayan culture built pyramids in the Yucatan and other states of Mexico as well as in Guatemala and Honduras.  They had a solar calendar of 365 days and a lunar calendar of 260 days, which coincided every 52 years in a cycle of rebirth.  They abandoned their cities about 900 AD.

        Then there was a series of Chichimec invasions from the north.  The Tolmecs conquered other groups, but then declined in the 12th century “as a result of invasions by other Chichimec tribes, civil wars, and uprisings by tribute-tribes” (Fernandez, 2002).  Another invading group was Aztecs who called themselves Mexicas.  They settled on a small island in the middle of Lake Texococo and created a city called Mexico-Tenochtitlan (which later became the location of Mexico City).  They created floating gardens by piling up rocks and dirt between logs driven into the shallow lake.  Years later the lake was drained as the city grew, although remaining canals can now be explored on boats at Xochimilco.

        Like the Teotihuacans, the Mexicas practiced human sacrifice.  They believed that the sun god must be fed human blood to rise again each day after fighting the moon god each night.  They captured prisoners to sacrifice from conquered tribes, who also had to pay tribute in the form of food and labor.  They created the largest empire in Mesoamerica, but it lasted only two hundred years due to the arrival of the Spanish.

 

THE SPANISH CONQUEST

        When Cortez and 550 men arrived from Cuba looking for gold, they formed alliances with groups who had been subjugated by the Mexicas, creating a force of thousands.  At first the Mexicas thought that Cortez with his light skin was the return of a god and treated him as a guest.  But he betrayed them and arrested their leader Moctezuma II.  Bloody battles ensued, but eventually Cortez prevailed and destroyed the temples to build Mexico City, capital of New Spain, in 1521.

        Governance of New Spain was difficult due to conflicts between Cortez’ men and the King of Spain.  Cortez gave his men encomiendos, large estates worked by indigenous people, who often suffered abuses. The King sent viceroys to keep the encomiendo owners from being too independent, and audiencias composed of a president and four judges to enforce laws on both the viceroy and the landowners.  

        The Spanish introduced crop rotation, the use of animal manure as fertilizer, and the use of plows, wheels, and horses as draft animals.  They brought cattle, goats, poultry, and pigs for food, and sheep for woolen clothing.  Priests came to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, and in the process the Church became an economic power owning about one sixth of the land in the country.

        Over the years, resentment grew among the criollos, who were born in New Spain of Spanish parents, but excluded from positions of power by the peninsulares who were born in Spain.  The situation became worse when the last Hapsburg king of Spain died in 1700 and was replaced by a new dynasty of Bourbon kings, who introduced reforms to extract more resources from New Spain to finance costly wars in Europe.  When Napoleon of France invaded Spain in 1808, that increased the desire for independence from Spain.  After eleven years of battles, initially led by priests, Mexico gained independence in 1821.

 

LOSS OF TERRITORY TO THE USA

        In Mexico there were major conflicts between centrists, who wanted a strong central government, and federalists, who wanted states to retain lawmaking authority as in the USA.  Some wanted a monarchy and others wanted a republic with elected representatives.  The government kept changing as various groups took power.  Some struggles were with the Catholic Church to restrict its economic and political power.

        During this chaos, Texas declared itself a republic in 1836.  Santa Anna fought battles against the rebels, executing all of the survivors at the Alamo, but was later captured and forced to sign a treaty granting Texas independence.  Texas became a state of the US in 1845.

       That same year the US sent envoys to Mexico City to try to buy Alta California, Arizona, and New Mexico for $20 million, as part of the Manifest Destiny notion of expanding from coast to coast.  The US had previously purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1804 for $15 million.  When the Mexican government refused the offer, US troops entered New Mexico in 1846, then invaded the port of Vera Cruz and marched to Mexico City where they attacked the Military Academy at Chapultepec.  The Academy was defended by six cadets who became known as “The Boy Heroes.”  At least one wrapped himself in a Mexican flag and hurled himself down rather than be captured.  There is now a large monument to them in Chapultepec Park.

        Mexico was forced to sell Alta California, Arizona, and New Mexico to the US for $15 million, losing half of its territory, in 1848.  In 1853 the US forced the Gadsden Purchase of the southern portion of Arizona and New Mexico for $10 million to build a southern continental railroad.

       

THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION

        The political instability continued, with armed rebellions and coups.  Because the struggling nation could not pay its foreign debts, France invaded in 1862 and set up Maxmillian, brother of the Austrian King, as Emperor of Mexico.  While he was welcomed at first, he antagonized the Church and others, and Juarez led a rebellion financed by a $20 million loan from the US.  Juarez promoted education and economic reforms, but there were battles over his reelection. In 1877 one of Juarez’ generals, Porfiriato Diaz, gained control and remained a dictator for more than 30 years.  He did many things to modernize the country, which made landowners, including foreigners, wealthy, but many workers were exploited and remained poor. 

        A series of revolutionary leaders fought battles with Diaz and his successors, and with each other, from 1910-21. Key issues were worker rights, land reform, freedom of expression, and fair elections.  While the revolution was considered over, armed rebellions continued as the revolutionary party (later the PRI) consolidated its power.  It controlled presidential elections from 1940 until 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected from an opposition party which also won the 2006 election of Felipe Calderon.

        Today Mexico City is claimed to be the largest city in the world, with over 24 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area, almost one-fourth of the population of Mexico.  It suffered major damage in an earthquake in 1985.  It has an efficient subway system called the Metro, and is a center of economic activity.  However, wages in the country are generally only about one-eighth of wages in the US, and many unemployed in rural areas seek work in the US.  Payments they send home to their families total more than foreign investments in the country.

 

MY FIRST CONFERENCE

        I arrived in Mexico City from LA on Saturday evening June 30.  I paid for a taxi in the airport to make sure that it was an authorized one.  Although the crime rate in Mexico City has been reduced, my favorite guidebook series Let’s Go still warned about unauthorized taxis robbing people.  It is safer to take taxis from hotels and taxi stands instead of hailing them on the street. A Mexican tour guide later told me that authorized taxis have licences beginning with L or S, such as the red and white ones.

        I checked into my hotel near the World Trade Center, and walked a couple blocks to Insurgentes Avenue where I ate dinner and then danced for two hours at a disco. I felt safe walking back to the hotel late at night since there were many police and other people around.

    After sleeping in the next morning, I explored the area and found a large Sunday market set up on Filadelfia with stalls selling clothing, food, CDs, and other things.  That evening the opening session of the Inter-American Congress was held in the Polyforum, a building with huge murals by Siqueiros.  It was followed by a reception at which I saw several people that I had met at previous conferences, as well as met others.  It started pouring rain, with water dripping from the canvas over the patio, and it was funny watching staff pour a huge tub of water down a small drain with water spreading out on the floor.

        At the conference over the next four days I attended presentations all day on many topics in psychology, and met many professors and students doing interesting research. Most of the talks were in Spanish. A few of the invited lectures were translated using earphones, but the other sessions were not.  While I had difficulty understanding fast Spanish lectures, I was able to read the PowerPoint slides and know the main ideas.

        One theme addressed by speakers was the internationalization of psychology. Although psychology began in Germany, it developed most in the US, then was imported into other countries, who adapted and developed concepts to fit their own cultures, and created their own training centers (J. Adair).  But countries vary in their development of psychology as a discipline and the US is still too dominant (S. Brehm).

        Another theme was measuring intelligence. We need to distinguish between academic intelligence (often stronger in cities) and practical intelligence (often stronger in rural areas).  Adding tests of practical intelligence and creativity to academic tests improves the prediction of success in college (R. Sternberg).  Using intelligence tests developed in one country (such as Spain) may underestimate intelligence in other countries (such as Mexico) since the vocabulary and cultural knowledge may differ even though the countries share the “same” language.  Bilingual Latinos in the US scored better on the English version of an IQ test than on the Spanish version of the test (R. Velasquez).

        Of particular interest was the work of the Population Media Center in developing serial TV shows adapted to local cultures dealing with social issues such as family planning, gender equality, and AIDS prevention.  The popular programs model negative behaviors and outcomes, positive behaviors and outcomes, and how to change from negative to positive behaviors (A. Bandura).

        Other sessions dealt with satisfaction in couples' relationships (R. Diaz-Loving), loneliness (D. Perlman), self-deception (H. Triandis), alcohol abuse, gender roles, and the adjustment of immigrants.

        On Monday night there was a nice reception at the Museo Casa Risco in San Angel sponsored by the president of the American Psychological Association (S. Brehm).  On Tuesday I gave my talk, "Spanish language loss among Latinos in Los Angeles" based on my Multiple Identities Questionnaire. Then that night I went by car with some friends from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina to Coyoacan, a neighborhood where painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera once lived.  We explored the area and watched a large group practicing Aztec dances on the plaza, then ate dinner there. 

        On Wednesday night our Puerto Rican colleagues hosted a party in the Skybar on the 46th floor of the World Trade Center, where I met a group of Peruvians on the dance floor.  Dancing usually creates an emotional rapport as we observe and imitate each others’ enthusiastic dance moves.  On Thursday evening the closing ceremony had a Mariachi band, and everyone stood up and danced in front of their seats in the auditorium. Afterward I went by car with Mexican and Brazilian friends to a disco several miles south on Insurgentes where we joined Peruvian and Guatemalan friends. One of the Peruvians told me it was great to be there with friends from other countries, and I told him that was the primary purpose of the conference! 

 

MY SECOND CONFERENCE

        Friday morning the cross-cultural psychology conference opened in the Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park.  Following some presentations there was an introductory tour of the museum, which has amazing exhibits on major cultures in Mesoamerica.  During lunch in the park outside, we watched four men climb to the top of a pole, wrap ropes around the top which were tied to their waists, then hang upside down as the ropes slowly unwound, allowing them to swing out and down to the ground.  Later I saw a painting of this ancient “Voladores de Papantla ritual in one of the museums.

        Most of the presentations Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were in English, although a few were in Spanish, or mixed with speech in one language and PowerPoint slides in the other.  I knew some of the presenters from previous conferences and also met many new ones.

        A major line of cross-cultural research is the study of values.  While many values have been identified, they can be arranged in a circle with conflicting values across from each other.  One dimension defining the circle is openness to change versus preservation of the status quo, and the other is concern about the self versus others (S. Schwartz).  To supplement values, research has also looked at social axioms, such as believing that hard work pays off (M. Bond).  Other research has studied gender roles (Georgas) and personality dimensions relevant to compatibility in couples (E. Hoffman).  Several sessions dealt again with acculturation, the adjustment of immigrants and their descendents to a new culture.  A key idea previously articulated by J. Berry is that people can vary in their identification with the new culture as well as vary in their identification with the old culture; they need not give up the old to adapt to the new, but may code switch language and customs depending on the situation.

        On Saturday evening I went back to the disco I had gone to the previous Saturday, but was frustrated at first because it took an hour before anyone else got up to dance.  Usually if I start dancing, others get up and dance too, but this crowd kept drinking and talking.  My talk was on Sunday, "Counting generations in acculturation research."  That evening was the closing dinner, which presented folklorico dances.  On Monday I attended a workshop given by a R. Diaz-Loving who has conducted extensive research on romantic couples in Mexico.  It was a great overview.

 

SIGHTSEEING IN MEXICO CITY

        After the workshop, I took a taxi with my suitcase, daypack, and conference bag full of books to a hostal by a Metro station, which was next to the Zona Rosa, an area of restaurants and nightclubs, and not far from the museums in Chapultepec Park. When I arrived, I found four friends there whom I knew from the second conference!  We took the Metro subway to Tasquena, then a train from there to Xochimilco.  We took a two-hour boat ride on the canals left from filling in the lake around Mexico City.  It was late in the day and it was raining lightly, so there weren’t as many boats out as usual.  But we did pass some boats carrying Mariachi bands.  Incidentally, I later learned that the term Mariachi Music comes from a mispronunciation of the French pronunciation of Marriage (mar-ee-aj), since it was the kind of music played at weddings!

        At breakfast Tuesday I met a teacher from Denmark. It is easier to meet people at a hostel than in a hotel since you share the kitchen and lounge.  I usually reserve a private room, which is less expensive than in a hotel.  I took a city tour which took me downtown to the Zocalo; the word means pedestal but is used to refer to the central plaza.  I seldom take commercial tours, since I like to sightsee at my own pace. But sometimes tours are useful for providing efficient transportation, especially for daytrips out of town. They can be more flexible when the group is small, and it is interesting to meet others on the tour.

        Around the Zocalo we saw amazing murals by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, which were painted to commemorate the Mexican Revolution.  We overlooked the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a huge Mexica complex destroyed by the Spanish.  We explored the Cathedral, then rode to Chapultepec Park and spent an hour in the Anthropology museum, before driving around a neighborhood with fancy shops. 

        After the tour I returned to the Anthropology Museum and spent the rest of the afternoon systematically viewing all of the exhibits to fill in what I had missed before.   I walked back to the hostel and had dinner with the Danish teacher, then went to bed early since I was tired from standing and walking all day!

 

GUADALUPE AND TEOTIHUACAN

        Wednesday morning I took a tour which went first to the cathedrals famous for the Virgin of Guadalupe.  In 1531 Juan Diego said that the virgin appeared to him and told him to build a church, but the bishop did not believe him until he appeared with a cloak bearing the image of the virgin, which he said appeared after he put some flowers on the cloak.  According to wikipedia.com, one of the viceroys of New Spain in 1611 called the veneration of the image a disguised worship of the Aztec goddess Tonatzin.  The image became a symbol of Mexico, with “Long Live the Virgin of Guadalupe” a rallying cry of Mexican Independence.  The old church housing the image sank in the soft lake-filled soil on an angle and had to be propped up; the new modern church housing the image holds 10,000 people and has an underground walkway where visitors can look up at the image behind the church altar.

        The tour then went to Teotihuacan, where we climbed up the steep pyramid of the sun, for a great view of the surrounding area.  We also climbed the smaller pyramid of the moon.  I was very impressed with the pyramids, having seen others in the Yucatan and in Egypt.

        After I returned to the hostel I took the Metro back to the Zocalo, ate tacos at one of the stalls, and explored more stalls in the area.  At 6 PM there was to be a flag-lowering ceremony, so I watched Aztec dancers on the plaza while waiting for it to begin.  It started raining, but I had my raincoat and an umbrella that I had just bought an hour before, since it often rains in the late afternoon this time of year.  Soldiers marched onto the plaza and spread out, while their band played, and the flag was lowered, and they carried it away, ignoring the rain that was pouring down. 

 

CUERNAVACA AND TAXCO

        Thursday morning I took a tour that rode through beautiful mountain scenery.  Since there were only three of us besides the tour guide, we went in a car instead of a van.  I kept trying to take photos from the moving car, but often there were trees in the way, until we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Cuernavaca surrounded by mountains.  That city is a popular place for US students to study Spanish.  We went to a plaza with three churches.  One of them had a painting of Joseph holding baby Jesus, which I had only seen in two other churches anywhere in the world – one in Peru and the other in Ireland; usually it is Mary holding Jesus.  In the gift shop there was a print of Jesus as an adult with light brown hair and blue eyes, which is commonly seen in churches in the US, even though Jesus probably had black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin due to his place of birth!

        We then drove on to Taxco, a silver mining community on the side of a mountain.  I liked Taxco very much.  We stopped for lunch at a hotel which had great views of the city spread out below and extending up the mountain.  We then explored the main plaza, which had a cathedral and jewelry shops.  I bought myself a silver bracelet that I liked which had a silver and black pre-Columbian design.   In the cathedral, a side altar included a small oval painting of Mary pregnant, which I had never seen before. 

         Back in Mexico City that evening I explored more of the Zona Rosa and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant for a change.  I looked for discos listed in my guidebook, but found them closed or empty – there often is a turnover as owners change or liquor licenses are lost.  But it is easy to find discos from the sounds of the music and the crowds going in!  I found one and danced for a few hours.  I again felt safe walking back to the hostel since there were police and others around late at night.

 

MORE MUSEUMS

        Friday morning I walked to Chapultepec Park and spent several hours in the National History Museum, which covered major events since the Spanish conquest.  Although the descriptions were all in Spanish (unlike both Spanish and English in the Anthropology Museum), I was able to read them.  And although the Anthropology museum allowed photos without flash (which fades paint), this museum did not allow photos.  So I was taking notes, and a guard came up and told me that note taking was not allowed!  I was shocked since I had never encountered this in any museum in the world. 

        I also spent time in the nearby Gallery of History, which did allow photos and note taking, and learned more about the turbulent times and battles from Mexican Independence to the Mexican Revolution 1821-1921.  I ate a torta (sandwich) in the park which was one of the best meals I had!  When I am in a new country I usually avoid salads for a few days as my body adjusts to the local bacteria, then I eat street food since it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of local culture, even though guidebooks advise against it.  As a backup I carry Cipro, a powerful antibiotic that usually zaps any digestive upset with just one pill; but I didn’t need it on this trip.

    My feet were tired when I walked back toward the hostel, so I stopped at a cinema and watched the opening that day of the new Harry Potter film of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It was good, although I kept reading the Spanish subtitles and comparing them with the spoken English!  It wasn’t as dark as the third and fourth films, and had more of the magic of the first two films.

        Saturday morning I took the Metro back to the Zocalo, and spent three hours exploring the ruins of the Templo Mayor and its museum.  I walked a few blocks to the National Art Museum, which had many paintings which I liked.  I bought a guidebook which had most of the paintings, then took photos without flash of others that I liked.  My camera battery died, and I had already used my spare battery that morning, then I remembered that I could take photos with my cellphone!  I had brought it along to send my wife text messages, which were cheap while calls were very expensive.  I also tried sending text to my daughter in Europe, but it didn’t go through.  Back home I could upload the photos to a website then email them to myself. 

        At the nearby Palacio de Belles Artes, there was a special exhibit on Frida Kahlo, which I saw along with the impressive permanent murals.  I listened to some live music in Alameda Park, then took the Metro back to my hostel.  I walked across the boulevard for some wonderful ice cream at a shop I had discovered a few days before.  I was tired, but since it was my last night in Mexico City, I went to the Zona Rosa for dinner in a sidewalk cafe, then spent a couple hours dancing in a disco with a very cool crowd.

        Sunday morning I walked back to Chapultepec Park and spent a few hours in the Museum of Modern Art.  I liked many of the paintings very much.  I wasn’t satisfied with the guidebook, so I didn’t buy it and instead took photos of about 50 paintings without flash!  I then took a taxi to the airport for the ride back to Los Angeles, exhausted but having had a great time.  I had gained a deeper appreciation of Mexican history and art, as well as met new friends from Mexico and other countries.