Appendix - “Background Information”
Mexico is the one country in Latin America that shares its northern border with the United States. The Rio Grande River separates most of Mexico with its northern neighbor. Most of Mexico has mountainous terrain. A sleeping snow-capped volcano called Popocatepet is near Mexico city. Most of the northeastern part of Mexico is desert land. The southern part contains lush tropical forests.
Mexico City is the capital of Mexico. It is the largest city in the world. The city occupies a valley that is surrounded by mountains. Mexico City was built on the ruins of an ancient civilization. It contains a large central square where the National Palace is located. The National Palace is the home of the present day president.
The Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes came to Mexico in 1519 along with his 700 soldiers. For two years he fought the Aztec nation. Cortes finally defeated the Indians and set up his own government in what is now Mexico City.
Most Mexicans today are the descendants of two peoples — Spanish and Indian. Therefore, they are called mestizos (mes-TEEZ-ohs) which means they are a people of mixed blood. In other words, they have inherited the customs and traditions of two very different cultures and civilizations.
Three ancient civilizations, Olmecs, Aztecs and Maya Indians helped to influence the culture and customs of many Mexican people today.
1) The Olmec
The Olmecs are known as the mother culture who gave birth to the great Indian civilizations that later built large and splendid cities. They are best known for their large stone sculptures. They discovered the concept of our numeral zero and worked on an elaborate calendar system. Their development began in the southern part of Mexico around the year 2,000 B.C. and was succeeded by the Mayan civilization.
2) The Maya
The Mayan civilization is known for its magnificent cities with elaborate temples and carvings. The Maya Indians were chiefly an agricultural people whose chief crop and primary food staple was corn. The Maya farmers were known as the common people and were responsible for supporting the minority population which consisted of the noble clergy. The agriculture land surrounded the ceremonial centers where the priests lived, conducted religious ceremonies and governed the people. Another Mayan group was known as the craftsmen. They were responsible for serving the nobility, building their houses and making their clothes.
The Mayan Indians worshipped many gods. They sacrificed birds and small animals to their nature gods. Human sacrifices and cannibalism were also a vital part of their religious ceremonies.
Crossed eyes and a flattened head were considered beautiful to Mayan parents. Shortly after a baby was born a mother would strap her baby between two boards in order to flatten and lengthen the baby’s head. If a baby was born with crossed eyes it was felt that the baby was blessed by the gods. In order to cross a baby’s eyes, a mother would tie an object so that it would dangle at the tip of the baby’s nose. Although these practices seem very harsh to us today, the Mayan parents felt that they were making their babies beautiful. (McKissack, The Maya, pages 22-24.)
Mayan parents taught their children at home. The children of the nobility were the only ones who received a formal education. The Mayans excelled in art, architecture, mathematics and the measurement of time.
A Mayan house contained one room made of four stucco walls and a thatched roof. Today many Mayan Indians live in this same type of dwelling.
3) The Aztec
The Aztec Indians called themselves Mexica (me-SHEE-ka). The Aztec name is shared by the civilizations of several Indian groups who had similar language and customs.
By 1500 the Aztec Indian civilization stretched across central Mexico. Though cruel by nature, the Aztec nation became a great one. They practiced human sacrifices in their religious worship and enforced strict upbringing.
If a boy was lazy or misbehaved he was punished by being pricked by cactus spines, beaten or held over hot coals. In fact children at a very young age were expected to help with chores around the house. Girls had to get up by dawn and spend the day doing housework, including sweeping the street outside the house. Boys were taught how to handle a canoe, build a fire and catch fish. Royal children were very unhappy. They did not see their parents unless they were called into the royal court. If they raised their eyes from the ground, they were punished severely. (Berdan, The Aztecs, page 25.)
Boys and girls attended different schools. They were taught subjects useful to them such as being a warrior and making a living. Music, singing and dancing were important subjects in school because they were important in religious worship. (Berdan, The Aztecs, page 28.)
Bright colors were enjoyed by the Aztecs. Girls were taught how to dress and wear make-up. Along with face paint, the teeth were also painted.
The Aztecs worshipped many gods. They were not afraid of death. They felt the most honorable way to die was by sacrifice or in a battle. This kind of death gave them instant entrance into Paradise.
Most Aztec Indians made a living by farming. However, there were other occupations including craftsmen, fishermen, scribes, government officials and priests.
Despite many centuries of foreign rule, the Aztec Indians have kept their sense of beauty and pride in their craftsmanship. “In many respects the life in present-day Aztecan villages is not very different from the life in the Aztec Empire. The homes are still crowded together in a village some distance from the out-lying fields. These are still one-room houses with simple fireplaces for cooking indoors and for warmth in cool weather.” (Bleeker, The Aztec: Indians of Mexico, page 136.)
The Mexican flag consisting of vertical stripes of equal width contains the colors green, white and red along with a yellow eagle in the center of the white portion. The color white stands for religion, green for independence and red for union.
An ancient legend tells how a group of Aztec Indians were looking for a better place to live. Their chief god told them to look for a cactus growing from a stone. After wandering into a valley in central Mexico they came across an eagle perched on top of a cactus growing from a stone. The eagle was holding a snake in his beak. The Aztecs were sure that this was the place that they were to settle. Today that place is Mexico City. The national emblem of Mexico today is an eagle perched on top of a cactus holding a snake in its beak.(Beck, The Aztecs, page 10.)
Fiestas are a time of excitement and celebration. They commemorate a national holiday or something of religious significance for the local village. Fiestas usually include five important events such as a church mass, music and dancing, fireworks, feasting and a special display of horsemanship.
One of the most colorful of all the Mexican fiestas is the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas celebration begins on December 16 and lasts until Christmas Eve. The celebration begins with families setting up a nativity scene in their homes. Posada parties are held almost every evening by Mexican families. Posada means inn or night lodging. Costumed singers parade through the village streets dramatizing the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem and seeking shelter. After being turned away from several homes, the host family invites them in, and there they bow and pray before the nativity scene. The highlight of the posada party is the breaking of the pinata.
Many wild animals are found in the mountains and deserts of Mexico. Six animals that are hunted for game are white-tailed deer, coyote, ocelot, fox, jaguar and mountain lion.
Seven recreational sports that are popular in Mexico are soccer, baseball, football, basketball, bullfights, jai alai and the rodeo.
Soccer is the most popular of all sports with bullfighting attracting the largest crowds.
Eight popular foods that we eat today actually originated in Mexico. Caraco, a seed from which chocolate is made was harvested by Mexican Indians hundreds of years ago. Other popular foods given to us by Mexico include turkeys, corn (maize), beans, tomatoes, chili peppers, peanuts and vanilla flavoring.
As it was for hundreds of years, corn still remains the most popular and important food item in Mexico. A thin, flat pancake called the corn tortilla accompanies most Mexican meals today. It can be toasted, fried, rolled and stuffed with meats and vegetables or topped with all sorts of sauces.
When Mexican cooks shop for meats, fruits and vegetables they usually go to an open-air market. The shoppers bargain over prices and fill their bags from a large selection of neatly piled vegetables and fruits.
Nine natural resources — oil, coal, sulfur, magnesium, silver, gold, zinc, copper and lead — abound in Mexico. Mexico is the leading producer of silver in the world.
Mexico has the most dense population of birds in the world. Over 10 times 100 species of birds can be found in Mexico.