The Course of Mexican History

By Michael C. Meyer; William L. Sherman et al. | Go to book overview
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The First Mexicans

There is in Mexican society a pervasive awareness of the ancients. The Indian presence intrudes on the national psyche; it suffuses the art, philosophy, and literature. It is stamped on the face of Mexico, in the racial features of the sturdy mestizo. It lies within the marvelous prehistoric ruins among whose haunted piles the Mexicans seek their origins. It has not always been so. Following the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century, a combination of the conquerors’ ethnocentrism and excessive Christian zeal reduced all things Indian to a level of shame. At the end of the nineteenth century Mexican political elites saw that the grandeur of the Aztec empire could be invoked to validate their own ambitions, but the great push to revive the indigenous past occurred later during the Revolution, as leaders turned it to the service of a unifying national myth that could transcend the contradictions of an ethnically and culturally divided society. In their search for mexicanidad—the spirit of an inclusive Mexican cultural identity—revolutionary intellectuals looked to new configurations of stories, places, and heroes from the past. For several decades talented anthropologists, historians, painters, musicians, novelists, and craftsmen extolled native values. Then as cultural nationalism gave way to more nuanced representations of ancient cultures, so did the circumstances of contemporary indigenous peoples pose ever more stark contrasts to the depictions of stunning past achievements. The contradictions were startlingly manifested in the Chiapas insurrection of 1994.


At what point or how the first Mexicans appeared on the scene is still debated. According to the most prevalent theory, they were nomads descended from the intrepid hunters who crossed from the Asian mainland to Alaska. There appear to have been successive waves of migrants, the first perhaps as early as 40,000 B.C., during the Wisconsin


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The Course of Mexican History
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