Thursday, 22 January 2015

Mexico is strange

This country is weird.

It's not surprising when you bear in mind that this huge country has many indigenous traditions, a colonial influence, different ethnicity and a location straddling the American and Latin American worlds. I don't have time to go into the strange goings-on in Mexican politics, business, crime and education, but here's a look at some culturally unique 'Mexicanisms'.

Media madness:

I'm going to focus on two bizarre parts of the media circus here, the first of which is a very odd kind of music.

"Banda" is an especially Mexican style that has recently achieved such huge fame, that people here rarely listen to anything else!

It's created by large groups of up to 30 brass musicians and drummers who use "oom-pah" rhythms to offset ballad lyrics about romance, or guns. In fact there is an entire sub-genre of Banda devoted to 'narco corridas' or violent tales from the cartel trade which is growing in popularity even though it's banned from receiving any airplay. Narco Cultura is an interesting 2013 documentary which explores some of the musicians exploiting the market for these violence themed tunes. Check it out if you wish.

There are entire radio stations, festivals and TV channels devoted to the romantic polka-inspired tunes (which have become oddly hypnotic after a few years here). As far as I can tell, you need 4 elements in your group's video to be considered a true Banda band:

1. A must be a large group in a suited colourful uniform (see picture)
2. The main singer must wear a stetson hat
3. The singer must wildly over-gesticulate to re-inforce the lyrics
4. There must be at least one slow motion argument between a couple on screen (which is resolved as the ballad concludes).

If you think TV in your country is false, think again. Mexico's most famous and popular comedy Chavo del Ocho featured exclusively adults actors speaking in high pitched voices pretending to be niños.

Televisa (one of two public networks) is considered one of the country's greatest monopolies, but it also seems to employ exclusively lighter skinned presenters. Only 10% of Mexicans are 'guero', yet every advertisement, and studio show boast a sea of white faces.

Further to this falsification of the nation's ethnic make-up, TV here is an entirely fabricated make-believe world. Mexicans love garish and loud studio-based shows. Presenters and guests alike are adorned in hats, wigs, hideous amounts of make-up and costumes . . . oh year and there is ALWAYS a clown. Shows like 'Sabadazo' (pictured) drone on for hours and feature slow moving bad comedy skits, banda music and a lot of dancing.

I'm well aware that all TV is fake to some extent, but Mexican TV doesn't attempt to replicate real life. Telenovelas (cheap weepy soaps) are a form of escapism for many, yet have become truly ingrained in Mexican culture. Thankfully I don't own a TV!

Popular peculiarities:

The goings-on in the packed shopping districts of different countries are often mind boggling. Toddler based fury in Walmart?, Golf sale on every corner? Preachers informing you about the world's end? Sure, weirdos congregate where the attention is. It's needless to say that Mexican town centers are a hotbed for some truly bizarre activities.

Businesses often sponsor festivals in town centers, and there's no municipal official to question the artistic integrity of the installation. If there is, a brown paper bag full of bank notes soon shuts him up. You can see the plastic Coca Cola Christmas tree erected for the festivities in Guadalajara.

It's hideous, but it does fit in with two Mexican sensibilities - it's free and it's Coca Cola, so we'll allow it!

Just as you get past the monstrosity blocking you view of a nice cathedral or landmark, the people themselves take it upon themselves to degrade their city. Clowns appear from around every corner! You can't walk far without seeing holding up traffic, or launching into a 10 minute diatribe which results in a smattering of weak laughs and a few pesos worth of sympathy.

Apart from street performers, and sellers shouting about their latest plastic wares, shops aggressively compete for your attention too. Many businesses employ tactics such as blasting the street with loud music, having announcers telling you about promotions or employing scantily clad promo girls which usually results in a semi circle or perverts filming them on their phones.

Some stores employ life-sized mascots in front of their stores. These are large spongy dancing costumes with a real person inside. The most famous of these is the Farmacy mascot Dr. Simi (pictured). Simi bobs around, dances and waves to potential customers, somehow hoping to entice them into buying more toothpaste or painkillers. Vice wrote an amusing piece on how the poor people inside the suits have to work long hours, get heat exhaustion and receive torrents of verbal and physical abuse from teenagers. Poor old Simi eh?

Perhaps the weirdest shop based event happened recently in Miahuatlán when a local money lending company celebrated their thirteenth anniversary. They decorated the shop and the street outside and gave out t-shirts with their name and '13' on. It's not a great to associate your brand with the unluckiest number ever right? Well, residents didn't care, the t-shirts were free. What's more, they gave away free corn, free drinks and free bread too.

With a crowd well and truly gathered now, the banda band struck up their brassy sound and blasted out some tunes. It was around this time that the shop's parade began with the band leading the way and cars adorned with dolled-up 5 year old girls strapped to the roof followed them down the street. I'm not joking, the kids were actually strapped to the top of the cars. Strange it certainly was, although it made for a good afternoon's entertainment from my comfortable seat inside the bar.

Indigenous items:

Plenty of oddness can be attributed to the native traditions of this country. If you've read anything about Mexico, you probably already know about Day of the Dead and some of the other pre-Hispanic celebrations.

Getting drunk in graveyards aside, the culture of Mexico's proud races are still alive and kicking today. There are dances (for example the Gueleguetza festival in Oaxaca), prevalent historical idols such as Moctezuma and celebrations of strange physical feats, one of which is the bird men of Mexico.

This is the one where five blokes dance around a bit, then climb up a 30m pole and jump off slowly swinging around the pole and descending towards the ground. It's a sort of Indian bungee jump. Take that New Zealand!

Radical Religion:

Mexico is the second most populous Catholic country in the World after Brazil. In addition to the idolisation of John Paul II, and Jesus' picture gracing every bus driver's window (for safety), evangelical churches seems to be cropping up everywhere as most people here love a sing-song.

There is also a fairly large Mennonite community scattered around the country with many living in the Yucatan peninsula. I'll never forget seeing an Amish looking fellow in Chetumal bus station and thinking that a hick Kentucky farmer had come for his holiday wearing full denim overalls and a bizarre 19th century hat!

Many ancient superstitions have been incorporated into Mexico's version of Catholicism. People will pray to christian crosses in graveyards whilst offering Mezcal and food to the spirits of their deceased ancestors in full skeleton make-up. Yes, Mexico is weird.

The death worship doesn't stop there though. The skeleton figure of Santa Muerte adorns all kinds of clothing, and decorative items and her popularity has grown hugely in recent years. Not only has she been taken on as a symbol of strength by Narcos but there are shines to her image in many Mexican cities.

Saints are a huge deal here, with the Spanish encouraging the adoption of localised Catholic religious figures. Mexico's most famous saint The Virgin Guadalupe appeared to a sixteenth century shepherd and left him a nice picture of herself on his fabric tunic. The cloth still hangs in a Mexico City church, although analysis of it the fabric has been more ocular than technical so far. It's like the story was made up . . .

Well there's no going back now, about half the girls in the country are called Guadalupe, and Mexico shows no sign of wanting to give up their Christian cultural icon.

Extraordinary Events:

Another peculiarity of Mexican culture is the over formality of friendly gatherings. Whether to celebrate a 15th birthday, a work function, a town festival or leaving do, events always seem to end up with guests sitting in large circles with no focal point for the party. At least get Dr. Simi in to do a dance or something! The host is usually charged with making a long and boring speech. The weird thing is, no one seems to enjoy it. It's just treated as a necessity.

I guess we replace our awkwardness at social functions with alcohol, music and talk about sports or TV, but it seems this country hasn't cottoned on yet. With Oaxaca's well documented alcohol problems, most social gatherings are comprised of people guzzling soda and cheap cake at plastic tables. The onus is usually on the host or guest of honour to provide some kind of unplanned entertainment (usually a formal speech) as people sit awkwardly and listen. They clap politely like they're at the unveiling of a new government department who will investigate the need for new governmental departments. It's certainly less exciting than the opening of a new shop would be!

I'm sure I'll think of loads more oddities in my remaining time in Mexico, but that's certainly enough strangeness for now. I'm off to buy some extra toothpaste and painkillers.

You might like . . .